Gender, Sexuality and Relationships – A Life Less Ordinary

Gender article

Private Practice

Romantic relationships can be tough, whatever your gender or sexuality. And managing them can be complicated. Our latest article in Private Practice examines this from the point of view of couples managing their relationship with regard to gender, sexuality and identity.

You can read a copy of the article here:

Life less ordinary

Private Practice is the magazine for counsellors in private practice of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/private-practice/

 

 

We are family

“You can’t choose your family!”. It’s one of those sayings that has such ubiquity it’s become a truism. You say those words to pretty much anyone (in this place and at this time) and they’ll know what you mean. It generally means they might drive you mad sometimes, but hey, they’re family. It generally means that we have to put up with them cos, you know, we didn’t get to choose them. They were given to us as a complete and non-returnable package.

I guess for most people it’s a statement that makes sense. Most people enjoy relatively “good” relationships with their families. They have their quirks and their foibles, but on the whole, they’re an OK lot. There may be an odd outlying cousin or aunty or grandparent that doesn’t get much of a look in at Xmas, but most are welcomed into the fold: bad jokes, poor taste in jumpers and slightly odd political views notwithstanding.

Working as a relationship counsellor attachment theory is a useful tool, so I spend a lot of time looking at the further reaches of the family, as well as asking my clients to revisit and review some of the closer relationships they had growing up. We learn to “do” relationships whilst watching those around us do theirs. And sometimes they are good at it and sometimes they are not. But, as with any body immersed in a system, we don’t always know how or in what way they are good, or not. We have nothing to compare with. Getting the adult to rethink their childhood experiences can open up conversations about how relationships are done in the here and now.

And this is especially true when I am working with LGBT+ clients. Many LGBT+ people grew up in incredibly loving, warm, safe families. But families that were loving, warm and safe whilst they were operating in their cis-heteronormative bubble; assuming their child was cisgender and/or heterosexual. Following all the usual tropes about gendered behaviours and attitudes. Discussing the future opposite sex partners in a blissfully unaware manner, assuming this would be the path their offspring would take.

Sometimes parents are not “just” heteronormative, they are actively trans/homophobic. They express negative views of sexual and gender diversity, not realising that every utterance is a blow to the identity of the child, just starting to learn about their place in the world (and in some cases doing this deliberately in attempt to control the sexual or gender identity of the child). And this leaves the child in a confused state. They are loved and cherished and cared for. But they also know there is this forbidden element of themselves, an element that causes pain and confusion. So how are we, as young LGBT+ folk, to square the circle of the loving parents who hate this elemental part of ourselves?

We hide. We deny our existence. We base our relationships on a fabricated version of ourselves. We know they love us, so we do what we feel like we need to do to maintain our family relationships. After all, we can’t choose them, can we? But then through fate, courage or stupidity, the truth is out. The family now has to adapt: either learn to accept their offspring for who they are, or don’t, and the relationships break down. It is often a journey to acceptance and there are wonderful organisations like PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays http://www.pflag.co.uk/)  and Mermaids (http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk) out there, as well as counsellors working in this field, to help families as they deal with these situations.

For many LGBT+ people, that initial “coming out” to family is followed by an immersion in “gay culture” – whatever that may be. In general, it may mean meeting like-minded people. Fellow travellers on the outskirts of society, each finding their own way through the morass of normativity to establish an identity that feels true and authentic, rather than one that meets the needs of people around them. We start to form our own queer families. We do get to choose who is in these families and we get to create them in our image rather than us being forced to present the image they want of us.

Like all families, these families experience problems. We fall out with people, we meet new people. The membership of the family changes as people grow and change within it. Time, distance, births, deaths, all of these things affect us both within our birth (or adoptive/fostered) families and within our new, chosen families.

So when I’m working with LGBT+ clients, I find it helpful to explore families in all their formations. I try not to just assume that when I ask about their family history I am only talking about the ones they had “no choice” over. I try to include also the family they may have chosen to escort them, for better or worse, through life’s many and varied challenges and joys. And to try and understand what this means to them. Do they recognise it as a family and if so what does that bring? And how do these “families” inter-relate? Do they meet? Do they have shared values? If not how does the client manage the complexity of having different personas in different family situations? If they don’t see themselves as having a queer family, of course that’s OK too.

Talking about family relationships then, can have very different meanings for LGBT+ clients. As counsellors, we need to be alert to these differences, and be ready to explore the various meanings with our clients so as not to exclude their experiences. To ignore their queer family is to ignore their identity. And that’s already happened enough.

You’re the one that I want

As well as working with couples, I often work with individuals (in fact probably 40% of my work is with individuals). These are generally people who are in a relationship and want to work on some of their own issues, or work on issues I the relationship but from their own perspective. But often they are people “in between” relationships and who believe their singleness is an issue in one form or another.

Leaving aside the issue of why being single is an issue, what I am often asked is “why can’t I meet Mr/Ms/Mx right? I’m 27/36/54 and still haven’t found that one special person who is out there. What’s wrong with me?”

Well, my deluded little chipmunk, what’s wrong with you is you’ve bought into the mythical idea that we all have one special person, wandering the world waiting to bump into you, who just happens to be their special person. It’s a myth perpetuated by Hallmark, Disney and any one of a thousand tawdry, second-rate lyricists.

In order for there to be a “one special person”, that person has to be perfect, according to your magical list of shoulds and oughts. Of what you deem to be the right qualities in a person. (But let’s be honest, what are you looking for? Honesty, loyalty, shared values – aren’t these things we are all looking for and all capable of showing? Would anyone actually look for a dishonest, disloyal person with opposite values?)

And if you start a relationship with your magical list of special qualities, and the partner fails on one of them, what then? Do they have to be 100% perfect, or will 97% do? Are they allowed to be 80% at times of stress, but for no longer than 3 weeks? And what of your imperfections? Do you both have to be 100% all the time, or can you take it in turns to have an off week? And what if your 100% now changes, and what you thought you wanted/ didn’t want is different at 50 than it was at 20? (Guess what, it will be!)

Rather than looking for the “special one”, why not take time to acknowledge and luxuriate in the infinite variety of human nature? Enjoy the ups – and downs –  of meeting right people, wrong people and mediocre people. Enjoy the dazzling myriad of human fuckery as the rest of us muddle through life, growing and learning with each new encounter. When you meet Mr/Ms/Mx right and fall in love, it will be because in that place and at that time this was the best person to mesh with your foibles and idiosyncrasies, not because they were some pre-ordained spirit waiting to join with you. Sometimes this will last, sometimes it won’t. But that’s fine too. Because you now know something you didn’t know before.

And approaching each encounter in a spirit of open learning and experimentation, rather than a plastic wrapped pre-prepared ready meal of expectations and demands, will allow you to enter a relationship in which you can learn and grow together. And surely that is going to be more solid than one where your partner is struggling to live up to your magical list of requirements.

Go forth, experiment, learn, grow, fuck it up, learn some more, and give your partner the chance to do the same. You won’t find that in a Hallmark valentine’s card.

Family Affair

Read the first of our new relationship columns:

Relationship Column 1

This article was first published in Private Practice, Autumn 2017 issue, published by BACP. ©

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.