I just can’t find the words….

Your partner always has something to say.  They seem to be able to remember every detail of your last argument, of what you last forgot to do, in fact of every mistake you have made in the relationship since that time you forgot to text to say you would be late home…  You know you’re not perfect, but neither is he/she…..but when your faults are thrown at you, instead of answering back quickly with all the reasons you’re really not so bad, in fact quite a good partner really, you just can’t find the words.  And your partner has moved on to the next thing before you have been able to get a sensible sentence together.

You’re the quieter one in the relationship, you try to think things through logically and to decide whether there is truth in what is being said before you answer, but you just can’t hold your own in a quick-moving verbal ‘spat’, so you go quiet, distance yourself, try to contain your emotions, but occasionally, feeling really overwhelmed, you lose it and really shout back.  Battle is joined, neither of you is communicating anything but anger and frustration, nobody is listening, and, particularly if you’ve got children, you are in a situation which is unacceptable to everyone involved.

To your more verbal partner, it feels like you just ‘go quiet’ when they express their frustration or unhappiness and so they have no idea if you are hearing them. In their eyes  you’re being stubborn, or superior, or deliberately using logic to block their feelings. As they become more agitated, you withdraw even further and either distance yourself completely or finally become as angry as they are. Stalemate.

If you are the ‘quiet one’, a Relate-trained couple counsellor will make it possible for you to even up the conversation, to talk and be listened to just as much as your ‘noisier’ partner, to make sure there is time in the session to express those feelings which are hard to put into words, to find a way, together, for both to hear and be heard, possibly for the first time in a long time.

Good couple counselling is about the safe expression of each partner’s needs and wants. In every day life, nobody teaches us that it’s vital to talk about what we need individually, in order to be happy as a couple. Working on the relationship involves both partners listening; it’s the counsellor’s job to help you as the quieter one to find your voice too.

how do I tell my partner what I need?

It usually starts with a vague feeling that something isn’t right,  but we aren’t sure why we are unsettled, frustrated, irritable with our partner. A sense that we are becoming adversaries rather than friends, point-scoring rather than cooperating, sometimes solidifies into feelings of antagonism, hurt and frustration and leads to rows and accusations, both taking up defensive positions where the other is ‘wrong’.  As we start to argue more, we put up a defensive wall,  preparing our next reply – quite unable to listen to, or hear what our partner is saying.

This feeling seems to surface at two different times in our relationship – first,  after we have been living together for a couple of years, the desire to fall into bed with each other at every possible opportunity has subsided a little, and we are getting to grips with the realities of living with a man or woman who is quite different from us.  Our beloved’s ideas on virtually everything –  cleanliness, tidiness, the need to be organised or not, bedtime, sport-watching, parenting, friends, and above all the importance of communicating within a relationship turn out to be entirely different from ours.  What seemed charming and funny at first now irritates the hell out of us.  How do we tell our other half, without endless arguments, that we are not feeling okay?

This growing sense of being at odds with our partner also frequently develops when there is a big change in our couple life – a baby is born, we get promoted or one of us starts working shifts,  someone in the family is seriously ill, children leave home.  Any major life event alters the balance in our relationship, affects our individual needs and means that if we aren’t talking and listening properly to each other, there will be tension and problems.  When we are feeling under pressure, unsupported, or verbally attacked, we seem to shut down mentally. We blame our partner for not listening, not understanding, not helping, but the way in which we talk to them causes them to shut down too.

So here’s a few suggestions for restarting communication and getting you functioning as a couple again:

  • The way in which we say things can change everything about our relationship.
  • If we want to communicate that our needs as a person are no longer being met, it’s no good starting with ‘you are… you did, you were…..’
  • It works better if we say ‘I have been feeling…I am feeling…..I need…..’
  • If we shout or ask aggressively our partner can’t hear
  • When we say what we need gently, calmly, repeatedly, there is a better chance they can listen
  • We need to….’ has a much higher chance of a positive response that ‘You need to’
  • Getting what we need in a relationship is not about asking for less, it’s about developing the confidence to ask for more.  But it’s how we ask that has the most to do with success or failure in getting our needs met.

All of the above is easier said than done.  It takes time to change the way we ask for what we need, and it takes practice too.  Sometimes we need professional support to begin with, and it’s better to seek it before that point-scoring becomes personal; once we start to wound each other it becomes very hard to listen and much more difficult to care………




what does a couple counsellor do?

I think the short answer is, “It depends on the couple”.  No two couples share the same match of personalities, the same relationship and family history, the same life events, the same working lives.  A good counsellor is flexible and adapts the way they work to their clients’ needs.

However, the most important part of the relationship counsellor’s work is to listen.  Many couples who sit down in my counselling room have long ago stopped listening to each other.  My job is to make sure that each partner feels listened to and that I, at least, understand where they are coming from.  It doesn’t mean I have to agree, or even like what they are saying, but the counselling room is the one place where every client should feel heard, and that their thoughts are valued.

Couples come to counselling because they are in crisis: whether they find it impossible to talk without arguing, or retreat into hurt silence instead, they have lost the ability to communicate openly and as friends. My role is to ‘hold’ the couple so that they feel safe to talk to each other.  I provide a ‘safe place’ where they can say how they are feeling and what they need from their partner. Couples who are unhappy find it hard to ‘soothe’ each other, to soak up the other’s hurt. The counselling room is a place where emotions can be expressed safely in a non-judgmental space.

A big part of effective counselling is about helping a couple to find ways to talk to each other again. Many clients expect their partner to be able to read their mind – they can’t, and it takes time and practice to have the confidence to say what they need openly.  Couples make harsh comments and hurl insults when they are unhappy and some lose all sense of what it’s not okay to say.  Learning to be respectful of each other, even under pressure, is a slow process, and I work to help that happen.

It may sound strange to suggest that a good counsellor is also a bit of a detective.  Couples arrive in the counselling room with differing ideas about what is wrong with their relationship – frequently convinced that ‘their other half’ is what’s wrong – but the personality of their partner is often only a small part of the picture.  Clients don’t give enough weight to the effects of a different upbringing, the baggage of previous relationships, the stress of challenging life events.  It’s a big part of my work to help them to bring to light all the factors which are causing their problems.  I care about my clients, but I need to stand outside the emotion and reflect on what’s really going on for them.

I hope that I help couples develop the ability to step outside their relationship too, and look at their own role in it.  We can only change ourselves.  We can’t change our partner.  It’s only when we understand what pushes our own buttons, and why, that we can start to change how we act – and that changes how our partner reacts.  I need to give clients the confidence to express what they need in a way their partner can relate to and accept.

And that will be the focus of my next blog.


the little things make a difference….

If you ask a happy couple why their relationship is good, I’ll bet it’s not because he proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower with a huge diamond solitaire, or because they had a villa in the Seychelles for their honeymoon.  It won’t be because he once filled a hotel room with red roses and left the key to a new pink Mini on her pillow, either, (as one very unhappy client once told me he had done).  No, if you ask a happy couple why they get on so well, it’s much more likely to be ‘the little things’ that make the difference.

Clients who are arguing a lot, or who have grown silently apart, want things to change, and they come for counselling because they don’t know where to start.  And they are often surprised, and a bit sceptical, when I suggest that they begin by doing small things differently.  No one thinks that always kissing their partner (even just on the cheek) as they leave the house can make much of a difference. Couples are puzzled when I suggest they look  their partner in the eyes and smile when they arrive home; it takes less than a second to do.  It takes two minutes to ask each other how the day has gone, and show you are listening through eye contact, nodding, any facial expression which means that you have heard. Holding hands while watching the tv, sitting on the same sofa, giving each other a kiss before going to sleep, putting the kettle on when your partner comes in tired; tiny things which can seem pointless to a couple who haven’t had sex for three months, but intimacy is about closeness, and it’s the small, caring actions that show we care and bring us back together again.

It’s a great myth that we always have to feel differently before we can behave better towards each other; it works the other way round too.  There’s a lot of research evidence that doing positive things, starts to change the way we feel.  So smiling, eye contact,  and just sitting together help us to feel closer and more sympathetic, and doing small things for each other has the same effect. All the stuff that takes about five minutes, but we get too lazy to do: feeding the dog, taking each other a cup of tea in bed, filling the car up with petrol, pairing the socks rather than leaving them in a heap; small, apparently insignificant actions, none of which takes much physical time, but which show that we are aware of the other’s needs, and that we want to care.

I’ve been talking about how we show our love for each other on a daily basis, but  no matter how much we care for each other,  couples also need some fun together if they are to stay happy.  It doesn’t need to be about grand, romantic gestures, just bringing home a bottle of wine, or a bunch of flowers on a Friday evening, booking a babysitter and getting some tickets to a film, planning a weekend away without the kids; more ‘little things’ really………….

‘I want a divorce’: angry words that often end in regret

It’s the week after Christmas, and the phones have begun ringing in lawyers’ offices all over the country. Couples have spent a week or more, cooped up together with small children, teenagers or in-laws, without the soothing distractions of their working routine. Close proximity can magnify character traits and behaviours in our partner which we are aware of already, but the holidays give us thinking time, and time to feel irritated or angry, and to wish our relationship was different.

It’s not always a major crisis that causes us to pick up the phone. Maybe you have experienced with renewed frustration your partner’s inability to arrive home from the pub on time, or their obsession with Facebook. It might be, instead, their constant failure to empty the dishwasher or refusal to do the early morning shift with the baby. You feel either nagged or ignored, criticised or unappreciated. Your partner simply isn’t showing they love you by their words or actions; that can be enough to trigger the fatal words.

Alcohol doesn’t help; most of us say things we later regret after an extra glass or too, and some of us have let the office flirtation change into ‘sexting’ when we are bored or cross at home. I frequently see couples where one has heard a text ‘ping’ on the other’s phone and within five minutes the accusations are flying, mutual trust is at stake and both are on shaky ground. Dangerous times for relationships which are even mildly shaky. And after rash words have been spoken, it’s hard to lose face, and not pick up the phone ask a solicitor for advice.

Lawyers, no matter how excellent in their field, are unlikely to offer support which is against their commercial interests. A process is set in train, legal letters are written, houses are valued, children are told their mum and dad are separating, often without anyone pausing, and reflecting on what other professional help is out there.

And there is plenty of good, trained, help available to couples who are struggling. In the UK an Internet search will offer you a list of Relatetrained counsellors, or contact details for your local Relate centre. All Relate counsellors are rigorously trained to focus on the couple and the relationship without judging you, or taking sides. We have the skills and the experience to support you as you begin to understand what is pushing you apart, and to help you to find a way forward. We don’t push you to remain a couple, but we do aim to give you the best chance possible of having a future together.

So if you want to call someone over the next few weeks, or at any time during the year, can I suggest that you call a Relate counsellor, rather than a lawyer in the first instance? It’s so easy to ‘make the wrong call’ and so hard to undo the damage afterwards.

We love each other, so why isn’t our relationship working?

 You have met someone new, got to know each other and moved in together.  You are in love, you laugh about the same things, have a good social life, everything is great….. and then suddenly it’s not. You are starting to argue, bicker over the small stuff, and say hurtful things.  You don’t seem to understand each other anymore.  How has this happened?  What’s going on?

When you take a new job, you have a contract, a job description, a good idea of what is expected of you in the role.  When a couple move in together, they often hope to be committed to each other, to stay together, eventually to start a family.  But it won’t surprise you to hear that I have yet to meet a couple who asked each other in advance what they expected of their partner. We assume that we want the same things and that we think the same way, that we are making a new unit, completely separate, and different, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It would be so easy if we were like a fresh piece of white paper when we start a relationship, a clean sheet on which we can write our story together.  But even in our first ‘serious’ relationship, our page has already been written on, in invisible ink, by our parents.  The way they brought us up; their values and beliefs about life, how they dealt with conflict, how they cared for us, or failed to do so, are deeply imprinted in us, and will rise to the surface and influence how we feel and react as soon as there is tension in our adult relationship.

Even if both of you had good, sensible, listening parents, I would take bets that your growing-up was entirely different.  Maybe your family shout and cry a lot whereas his are self-contained, and avoid talking about the tough stuff.  Her family endlessly need to be together, while yours gives you space or even too much distance at times.  We bring with us the habits and expectations of our birth family; we think we know what is ‘normal’ in a relationship.  And so does our partner and their idea of normality is never quite the same as ours…..

Maybe it starts with ‘snapping’ because the towels are folded wrongly or the socks are left under the bed.  It moves on to him not ringing to say he will be late,  or you failing to say you are spending Saturday with your sister.  It then escalates into being personal and unpleasant with each other, talking in a way you never would to a good friend.  The research shows that once couples start to treat each other without respect, love dies and relationships collapse remarkably quickly.  It takes four positive comments to heal the hurt of one negative one!

So if you are beginning to misunderstand each other and say things you really aren’t proud of, it’s time to sit down together, away from distractions, and talk about what you expect from your relationship, why you value each other,  how it was in your own family and how you want it to be different. You need to agree on what it is okay, and not okay, to say to each other, and how to have ‘time out’ if you do start arguing, before you destroy the respect you have for each other.  It’s the beginnings of a relationship contract, of a real understanding of what you both need and can offer.  It won’t happen all in one go, it’s a conversation that you will return to, but the merging of two family stories into your new relationship, is bound to take time.

And if you can no longer talk, or listen to each other without a damaging argument, then it’s time to look for professional support.  A trained couple-counsellor will know how to help you do just that.

‘I can’t remember the last time we had sex…..’

Relationship therapy often involves talking about sex.  Some couples talk about it in their first session,  others much later, but  it’s rare to come across a couple, or an individual, who is struggling with their relationship but having a ‘good’ sex life.  I do remember one couple, a long while ago, who continued to be sexual partners even when they couldn’t cope with living in the same house and were deeply upset with each other, but they were one in a hundred of the couples and singles  I have worked with.

Being unhappy in our relationship is not the only thing that affects our sex life; far from it.  There are lots of reasons why we start to have less sex.  Nobody can sustain the mad passion of the first few months of a relationship when coping with the everyday demands of living together.  There’s going to be a Saturday night when one wants to watch Match of the Day and the other would rather read Grazia, and that’s entirely normal.  New babies and small children get in the way of  couple time and can leave the man feeling unwanted and the woman feeling that ‘sex is just another household chore’. Same-sex couples experience the same pressures, which affect their relationships in the same way.  Long hours at work, shift patterns, children’s homework and the endless dropping off and picking up of teenagers can mean none of us have much time together.  And when we do, so many couples tell me that once the kids are in bed they sit on separate sofas and bury themselves in soaps, i pads, online games, clothes websites, the dreaded Facebook.

Illness affects our sex lives too.  Diabetes can result in impotence or make having sex more of a challenge, prostate treatment can mean that sex is only possible when planned, and with chemical help.  Depression can seriously affect sex drive and so can anxiety.  Pressure at work can start a vicious circle of tiredness, feeling down, withdrawal from sex, and so round it goes….  The menopause isn’t an illness, but it affects our hormones and how we feel about ourselves.  So does overwork and lack of sleep.   If we are not feeling well, or good about ourselves, it’s so much easier to decide it’s not the right time to have sex.  As the days turn into weeks, then into months, it becomes increasingly difficult for someone to make the first move…..

But sometimes it is just unhappiness in our relationship which stops us wanting to be physically intimate with our partner.  Some of the reasons I’ve suggested may be contributing factors, but if we are shouting at each other, avoiding talking to each other, or feeling misunderstood or not respected, it’s very unlikely we are going to want to cuddle up and be close.  If we don’t feel loved, don’t feel listened to, or feel constantly criticized, then it’s very difficult to suddenly switch off our minds and let our bodies take over*.

Finally, the most common reason couples seem to drift apart and have sex less often is that they have  forgotten how to have fun  together.  They have forgotten how to plan ‘couple time’, how to make things happen, find time to relax together, be playful, switch off all the devices, walk the dog, go for a drink or something to eat, organise a babysitter, get away from the teenagers, book a night away from it all.  Good sex may be about tumbling into bed at every opportunity when we first meet, but if we want to stay together, grow old together, sex can’t always be spontaneous, but with a bit of planning, it can still be where it belongs, at the centre of our relationship.

*There are other, deep reasons why we don’t want to have sex with our partner, but I think they need a post of their own.  I will suggest some books in ‘things to read’ in case you are struggling with these issues.

‘My partner criticizes me all the time’

It’s difficult to feel happy if your partner is constantly critical.  We all complain sometimes about how our partner behaves, but if the list of things you do wrong is endless, if you feel you can’t do anything right for your husband or wife, if you have to ‘walk on eggshells’ around your boyfriend or girlfriend, then it’s time to talk to your partner about how you are feeling, or if they won’t listen, to get professional help.

It’s better to seek relationship counselling sooner rather than later.  You may well think that it’s in my interest to say that, but I meet couples where one partner has been unhappy for several years but has kept hoping ‘things will get better’, has tried to keep their partner happy rather than saying how they feel.  Finally, they have begun to distance themselves emotionally, to fall out of love, maybe to look elsewhere for comfort, and by the time the couple come for counselling, the ‘critical’ partner is bewildered that he or she is no longer loved, and the one who has felt unable to do anything right finds it hard to know how to begin caring again.

When one partner becomes critical of the other, it is often because he or she is unsettled by change; it may be stress at work, being alone with small children, family illness, any number of ‘life-stage’ events.  The ‘critical’ partner frequently remains unaware of what is making them unhappy, and projects their feelings onto their partner, blaming them for doing things wrong, criticizing them instead.  The one who is ‘walking on eggshells’ thinks it’s unfair, feels badly treated, and begins to withdraw from the relationship in order to survive.

It’s not easy to see what is going on when you are part of a couple, when you are inside; it can be like trying to find your way through a maze, blindfold.  But a trained counsellor can look at the intricacies of your relationship with fresh eyes, can give you an overview from outside, can help you see what is happening and why.  There is no instant fix, it takes time for one partner to understand why they have been so critical and to begin to change.  It can take much longer for the other to trust, and to love again.  So if you are beginning to feel ‘distanced’ by your partner’s behaviour, ask for help soon.  Don’t leave it until it’s too late.



How can we get close again?

I suggested last time, that when we are hurt or angry, or both, we stop listening to each other, and start defending our own corner as soon as our partner speaks.  How can we start listening to each other again?  If Step 1 to becoming intimate again is stopping all the wounding remarks we make when we are frustrated, then the next steps are looking at each other, and listening, really listening,  and feeling ‘heard’ in return.

‘Active’ listening is easier said than done; we want to interrupt, disagree, criticize, walk away. But there is a lot of research evidence which shows that couples who practise it also feel understood, less defensive, closer; become more intimate.  So because it’s so hard to ‘just listen’, I have put together Ten Steps to Getting Closer.  Give it a try, I have seen lots of couples who find it helps.  It’s probably easier to practise it the first time with a counsellor, but if you can’t see one at the moment, have a go anyway!

Step 1: Stop insulting each other – it takes 5 positive remarks to make up for 1 negative one

Step 2 : Sit together somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for half an hour

Step 3: Turn to look at each other, hold hands (unless you really can’t),  keep eye contact

Step 4: Partner 1 (the quieter one) says how they feel about whatever is on their mind, for up to 5 minutes. It can be about anything, your relationship, family, work, whatever you need to say.  It helps to use ‘I feel’  some of the time

Step 5: Partner 2 just listens, doesn’t interrupt, just keeps eye contact going until their partner has finished

Step 6: Partner 2 says ‘I have heard you say that……….’ without giving own opinion, or adding anything, just reporting back on what you have heard.  You can ask if you have forgotten anything.

Step 7: Partner 1 says ‘thank you’

Step 8: Partner 2 talks, including how they feel about what they are saying, for up to 5 minutes.

Step 9: Partner 1 repeats back what they have heard and checks if they have forgotten anything, all the time keeping eye contact

Step 10: Partner 2 says ‘thank you’

There is no discussion afterwards. You may want to go on holding hands and looking at each other, or just sit quietly together for a few minutes.  It’s about feeling ‘heard’ as much as it is about talking.  So often, we feel no one really listens to us; it’s the greatest gift we can offer each other.


Words wound, but silence pushes us apart too….

I see a lot of couples who seem, from the outside, to have a really good life,  and their friends and family may not know that they are not okay.  But they are not okay; they can’t communicate anymore,  not anywhere, not any time, not at the breakfast table, not when they go out together, not even in bed.  One gets frustrated and says their partner doesn’t listen,  and the other feels very hurt by what is said in anger.  One blames their partner loudly, the other goes silent, which makes the noisy partner even more hurtful things, and the quiet one withdraw even further into their shell.

What’s gone wrong? I suggested in my last post that a change in the couple’s world is usually the trigger; trouble at work, death or illness of a parent, the birth of a baby; anything which puts pressure on one partner, puts pressure on the relationship.  A life-changing event affects both partners; it’s a bit like being on a seesaw, where you are nicely balancing each other, and someone else jumps on one end, throwing one up into the air, while the other crashes to the ground.

On the seesaw,  you don’t blame each other, you can see what happened.  In a relationship, the changes are more subtle, and slower, so we don’t understand what has happened, we don’t recognise what stresses have thrown us off balance.  We blame our partner for being less loving, more preoccupied, different in some way.  We get angry because we don’t understand what is wrong, and we say hurtful, damaging, personal things.   Our partner, wounded, but not knowing how to respond,  withdraws into silence.  One doesn’t know how to express their hurt without attacking, the other is too hurt to defend, and it becomes harder and harder to love each other.  Neither listens; they each put up a defensive wall –  of sound, or of silence – but both walls block the other out.

Who, or what can break the deadlock?   There are simple steps you can take to help you start listening to each other again.  It’s easier to start talking with the help of a supportive outsider; a counsellor or therapist, but if you want to try on your own first, and you are both willing to have a go, then Step 1 is that hurtful, personal remarks are not allowed, not ever. We don’t change our partner’s mind, or behaviour, by beating them over the head verbally.  Words wound, they cause deep damage to our relationship, and the repair job takes time.  Step 2 is about how the silent partner can find his or her voice.  I’ll talk about more steps next time.