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.

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.