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Couples counselling

The Problem. The Solution

From relationship problem to relationship advice

Whenever couples come through my door, they are usually in disagreement about the way the other behaves. The other could be having an affair, could be cold and distant, could be hot and bad-tempered, could be nasty – there are so many variations.

So how is it that when a couple get together and have such good feelings together that some way down the track they find themselves in constant disagreement, hurt by each other, and resenting the mere sight of one another?

If you can understand this mystery, you can address the most pressing problems that arise in most couple relationships. Sound relationship advice is needed here in order to save your marriage!

"Relationship quote: Marriage requires more than love to succeed, but few of us know what else is required."

From Relationship Problem …

Relationship problems begin the moment a couple meets. However, it is unlikely that either will know this. Optimistic that their love will see them through, each couple embarks on a long and hazardous journey whilst both are wearing blindfolds. Little do they know that robotic patterns of relating are about to emerge and possibly take over. Here is a short summary of what most are unaware is actually going on.

  1. Couples come together because each loves the way in which the other is different. This difference seems adorable – initially. It is because of differences, though, and often these initially attractive ones, that the relationship heads into trouble. Inability to accept differences, even small ones, can lead to problems. Tidiness, cleanliness, timeliness, sexiness, talkiness and money are typical themes giving rise to differences which can cause meltdowns that then lead to communication and connection problems.

  2. Couples think that what they see is what they’ve got when they first meet. Wrong. You are acquiring a piece of invisible history when you team up, and that history will, without any doubt, come visiting, and you may neither know it nor like it when it does. This is true for all relationships. All of us can and often do behave like wounded children. Indeed we all are in fact just that. Yet most of us won’t see our aberrant behaviours as being childlike, and will be oblivious to anything we experienced or did as children, let alone any connection between our childhood dramas and how we are behaving currently.

  3. Couples take little notice of the others’ ‘dark’ and difficult side initially. On the whole, each backs themselves to deal with the difficult behaviours of the other. In the early days, this symptom of inner wounding can even be perceived as quite ‘cute’, such as when one easily gets upset. However, disowned (ignored, denied or minimized) patterns of relating can put a real strain on the relationship.

  4. Couples come together keen to meet the other’s needs, support their values, and support their journey of becoming more fully who they are. During the honeymoon phase, each will override their own needs and preferences to support the other. However, this is not sustainable. Eventually couples come back to having to care for their own needs, and may even have to fight to get them heard or understood.

  5. The person you are teaming up with will very likely know little about themselves, no matter what they might claim to the contrary. They will have learned to ignore or repress many of their own needs, treat themselves as less than others (often despite displays of confidence or arrogance to cover this problem), will probably have little understanding of their own reactivity and what triggers it, and will very likely have little understanding of what their life is about and what they want from it. In this regard, most partners are blind to who they are or where they’re going, let alone the role their partner plays in this possibly misunderstood adventure.

  6. Everyone wants their ego to survive. We are all in life to promote, support and protect ME. So promoting WE must include support of ME to be sustainable. If ME isn’t being looked after, then there is no way forward but to fight for ME. For this reason, relationships descend into a fight between each ME, and so WE gets left out in the cold. A power struggle begins, as each jockeys for position so as to ensure the survival of their own ego. This power struggle presents as anger, raised voices, withdrawing, tuning out, blaming, or pursuing.

  7. At this point, fear of one’s survival and autonomy creeps into the relationship. As fear increases, trust wanes. As trust wanes, seeing the other as wonderful does also. This is a slippery slope, and happens so gradually most don’t notice. Eventually, fear, resentment, and associated distrust (with the resulting hot or cold conflict) take over, and love, trust and respect slowly wane.

  8. Relationships get into an unending power play of ‘I’m right’. This occurs because each frets that their viewpoint will not be heard or understood by the other, but more than that, survival is at stake as explained. Fear, hurt, powerlessness and other emotions propels each into promoting their view, which soon becomes a matter of power and control. Very few couples escape this, because when the other is pushing their viewpoint, a quick regression into the powerlessness and other wounds from childhood soon take over. This dynamic is the external symptom that points 1 to 7 above are playing out.

  9. Although relationships are dominated by feelings and emotional reactions, many are totally unaware of this. This is especially true for those who are used to withdrawing and over-riding their emotions when conflict strikes. Whilst aware of the good feelings the relationship holds, most couples are unaware of the range of emotional patterns that underlie many of their interactions. Since emotions act like a guidance system, ignorance of their existence stymies any ability to communicate what those feelings are communicating to their owner. This may result in needs, preferences, longings, passions, values, ideals being overlooked or ignored, resulting in emotional reactions instead. Usually we see our partner as being the source of the problem, not our own lack of awareness of what is going on inside of us.

  10. Know that all of these ‘problems’ are quite normal in any relationships. However, it is not normal for couples to know what to do when these conflicts arise. It simply appears that the other person is ‘a problem’. What is not seen, is that when it comes to relationship, it is the interaction which is the problem. Both people are usually fine living a life on their own. Only when they come together do difficulties erupt. It is unlikely that without professional input either party will become aware of the dynamic causing relationship distress.

  11. Most couples do not have a vision of a happy life together. This may seem surprising, but few couples have much of an idea as to how their ‘ideal’ relationship would look. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there’. Most relationships are going nowhere and anywhere. Once you have a vision as to what a successful relationship will look like, you can both work on achieving it. This will require a vision of how you will lovingly manage difference, and create a good life for and with each other

"Relationship quote: We got together because we loved our differences. Now our challenge is to relive the gift we saw this to be."

…To Relationship Advice

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy addresses these problems directly. Here is a taste of how an EFT therapist might help you to work your way out of your relationship problem.

  1. Each couple must get to know both how they and their partner functions, and learn to develop new skills of interaction. This includes a) understanding their relating styles borne of childhood patterning, b) their childhood wounds and what triggers these and c) their unique personality traits that play out both within and outside the relationship context. Examples of each would be:  a. A tendency to withdraw from and avoid, or to pursue and seek to resolve, conflict dilemmas. The person who chooses to withdraw wants to remove themselves from the conflict zone at all costs, while the pursuer seeks connection and harmony through immediate discussion, even though the heat of argument may mean that success will be unlikely. Insight into your attachment style will help you understand your style and your partner’s, and steps you could take to get out of an unhealthy dynamic between the two of you. Recognize, accept and dialogue about your respective styles. (See more about these ‘attachment styles’ at Conflict styles above. b. A tendency to regularly feel wrong, bad, inadequate, hurt, fearful, defensive, guilty, or shame during or after an argument often has its roots in childhood wounding, although it appears to be connected only to the person with whom you disagree. Because of the childhood connection, we often find ourselves behaving more like a kid than an adult – a sure sign that we must learn about this part of self and support ourselves with our wise adult self. c. Sometimes our innate ‘wiring’ patterns can also get in the way of good communication, and we need to learn how to work with these. For example, an introvert may struggle to talk and express self, just as an extrovert may like talking but not want to listen. These patterns are not set in concrete. New skills can be learned so that we learn to relate with our partner in ways that better serve the relationship.

  2. Instead of fighting with the differences in our personalities, we need to learn to flow with them. This requires an ability to listen without fear of being overrun, side-lined, ignored or hurt yet again. Good listening is actually quite rare, so acquiring this skill and the ability to trust that we will get our turn also slows the communication and removes the urgency that ‘I must be heard now.’

  3. Instead of seeing your partner as a partner in conflict, remind yourself that there does not need to be any war here. When you both see your defensive or offensive tactics, remind yourself that this is because each other’s viewpoint is not being fully heard and appreciated. Recognize that each wants quality, compassionate connecting. Backing away, or pursuing the other, won’t bring this. Relax, hear each other, be determined to honour the view and needs of the other. Bring to the communication process a desire to patiently work together and honour each other’s uniqueness.

  4. Be determined to learn how the other functions as a person, so that you can learn to flow with this pattern, rather than resist it. Don’t assume what the other person means, infers, intends, or thinks. Ask, inquire. If you find yourself reacting, take time out for a while, then reconnect later and debrief what happened if you had a difficult interaction. Explore your style and theirs, and what each is really wanting.

  5. Communicate from your more vulnerable underlying feelings (hurt, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, defensiveness) and why you are feeling this way. Anger, resentment and frustration will divide, not conquer! Don’t assume the other has done anything to you. Instead, assume that your reaction says as much about which of your buttons are being pushed and why. Let your partner know your needs, wants and desires that arise when you interact. Compassionately listen to what their needs, wants and desires are, and don’t assume that any of these are about you, even if your name seems to be attached to their concerns. Allow your partner to have their reactions, feelings, needs. Rather than react, hear what these are telling you about how your partner functions.

  6. If you find yourself reacting to another, know that this is more about you than them. No-one can make you react, and so don’t blame the other for your reactions. Take time out if need be to reflect on what your reaction was asking you to do to support yourself. It could be asking you to acknowledge your fear of being overwhelmed, rejected, abandoned, hurt, ignored, feeling inadequate, feeling wronged, feeling pressured or stressed. Re-engage with your partner once you have settled down, and share what you discovered about yourself. Ask for their support to help you meet whatever needs you’ve discovered.

  7. The corollary of the above point, is to never take personally another’s child-like reaction. Allow the other to have their reactions when stressed, pressured, overwhelmed, disempowered, upset, hurt or fearful. Support your partner through this difficulty. Don’t believe that their struggle is because of you. You’re not that powerful! Very little of their reactivity is about you! It’s all of their old stuff, just as your reactivity is about your history. Sorry if that leaves you feeling unimportant!

  8. Treat each other with respect and compassion – simply because you each deserve this. Choose love, not fear. If there is a disagreement, be determined to hear out the other and honour and value their uniqueness. Express the desire to be heard and listened to equally. Recognize that neither is better than the other. Some operate through their feelings – these must be heard and appreciated. Others operate through their thinking – their views must be heard and appreciated. Difference is OK, but simply generates the need for some negotiation and patience at times.

  9. Learn how to reach out affectionately to the other. This is money in the emotional bank. Show affection and caring repeatedly. Learn the love style of your partner, and frequently reach out to them in ways which work for them. When they are upset, withdrawn, or whatever they do when not resourceful, reach out to them. If they blame you, know that this is what people do when it feels that something ‘out there’ is the problem. In relationships, the problem is always ‘in here’. All successful couples know this, and so they work on their own reactions and give up blaming their partner.

  10. Treat each other as you did when courting. It’s easy to forget the quality relating you once did before the daily grind took over your life. Return to treating each other in the special ways you once took the time to do. If you have children, it is easy to lose sight of the need for quality time and affection that the couple relationship requires as sustenance. Prioritize your couple relationship – and the children will benefit indirectly.

Relationship quote: S/he who knows self well and embraces all that comes from within is a partner to be treasured, and one who treasures their partner.

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