The relationship dance

The honeymoon period. That special time in a relationship when the two of you (assuming it’s a couple) find each other charming and witty and interesting. Your farts are funny, your temper tantrums are cute, every word you utter is held up as a profound proof of your intellect.

But inevitably, time takes its toll and you move into a more realistic phase of the relationship. Farts smell. Temper tantrums are annoying and unnecessary. And “what do you want for tea” becomes a more important question than how to resolve the Brexit negotiations.

It also the time we allow ourselves to be authentic. To stop trying to be the person we think the other wants us to be, and instead start to present ourselves as we think we are. And this is generally because we can trust our partner to accept us for who we are. As our love deepens, we feel able to share our insecurities, trusting that they will be accepted and nurtured. We feel able to express our irritation at the empty packets put back in the cupboard, without fear of it being a relationship ending argument. We can engage in heated disagreements about whether “elephant’s whisper”, “baked barley essence” or “Bedouin tent flap” is the right shade of magnolia to paint the front room.

This is the scary bit of the relationship. We are testing each other, learning about the other’s insecurities as we grapple with our own. Setting and then testing boundaries, often with unspoken guesswork and misinterpretation we engage in an interpretive dance, twisting and turning around each other. And then not recognising our responses to these tests as manifestations of our own histories, beliefs and learnt behaviours. And if we don’t recognise our own past and its effect on us now, how is our partner meant to?

Most relationships of course survive this. They have enough warmth, compassion, understanding and love to be able to work through these stormy seas. To communicate openly and honestly about their feelings. Sharing past experiences to provide a context for why they find each other’s behaviour difficult. And then to be able to negotiate how this new relationship is going to work. What is OK, what can be tolerated and importantly what each needs to change to make it work.

In couples’ counselling we often see clients where this communication has broken down. The filters of past experiences are too powerful and distort what is happening here and now, like wearing sunglasses in doors. Relationship therapy works by helping clients reflect on their own responses, rather than just reacting to the other from that emotive, primordial lizard part of their brains. And as each partner observes the other engaging in this reflection, new meanings are created. The partners in the relationship can forge new experiences and deeper understandings of themselves and each other, building a collaborative response to difficult things, rather than lobbing emotional hand grenades from their defended positions.

Relationships require constant work to avoid assumptions and misunderstandings, so when you feel yourself having a strong emotional reaction to something a partner has done, take some time to ask yourself why. Your partner may still be just being a dick, but sometimes, just sometimes, it’s you that needs to change.

And “Bedouin tent flap” is obviously the best shade of magnolia!

Privacy, Secrets and Lies

Trust. It’s one of the bedrocks of a relationship. It can mean many things to many people, but generally can be understood to involve honesty, sharing, openness, confidence in a partner that they will act/think/feel in the way we expect them to. In a monogamous couple relationship it’s often based on implicit rather than explicit expectations: you will not lie, you will be faithful, you will not hurt me. Trust is important for a relationship to survive.

But here’s the thing. We all have private thoughts. Whether these be things we have done in the past we feel shame over. Ideas and thoughts we have that need to stay as thoughts (we all have random sexual, violent, weird thoughts that no one else needs to know!) Things we’ve done, for whatever reason, that we feel it’s better no one knows about.

I honestly believe it’s not only OK to keep these things private, it’s essential. For a start, there isn’t enough time in the day for us all to discuss every random thought that flies through our brains. And, surely, we’re allowed our own space? Space to imagine, to dream, to fantasize without having to share this with anyone else. And sometimes we don’t want to get in trouble. If my partner hasn’t noticed the well repaired vase, why bother telling them it got broken?

Sometimes I find myself working with clients who believe they should know the entire contents of their partner’s mind. They see privacy as secrecy and therefore it means things are being hidden and they can’t be trusted. It’s worth considering in these cases which comes first, the trust or the honesty? If you need to know the entire contents of someone else’s mind, can you really trust that person? What has happened in your life, what hurt have you experienced, that has left you feeling that you must know everything? We may also want to consider autonomy and self-determination. A strong relationship is made up of one or more autonomous agents. It is not a merging and blending of the self into an amorphous blob of shared thoughts, feelings and experience.

As adults, we are generally capable of knowing when it’s OK to keep things to ourselves and when it’s not. A broken vase is unlikely to cause a breakdown of trust and a rift in a relationship beyond a bit of a row. But a lie about where you were and who you were with is likely to be more problematic. It breaches the unwritten, unspoken rules about what’s OK in the relationship. It breaches the trust placed in each other and the expectations of fidelity (assuming a monogamous relationship). There is no doubt tremendous emotional and psychological harm can be done by lying and breaching trust. Betrayals of one form or another form large part of the work we do as relationship therapists. And encouraging openness even when it is hurtful is part of the process of healing, of repairing the broken trust.

Adults in a relationship are entitled to privacy. But they have also entered an agreement, explicit or not, that demands a level of openness and honesty. Secrets, lies, privacy, trust. Complex ideas that need to be addressed and discussed so there is a shared understanding within a healthy relationship.

Living with uncertainty for relationship success

Plans are great. Have clearly defined goals, resources in place and a timetable of when everything is going to happen. This, so the gurus tell us, is the best way to achieve happiness and success in our lives, work and relationships.

Such a shame then that life so rarely plays along with our plans. That we often don’t really know what our goals are. To be honest if I can stumble through a day without stubbing my toe I take that as a win. I was in my 40’s before I realised a career in “business” wasn’t really doing it for me and I actually wanted to be a counsellor. The only other time I was clear about my career was when I was 10 and I had to present to the class on “What I want to do when I grow up”. It turns out I’m not a fireman, so I was wrong then as well. (Maybe I thought they meant “who do I want to do when I grow up”?)

I don’t get much time to review progress against my action plan to financial security either. Pension planning? I struggle to scrape together £6 in coins, buttons and fluff from down the sofa to pay the window cleaner.

If managing life in general is so difficult to plan, why do we put ourselves through the same torture with relationships? When there are not one but two (or more!) sets of randomness and insecurity to contend with. Like my dream of being a fireman, I’m sure I held ideals about what kind of person I would be with as an adult (I’d not even really come to terms with the gender of said person at that age!) But even when I was older, and thought I “knew” everything, there was this strange concept of “Mr/Ms/Mx Right” being out there. That we “know” who should be with and what they will be like.

Then we meet people and we fall in love. And we either learn to accept who they are, or we struggle in our relationship as they won’t/ can’t be who we want them to be. But where is the space for uncertainty? How do we allow ourselves to try “what if”? If I can just about manage my finances in a day to day struggle of compromise, adjustment and occasional flushes of success, why can’t my relationship be the same?

Uncertainty is certain in our lives, and especially in our relationships. Relish it. Enjoy it. Adapt to it. Help each other through it. Who knows what you might discover?

How therapy can help survive an affair

I read an article http://bit.ly/2kj1RCu which listed a whole load of reasons why you should get out of a relationship. It wasn’t a particularly in depth piece, and had lots to commend it (always end abusive and manipulative relationships, for example).

But the author was also very clear that “cheating” is an absolute and unequivocal reason to leave a relationship, in the same way abuse is. There can be no doubt that infidelity is a breach of trust and generally causes considerable pain to the betrayed partner. Often, this pain is too great to recover from and the relationship is over.

But the couples I see find themselves in a different position. The betrayed partner often finds themselves not wanting the relationship to end, despite the hurt. The person who has had the affair is often shocked by their own behaviour and seeking to understand it and repair the damage that has been caused.

The beauty of youth is that we “know” everything. And we are very certain about what we know and that we will always know this in every situation. And then we get a bit older and start to realise the world is a complex and murky place, with little room for absolutes. People who were very firm that they would “never” tolerate infidelity, find themselves in a situation where that is exactly what they are trying to do. This erosion of previously held certainties is one of the important things we work on in the therapeutic process.

This part of the process is about understanding the context of the affair. Affairs happen for many reasons, and they happen to perfectly decent, honourable people. Understanding the context doesn’t provide an “excuse”. The wanderer needs to take responsibility for the decisions they made. But it helps the couple understand how they got to that position, and what needs to change to make the relationship better in the future.

Understanding the context, whilst taking responsibility, can help the adulterer be very clear about whether this is likely to happen again. And this is an essential part of rebuilding the trust. It also helps the betrayed partner think about forgiveness, if that is what they want to do. And this is where it can be confusing when confronted with previously held solid beliefs. Looking at the individual circumstances of the couple and their relationship history provides a framework against which decisions about forgiveness can be made.

Each relationship is unique. The complex interplay of societal factors, family background and interpersonal emotional processing means there is not a one size fits all answer to most problems. Relationship therapy is a way for couples to explore these things when faced with something like an affair so that they can make the best decisions for themselves based on their set of circumstances and not just apply blanket thinking to all situations regardless of the context or cost.

Ch..Ch..Changes

When couples meet, they usually form an attachment that is based on their physical attraction as well as shared interests, values and beliefs. But they also recognise there are differences. And generally, these are OK. It may be the differences are part of what draws us to each other. These can be obvious differences, e.g. one is practical and one is more artistic. So, one can choose wallpaper and the other can put it up. But there are also subtler, possibly sub-conscious differences. One might be assertive and the other might be conciliatory. One might be pragmatic and stoic whilst the other is emotional and expressive.

These differences are often complimentary and couples can combine them in a constructive way, which makes the whole stronger than the sum. (If you want to know more about this See Henry Dicks’ book Marital Tensions for a fuller description of “Couple Fit” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marital-Tensions-Clinical-Psychological-Interaction/dp/0710200374).

But the differences can also become a source of tension. “If only he was more….”, “I just wish she would….”, “Why can’t they be more like……”. These are statements we hear often, not only in therapy but also when talking to our friends about partners. And sometimes therapy is about asking people to change. If a couple is drifting apart because they are not communicating, then there needs to be a change in communication. But what is important is that both partners recognise the need for change.

To seek change in a partner (whether this is psychological – “I want them to be more honest with feelings”, or behavioural – “I want them to pick their pants up off the floor”), you might try first asking “what do I need to change?”

If the current relationship model is that partner A doesn’t talk much, and partner B then becomes aggressive in pursuing communication, there won’t be a lasting change if only Partner A changes. Their reticence to talk may be a result of the aggressiveness of B and so B needs to learn to seek communication in a way that enables A to talk more freely. There is no start to this cycle, it is a system enacted by the couple as a result of their psychological needs and expressions. As a couples’ therapist, I work hard in these situations to stay away from “A needs to…” and instead work on what A and B need to change and how can they do this together.

spiralIf relationships are systems in which there is an infinite spiral of behaviour and reaction, then change can best be affected when the system changes, not just the individual. So, next time you’re muttering to yourself about putting the bins out AGAIN, ask what else in your relationship you want to be different and how can you share the process of change.

Good grief

There’s been a bit of a gap since my last blog. I’ve not felt able to put the words together, I’ve needed to take some time to process. Process my grief following the deaths of a family member and a close friend, both of whom lost their fights with cancer within the space of a few weeks.

death-daisyAll of us experience death at various points in our lives. It is an inevitable part of living and we will experience each death uniquely. We have different relationships with people and will feel their loss in different ways. We will want to remember and honour the dead in the way that suits us best, expressed here more eloquently than I could put it: https://krvs1poetryblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/the-tower/

And yet grief seems to be something that we either don’t talk about, or when we do we talk about it in absolute terms, as if there is a “right” way to grieve: as if grief is a defined process with a set end. Even medical professionals can get caught up in the nonsense idea that grief has a set end and to grieve beyond this is “abnormal”.

This is in part due to the work of Kubler-Ross, whose work with terminally ill patients led her to develop a model of grieving http://www.ekrfoundation.org/. Sadly, like many models, it is widely misunderstood and has been misused as a blue-print for managing grief. People seem to believe we move through grief in a set series of steps, each of which will be completed within a set timescale. This is despite Kubler-Ross’ own insistence that this is not the case, and nor did she intend it to be so. It was meant to help us understand the ways in which we could engage with grief, and talk to those dying as well as those left behind.

And talking to those left behind is important, if that is what they want to do. Some people may want to withdraw and not deal with people, which is fine too. But we all struggle when faced with grief. Partly because it reminds us of our painful experiences or fears of having to experience grief. We can also feel helpless. Grief can be such an all-encompassing experience that we know there is little we can say that seems useful. There are half a million words in the English language, and yet at these times not one of them can seem to be any use.

Therapy can be helpful here in providing a space for the bereaved to experience their grief. To talk, to cry, to shout, to express the horror and the anger, to rail against the injustice of it all. To feel emotionally held as the pain is allowed to flow freely. It is this that helped me so much in my personal engagement with grief.

Grief is a process. It is a process of an absence becoming a presence in your life. It is not a process that has an end where you no longer feel sad. But you can learn to live with the sadness, for it to be alongside you on your journey rather than standing in front of you blocking your way. And it allows us to remember the dead. For in those memories, they live on.

Brangelina is over! What hope for the rest of us?

So the dream that was Brangelina is over. Another celebrity couple it seems unable to cope with the pressures of life and maintain their relationship. But what about us ordinary folk? How do we cope when the stresses of life get in the way?

angelinajoliebradpittaafeb09Counselling is a process in which the therapist will work with the couple to explore their backgrounds, context and emotional processes. The aim is for the couple to re-consider some of their beliefs and behaviours and find new ways of communicating and being together. Generally, this is done in one hour blocks on a weekly basis until the couple feel they are able to relate in new ways.

But what happens outside the counselling room is crucial to this process. Often part of the reason couples are struggling is due to the pressures they face. We may not be jetting round the world, saving children and mixing with presidents and film stars, but we face pressures. Pressures like; children, wider family, work, paying bills, dependents, friends etc. Clients regularly report they have no time just to be a couple, sharing each other’s company with no distractions.

So whilst the one-hour session can help consider new angles and ideas, these need to be put into practice. And this involves creating space. Space for couples to talk. To share ideas about the counselling. To remember what it is like just to be a couple and communicate with each other.

I’ll often give “homework” to couples, simple exercises designed to elicit extra information about the couple. But it’s also about trying to provide a reason for the clients to carve out that little bit of “them” time. If just siting and talking seems self-indulgent, having a task to do can help them feel like it’s OK to take time out from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

But this is an important message for all couples, whether in counselling or not. How much time do you spend just being you? Is it OK to leave the kids with a sitter and just go off and have you time? Do you communicate about things other than work, or bills, or who’s turn it is to wash up? If people could create more time to be together on a one to one basis, then the issues facing them may not turn into a crisis and therapy might never become necessary!

So even if it’s only 30 minutes each week, create a space. Go for a walk. Go for a meal. Turn off the TV (I know – radical, right?). Talk to each other about your feelings, not about your work. Create a space which is for you and you alone and engage with each other. You might even enjoy it.

GBBO. The affair is over!

Like most people I am struggling this week to come to terms with a shocking loss. Great British Bake Off is off. Off to the hinterlands of Channel 4, away from the warm and cosy embrace of the BBC.

Both social and main stream media have been awash with bad baking puns, innuendoes and cries of woe that this beloved programme is being moved. And being moved for that dirtiest of reasons as far the British are concerned – dough.

So what is it about this programme that has so captured the imagination of the public? To have moved from an obscure slot on BBC2, to being the most watched programme of the year, GBBO seems to have tapped into something the British audience has been looking for.

nice_biscuitAs I was watching them flip their lacy pancakes last night, the best way I could describe the programme is – it’s nice. “Nice” – a word which generally means; “OK, but could be better” or “at least it’s not horrible”. It’s not generally a word we would use about a loved one and woe betide any lover who, when asked, says their night of passionate love making was “nice”.

So it’s interesting that it feels like such a good word for GBBO and perhaps helps to explain why the show is resonating with so many people.

GBBO is off to Channel 4, which has a plethora of reality programming. Looking at reality TV in general, pretty much every show I can think of depends on the participants being not nice. Big Brother started as an interesting experiment in social interaction and deteriorated into weirdness, back stabbing and nastiness. And all the rest seem to follow suit.

But maybe GBBO suggests that actually we don’t want to see this. Maybe we can enjoy watching people in a competition being nice to each other, helping out, supporting our fellow humans. Maybe there is room in a hostile world for people to show compassion.

And if there is room in a baking competition in a tent in the British country side for niceness and compassion, there should be room in our relationships for the same. Relationships hit crisis points for many reasons, often leaving the couple struggling to defend themselves emotionally. In this situation niceness is often the first casualty. Helping clients to be “nice” to each other can be a powerful way of helping them share and resolve vulnerabilities and put the relationship back where they want it. And it seems we do value niceness after all. So go on, be nice.

Free for all?

In my previous blog I discussed payment for counselling. Why we have to charge, what the payment represents and why there is tension for us as counsellors asking for money.

exclusionAll counselling has to be paid for. Whether it’s through taxation for the NHS, voluntary donations or charges in the 3rd sector, or a personal payment to the counsellor in private practice. In private practice the amount charged needs to cover the costs of counselling as well as provide a living for the counsellor. A quick search for counsellors in the north west would suggest this amount is currently somewhere around £40 – £45 per session.

And this is where the tension lies. This is not an insignificant amount of money, especially as it is likely to be a weekly expense. So by charging this amount it seems we are restricting counselling to only those people who can find £45 per week for the privilege.

There has long been a discussion within the counselling community about how we ensure it is accessible to all. Any counsellor working ethically will strive to offer a service to anyone who needs it, regardless of gender, race, sex etc. But what about ability to pay? If I’m charging £45 am I only paying lip service to being accessible, because the reality is this is too much for many people to afford?

We are of course able to negotiate reduced fees, but this in itself can put people off even asking. Why should people have to explain their circumstances and be reliant on my “charitable” nature to access counselling? If clients are struggling with self-worth (for example) how are they going to manage the tricky process of asking for reduced fees? If a counsellor does offer reduced fees, is there a potential for the client to feel they are not getting the same level of service? And how do we manage the already complex power relationships when the client is having to ask for a reduced fee?

The 3rd sector and NHS do of course offer options for people who can’t afford private fees. But this takes away choice for the client of pursuing a preferred type of counselling, or even a specific counsellor if that is what they want. It also means clients often can’t see a counsellor in a timescale that suits them.

Individual counsellors will struggle with these questions and come up with their own solution. (reduced fees, volunteering for 3rd sector providers etc.) But the reality is most private counsellors will be working with a particular subset of our communities. If the government was genuinely committed to supporting people, they would provide funding for clients to seek out whichever counsellor they preferred. Given our current culture of public spending control this does not seem a likely solution. Words are easy. Creating a truly equal society where everyone has access to health care, education, personal well-being etc. needs more than a few sound bites on the steps of No 10.

‘Ow much?!

Despite all of the deeply personal subjects discussed in counselling, there is one issue that can often be the most difficult for a counsellor. Asking for payment.

paymentOn the whole counsellors are a nice bunch. We generally enter the profession with a desire to help people, however that looks.  So, when at the end of an emotionally charged session, we lean forward and ask “how do you want to pay today?” it can feel like a commercial intrusion into what should be an altruistic exercise in human compassion.

My first role as a professional counsellor was with the charity Relate. Even though I was asking for payment for the organisation not myself, I still almost felt ashamed to be asking. It was as if this somehow belittled the service being offered and reducing it to a commercial transaction rather than a supportive one.

As time went on and I became more used to discussing payment I began to think about this differently. Most couples seeking help recognised the importance of counselling so would happily pay the asking price. Sometimes they paid more to help us support clients on lower incomes. And this made me realise that talking about payment for counselling should be a positive and empowering experience. We are professionals, with high levels of training and ongoing commitments to professional development. Payment for counselling can be seen as a recognition of this level of professionalism, as well as a sign of the commitment of the clients to the counselling process.

In private practice it is the norm to agree payment amount and method in the first session so that everyone understands what is expected. But those first sessions are generally functional anyway, discussing practical elements of the contract between counsellor and client. This makes the money conversation so much easier. During the actual counselling it can be a more sensitive topic to raise.

Now I’m in private practice I’m obviously more aware of the importance of payment! For me to get to be the professional I am has cost me in excess of £20,000. As well as many, many hours of stress, time and effort (for me and my husband!) I aim to be the best counsellor I can, so continue to spend money on training, books, professional memberships etc. And, I have to eat too (as does my husband and the cats!) So I have to charge for my services.

So, taking payment for counselling positively reinforces the professional status of the counselling clients receive. Equally crucially it represents an investment on the client’s part in the counselling process.