1. If you are both committed to change, you can! – Are some relationships doomed? Is it written in the stars whether a relationship is meant to be? Have you heard people say that if a relationship is struggling early on it’s a bad sign?
We are confronted with so many messages about how relationships are supposed to be. On Facebook friends post “Happily in Love” and “New Baby” updates. It is only when we talk to them one-to-one that we hear of the not so happy relationship moments.
My experience of working with couples and research conducted into therapeutic outcomes suggests that the most important indicator of a positive outcome is if can both parties want to change. This means not only wanting their partner to change but also being ready to change themselves. We don’t’ need to be 100% committed. In a difficult relationship, it is normal for part of us to be invested in the relationship and the other part to doubt or even to want out.
However so long as you are willing to show up, even with your doubt, change is possible. That doesn’t mean it will be easy and at some point, both partners need to get fully on board. We get on board by expressing all of our doubts, resentments, hurts, fears in an open and non-blaming way as possible. Often this is easier in the presence of a couples’ therapist who is neutral and skilled to facilitate dialogue. It’s only by bringing all of our selves to the table that we allow the possibility for healing and greater understanding to occur.
2. Words are not enough – Old school couples’ therapists believed that communication was the key to happiness. if it was as easy as that we’d all be happy. I agree that communication is important, however it’s about WHAT is communicated. Communicating thoughts alone is not enough. Many of us, both men and women are stuck in our heads. We say what we think and something gets lost in translation.
Communicating what we feel emotionally and physically as we express our thoughts helps our partner to know more of us. Consequently, they are less likely to misinterpret what we say and become defensive.
A: It bothers me that you don’t help with chores
B: Ok. I don’t know what to say to that. I do help. It bothers me when you say that!
A: You see, you never listen.
A: It bothers me that you don’t help with chores and as I say this I feel embarrassed and I feel myself blush.
B: Right. Why do you feel embarrassed, you look angry to me, and as I say this I notice I feel a bit concerned for you and my heart area softens.
A: I feel embarrassed because I’m not used to asking for help
B: Ah I see. I didn’t realise that about you. Let’s talk about how to share the chores.
In the second example, partner A communicates their emotions and body sensations along with their thoughts and partner B can relate and empathise more. I’m not saying that we should do this with every conversation – it would make for incredibly long days! However this is a very good practice to do when we feel very disconnected from our partners and are finding it difficult to communicate. Countless times I have witnessed partners softening, understanding each other more and feeling more connected after a head, heart, body conversation.
3. Your friends and family cannot be your couples’ therapist - Reality is like a prism; each face has a different perspective. Similarly, each partner's truth is their own. I'm always struck by how these truths can be so different and yet just as valid. It's for this reason that the version of a relationship dynamic told by one partner is never the whole truth, particularly when the relationship is going through difficulty. We filter experiences through unique glasses constructed out of our childhood experiences.
An individual who had a critical parent may be hyper sensitive to perceived criticism by their partner. They are more likely to hear words which might appear to others as neutral, as a criticism. This in turn triggers an age-old response of anger and defensiveness, covering up hurt and vulnerability.
When both partners are inadvertently triggering each other’s childhood wounds you can imagine how colourful the firework display! The work in couples’ therapy is helping each partner identify what belongs in the past and what belongs in the present so that they can see each other clearly. This takes a neutral unbiased person with the interests of the relationship at heart rather than a well- meaning yet biased friend or relative.
4. There is no shame in getting help – The reason many partners don’t want couples therapy is that they believe they should be able to sort out their problems by themselves. The idea of a third party being involved is considered a sign of weakness and is shameful. In my experience of working with couples this attitude comes with a great cost as it prevents them getting help at the early stages when things can be prevented from getting too bad rather than waiting until the relationship has been severely damaged and near to breaking point.
An alternative perspective is considering couples who embark on therapy and dare to shine the light on their intimate lives in the presence of a therapist as brave and admirable. They are willing to expose their flaws with the desire to improve things, and that takes guts.
Of course, I am biased but if partners got help more quickly they could stop a cycle of destructiveness that can last for years until finally someone bails or things are so bad and there is so much hurt and contempt that the relationship cannot be saved. It can be a simple lack of good communication that starts a vicious circle of attack and defence which leaves partners more and more polarized and more and more hurt and disappointed.
If you think about it, would you buy a house just because it looked nice and you thought it would be comfortable? No. You would get a surveyor to check out the structure. Similarly, if you are early into a relationship and unresolvable issues start to occur, would it not make sense to check out and perhaps adjust the structure, the way the two of you relate to each other, to build nice firm foundation rather than risk the house blowing down?