For most of us, the start of a relationship is an extremely exciting time. Not only is the relationship itself hugely enjoyable – fun and life-enhancing – but it can also seem to transform our world. Put simply, it makes the world seem a better place.
It seems odd to think that something that develops from a place of such unbridled joy, can be connected to the development of so much unhappiness for many couples. The intimacy the couple once shared freely and with delight, now feels like a chore and is doled out with resentment; the home they once thought of as their refuge has become their prison; the person who was once lover and confidante is now an enemy. And so on.
Of course, not all relationships that run into difficulties have a narrative that can be summed up in as binary as fashion as that above – but they do all have a narrative. The exploration of this narrative is the generic purpose of couples counselling. As the couple talk through the journey of their relationship, it will help them to understand the reasons – often unconscious forces – behind their behaviours and feelings. They can then make choices based on understanding rather than unconscious drives.
Communication and the presence of the past
It is difficult to avoid the presence of the past in almost anything we say or do. We learned our communication skills when we were very young from the family and environment in which we were raised. It is no surprise that those skills will play out strongly in our relationships as adults. If our communication skills are poor, we may feel misunderstood. If we feel misunderstood, we may become defensive, which might well be experienced by our partner as hostility. Over time the behaviours driven by such communication may leave both partners feeling isolated, which in turn will drive further alienating behaviours.
One of the most important aspects of relationship work will be to explore how the couple communicate and, importantly, what is driving those communication methods. If there is will, whatever has been learned can be unlearned and replaced. It just takes a little bit of work!
Intimacy is not necessarily the most important area in a relationship, but it is often a touchstone for other matters and its lack can be felt intensely by either or both partners. It can be difficult for couples to understand how something that once seemed so colourful and vital now appears so pale and lifeless. The prospect of intimacy can be threatening. It touches on areas of desire, shame, self-worth, driving fear – again often making us aware of
the presence of the past. Through an exploration of this aspect of the relationship, the couple will have a better understanding of what is behind their behaviours in the area of intimacy and can begin to move towards a re-connection in this most vital part of how they relate to each other.
Couples counselling will help us to understand what is happening with us when we are in conflict. Many couples will want to avoid conflict, and it can be difficult to understand that dealing with it can be good for us. It can help us learn that we can be in dispute – with all the anxiety associated with it – and then return to a place where we feel safe again. Conflict does not have to mean catastrophe. However, this is another aspect of communication, and
we need to develop our resilience in the area to avoid becoming (once again!) prisoners of our past.
Knowing me, knowing you
The ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ might seem a little reductive. Perhaps Aristotle should have put it more positively – more like, ‘understanding oneself has great benefits.’
However, within a relationship, understanding yourself and your partner does indeed have great benefits. I would argue it is one of the significant rewards of attending therapy as a couple. Being valued, being understood are the building blocks of love.
Talking and listening
It is not unusual for couples to find it difficult to talk to each other. Over time, the pair may begin to avoid difficult topics, often through fear of conflict, or maybe through fear of potential outcome more generally. Couples counselling will help the couple discover and explore these areas of difficulty and, importantly, help to build a model which can be used outside and beyond the sessions to make sure that couples have the skills to talk and listen
A good ending
A cursory look at divorce rates would demonstrate, starkly, that many relationships do, and will, end. Sometimes, the issues couples bring to their therapy, either as individuals or as a pair, lead them to decide that what is between them is overwhelming and that their best option is to separate. Couples counselling can help to navigate these challenging decisions and the very difficult feelings associated with them. All of us must deal with endings in our lives, and all endings involve loss of one sort or another. Although dealing with endings is often the one of most painful processes of couples counselling, it does not have to be catastrophic. If the decision is to end the relationship, counselling will help the couple to find a way to keep intact as much of the positive connection between the couple as possible.
Kevin Collins is a UKCP registered Psychotherapeutic Counsellor with an academic background in the field of literature and linguistics. He worked for many years in education – in schools and university. Kevin is available at our Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Kevin Collins –