This article is necessary because we humans are multifaceted, and when we add more of us into the mix, for example, in relationships, things become even more complicated, as the statistics show. Indeed, at the time of writing the rate of divorce in the UK was 42%. I personally knew two people who were going through the early stages of separation, with the intention of divorce, and I also counsel couples who are experiencing difficulties. These occurrences and my own professional work with couples have offered insight into the sometimes-uncertain world of relationships that we all inhabit at some point.
To do justice to this complexity, this article is split into five distinct parts. It is based on the work of two internationally renowned clinical psychologists, authors, and couples therapists, Dr. Ellyn Bader, and Dr. Daniel Wile, as well as my own work with couples. I hope it will be useful for couples, those who are considering entering coupledom again, and mental health practitioners on both a personal and professional level, because we also need help sometimes.
In Part I, I will talk about general aspects of being in relationships and some of the issues that arise in couples counselling, issues, you may have previously, or are currently experiencing. The second part deals with some of the doubts and barriers to therapy that couples face. Part III demystifies information about what couples therapy is, how it works, and what it has to offer, to facilitate informed decision making for those considering couples work. And because couples therapy is an interactive process, Part IV, offers some useful insights and practical tips about what you can do to get the best out of the process. The final part (V) provides advice on what you might look for in a therapist, including tips on selecting a ‘good fit’, and things to watch out for.
Whether you know it as couples therapy, relationship counselling, or marriage counselling, it is important to realise that you don’t have to think of couples work as a last resort. Entering into couples therapy demonstrates a willingness to try to work at things, and it’s more useful to do this before the question of staying together even enters the relationship. But if it has already, then therapy can help you understand if you can resolve issues.
Indeed, it would be remiss of me to omit that sometimes couples therapy helps couples in a different way; couples may decide not to stay together by learning if they want to, can, or should. So even though couples therapy does not always end the way we might expect, or hope, this does not mean we cannot experience our ‘happy ever after’, it really depends on what this means for us. And even if you can’t work it out, therapy can help you both process the change, perhaps, in a less painful, and more supportive way.
Some Reasons That Relationships Are So Hard
We all start life in relation, from the womb, to the present. So with all that experience, why are we failing so much at relationships? Maybe it’s because we’re learning how to relate ‘on the job’, and learning from parents or caregivers who had to do the same. When we enter into new relationships, we have to factor in the different histories we, and our potential partner comes with, the varying attachments we’ve each formed, the damage we have each experienced as we’ve moved through life, and how these issues all impact our ability to withstand harm, and to trust.
Deep down we carry rejection, shame, guilt, low self-esteem (to name some), and are essentially deeply insecure in ways, as we search for our happy ever after in a culture that would have us believe in skewed, unattainable, concepts like Disney, and Prince Charming. We are led to hope that someone will come along and meet our every need, but sadly, this is unrealistic because we do not live in a Disney fairy tale, and our prince is less charming, more neurotic (as are we).
Society's Impact On How The Sexes Communicate
Because Typically, men often keep their emotions bottled up, and while it is true that society has encouraged and perpetuated this behaviour in men, it does not mean men do not feel emotions – they are simply taught implicitly and explicitly to express them differently. In fact, in therapy, men can, and do exhibit a wide variety of emotions and therapy can help couples understand they feel similarly on issues, but with one of them feeling more comfortable expressing their feelings, while the other processes things in a different way. Gender stereotypes aside, we all have our preferred way of communication which we learned in our earliest relationships, and you may have an awareness of how your partner is in certain situation or as relates to certain subjects.
Trying Something New
It’s important to consider that there might not be any such thing as ‘the one’, that is, the perfect partner. Think about it; if our own parents were incapable of providing unconditional love, it’s highly unrealistic to expect it from anyone else. So when we put this kind of pressure on another person, and therefore the relationship, we are more likely to fail.
Yes, when our significant other does things that don’t live up to our (perhaps unrealistic) expectations of them, we can take this very personally, feeling it to be a reflection on us and our partner’s feelings toward us. But if we accept the fallibility of our partner who is a flawed human being, much as we are, we take a positive step because we can work at becoming more accepting, and can also be more vulnerable in their acceptance. Yes, effective relationships require the courage to accept one another in a fuller way, leading to deeper intimacy.
How Couples Counselling Helps
Couples counselling work goes beyond awareness, it also offers understanding of the other’s communication style, bestowing couples with the ability to learn one another’s language. Imagine communicating without knowing another’s language, as crazy as that sounds, this is in fact what we do a lot of the time in our closest relationships. By learning your partner’s language, you learn how to listen to them, respond to them, and more importantly, how not to. Through counselling sessions you and your partner can gain an incredibly powerful and helpful skill, despite your different, and often conflicting relational and communication styles.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Taking the issue of sex as a common problem, let’s explore. It very common for intimacy and sex to break down in long-term relationships because one person loses interest (which can happen for all sorts of reasons). And when one partner keeps turning down the other, the other can start to feel undesired and rejected. When they experience this enough times, the one feeling undesired and rejected stops initiating sex altogether, so sex becomes infrequent or stops completely. I have found that often in these situations, couples will not really talk about the problem, they will instead make indirect comments or say nothing, but all the while experience hurt.
Just One Thing Couples' Counsellors Do
Relationship counsellors can facilitate by making a difficult conversation more open and accessible by asking questions that may feel uncomfortable and even ‘unsafe’ for the couple to broach alone. This can open a direct way of talking about sexual issues, and can work surprisingly fast. For example, the level of desire may be different for each person, or there might be misunderstandings about desire, which when left unspoken, can lead one person to feel personally rejected by the other. Exploring the issue in therapy invites the opportunity for a straightforward conversation, which can begin to improve the situation.
Another issue can be difficulty in discussing how one prefers to be touched, for fear of offending the other. Instead of risking offending the other, the individual dreads sex, feeling disengaged and not enjoying it, or avoiding it altogether. Therapy can aid intimate conversations and reacquaint couples with their sexual selves and life, with playfulness, and passion unlike ever before, due to the understanding on an individual and couple level which can create deeper connection and intimacy.
How We Go Deeper
Doctor Bader tells a classic story about a couple session in which a wife reveals to her husband that she often prays for his death. Yes, let that one sink in…
…but even if this surprises you, you might be more surprised to learn that it is not as uncommon as you think. Or it may even resonate with your experience. Some people feel tense and trapped in their situations and environments, the wishing away of the partner is really a need to avoid conflict, or simply for change from the current situation. Death conveniently takes the responsibility to initiate change out of our hands, seemingly thrusting us out of our misery. Revelations like this can emerge in therapy and are useful because they open up honest and intimate dialogue, in a space (therapy) in which couples can learn how to listen to what the other is really trying to tell them.
Other Issues Couples Therapy Helps With
Couples who come to therapy come for all sorts of reasons. Problems range from finances, disagreements about children, to sex. But no matter the main issue, there exists another problem; the issue of how couples deal with the main issue. That is, how they communicate with one another about it. In fact, many of us couples therapists hear couples say “our problem is communication”. Indeed, you may have noticed that you and your partner tend to fight about things, or simply avoid them and withdraw from one another.
This is the real main issue, because if couples are unable to communicate collaboratively, they cannot overcome and resolve most issues. How couples manage their emotional responses to what they hear from their partners is crucial, requiring some self-awareness, as well as awareness of their partner’s intentions. For example, practicing patience and understanding about one another’s actual positions in a situation, rather than our own perceptions about it. Working with a therapist could facilitate a healthier way of communicating, one that brings back the intimacy that is lost along the way, helping couples to grow individually, but also together as well.
Next In The Series...
Look out for Part II of this article (Doubts About Couples Therapy) which will discuss some common concerns that people have about engaging with couples therapy.
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