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