Couples are often confused and mystified as to how they have arrived at a place where their relationship is no longer is a safe haven, where they find love, acceptance and support. In many cases, the relationship has become a source of stress and unhappiness for both partners.
Often, when we track back we identify a positive beginning to the relationship and a start that is full of potential and promise.
There seems to be a widespread notion amongst couples that a relationship deteriorates or fails to work out for various reasons beyond their control. Perhaps its lustre simply wore off over time and the original attraction has just gone? Or perhaps it was a wrong choice of partner and the next choice might be a better one?
Often one person blames the other for not coming up to scratch in all sorts of ways and that person is the one needing to lift their game or change in some radical way for the relationship to be what it once was.
Frequently, there is insufficient recognition of their joint co-creation of the negative cycle that they are experiencing and, therefore, their need now to collaborate in finding a new way of being together where goodwill is recovered. It is invariably the case that both parties have played a role in the disintegration of their relationship, although it may not be always apparent and easy to understand, at first. There are obviously exceptions to this, for example, where domestic violence (verbal, emotional and/or physical abuse) is present.
This puts the responsibility in the hands of the couple, which is both challenging and liberating. It means there is something they can do about what has happened. Often, however, it is difficult, given the build up of negativity and reactivity, for them to do this on their own. If the same issues are cropping up, creating ill will and not changing much, this is usually an indication that they are not managing to communicate with each other on a level that brings sufficient understanding of what is going on between them.
This is when relationship counselling can be of great benefit. In a safe, nonjudgmental environment, each person has the opportunity to convey his or her perspective and have it listened to and understood in a way that has not been possible in the home setting.
The couple is invited into a collaborative process, to join in investigating how and when the relationship may have gone off track. They are encouraged to do this without blame and judgment. Naturally, when there is long term build-up of frustration with each other, there may be initially an offloading of what is distressing them but this can be held in a constructive and useful way by the counsellor so that further damage is not created.
This includes areas like how the relationship was established and progressed, how they have built and maintained their connection, experiences they have shared, values and interests and goals they have in common.
Factors like the impact of having children, changing jobs, financial influences, moving home, responsibilities to family members are addressed. It is important here to track any significant moments when joining together as a team was disrupted and perhaps created injuring experiences which were not adequately repaired by the couple at the time or subsequently. In counselling, these sensitive areas, which have often been compounded by further disappointing moments can be revisited and worked through together so that they are no longer interfering with the positive connection which needs to be rebuilt by the couple.
If one or both partners is struggling with significant physical or mental health issues, either of a short or long-term nature, the impact needs to be addressed and managed jointly as it can contribute to the well-being of a relationship. Generally, it is the responsibility of each to be looking after themselves as well as possible so that they bring their best to the relationship. For instance, if someone is struggling with substance abuse or gambling issues, they need to personally take care of this problem.
It is helpful for a couple to be surrounded by the support of well-meaning family and friends. This is not always a possibility and some assistance may be needed for them to become loyal and supportive allies. So it is important to manage any troublesome inter-family issues that threaten to divide or damage the relationship.
Many factors are often at play in this area of a relationship, which needs to be satisfying for both people to feel sufficiently cared about. This area can be sensitively explored in counselling.
An important area of exploration is how their differences have been managed. Inevitably, a relationship involves two individuals, each understandably bringing with them their own view of how they like things to be.
Incorporating the reality of both to a reasonable degree can be very challenging but is important if they are to feel that they are understood, accepted and can have their needs met to a good enough level. If the view of one is consistently dominant, the other naturally may come to feel dismissed or disregarded and the unhappiness that this brings can result in direct conflict, passive-aggressive behaviours, distancing, and even ill health.
Counselling can support the couple in understanding the negative dance that they have become involved in with each other, working together to avoid the escalation of difficult moments between them, individually knowing how to emotionally regulate themselves when upset, and talking to each other from a position of vulnerability versus defence or attack.
Central to resolving conflict productively and deepening understanding of one another is how a couple communicates. This is a core area to be addressed in the counselling process. It stands to reason that if a couple can talk openly with each other and have repeated experiences of things going well when an issue needs to be addressed, they are equipped to sort out almost every area of their relationship.
It is well-established that certain communication behaviours have increasingly negative consequences for the well-being of a couple’s relationship. Constant criticism containing personal put-downs, defensive tit-for-tat responses, contemptuous remarks, and withdrawal and indifference are all forms of communication that contribute to the breakdown of a relationship.
Important work is done in counselling on replacing these behaviours with positive alternatives. The couple is encouraged to pay attention to the subtleties in their way of responding to each other, perhaps noticing how significantly they are triggered by the tone and body language of the other.
In relationship counselling, as each person glimpses the possibility that they will be understood and have their wants and needs responded to adequately, the opportunity to shift their relationship out of a negative vicious cycle to a positive dynamic is created. Once this has been set in motion, they can be supported in finding ways to sustain the changes they make and rebuild the relationship in a shape and form that pleases them both.
We are taught all sorts of things at school but very little about how to establish and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships. Yet it is clearly evident that people in positive and supportive intimate relationships experience better health, physically and psychologically, and that these relationships are the bedrock of our society, providing a secure base and good model for the children raised in them.
The goal of relationship counselling is for the skills acquired in sessions to ultimately be transferable and sustained in the couple’s everyday life. Encouragement and guidance is given to both to look after what was, at the outset, precious and worthwhile.
Like gardens, relationships can exist without constant attention and planning – but only be the magnificent places they have the potential to be if they are given the loving care of both participants.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.