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Couples in Lockdown!

There is, literally, no getting away from it – you’ll be spending a great deal of time with your partner right now. And, if you have children, you’ll also be doing a crash course in teacher training too!

Money concerns, lack of physical and emotional space, worries about the future, can test the most placid of loving partnerships. So, along with washing our hands and social distancing in the outside world, we must watch for the hazards within our loving relationships and use this challenging time to strengthen our couple resilience.

Listen to John Gottman on u-tube talking about his research into couple relationships and what makes relationships work. He identifies the Four Horsemen of the relationship Apocalypse. Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt, these behaviours forebode the end. And no wonder. Every time we criticise our partner, defend ourselves with a harsh rebuttal, turn away from him or her, every time we make a snide comment, we inflict an emotional hurt. If couples chip away at their partners often enough, they have a house full of chips: a harsh living environment, devoid of empathy and compassion.

So, here’s the challenge – How do we create a relationship that help us thrive as well as survive? The research into successful relationships have many of the following features.

  • Appreciations…. Even when most of you wants to scream in frustration think of something you like or appreciate about your partner and find a time to tell them. Every time s/he does something for you or the family, say “thank you.” It’s so easy to notice the stuff they do that we don’t like but make a habit of noticing what it is you do like. Try and make an internal rule – 5 appreciations to every 1 complaint.
  • Restore and repair. All of us behave in ways that are hurtful, sometimes unknowingly. Find a regular time to talk to your partner about such times, listen without getting defensive and be up for hearing their experience. If you have something you want to complain about deliver it with gentleness and goodwill. Let them know what you found difficult and what you would have preferred them to have done differently. A restore and repair ritual will keep your relationship clear of clutter.
  • Share your internal experience. Therapist Pia Melody described intimacy as the conjunction of truth and love. Let your partner know if you are fearful or vulnerable and let him or her know if you are full of joy. Say what’s worrying you and what you are hoping and wishing for. Say if you are missing spending connected time together or want more playfulness in the relationship. Listen to what is going on in your partner and what they hope and wish for too. Do a daily check in.
  • Do you know what triggers your past distress? For example, if you were not listened to as a child you might get really angry when your partner doesn’t seem to be listening. Get to know each other’s triggers. You may be an adult now but such slights still sting in the present. Tread gently round old bruises.
  • Find time to play and start each day afresh.

Finally, you do not have to do this alone.  If you and your partner are having difficulties, get help. It could be a wise older adult, another couple who have come through challenging times themselves, or a couple’s counsellor. Sometimes it helps to have an outside view and to talk in a supportive neutral space.

Lockdown can be a time of fear and stress but it can also be a time of connection and love. Choose compassion for yourself, your partner and your family and you will come through.

How do we love?

One of the most painful problems that people come up against is feeling unloved in their closest relationships. Many things may contribute to this: difficulties in communication, misunderstandings and unchecked assumptions, lack of quality time for sharing, or inability to prioritise the relationship over other life demands. It has also been proposed that people express their love in different ways depending on who they are constitutionally.

The founder of Formative Psychology, Stanley Keleman, argues that we each experience and interact with the world differently and hence we give and receive love in different ways. Keleman describes three constitutional types:

  • Mesomorphs express love through action and movement, are loyal and energetic.
  • Endomorphs show love by being receptive and empathic towards loved ones, by being patient and taking care of others.
  • Ectomorphs love others by gathering information about them, by being intuitive and sympathetic, but need more time to be on their own.

Each of us has a mixture of these types but a tendency towards one of them. If we do not take the different ways we love and want to be loved into consideration we will expect our partners to be just like us. And we will feel angry when they are not.

For example:
“I want her to do more with me. I do all these things for her but she does not appreciate it!”
“I don’t need him to do all that stuff. I want him to sit with me and talk?”
Or perhaps …
“Why does she want me to be with her so much? I need more time on my own. She doesn’t seem to be interested in anything I want to talk about!”

According to our constitution some of us value time alone and independence over community and intimacy, some of us value competition and action over family togetherness or a need for solitude and introspection.

If we have a better understanding of our partner’s ways of loving we become more appreciative of what they offers us. Anger and criticism turns to acceptance and appreciation.

“My partner loves me but she needs some time alone.”

In couples work each partner has the opportunity to let the other know how s/he likes to love and wants to receive love in return. With greater self-knowledge and acceptance we are more likely to ask for what we want and negotiate what is possible. We are also more likely to have realistic expectations of our loved ones and to value them for who they are and what they offer to our relationship.

For more information on my work with couples please get in touch with me.

When Love Hurts

How couples get stuck in a “dance of distress”

Most of us seek a close, committed, loving relationship; someone who is there for us when we need them, someone who can respond to us when we require close connection and with whom we can confide and share our feelings and concerns. We seek a relationship in which we feel emotional and physical intimacy. When we are in such a relationship we are happier, healthier and more resilient in the face of life’s storms.

Indeed, many couples begin their relationship with the sense that they have found their best friend for life, commit to that relationship and form a deepening bond. Sadly however, there is much that can disrupt that growing bond; changes in living circumstances, young children, demands of work and of the family, painful episodes from early history or from past relationships which rear up in the current relationship, all these can pull at that bond and tear it.

This is when love hurts. When we feel the hurt of separation and we look for the cause in our partner.

Dances of distress

In her book Hold Me Tight* Dr Sue Johnson describes three ‘dances of distress’ that couples engage in when their sense of secure connection is disrupted and they feel the pain of separation. She calls these patterns the ‘Demon Dialogues’.

First is ‘Find The Bad Guy’ where the individuals feel unsafe and vulnerable and attempt to protect themselves by blaming the other.
“You’re the bad one here…”
“No, you’re the one who is wrong!”

This becomes an ongoing shoot-out where neither partner is sure who took the first shot.

Second is ‘The Protest Polka’ where one member of the couple feels shut out and disconnected and then protests by showing anger, raising his or her voice, expressing frustration, becoming demanding or clingy, or blaming or criticising the other partner.

The response of their partner is to hear the criticism and blame, to feel hurt, maybe blame themselves and to withdraw and shut down. One partner pursues loudly in protest, the other withdraws in fear and confusion. The pursuer protests louder to get a connection and the withdrawer shuts down even more.

The final dance of distress is when the individuals in the relationship give up the dance altogether. In ‘Freeze and Flee’ the protester gives up the attempt to be heard and starts to mourn the end of the relationship. Then both partners shut down into a sense of helplessness. No one seems bothered anymore. Positive experiences are sought outside the relationship and the couple might rub along in polite cooperation but the intimate loving connection is missing.

What is the solution?

With the support of a couple’s therapist each partner identifies his or her steps in the dance of distress, and reflects on the part s/he plays in the interactions. The couple dig deep and identify the hurt and vulnerable feelings which had set the dance in motion and begin to understand that hurt and to relate to each other anew. They can find ways to reconnect and to recreate the secure attachment they enjoyed at the beginning.

Couples counselling offers the opportunity to come to understand how each relationship has come to the place it is in right now, what might have got in the way of a secure, intimate connection and how to re-establish that connection. Couples can learn new habits: loving feelings follow from positive, loving behaviour. They can learn to repair the hurts that arise, form more solid and resilient bonds, and grow the loving relationships in which they can thrive.

*Dr Sue Johnson “Hold Me Tight” (2008) Publisher Little, Brown and Company