Ericksonian Relationship & Couple Counselling

Clapham Balham South London

  (  These pages reflect the views and practice of Keith  Bibby

                                                   and are not intended to describe the work of other practitioners   )

                                                  HOW  THINGS  GO WRONG  

                                                  PATTERNS  IN  DISRUPTED





Much work in Psychotherapy is focused around the individual and personal well-being.   Couple & Relationship Therapy is generally more complicated involving both individual and couple system processes.  

Difficulties may be met at various levels.  Counselling is an appropriate strategy in more straightforward cases. Here the difficulties are more to do with straight misunderstandings - usually arising from an under-developed capacity to hear what the other is saying or to see things from the other’s viewpoint.  

At a deeper level - each partner often imports ‘business’ to do with life history. This can be a complex mix of what they have seen in their family of origin ( present or absent ) - from relationships between their own parents or caregivers - however adequate or otherwise - and maybe also experience from previous failed relationships. All these can have powerful but often unconscious influence. Generally a couple can be helped to realise how they are not seeing or connecting properly. Rather they look for data to fit an old model instead of dealing with the present situations, persons and processes.

There may be distorted ideas of what it means to be a partner or what a couple relationship can be.  Some mistakenly believe that they can continue with the same sense of priorities they had whilst unattached.  Others may have very unrealistic hopes and expectations.   Some do have a sense of  the challenge they face but hit unexpectedly large difficulties - despite their best intentions. Sometimes people expect too much of themselves or their partner !

But relationship is important and neither to be undertaken nor abandoned lightly. However bad it may become - and whatever the relief of escaping a bad relationship - continuing unhappiness or the threat or actuality of relationship breakdown is usually experienced with sadness and a deep sense of disappointment or failure - however brave the face that is shown to the world !

All relationships encounter some difficulties - though these may not be openly expressed. Serious danger signals, like the erosion of mutual respect or interest, if ignored or unrecognised, may heighten susceptibility to the real or imagined attractions of others - and relationship breakdown. But leaving one unsolved relationship to chance one’s arm with another - having learned little or nothing can often prove unwise and a matter for regret.

Wisely people would consider bringing their partners to explore some of this material with a therapist - at least to get an understanding of the scale of their individual challenges - before they both make a commitment - or break up !

Underlying Problems - What is Normal ?

Normality is an indistinct range on a fuzzy spectrum !  Modern research is making us increasingly aware of  the role that  neurological and personality differences play in our lives. They certainly have a more central role in relationship difficulties.

Most of us can be moderately exasperating in some respects !  Most of us register at least on the low end of  the spectrum for one or more neurological or personality conditions !  The two are often related.  At low levels, many of these traits have adaptive usefulness and can help us to be successful in some particular activities.

More pronounced forms may be classified as neurological or personality disorders. These can be resistant or impossible to change and can have seriously problematic effects where they are not recognised or understood.

Often behaviour may be considered uncaring or intentionally nasty - when the partner ‘ just doesn’t get it ’. Indeed the perceptions required to act differently may in truth be about as accessible to the ‘offender’ as the subtle hues of woodland in a winter landscape are to the colour blind !

To compound this - we all see the world from unique perspectives and run mind models and assumptions which may be neither shared nor understood - or may even be actively misunderstood - by others.

If we have not developed awareness these processes - or the communication skills to handle these possibilities under normal circumstances -  when life stress rises to challenging levels - relationships becomes a minefield.

In any case - where couples have developed good communication skills - they are appreciative of constructive and objective input.  Many very wisely seek help from a therapist when life crises or difficult misunderstandings arise.

Successful Communication :-

In successful relationships - under most circumstances - at least one partner usually has an intuitive grasp of  tricky patterns at work. Mutual tolerance and occasional honest confrontation can move things toward the negotiation and necessary compromise.  One can readily observe such gracious subtleties of  language and approach in frequent operation with older couples.  Often it has taken them decades to learn how to do this.

Where awareness is low and negotiation skills are poor - even moderate difficulties can generate an unnecessarily bumpy ride or seed disaster.  But with the right kind of input from an Experienced Relationship Counsellor these things can be learned - relatively easily. So....  why wait to be old to be good ??

Bad Relationships - Mending or Leaving :-

Maladaptive patterns are more widely spread in the population than might be imagined. They are not necessarily disastrous but they often need definite understandings and strategies to restrict  and modify their expression within the relationship and to enable a partner to cope.

A Psychotherapist skilled in Relationship Counselling can demonstrate the kinds of understanding and behaviour required in order to affect a pattern - how skilful or robust these might need to be  - and can assess the likelihood of success in a particular partnership.

Where relationships are more seriously dysfunctional partners frequently manifest complementary disorders. These are commonly met in various kinds of co-dependency. As an extreme example - a man is a wife-beater and the woman forgives and defends his ‘weakness’.  In serious cases solutions often cannot be found within the relationship - nor is there any prospect of improvement until individuals seek personal therapy for their own co-dependent difficulties. Sometimes partners need help to go.

The General  Run of  Problems

More serious conditions apart, whatever our initial stance,  life will certainly generate enough challenges and difficulties  to  put us and our relationships to the test !  Such difficulties are entirely normal and the need for help, when it arises,  is as normal as the need to visit a doctor.

New & Broken Relationships with Children :-

The imminence or actual arrival of children can shift the balance profoundly - particularly Where one or both new partners have a child or children from a pre-existing relationship difficulties often arise. Whether or not they live within the newly-established household, visiting relationships and other arrangements with ex-partners can be fraught with destructive tensions,  particularly where the broken partnership  has unresolved difficulties.

Even within less complicated relationships,  the novelty and  interest of living together may wane and important aspects of the relationship become taken-for granted or neglected.

Couples with children are also destined to undergo other difficulties.  One partner may have to postpone, abandon or substantially change a career with the underlying possibility for resentment or later recrimination.  Deep conflicts  may also develop over choice of  location or schools.

Normal  Life  Crises

Grandparents or other close relations will die causing the children upset.  Partners may not quite know how to handle the complex flux of unresolved emotions and unexpected reactions that can erupt - especially amongst siblings -  around  the death of a parent.  As with other issues, they may want to come individually or jointly with their partner.

Also there will be the emotional wrench of children going to school - especially if they are boarding. Surprisingly quickly behind all this come the hot-house difficulties of pubertal uncertainties and teenage breakaway strivings.  Later the nest is empty and deserted and the increased time for one another can be either enriching or conflict-ridden or arid and empty, with no emotional mileage seeming to be left in it.

Throughout all this - dual career households generally carry higher levels of stress with even less time to address them.

Changes in physical or mental health, employment or careers, can arise at any time. Career reverses, redundancy or retirement from work also bring a whole new set of profound adjustments which are far better addressed in good time and where possible - before they actually arrive.

All these are problems are better addressed whilst something positive can be done, rather than being left to fester and regretted later as lost opportunities for change.

Inadequate Family Model

Some couples start from more complex beginnings.   One or other may already have an unstable relationship history and the pair may need help to get their relationship into a stable balance.  Without this they may experience a very wearing and destructive variant of  ‘ interesting ’ times .

Cross-Cultural Mixes

The mixing of culture and  language in relationships can lead to serious mis-reading of signals and significant misunderstanding.  Situations can be quite easily be overlooked or concealed which would not have been taken on if  known before. Real issues are often cloaked by  quite humorous misunderstandings or a lack of  finesse to enable them to be addressed in a timely fashion and with sufficient subtlety. Even quite serious personality disorders or mental illness can remain undetected for years  under the cloak of  cross-cultural differences.  If  there are already children around, the need to moderate these influences is a powerful challenge even for the professional. This is usually impossible for the couple without help.

Unbalanced Roles & Burden Sharing

Even with our better understanding of the historical construction of gender roles, material pressures, the extraordinary shift in the structure of employment and the variety of challenges to traditional notions can make relationships a battle-ground. Whether a single or dual career household difficulties often arise in the assignment of priorities and responsibilities for many of the ordinary tasks of life. The sheer pace of life and rate of change against a background of economic and ecological uncertainty means that we need to have even better adaptive responses and better means to examine and re-negotiate the ways we work together in many of the mundane but important aspects of life. Learning how to be a team is vital !!

Misguided Reaction Against Bad Patterns

Many pairings have not experienced good parenting and thus lack adequate models of how to conduct their relationship in dealing with difficulties.  Often they have resolved never to resort to the patterns of apparent thoughtlessness or over-concern, aggression or passivity, sensitivity or indifference they witnessed when young. This can be particularly so for same-sex relationships.

In either case we often adopt avoidant behaviours which have consequences far from those intended.  Paradoxically - by damming up the expression of irritations, frustrations or sense of injustice, or by  becoming self-denying and over-caring of others, important parts of ourselves become unreachable.  This generates hidden imbalances and  resentments which break out in other guises  which are more difficult to address - and paradoxically - often very like the originally shunned behaviour.

Poor Engagement - Negotiating Skills

Equally, it can be deeply disturbing if one or other partner does not understand how to communicate or negotiate. People can easily be too busy or blind or just dodge the  issues - their softer side out of reach or hardened against any possibility of  compromise. Confronted with their partner's desperate remonstrations,  or collapse, or by an ultimatum and the threat of separation or actual desertion, they often have no clue how it happened or what to do.

Often the writing, large or small, has been on the wall  for some time. It is surprising how often people have been un-attuned to the signals, and unaware of the many missed opportunities to put things right.   Often when a full-blown crisis erupts they are devastated that their relationship has become so unhappy and feel powerless to affect matters.

So much of what did happen is now either so lost or so distorted in the recollection that it can be hard to reason it all together or discuss without getting angry and confused.

Suppressed Issues

For many others, the pressures are contained and the unhappiness suppressed  and buried in the business of  living,  depleting their lives of vitality with recurring low level depression and other ills.  

Sometimes a partnership is threatened by various kinds of infidelity or broken by  one partner undergoing what commonly is described as ‘mid-life crisis’.  These are complex and very disturbed processes - to be taken very seriously - where something causes the  suppressed parts to break out and disrupt a person’s identity and sense of reality.

It can be very difficult to understand where a partner reveals unknown aspects of themselves, gives strange accounts of  past events - completely at variance with your own perceptions - and sometimes seems to act  completely out of character.  This is often not helped by the very public nature of what happens and the interventions and comments of  friends and acquaintances with a biased, partial  and ill-informed perception of what happened.  

Even so, with the right kind of understanding and support,  the relationship is not necessarily beyond repair and recovery.

So if any of these sound like things you need to address - I could well be your man !

                                                                                                                 Contact Keith Bibby

Copyright Keith Bibby © December 2009                                                          >>  Return

Keith Bibby   UKCP  and  European Association of  Psychotherapy Registered

 35 ys  Behavioural Science & Therapy Practice in Clapham London