I often get asked, “Why do couples come for relationship therapy”?
I’ve noticed that the vast majority of couples I work with, fall into a few categories:
- To have a difficult conversation. Sometimes we need to talk to our partner about something incredibly difficult or sensitive. The safety and ‘holding’ of the therapist can enable the conversation to take place – especially when conflict is likely or when there is a fear of rejection.
- Sexual dissatisfaction. Sex is often the number one topic that couples seek help with. It can be very tricky terrain to navigate alone, especially when needs are not being met and dialogue is either ‘radioactive’ or has broken down. Sometimes a couple may have a sexless relationship and one partner is unhappy. There may be a mismatch in sexual desire and therefore the frequency or quality is causing conflict. Maybe sex has become boring, domestic, or mundane, and it needs a new fuel or passion. Perhaps sex is difficult because of illness or a chronic medical condition. You may both feel sex is disconnected or distant because of difficulties with conception, pregnancy, or infertility. Or perhaps one of you has introduced the topic of polyamory or ethical non-monogamy and you simply with someone to help you navigate what can be a tricky subject for a relationship.
- Infidelity. Sometimes couples experience an enormous rupture in their relationship and they need help to rebuild it or to work out how to end it well. Rebuilding a relationship after an affair takes a lot of hard work, commitment, and courage for both partners. Honest dialogue, introspection, and taking responsibility for the individual part we play in the relationship and, ultimately, in the rupture, is key to the work. We aim to not rebuild the old relationship, but rather build a newer, better, and more robust, resilient, and intimate relationship than before.
- Fighting. Sometimes couples are caught in a cycle of arguing and fighting and need help to pick apart the mess and work out what’s going on. Often there are dysfunctional methods of communication and the work we do is to bring both partners back into the adult position and have honest and open dialogue. Often there are individual wounds and baggage that need attending to or there is a long history of unmet needs and unspoken hurt.
- Intimacy/Attachment mismatch. It is common for a partner to call me and complain that their partner is cold and/or cut-off emotionally and “doesn’t do intimacy”, affection, or anything other than superficial conversation. The most frequent pattern where this dynamic plays out is where one partner is anxious or preoccupied in their attachment and the other is avoidant or dissmissive in their attachment style. This common relationship trap means that the anxious partner experiences the other as being distant and uncaring/unloving, whilst the avoidant partner experiences the other as being clingy or needy – and both are unhappy.
- Significant life events, like childbirth, infidelity, moving house, moving career, etc. If we are not careful with how we manage major stresses in our lives, including tough emotions like anxiety, fear, or loss, we risk retreating into ourselves and losing each other. Being counselled through challenging life events can be extremely helpful.
- Individual trauma. Most of us bring some baggage into our relationship and often it’s perfectly manageable or doesn’t cause conflict enough for it to be an issue. Sometimes, however, we bring unresolved trauma or loss that can cause distruption if not addressed or resolved. Sometimes we can deal with the difficulty within the relationship but often the partner in question may also need individual psychotherapy with another practitioner.
The Therapy Jargon Bit. There is a concept that I often look for in couples, and that’s called differentiation. This is about how we define ourselves in the relationship as being different from ‘the other’. How do I define my sense of self? How do I reveal it? How do I create and hold boundaries? How do I manage the anxiety that comes from increased intimacy or separation? This requires that we look at ourselves in order to understand and communicate what we think, feel, and what we need or desire. The therapist is crucial here because this is about holding you steady – as you learn to hold yourselves steady – as you communicate your thoughts, feelings, and desires to your partner.
Ultimately this comes down to both of you learning to manage the anxiety that comes from the realisation that your partner is different from you and has their own thoughts, feelings, and desires.
Both of you must…
…develop a solid sense of self that comes from your ability to tolerate internal conflict, rather that projecting and arguing with your partner.
…learn to be mindful and to sit with your discomfort or anxiety, observe it, sooth it, and allow it to pass.
…remain grounded in how you respond to your partner, other people, and stressful situations.
…learn to be calm, self-sooth, and to regulate your own emotions, rather than blaming others.
…learn to endure, even when it gets tough and you are frustrated, disappointed, and tired.
How do we get the most from relationship therapy?
The goal of our work together is to develop your knowledge about yourself, your partner, and how the two of you interact or relate. Your job is to apply what you learn, begin to break your old habits and patterns, and start to develop and apply better ones.
I will ask you what type of life you want to build together, what kind of partner you wish to be, and then help you spot the blockages and blind-spots that hinder you from acheiving your goals.
You will need time, and plenty of it. The hour we spend together each week is not enough. You need time to care for each other and to play and hang out and discuss and wrestle and support each other as you make mistakes and learn.
You need to tolerate emotional discomfort. This means listening, watching, learning, speaking honestly, and being curious about your partner, rather than attacking or withdrawing. There will be easy sessions and tough sessions. There will be sessions where it feels like we are going backwards. Discomfort is part of the process and you will never explore the new map that the two of you are creating if you don’t step out into the unchartered territory.
You need energy because this can be hard work. Learning to be more respectful, more generous, more forgiving, more appreciative, and more aware of your own internal conflicts, and then making the necessary adjustments, all take effort.
Discussing an argument or fight that has happened during the week is not a productive use of our time together, unless the purpose is to examine it and learn from it. A better use of our time is for both of you to reflect on the reasons you are in therapy, what you are doing to get through your next step of being the kind of partner you want to be to get to the kind of relationship you want to build. Then, which is a universal truth in all therapy, ask yourself the question, “What do I need to attend to in myself?”
Your attitude is absulutely key. Your focus needs to be on change in yourself, not change in your partner. What you need to change and how you do it, is one thing. The bigger question is why you don’t do it. You can learn a lot about yourself by understanding what annoys you and how you handle it. The more you believe your partner should be different, the less you will look within yourself and the less you’ll change the patterns between the two of you.
Communication is still, and always will be, paramount. Good communication is difficult. Good negotiation is even tougher. We must each speak from the heart about what really matters to us. We are individually responsible for how we express ourselves, no matter how other people treat us.
Points to remember…
- Communication is the number one problem in relationship therapy.
- We can sometimes choose the partner we need, but not the partner we necessarily want.
- If you don’t know how you feel about the important areas of your relationship, it is like playing darts with a blindfold on. You are likely to miss the board a lot and, let’s face it, it won’t be long until someone gets a dart in the face.
- If you always want to feel emotionally safe in your relationship, it will come at a cost. The cost is you becoming lifeless and dull.
I appreciate this was a lot of reading. I hope it helps.