What is working together online going to be like?

It’s going to be different for every individual client and for every couple, but if you feel you need to see a counsellor at the moment and would rather not wait until the emergency period is over, then it’s worth a try.

How am I approaching regular working with clients on line?

With care…slowly….respectfully, I hope, …thinking about privacy, context, confidentiality, and the ways in which we can make it safe, and a good experience.

Working with individual clients, I find it’s less different than you would think, and clients who have tried it seem to agree. “it felt strange for the first few minutes, but once I relaxed and sat back, I didn’t really notice we weren’t in the room together”.

Finding somewhere quiet, private and sitting comfortably, not perched on a desk chair all seem to be key. Not feeling that we have to fill every second with words; that pauses are just as important online, as face to face, is also something we need to get used to. Making sure we can hear each other properly is really important too. And knowing that a bad connection will happen occasionally, so we need to allow a bit of extra time just in case. I’m also suggesting to clients that they use the ‘chat’ facility at the end of the session to let me know how they feel things have gone, and it will give me feedback which I can use to improve the experience for you and for others.

Couple counselling online is a new departure for me and as a Relatetrained counsellor, with years of experience of working face to face with couples, I have been consulting with other Relate-trained counsellors about how we can make this the best possible experience for you, the clients. I think the first thing to say is that in couple counselling the primary relationship is between the couple and I am there to help you talk to each other by asking useful questions and making suggestions which come from my training and experience of couple work. So I will spend lots of time encouraging you to talk to each other rather than just talking to me through the screen. I will be present, just as I am when we are face to face, helping you to talk to each other better, to say all the things that you often don’t think have been heard by your partner and I’ll be listening…..a lot.

Working with clients during the current emergency

It’s a difficult time for all of us; we have learnt tonight that we are only to make essential journeys and to stay at home otherwise. So I cannot for the next few weeks see clients face to face. I’m already seeing existing clients using Zoom, so if you want to make an appointment in the near future, this would be our way of talking to each other. I hope it won’t be for too long.

Getting baby to sleep

So many of my clients have small children, and so many new parents are absolutely exhausted. It seems to be the toughest when maternity leave is over, both are back at work and the newish small person won’t settle in the evening, wakes constantly in the night and both parents go off in the morning too tired to work while baby can have a good solid nap at nursery or with grandparents and is positively perky by late morning while you parents are struggling to stay awake and concentrate.

It’s not until the baby no longer needs a night feed that any sort of routine can begin. But then it’s worth having a go at settling them the same way every evening. We all know that a warm bath followed by a milk drink can help, a favourite soft toy and a glowing night light can be very comforting. Always putting the baby in the cot at the same time helps too. And lots of parents find that soothing music, (nothing visual) that is the same every night, can become associated with both falling asleep and going back to sleep in the night. Babies love routine and they love music. Here’s a link to some mindful baby music to try……The Mindful Baby http://shorturl.at/pEKTV

Why do I suddenly feel like my relationship might break up? Context is everything…

You’ve been with your partner for years, you’ve had children together, you’ve always got on pretty well apart from the odd snappy exchange when you’re both tired or too busy, but suddenly you’re arguing all the time, there’s a distance between you, and you’re not feeling much love from your husband or wife and you don’t feel very loving towards them either. You don’t feel like sex with them because you feel cross and not listened to and they become really defensive when you try to talk about what’s wrong.

What’s going on? If you’ve always been pretty happy together, then changes in a relationship are almost always due to things happening outside your control, often several events, one after the other. So many of my clients have lost a parent in the last 18 months, had a child to worry about, and that can be for any reason, from bullying at school, to struggling with exams, to missing them because they’ve gone off to uni. Other changes which trigger stress in the relationship are equally important: a difficult boss at work, too much work and no time to rest, childcare issues, a partner working away, redundancy, illness, missing a friend who has moved away, taking on a house project which gradually becomes overwhelming, a new job, which seems wonderful, but causes the other to feel left behind or less important. I could go on.

The one certainty in life is change, but frequently it puts pressure on our relationship in ways we’re not prepared for. We blame each other, rather than realising that it’s the new situation, not that our partner has turned into an uncaring monster, which is at the root of our problems.

So part of my role as a relationship therapist/couple counsellor, is to help you unpick the threads of the knotty situation you find yourselves in and help you to work out how you can change things to ease the tensions and get you both talking again. We all need to feel able to say how we’re feeling without it being taken the wrong way. We all need physical closeness and to be listened to. I hope I provide a safe place for that to happen.

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.

why am I so angry?

Why am I losing my temper all the time at the moment?  Why do I sometimes feel out of control? Why am I so down; why does everything feel hopeless? What’s making me tense or anxious? Or why do I feel completely numb….what’s that about?  Most of us have never learnt to talk about how we are feeling; if anybody asks us, we just say ‘fine thanks’ even if we feel awful, and asking how our partner is feeling, or letting them know how we feel, is something we mostly never think of doing.  We expect them to know as if by magic – they don’t, they can’t, especially as we frequently don’t know ourselves why we feel the way we do.

We don’t stop to think what’s going on for us when we feel angry…..we just act, and then wonder why we have shouted at our partner or screamed at the kids, banged that pan down in the kitchen, run upstairs in tears, or slammed out of the house.  Some of us do the opposite – freeze, clam up, fail to respond to our partner, appear not to react at all, but feel just as bad inside.

Clients often come for help because their anger, or that of their partner, is getting out of control.  Every row is worse than the last and the feelings are escalating quicker each time they fall out.  One of the first things that I talk about, is how the anger and frustration we ‘act out’  is covering up or suppressing a deeper emotion underneath.  The stereotype is that women talk endlessly or cry when they are unhappy, whereas men are more likely to clam up and refuse to talk, or get angry and then walk away from the row.  Women get angry too, however, and if both are ‘losing it’ the relationship starts to break down pretty quickly….and frequently there are children stuck in the middle of it all.

So what’s the anger about?   I have come to believe that underneath the anger there is usually hurt, or rejection, or sadness and sometimes a deep sense of failure….and there is confusion too, because all those feelings are mixed up together, and you have no idea how things got so bad.

But while the row is going on, we just feel angry…we’re not aware of what lies underneath, and then the guilt sets in that we have lost our temper and said unfair and personal things which will have hurt and done damage.

What can we do about it?  Once there are regular angry exchanges in a relationship I seriously do suggest that you look for a trained couple counsellor.   The anger and the hurt doesn’t go away without a lot of listening to each other and learning about the feelings that are going on underneath, and that’s hard to do without a professional ‘referee’; someone who can be there for you both, help you to recognise what’s happening beneath the surface, and to find other ways to talk about your own needs and those of your partner.

As I said at the beginning of this post, we don’t all express our hurt and frustration through anger.  Some of us just freeze, disengage, and can’t find the words to argue back, others become ‘down’ or unable to feel a thing.  Those of us who can’t find the words are struggling just as much as the angry partner.  I’ll talk about how it feels for the ‘quiet ones’ next time.


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.