A couple come to see me, unhappy with their relationship. Unhappy enough and for long enough to have searched for and signed up for couples’ therapy.
As therapy begins, we feel more contained and hopeful.
It can feel good knowing that we are finally tackling our issue head on. It can feel good to have a neutral person who allows us to express ourselves in a way that we may not feel able to do with our partner. A counsellor who ‘gets’ us in a way our partner may not. A counsellor that hears and acknowledges our hurts and resentments and stops conversations descending into full-scale bust-ups, facilitating us without entering the forays of the blame/accusation game.
In the beginning sessions, we may identify and work on the major fault lines in the relationship. These could be about how domestic chores are divided, financial contributions or parenting differences, amongst others. We talk about them and figure out what each person needs and wants from the other regarding it. This often feels quite tangible and reassuring. We all like to feel as if we know where we’re headed and are on the way.
Then we hit a road-block
The issues that we argue about in relationships are rarely what we are getting fired up and defensive about. They are like an iceberg: who said what that turned a cosy Saturday night in front of the TV into a shit-fest is just the snowy tip. The buried part is my hurt that you don’t seem to love me the way I love you. Or my fear that you are going to abandon me or let me down like my father did.
When we get to this bit, our wounds risk being exposed. We feel vulnerable and scared. We have after all been protecting and soothing our relationship wounds for a life-time. And let’s face it we all have some. The relationship dynamic and couples counselling can nudge us to take another look at how we protect and shield ourselves and whether that helps or hinders our relationship. We may learn some hard truths along the way. That can feel really scary. So scary that we take a ‘flight into health’ and abort the sessions early on in order to maintain the status quo. We settle for superficial gains. These rarely last. What we resist persists. The alternative feels like too much work and surely a relationship shouldn’t be that hard?
Real relationship change means changing ourselves……and that’s scary
Even if we stay with the process, a set-back can occur. This can be in the guise of a huge argument or other behaviour which seems to obliterate all the progress made and takes us back to square one or even minus one. We feel disillusioned and disheartened and talk about giving up on the relationship.
This is a common phenomenon in all types of therapy. Therapeutic progress doesn’t move in straight lines. Often we relapse at a very sensitive and critical point. Perhaps one partner has made themselves more vulnerable when the other is not yet able to support them. Even if both partners want change, we change at different paces.
But there is a way through to the other side….
Getting to that part means staying with the process and learning how to communicate cleanly. This means when we learn to talk without blame: when we hear and take in what our partner says. When we acknowledge what they say even if we disagree with what they say. When we speak from our hearts and bodies and not just our thoughts. When we communicate our needs. When we stop defending ourselves and show our vulnerability.
Underneath the set-back is the new seed of change
However bad things may feel, if we can stay on board rather than react, we can see real change occur. The caveat to this is that both parties need to be willing to face themselves to create change in a relationship. This may take the form of some individual therapy sessions to work through emotional wounds that are affecting the current relationship, especially if we repeat certain patterns over several relationships.
We tend to pick partners, out of our awareness, that confront us with our wounds. A ‘good’ partner in terms of our personal development is one who has just enough of the characteristics that unknowingly trigger our wounds. This offers us the opportunity to heal them.
So, Don’t lose hope. When things get bad, it can be the darkness before the light