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!

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.

‘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.

Boundaries in counselling

Counselling works best when there is a strong relationship between the client and the counsellor. Research suggests this is the case for all models of counselling and I think most counsellors agree it is this relationship that they work hardest to build.

boundariesWhere the various models disagree is on how much of ourselves counsellor should bring into the room. Is it OK to share personal information with a client, and if so how much? The guiding principle here is that any information shared should be for the benefit of the client and not to suit our own needs. It’s a hard balance to get right and one of the reasons professional supervision is so important.

As we work with clients, and build the relationship (sometimes over many months) it is not uncommon for the client to feel they have become “friends” with us. However you define the relationship, there is a strong inter-personal bond between us. This happens despite the counsellor not giving much information about themselves. The BACP is clear that we need to manage the boundaries around this relationship to ensure the safety of clients and that their confidentiality is protected (http://bit.ly/2a42Spc).

I work in a small town, so there is a chance I may bump into a client in our local Costa. If this happens we need to be clear about how to manage this and maintain our boundaries. On the one hand I must protect my clients’ confidentiality. So if I’m with someone and I see a client, I need to ensure the person I’m with is not aware of the client. But often clients will want to say hello. It’s natural human instinct to acknowledge someone you know. So I negotiate with the client what we will do if this occurs to ensure we respect the client’s autonomy and confidentiality.

There is another side to this. As counsellors we need boundaries to protect ourselves also. Counselling is my job, and as rewarding as it is it can be an intensely emotional experience for us too (again, hence ongoing supervision). So when I’m not in the counselling room, it may be that I don’t want to talk to my clients. This isn’t a rejection of them as a person, it is an acknowledgement of our professional relationship. It is important to help me remember the client is exactly that and not a personal friend. This is essential for me to help me maintain my sense of neutrality with the client and not get drawn in to giving opinions, or even worse…advice! That is strictly the role of friends and family, not counsellors.

Let’s talk about sex

In relationship therapy we will pretty much always ask about the sex life of the couple at some point. So it was no great surprise to read that a recent study has found that 34% of men and 44% women have experienced problems in their sex lives. http://bit.ly/2ahfDkE

Whilst these figures in general are high, what is even more surprising is that these figures relate to young people aged 16-21, showing it is not just older people who have issues with sex.

talk_about_sex_screenAs a therapist what was even more worrying was the number of respondents in this study who have sought help. Only 25% of men and 36% of women had sought help from family, friends, the media and the internet. Only 8% of women and 4% of men had turned to any sort of “expert” (GP, therapy etc.) for help. Just imagine, up to a third of people asking the internet and media for help. I can only imagine the damage that is doing.

The vast majority of young people then are not asking for help about sex. It would seem we still haven’t shaken off the inherent embarrassment we feel when it comes to talking about sex.  This can be harmful as there is a circular link between sex and the relationship in general. When the relationship suffers, the sexual relationship often acts as a barometer of this. When the relationship improves this is often reflected in the sex life. So understanding what is going on sexually can help us understand how the relationship is in general.

And yet even in therapy it can often be a difficult subject to broach. As therapists we carry all of our societal learnings and prejudices about sex. One or both of the partners may find it difficult to talk about sex, especially if we need to talk about the “mechanics”. Even find a common language can be hard. Willy, fanny, vagina, penis, tuppence, dick. What are the words it is ok to use whist having this conversation?

Talking about sex is an important part of enjoying a happy sex life (in whatever way that works for you, including having no sex at all should you not wish to). Let’s hope more than 4-8% of young people start to feel OK asking for help when they need it.

You’re breaking up with me?

Sometimes, in relationship counselling, our job is to help the couple as their relationship ends. Endings can be painful, as we learn to live without someone who has been a significant part of our life.

goodbye-inscription smWe do know, however, that one relationship is definitely going to end – that of the therapist and the clients. And this ending needs to be negotiated and managed just like any other. Some models of therapy will provide an agreed, set number of sessions (mainly in the NHS, and other service providers). But in private practice I am free to counsel couples for as long as the clients want. So we need to stay alert to when the process is coming to an end and how to manage this.

I firmly believe (and the research would support the idea) that whatever therapeutic model you use, it is the quality of relationship between client and therapist that brings about positive outcomes for the client. Therapists work hard on building a relationship, and become part of the clients’ world for the time they are working.

So endings can be hard. Especially when we have seen clients move from a state of crisis to a new and improved way of being in their relationship. It is essential the client is able to say when they think the process is over. It is not the job of the therapist to tell the clients they are “cured” and no longer need counselling. But it can be scary for clients to think about ending as they fear that without the support of counselling they may slip back into old patterns of behaviour.

One danger is clients continuing to come to counselling, but just using the session to re-hash petty arguments. Or they start to create “issues” so they have something to talk about. In private practice there is also the danger that the therapist may not want to let go of a steady and regular income stream, and collude with this extension of the sessions.

The therapist and the clients need to spend time thinking and talking about how the clients will know when the process has ended to avoid this happening. And address concerns about how to identify old behaviours and what to do when they occur. Most importantly, we need to be honest with each other about how we feel about this and acknowledge it is an “ending”, and what the emotional impact of this will be.

Counselling and split agendas

Couples attending counselling can be there for a huge range of reasons. In my initial meeting I’ll generally ask the couple what each wants out of the counselling. Sometimes they don’t really know, and more often than not what they think they want at the start of the processes isn’t the same as what they want at the end.

What can be really challenging is when what clients present conflicting agendas: “I’m here because I want to save our marriage!” …. “I’m here because they won’t accept its over and I want to move on!”

When I was a counsellor in training, one of the first couples I saw presented in this way. I can still recall the look of realisation, then devastation on the optimistic partner’s face, as she realised the relationship was over and there was no going back.

The point of relationship therapy is not to “save” the relationship at any cost. What we aim to do is work with the clients as they try and determine for themselves what is the most acceptable outcome. This may be staying together roughly as they are, or staying together in some re-negotiated way. Or, it may be separating. When both partners agree separation is the right thing we can then focus the work on how to achieve this in the most constructive way.

When each partner has a different view, things can get complicated. The therapist has no opinion on what is the “best” solution, so needs to balance the competing ideas, beliefs and feelings of each partner. The most challenging of split agendas occurs when one partner simply doesn’t want to be there. Counselling works best when there is commitment to the process from all parties. When that doesn’t exist, it’s hard for any therapeutic change to occur. So not only is the therapist managing split agendas, they are trying to work with someone who actively doesn’t want to do the work.

Whatever the clients’ expectations of the outcomes are, these sessions are draining and can leave me feeling like a “failure”. As a therapist I need to reflect on my role and feel reassured I did all I could. I find comfort in the belief that we each do the best we can with the resources we have, and the clients will find a way to manage their relationship in the future, whatever it looks like.