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Could psychodynamic couple counselling help your relationship?

Making the decision to go to relationship counselling for many couples is a positive and brave move towards becoming more connected and happier together. However, for those who are not familiar with what 'therapy' is all about, it can feel like a mysterious and scary prospect.

Couple counselling starts from an open conversation about partners’ problems, which are explored in a safe, welcoming and accepting atmosphere. The counsellor gives equal value to descriptions of difficulties brought by both partners, even if those accounts contain conflicting emotional messages. A reflective space, in which feelings are validated and understood promotes thoughtful and caring attitude between the partners. An important aspect of the psychodynamic approach in couples work is thinking about how early experiences impact the way we relate to others. Becoming more aware of unconscious patterns of attachment that the partners repeat, allows them to feel more in control of their life and enables building healthier relationships, free from the shadows of the past.

Below I will describe some of the most common problems that bring people to couples counselling and how the psychodynamic approach to relationship difficulties may help.

Common relationship difficulties

“We argue a lot. Our disagreements start from small misunderstandings and escalate to big rows which get heated and out of control.”

Couples counselling

Partners often describe that during their arguments they tell each other hurtful things, which they do not really mean and later regret saying. During disagreements, it is usually seen as impossible for two different opinions to exist together and partners confront each other claiming that they are 'right' and the other is 'wrong'. When arguments get heated, reflective thinking about problems becomes difficult and partners tend to become out of touch with good aspects of the relationship. Couples describe that in those moments their exchanges turn into a war-like experience and the only thing that is on their mind is 'winning'. However, as a result of the row they both feel defeated, misunderstood, hurt and unhappy.

How counselling may help

Central to counselling is a helpful conversation between partners. It enables the partners to move away from criticism and judgement and move towards being able to openly talk about their thoughts and feelings in a safe and encouraging atmosphere. The counsellor, during sessions, stops partners' hurtful exchanges and promotes reflective thinking about their unhelpful interactions. Curiosity about those moments when communication breaks down brings new insights about partners unconscious fears and hopes. Usually, what triggers partners’ attacking stance and inability to keep the other in mind in a caring way, are unprocessed past painful feelings and traumas. These emotions put them in touch with childhood moments of helplessness, neglect, fear or lack of loving care. Therapy allows for the gradual development of a sense of safety in the relationship which makes it possible for the partners to support each other in the process of opening up about their vulnerabilities and unmet needs. They discover together, how sharing their true feelings enables closeness, intimacy, kindness and a new caring approach towards each other.

“We feel emotionally distant and we have drifted apart. We miss our old closeness and intimacy. There is a lot of silence between us. We want to change things for the better but we don’t know how”.

Couples experience

During therapy, partners often identify certain feelings or areas of their life that are 'no-go areas' and cannot be openly talked about as they are experienced as conflict-provoking and dangerous. As honest opinions are not shared, there is a lot of confusing situations and misunderstandings as partners assume what the other has in mind. The partners misinterpret each other’s intentions, which causes more and more frustration between them. Often the only times when difficult feelings are shared happen in a form of painful explosive arguments, which cause even more withdrawal from the relationship. In some couples, no difference of opinions is ever allowed to exist openly. The partners struggle with a lack of safety in the relationship and feel they cannot risk showing who they truly are. Without emotional honesty and curiosity, partners do not open up about their needs, hopes, dreams and expectations. This, in turn, makes it impossible for them to care after each other and connect emotionally.

How counselling may help

The goal of therapy is to create a safe space, in which both partners can allow themselves to slowly start discovering who they truly are as individuals and as a couple. The counsellor welcomes and accepts all feelings expressed in sessions. In a respectful atmosphere of curiosity, both partners experience being heard and understood. Thinking about their childhood often brings memories of specific emotions not being accepted by their parents or carers. There is often an unconscious assumption in the couple that the denied feelings are not welcome by the partner and the counsellor. Emotional honesty is encouraged and those beliefs can be thought about in sessions. In couples who identify emotional withdrawal as their presenting problem, anger is usually denied and avoided as it is seen as a damaging and dangerous feeling. Counselling helps to unblock anger that can be expressed in a way that promotes talking openly about dissatisfactions and frustrations within the relationship in a non-attacking manner. Partners discover that being able to own and express a wide variety of feelings makes them feel more connected and their life together becomes more vibrant.

“I feel constantly worried that my partner will leave me; my partner experiences me as too needy and becomes emotionally detached”.

Couples experience 

Partners describe a cycle during which one of them (anxious partner) feels constantly preoccupied with the thought that they may be rejected and abandoned by the other (avoiding partner). The anxious partner asks for more warmth, affection and closeness in order to feel loved and reassured that their relationship is emotionally safe. However, these requests create a situation, in which the avoiding partner feels trapped, claustrophobic, in need of more space and they respond with increasing distance. The emotional withdrawal of the avoiding partner triggers even more worries for the anxious partner who feels unwanted and desperate in their attempts to make their loved one more responsive to their emotional needs.

How counselling may help 

Partners are helped therapeutically by gaining more understanding of their attachment styles, which are compatible. People with avoidant and anxious attachment types feel attracted to each other and drawn to forming romantic relationships. In therapy, couples discover that although their closeness-distance struggle appears to be belonging to the anxious partner, it is actually shared between both partners. Reflective thinking about the couple dynamics and making links with early experiences with attachment figures allow for a better understanding of their impulses to pursue and reject one another. Anxious partners often get in touch with their childhood experiences of feeling emotionally rejected by their carers, which left them questioning their sense of being worthy of love. For avoiding partners, parental care they received usually felt like intrusion, and as children, they did not feel there was any space for them to be loved in a way that respected their boundaries and separateness. Thanks to gaining a better understanding of their feelings, partners can create a more secure relationship where anxieties can be thought about without being acted out.

To find a couples counsellor near you use our search tool.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Marta Szapiel - Counsellor and Psychotherapist (MA, PGDip, MBACP)

I am an experienced relationship therapist. In my consulting room I offer couples and individuals a safe, thoughtful and confidential space where we can together reflect on and understand your difficulties.… Read more

Written by Marta Szapiel - Counsellor and Psychotherapist (MA, PGDip, MBACP)

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