So your relationship needs work, should you both be doing it?
Many of us in relationships will look back on the early days with fondness. We smile at the memories of the excitement and are sentimental for the time when our relationship seemed without difficulties. For the majority, the start of a romance is the easy part, even those with struggles with attachment will experience that human beings are wired to make connections, and the rushes of oxytocin, dopamine and adrenaline will override the factors that may ordinarily cause problems. A study at the University College, London has shown that feelings of love, or the increase in the chemicals associated with love, lead to a decline of activity in the area of the brain that controls critical thought. In the early days of a relationship we are able to experience our partners without criticising them. Anthropologically, this is interesting because it suggests a period of time when we are metaphorically blinded by love for time enough to form bonds so that when we are able to recognise the things we find difficult in our partner we have already formed an attachment.
As we start to see our partner for who they are and start to be seen by our partner for who we are we can begin to feel vulnerable. Where did all the joy go? Did we make a mistake? Feelings of disappointment and blame can start to become figural. For those of us with complex relationships with criticism or particularly harsh super-egos, an internal conflict between the desire to stay with the person you are attached to, and to leave the now uncomfortable relationship, can start to play out. Times of transition can be particularly difficult as they will expose aspects of ourselves and our partners that previously we had not been aware existed. They can also act as triggers for re-engagement with learnt behaviour that may not serve us. Many couples experience difficulties as they move in together, become parents, experience stress at work, suffer a bereavement or even enjoy increased success. We are constantly evolving as human beings and therefore continually getting to know ourselves and our partners, but as our relationship develops we are doing so without the benefit of the cocktail of chemicals that kept us from seeing each other’s flaws in the early days.
Increasingly couples are seeking support in the form of counselling to help them through transitions in their relationships. Clients that bring difficulties with their romantic life into their individual therapy will often question if they should be including their partner in this process. Here are some things to think about when deciding upon how to engage in support for your relationship:
Can you talk?
Many counsellors will talk about treating the relationship as the client in the context of couples counselling. If you are struggling to find ways to relate or communicate with your partner then a therapist will be able to create a safe space and support you talk to each other. If there are things that need to be said or understood, a couple’s counsellor could help you to open up lines of communication and practice ways of keeping them open.
What if your partner doesn’t want to engage in therapy?
It is important to recognise that you cannot make a person engage with therapy. Unless a person is open to the possibility of the process the work can be very difficult, and therapy is not for everyone. It can be disappointing to have to accept that your partner does not want to work on your relationship with the same approach you have chosen, but there are many different agents for change. It is also interesting to acknowledge that individual clients often report that they experience changes in their partners despite them not being in therapy. I am of the belief that much of the process is about coming to awareness and increased awareness can be achieved without a counsellor. If you are seeing a therapist your partner might begin to question themselves about how he or she is represented in the consultation room, this could lead to questions about how happy they are with how they are experienced and could lead to choices about how they might behave differently. They will also start to feel the impact of the work that you have been doing. It is possible to experience therapy without engaging directly in relation to a therapist.
Whose problem is it?
Have you checked with your partner if they are experiencing difficulties within the relationship? Are the issues arising ones that are familiar to you from previous relationships? Are you unhappy with the way you are behaving towards your partner? Are there other aspects of your life that you are struggling with? Perhaps there is work to be done on yourself in individual therapy before engaging with couples work.
Could you do both?
I have worked with many clients individually who are simultaneously engaged in couple’s work. Clients like to use individual therapy to focus on their experience, to clarify what their needs are and to help them understand their part in the co-creation of the relationship, making them better equipped to do the work with their partner. It is also useful for a client to have a supportive space where they can experience empathy and being heard, particularly if conflict is making it hard to achieve this elsewhere.
It is helpful to let all the practitioners you are working with know that this is what you have chosen to do so that they are working in awareness and are able to help you make use of the sessions in the most productive way.
Unhappiness within a relationship can be a very painful struggle for everyone involved and often shame is associated with the choice to engage in work to support it. Shame is often misplaced as the awareness of the need and decision to improve anything that effects our mental well-being and that of those we love is something to respected. The work involves bravery and will lead to a better relationship with yourself and consequently better, more authentic and safer relationships with others. Relationship counselling is often seen as the last resort or the beginning of the end and yet the reality is that it is often much needed support into the beginning of a new chapter.