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.

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.

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.

Anger management

When I first started training to be a couples’ counsellor, my impression was that I was going to be dealing with a lot of anger management. I grew up in a family where rows were not the usual way of dealing with problems, and I’m generally a non-confrontational person. So I did worry about how I would deal with this.

Anger_ManagementIt is not unreasonable that at some point one or other client will be angry, and this will be presented in the room. But I would say in the majority of cases, the couple are in therapy to resolve issues and have a shared willingness to resolve their problems in a reasoned way, so we can manage the anger. In fact, it can be a useful tool to examine where the anger is coming from and how each partner reacts to and processes it. Tracking an argument: listening to what is being said and exploring the interaction with each partner really helps them to see how escalations occur and what their trigger points are.

But, there are times when one or both partners presents with large amounts of anger, easily and vocally expressed (sometimes very, very loudly expressed!) And these can be very challenging cases. In the first instance we need to be conscious of safety. If anger is being freely and overtly expressed, it is important to explore what will happen when the couple leave the relative safety of the counselling room. So checking in that anger doesn’t spill over into violence or intimidation is part of the process of dealing with it. When I work with couples where anger is overtly expressed, I will contract with them to agree at what point and how I will intervene in rows. In the most extreme cases it may be necessary to stop the session, something I have had to do on a few occasions.

I do find it difficult when clients are loud and shouty. So I monitor my anxiety levels and what the anger is bringing up for me to enable me to work with the clients’ anger in the room. Managing anger is not about stopping the expression of anger. It is about ensuring anger is expressed safely and that it leads to a resolution of feelings. This means allowing anger to be expressed without resorting to personal insults and intimidation.

A quick Google search will throw up lots of helpful guidelines on anger management and how to row safely and effectively (see here for example: http://bit.ly/2bhGbE6 ).

Oh, baby

So, according to Andrea Leadsom only people with children can be invested in the future of our country (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/andrea-leadsom-told-to-apologise). These comments have caused something of an outcry, with many people quick to point out even childless people have nephews and nieces etc. who will go on to live with the country we are forging today.

But what about people who don’t even have nephews and nieces? Are we somehow exempt from having to make decisions about things that will endure after we have shuffled off this mortal coil? I find this an uncomfortable thought: that childless people have such casual disregard for other people that we will not be engaged in the future unless our own DNA is somehow part of this future.

As a relationship therapist I regularly see couples who don’t have children, especially working with the LGBT community where there are still (for many reasons) more childless couples than amongst heterosexuals. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a childless couple say they have no interest in the future. Or that they give no thought to the consequences of their actions as it won’t matter when they are dead.

ChildfreeSo what does this tell us about how society views childlessness? Leadsom has now apologised for causing any hurt to her rival, who apparently wanted children but has been unable to have them. So are childless couples to be seen as objects of pity? Is having children such a biological imperative that we cannot conceive of people living happy and fulfilled lives without children? And how does this play into the narrative that same sex couples shouldn’t be able to have children?

Within couples there can often be a tension about children, whether to have them, when, how many etc. It is often these powerful narratives about the need for children that drives the tension in the relationship. It is also a fact that within our current culture women will still be the principle care giver, with all the career and life altering implications this has. What relationship therapy can offer is a chance to explore these notions about children and so help clients make choices that are not just re-enactments of generations of scripts about our purpose in the world. Instead their decisions will be the right choices for the couple, and the future of society.

Betrayal and Relationship Therapy.

In the weird and wonderful world of Westminster, betrayal seems to be a way of life, as Boris Johnson found out last week when his chances of running for prime minister were scuppered by his “friend” and ally Michael Gove. They make an unlikely couple, but would counselling help?

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson (right) on the Vote Leave campaign bus in Lancashire, as part of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign.

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson

Whilst par for the course for career politicians, betrayal is not something most couples will expect to have to deal with. And when they do it can be devastating. The very word itself is so powerful. This isn’t just “you’ve upset me”, or “I disagree” or “I didn’t like it when you did that”. This is earth-shattering stuff. This is loss of trust on an epic scale. This is a rejection of what we consider to be the fundamental core of both ourselves and our relationship.

Relationship therapy can help by examining the context in which the betrayal occurred. What else was going on in the lives of each partner which lead to the act and how does this help us understand what happened? Let’s be clear, the partner who has betrayed the other needs to take responsibility and understand the impact of their actions. But simply pointing the finger and blaming may not be helpful in enabling both partners to move past the hurt and anger. We know the act happened, we now need to know why. And if it’s because the betrayer is a sociopathic bastard with no moral compass, then we need to know this so the betrayed partner can decide if and how they want to have a relationship. But usually it’s not that simple. The betrayer is a human being and like all human beings they are subject to; weakness, confusion, persuasion or just downright stupidity from time to time.

Having worked with clients who have “betrayed” their partners, I have seen their pain as they have considered in turn the pain they have caused others. I have seen clients struggle as they realise the devastating impact of their actions on their partners. Holding this realisation and allowing the hurt partner to see it is a really important step in moving towards a resolution.
Working with betrayal is one of the hardest jobs we have as a relationship therapist, due to the levels of hurt and anger often brought into the room. Working with clients who have experienced betrayal can help them find a way of choosing how they want to respond to it. This may be accepting and forgiving, or ending and moving on.

Whatever Boris and Michael choose to do next, they will need to find a way of managing their professional and personal relationship. For the rest of us, relationship therapy can really help when we are faced with making such difficult choices.

Couples counselling and managing difference.

Unless you’ve been living on the moon, you can’t have helped but notice we have had a referendum recently. Whichever way you voted (or didn’t) the result of this has been a clear and marked division, pretty much straight down the middle of the country. Maybe what the UK needs now is a huge group session of couples counselling?

What has been interesting is the emotional response to the outcome and the way in which friends and families are finding themselves struggling to reconcile their differences. Rather than a clear, rational and logical discussion about facts, people who would normally consider themselves friends are hurling insults, making accusations, and worse of all unfriending each other on Facebook!

The country now has a difficult journey to try and reconcile these opposing ideas and find a way for people to accept their differences. On a smaller scale, struggling to accept difference can often be what brings people to couples counselling. When people meet they can be attracted to each other for all kinds of reasons, some overt and obvious, some more deep or subconscious (if you want to know more about this See Henry Dicks’ book Marital Tensions for a fuller description of “Couple Fit”). Couples find ways of living with the differences they have, much as most people accept friends on the left and right of the political spectrum.

So what happens when these tensions suddenly seem unbearable? When you feel the ideas and beliefs a person holds are absolutely incompatible with your own? As the country grapples with this problem, so too do couples. Sometimes the differences which were so attractive early in the relationship become the things that irritate and annoy the other. Dealing with these differences is made harder as each partner has an emotional attachment to their beliefs. So an attack on the beliefs isn’t perceived as a disagreement with the other’s point of view, it is seen as an attack on the core of the self.

When emotions come into play this way, as with the referendum result, we resort to an attack and defence cycle where hurtful and emotional comments and behaviours take the place of debate. For many couples attending counselling, this is the cycle they find themselves in. The relationship therapist’s job is to help the couple find a way to stop this cycle and learn to once again celebrate each other’s differences. It’s a tall order on the macro scale of a country divided, but couples counselling can be really effective when working with a couple on their specific issues to help them recognise what they want to change, and how to celebrate the differences which make them stronger.

Relationship counselling and managing change

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that things change. During relationship counselling, I see these changes happening, as couples deal with changes which affect them as a couple, and also as they grow and change as individuals within the relationship.

Whether we like it or not, life has a habit of changing around us. There are many people for whom change is a tonic. They welcome it with open arms, even seek it out. Some people like change so much they make it happen, looking for new adventures and opportunities. They upset the status quo, fear stagnation and scoff at stability.

But for other people change is a source of stress. These are people who will seek to maintain the status quo, who will avoid life changing decisions and do everything they can to make things stay as they are.

There’s nothing wrong with either position, it just depends who you are and what you want out of life. But the pressure comes when we find ourselves in the position we are less comfortable with, or when we are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t share our approach to change. This is one of the main reasons clients come to relationship therapy.

I’ve recently had change thrust upon me, and as a natural risk avoider it’s not been easy to deal with. I’m fairly good at using denial as a defence mechanism, so my head disappeared into the sand quite quickly! But this only worked for a short time. At some point we have to face the reality of our situation. Stick or twist.

Counselling can help of course. Talking to someone about what you like about your personal approach can help you understand why that’s the best place for you. In turn this can help you explore if there are other options, other ways of being.

Couples often find they approach change at different rates and this can cause stress in a relationship. As change happens, each partner will be in a different place. One may be ready for change whilst the other is not even acknowledging it. Relationship therapy can be really helpful here. The therapist can work with the couple to bring a shared understanding of change and how each can help the other move through the process.

The change may be external to the couple, or a change in the couple themselves. Life events (babies, new jobs, growing children, retirement) all challenge a couple to re-think how they relate; both to each other and to life as a couple. Couples Therapy is all about change, and counselling can help each person manage this process.

So, agent of change or stick in the mud? Or is the reality that we’re all a little bit of both. Either way, help is out there!