For those who wouldn’t dream of seeing a relationship counsellor

You are concerned about your relationship with your partner. You’d like to call a halt to the endlessly repeating pattern of arguments, or a desert of non-communication between you. You see this as a private matter between the two of you. There is no way you would consider talking to a therapist.


Maybe you also hate self-help books, but you’re feeling desperate, so this is how you came to search the Counselling Directory website. Whatever you think about this article, you won’t be the same after reading it, because you’ve shown your concern by taking steps to find some help.

Perhaps you’ll go home and talk frankly to your partner about whatever is worrying you. Perhaps you’ll talk to a friend for some support and some ideas about how to begin to change a very ‘stuck’ situation. Whatever you do, good luck, and don’t give up. If you argue a lot but don’t leave, ask yourself what that is saying to you. Maybe, even though you might find it hard to admit it, this person means a lot to you, otherwise, you wouldn’t spend time bothering to try and resolve the conflict by arguing – you’d just walk away for good.

When we’re angry with our partners, the last thing we want to think about is how things might seem from the other’s point of view. We’re fired up with self-righteous indignation – how could they do that to us? How could they be so thoughtless? How could they be so uncaring? The next stage of our process can be to think to ourselves that common sense tells me my partner must care so little about our relationship that they are prepared to jeopardise it by their behaviour. And finally – they don’t care one bit about me, so why should I care about them? So we either do the silent treatment and don’t tell why we’re upset but present with a frosty cold exterior. Or we shout, accusing our partner of selfishness, lack of consideration, coldness, heartlessness, and mental cruelty.

What happens to our partner? If they’ve been the cause of our upset, they feel guilty, foolish, incompetent, and unable to explain their behaviour. Or they might go on the defensive, and counter-attack, responding to our accusations with examples of their own experience of the other’s equally hurtful behaviours.

And so we go around in a never-ending circular process of attack and counter-attack. Or both parties avoid speaking to each other, apart from the necessary communication about the kids, or when a friend or workman comes round. Until another explosion takes place, or eventually even a permanent separation.

It’s difficult to change when we see ourselves as the injured party.  Usually, both parties feel that they are in the right. Even beginning to want to move away from that feels impossible, frightening, and vulnerable. Our partner might take advantage, and assume that all is well when really nothing has changed. So we end up stuck. But although we’re very angry with our partner, something stops us from walking out. Something keeps us together, even though we can’t understand why. We made a big commitment to this relationship sometime in the past. Perhaps we don’t like to admit defeat. Perhaps deep down a little bit of us remembers why we fell for our partner. But we definitely want to stop the endless pattern of our repetitive arguments.

Perhaps if we knew of a way to start again from a different standpoint. Rather than seeing the relationship in ‘all or nothing’ terms, i.e. we’re either getting on or we’re not, we could put ourselves in ‘pause’ mode. This could enable us to stand in different positions and see the other’s point of view from different perspectives. We don’t have to commit to these different perspectives, we can just try them on for size and see how they feel. Once we’ve tried, a conversation with our partner about these different perspectives might help to loosen up our fixed positions. And we’re talking again and listening to each other. These conversations won’t be easy because we’re not used to talking like this; our current habit is likely to start with an accusation ‘You always…you never….you’ve done it again, you’ve…'

The new conversations involve sharing the different places you’ve been standing in with your partner. So they’ll probably go something like ‘I’ve been thinking. When I do….you…' or ‘I’d like to say that it occurred to me that another way of thinking about this might be...' A couple of crucial things have changed – the ‘You’ has turned into ’I’. Each is inviting the other to listen to some new thoughts and perspectives about the situation (the ‘pause’ period). Change won’t happen overnight if we’ve been arguing for a while in the same style. So how to continue? 

Let’s introduce a couple and their dilemma. Instead of jumping in with a habitual ritual of reacting, they have taken a step back and started to try and imagine what it might be to see the situation from their partner’s point of view. In addition, they validate this; in other words, they acknowledge what it might be like to feel or think that way without making a judgement about it. This can be the hardest thing to do.

Nelly and Francis have been happily together for five years, but now Nelly is at home with two young children, and things are beginning to niggle away at their relationship. Francis comes home in the evening and flings his filthy clothes into the empty washing machine without saying anything and it drives Nelly mad. She complains that it makes her feel like a servant. Francis for his part gets furious if she says anything. What’s the problem? He’s getting the clothes out of the way, isn’t he? What might each other think if they stood in different places?

Nelly thinking about Francis standing in a different place:

  • Francis is exhausted when he comes in. He’s got a very physically demanding job. Perhaps it’s the wrong time to tackle him about the clothes. He’s a very kind and considerate bloke normally.
  • Perhaps Francis wants to keep the clothes away from the kids because they’re so filthy.
  • I wonder whether Francis wants to just hide the clothes away because he doesn’t want to think about work once he comes home?

Francis thinking about Nelly standing in a different place:

  • Nelly’s usually exhausted from looking after the kids by the time I get home. Perhaps she’s snappy because of that.
  • Why does she mind my putting the clothes in the washing machine? Perhaps I should find out.
  • I don't like her saying she feels like a servant. I’ll tell her I don’t want to put her down at all.

Already, Francis and Nelly are changing their thinking about their arguments. But having spent time trying to stand in a different place thinking about their partner, what next?

Some couples agree to set aside 10 minutes a day to speak and listen to each other, using the ‘I’ statements described above. They might time their turns to speak with an egg-timer or mobile phone. They might slow everything right down and then give their partner the chance to repeat what’s been said so that they’re both sure the message has got through. The conversation might go like this:

Nelly: "Francis, I think you might be trying to be helpful (Nelly stood in a different place, thinking about Francis) when you come home and fling your dirty clothes into the washing machine. But I wonder whether you know that it makes me feel like your servant, instead of your partner. I might have plans for sorting out the clothes first."

Francis: "You’re right, Francis, I thought I was being helpful by getting the clothes out of the way. Nelly, I feel uncomfortable when you say I’m treating you like a skivvy (Francis, thinking about Nelly, considering standing in a different place) when I come home and chuck my clothes into the washing machine."

Nelly starts with a point of view she’s developed after standing in a different place thinking about Francis’s behaviour, and this helps prevent Francis from going on the defensive. Francis is then able to accept Nelly’s thoughts, and then hear an alternative view of his behaviour from Nelly. Sometimes these conversations take on a life of their own and new material is introduced:

Francis: "Nelly, You’re very generous to want to look after my clothes (Francis standing in a different place thinking about Nelly). But perhaps you don't realise that when I come home from work, I just want to get rid of them and not contaminate them with other items for the washing machine. I get so filthy on that building site. "

Nelly: "I hadn’t realised just how strongly you feel about contaminating the washing, Francis (Nelly standing in a totally new place thinking about Francis suddenly explaining how strongly he feels about the contamination). Perhaps we could talk some more about what suits us both?" (Nelly and Francis have moved into a new place – they’re negotiating a way to improve the situation and are no longer ‘stuck’). 

And if you decide you need further help with your relationship – it’s best to look on the Counselling Directory for a therapist or counsellor who specialises in couples work and has specific qualifications in that area. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE13 & SE3
Written by Jennifer Hughes
London SE13 & SE3

This article is the result of many years of working with couples, of supervising relationship counsellors, training those new to the profession, and of being trained myself in a range of different approaches to work with couples. The 'couples' example is an anonymised amalgam of past clients' experiences
Jenny Hughes

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