Reflections on intimacy and benefits of couple therapy

With Valentine's Day nearly upon us, my focus is on the heart and its association with feelings and relationships. If you struggle in intimate relationships, find it hard to show vulnerability, identify yourself as 'strong' and independent, read on for some offerings and practices to help you have a 'softer' heart-based connection with both yourself and your loved one.

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In my work as a therapist, I meet many people who are 'thinkers' and tend to be more comfortable in their heads than in their hearts or their bodies. This makes sense as many of us grew up in families where feelings were given a low priority, may have been out of control, frightening or our own were invalidated. Different types of loss and trauma may have affected us meaning that it did not feel safe to fully occupy our bodies and so we learnt not to trust our 'gut instincts' or the messages from our hearts.  

We came to rely on our thinking and intellect to protect us and as a result, some of us may have learnt to overthink, worry too much about people and situations we can't control and have a tendency to overmanage or try and 'fix' others.  

For those of us, and I include myself here, who spend too much time in our heads, we need to balance this out with calming activities, a good dose of fun and practices that ground us and help us feel more embodied.  Some examples would be dancing and singing, yoga, qigong, tai chi, walking in nature and meditation.

If we find we are placing too much emphasis on work, professional success, or status we need to 'let that go' a bit and invest more in our relationships and what would really make 'our hearts sing'. This may be a new job, relationship, a move to a new location, a new hobby or activity that you are passionate about. 


Self-regulation

If you did not have caregivers who were able to regulate their own emotions or who were depressed or unavailable it is likely that they wouldn't have helped you with yours and difficulty in regulating your own emotional state and calming yourself down is something I see often in couples whose personalities and communication styles can create a lot of hurt, mistrust and unnecessary conflict.  

This way of being or behaving particularly if it is ongoing may also contribute to high adrenalin and cortisol levels, high cholesterol and blood pressure, digestive distress and a compromised immune system.  

Quiet mind, calm heart 

Learning to calm yourself down, soothe your own hurts and regulate your own anxieties is very important in life and intimate relationships, as is the ability to be clear about who you are and what you are about, especially when your partner pressures you to adapt and conform. 

Breathe and flow - Soften and take a gentler approach

If we feel stressed or are overly anxious and are finding it hard to relax or sleep, or we are turning to alcohol or other drugs such as cannabis to self-soothe or numb our feelings it is important that we find some support, or share our worries with a trusted friend or family member. This can feel hard to do if we pride ourselves on being competent and self-sufficient, but individual therapy can help here as you gently gain access to the painful parts you have most likely buried whether consciously or not, as can finding and committing to a regular spiritual practice such as yoga or meditation. 

Body treatments that involve soothing caring touch such as a massage are enjoyable, relaxing and effective ways to help ground us, rebalance our energies and calm our nervous systems. 


Alice Lamott says it best...'Almost everything will work again, if you unplug it for a few minutes including you.'

Some of the qualities I associate with the heart are honesty, kindness, compassion, courage and gentleness. The heart is not like the ego - it does not force or strive for things but whispers to us to take a deep breath, slow down and take our time, to meet our challenges with grace as well as grit. Living from the heart means that you are able to be vulnerable and reflect honestly on your shortcomings without becoming defensive; you are willing to accept all of your feelings as valid information, and not spend unnecessary energy repressing, ignoring or projecting them - which means seeing them in others and then criticising them as something 'out there'.
 
Very often in the couple work I do as a therapist, I ask each person in the couple to reflect upon the feelings or qualities they think the other carries or holds for them so they don't have to be disturbed by them. Unfortunately, we can have a lot of judgement around feelings or behaviours that we were not allowed to express when we were growing up or were expressed in distorted or frightening ways, hence we can, as Bruce Tift says 'hire our partner' to carry this  'disowned' bit for us.  

One part of the couple is carrying the connecting qualities we might associate more with the heart such as dependency, spontaneity and playfulness, while the other is more identified with their thinking and with self-reliance, competence and independence. 
Until we are comfortable taking responsibility for all our thoughts and feelings and asking for what we want we can too easily identify with the victim position and see our partner as the persecutor.

If you are struggling in your relationship couple counselling can help you learn more effective communication skills, help you understand why you and your partner trigger each other in the way you do, and ultimately give you tools and practices to transform your relationship into something more satisfying, loving, and honest.

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, Greater London, W2
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Written by Sally Turberville Smith, Dipl. Psych, MBACP, UKCP. Individual & Couple counsellor
London, Greater London, W2

I am a UKCP and BACP accredited psychotherapist specialising in relationships I work with individuals and couples. I am also a Nutritionist and accredited Yoga Nidra teacher.

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