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.

 

‘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.

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.

 

Loss of intimacy – ‘we seem to have just drifted apart’

So many couples say those words almost as soon as they sit down in the counselling room.  ‘We don’t know when it started to happen, but it must have been a while ago now’.  ‘We are like two strangers in the same house’.  ‘We are more like brother and sister these days’. ‘We never seem to find time to have sex anymore’. ‘We both just sit there with our phones/ipads after tea every day’.  ‘We have forgotten how to talk to each other’.  I could go on…….and on…..

The reasons for this loss of intimacy are as varied as the couples I meet; every couple’s story is different, and private.  Sometimes it is one partner having an affair that wakes the couple up to the fact that their relationship has been ‘drifting’, but otherwise it can take a long while for it to become clear that something is wrong.  Often one partner begins to feel unhappy, but isn’t sure why; just knows their relationship isn’t like it used to be and may blame the other for not trying harder.  The couple may start to scrap, to fight, or alternatively become silent with each other.  Eventually both are aware that something is seriously not right, but it may take an affair, or one partner threatening to leave before they look for help. By the time we meet, neither has any idea when they last felt happy together; all either can remember is the multiple reasons why their partner is making them feel angry, frustrated, or alone.

There are deep reasons why some couples are unhappy; stuff left over from childhood for one or both partners, which has never been resolved, and which is now surfacing, once the excitement of being ‘in love’ has gone, and the stresses of living together on a daily basis bring vulnerabilities to light; that’s not my focus here.   I’m talking about the couples I meet who have simply let their intimacy drift away, without realising what is happening until it’s almost gone.  There has been no dramatic, sudden change, rather the increasing demands of family life, maybe both trying to hold down stressful jobs, one working long hours, or shifts, or regularly away from home, one feeling ‘taken for granted’, sometimes the development of separate social lives, have altered the relationship little by little, until, suddenly, one, or both, realise there is very little holding their relationship together.

What hope is there for couples who are feeling this way?  Lots, I believe. For me, the primary aim of  couple counselling, relationship therapy, whatever you want to call it, is to help a couple to find ways of being intimate again, of talking openly and fully, of hearing each other’s needs and feelings, of understanding where the other is coming from, and of feeling heard and understood in return.  Not every couple I see stays together; sometimes the difference is too great, occasionally it’s simply too late, and too much damage is done, but many, many couples do grow closer in therapy, do find a way forward together.

How do I know if I have a healthy relationship with my partner?

Here are a few  suggestions about what it feels like to have good personal boundaries with a partner.  I’m sure you will be able to think of lots of other ideas, but these may start you thinking about your own relationship.

  • I am aware that my actions, attitudes, thoughts and feelings are my own, not those of my partner
  • I realise I can change myself, but not my partner
  • I notice that when I respond (take thinking time), rather than react, my relationship to my partner changes
  • I recognise that I can decide what I will and won’t tolerate in our relationship
  • I see that when my boundaries are too rigid, there is little communication or intimacy between us
  • I discover that if I push too hard into my partner’s personal space, they pull away, and put their boundaries higher
  • I find that if I say ‘I feel and I need’, rather than telling my partner off, they are more likely to listen.  I can show empathy and make it clear I have heard them too.
  • I stop offering solutions and excuses and ask my partner what they would like to be different
  • I understand that my partner is not an extension of me; is not there exclusively to meet my needs
  • I accept that we both have needs which cannot be fulfilled in our relationship;  that we need other interests,  friends and family too
  • I feel that to have good personal boundaries is to be strong but flexible; close but separate.

I’m not suggesting that any of us have perfect boundaries all, or even some of the time, but it’s good to reflect from time to time on whether our closest relationship is making us feel good about life or is making us unhappy.  Looking at how we negotiate intimacy and independence with our partner, so that we feel close, but neither ‘engulfed’ or pushed away, is a good way of deciding whether we need to renegotiate our relationship.  Sometimes talking about our boundaries with a couple counsellor can support us to get the balance right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is marriage counselling the same as couple counselling?

Marriage counselling and couple counselling are both part of a relationship therapist’s work.  Is there any difference between them?  The answer is –  it depends.  If a  couple is in a long-term relationship, they live together, have joint financial obligations, know each other’s family, particularly if they have children together, then the practical and relationship issues that couples have to deal with are the same, whether they are married or not.  A married partner has greater protection under the law, however, so it is when a couple decides that they want to end the relationship that being married, or not, becomes the most significant; an unmarried couple can face greater uncertainty, and have even more need for legal advice.

So although I work with many married couples, relationship therapy is open to all couples, including, of course, same-sex couples, .  Each stage of life presents different challenges.  I see a surprising number of couples who have been together for five or six years, but have only recently married.  Many have a small child.  They thought that committing themselves to marriage and children would heal the cracks in their relationship, but after the initial euphoria of the wedding or the birth, the opposite has happened.  Expectations of married life, and the fear of failure have increased.  Differences that were forgotten during the excitement of planning the future have resurfaced in the cold light of routine, and can’t be ignored any longer.

Good counselling supports you to find out why your relationship  isn’t working,whether you have been together a life-time, a few years or just a couple of months.  It helps you to communicate your feelings and your needs better,  and to discover what has to change if you are to stay together.  Individuals also come for relationship therapy; you may be struggling to get over a relationship that has ended, unsure whether to continue with your partner, or wondering why your relationships never seem to last.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ marriage or a ‘traditional’ relationship.  I come across couples who are living together, and are far more ‘married’ than those who have done the whole big white dress, expensive party thing.  A good marriage is about comfortable, shared commitment to the same values and goals.  Saying vows in front of your friends and family can help you to achieve that, but if you don’t listen to each other, or understand each other properly, then that legal piece of paper won’t help a bit.  My job is to give you the time, the space and the support to do some honest talking and listening. Many couples don’t look for help until it’s almost too late.  So if you are starting to struggle, ring a Relate-trained or BACP registered counsellor. The research shows that the sooner you get support, the better your chances of staying together.  Married or unmarried, it’s the commitment to making your relationship work that makes the difference.