Are you unhappy in your intimate relationship?
Do you feel frustrated, lonely, and wish things could be the way they once were?
We all experience dissatisfaction in our close relationships at some point. Recognizing that going through “seasons” within a relationship can be profoundly helpful in getting through difficult times.
The “winter” of a relationship may be due to a time of great stress at work, difficulties with children, or life transitions such as menopause or empty nesting. During these times it’s natural for a couple’s attention to be more focused on outer circumstances than their own connection. In these times couples rely on the memory and trust of a strong foundation and accept that challenging times are normal in a long-term relationship.
The problem arises, however, when there seems to be no end to a difficult season and you can’t remember the last time you felt connected to your partner. This is the point at which we need to address what may be coming between you.
The needs for each couple vary considerably. What one couple views as being a great relationship, another may see as restrictive and suffocating, so it’s important not to compare. The need for counselling typically arises when one or both partner(s) is dissatisfied with the quality of their relationship. Issues that most often arise include poor communication, loss of physical and/or emotional intimacy, infidelity, and a conflict of needs/expectations.
I initially like to meet couples together for one or two sessions to gain a sense of how they interact and how each of them views the issues in the relationship. At that point we asses together whether moving forward as a triad would be most beneficial, or whether individual counselling may be required prior to couples counselling.
Sometimes a partner may be unsure about whether they want to remain in the relationship. In this case it’s beneficial for them to have individual counselling to process their concerns, feelings, and reasons for confusion in the relationship. Individual counselling is also beneficial when one or both of the partners has unresolved issues from the past that are being projected onto the relationship. Such issues might include trauma, neglect, or abuse.
My aim is to meet together with both of you as soon as we can. The problems that have arisen in the relationship were created together and are therefore best healed together. My approach is to look at when and how the problems began and what may be the root issues. We will explore your attachment styles and how these affect the way you communicate and your needs in the relationship. Therapy is always emotionally focused with a key emphasis on authenticity and vulnerability, something that may be new for both partners.
To learn more about my philosophy around how problems develop within long-term love relationships, please continue reading.
Them or Me?
I often see individuals in my practice who are struggling in their relationship and want to see change in the other person. But one of the hardest things to accept is that we cannot change someone else; we can only change ourselves. The flip side of this is that in changing ourselves, our partner frequently also changes and we are able to reach a new place of growth in the relationship. But this isn’t easy, especially if we believe our partner is to blame for the problems in the relationship.
It’s important to realize that issues are rarely one-sided and blame is a common tactic that can bring a relationship crashing down. Even if our partner is behaving in a way that we would consider to be wrong, the likelihood is that there are issues that need to be worked through on both sides. There are exceptions of course—abuse being one—in which case it is important to seek professional support.
The House that Love Built
I find metaphors to be very helpful when working with clients and like to have people picture the structure of a house when they think about their relationship. The foundations of the house represent their initial connection and the things that brought them together in the first months. The framework of the house is the work they put into connecting and working through conflict as the relationship grows in the initial years. The roof of the house represents the boundaries that help them to feel safe and build trust. Finally, the rooms of the house and everything inside represent the memories a couple builds and how they do life together.
The Foundations (developing a secure bond)
The foundations of a relationship will often determine a couple’s ability to make it through challenging times. If two people form a strong and healthy bond in the beginning of their relationship, the memory of this bond will carry them through even the most traumatic times. But what makes for a strong and healthy bond, and how do we know if we ever developed one?
The strength of our bond with romantic partners, friendships, and with our children, typically mirrors the first bonds we created with our primary caregivers (usually parents.) We are wired for attachment. Babies need a loving connection with their main caregiver—both physical and emotional. If their needs aren’t met through consistent parental care and responsiveness, they develop an insecure attachment in relationships. This insecurity is carried into adulthood and most typically shows up in romantic relationships, as these most closely mirror the intimacy we developed with our first caregiver when our need for love was strongest.
If two people are securely attached their foundation is more likely to be strong. If, however, one or both partner(s) is insecurely attached, the foundations of the relationship are more likely to be unstable. Knowing your attachment style will help you understand way you react to your partner in certain ways and why they respond to you the way they do. This back and forth communication dance can become a rut that is difficult to get out of when it has reoccurred over several years. Awareness of why you behave the way you do marks the beginning of changing that communication pattern.
The foundations of a relationship are not only determined by attachment. We choose partners for any myriad of reasons, but if certain vital elements are missing, these gaping holes will also erode the foundations of your relationship home. These vital elements include emotional connection, physical connection, shared values and beliefs, mutual respect, laughter and acceptance of your partner as they are.
The Framework (navigating conflict & communication)
We talked about the framework of the relationship house as the work the couple puts into their relationship as they get to know one another and learn each other’s ways of being and communicating. You could call this the period after the honeymoon, when the foundations have been set but there is still much work to be done. This typically represents the first few years of marriage, and can be a challenging time as partners move from independent lives into their new life as a couple. Learning how to communicate becomes a key focus at this stage.
Of course if the foundations are strong, couples will make it through this stage with flying colours, even if they experience a large amount of conflict. It isn’t the amount of conflict that determines the health of a relationship, but rather how a couple moves through it and allows the conflict to become an opportunity for growth. If, however, there are cracks in their foundation, this stage is more likely to reveal those cracks. Again, how a couple deals with this determines their ability to move forward.
The Roof (establishing boundaries)
Let’s talk about boundaries. Boundaries are the lines you draw both around your relationship and between you and your partner. They enable you to feel safe and to trust. They also let you know where you stand and what the expectations are for acceptable behaviour in the relationship. Look at them as a code of conduct—not one that restricts, but rather provides protection and freedom.
When couples are in the throws of love and the honeymoon period, boundaries tend to go out the window. They often neglect to talk about expectations, needs, responsibilities, or what is okay and not okay with the other. They may think such “rules” aren’t required for two people so in love, but the nature of romantic relationships is that they are in a constant state of change. In reality, if two people are going to function well together, possibly across the span of a lifetime, boundaries are essential.
You’ve likely been setting boundaries all along without awareness that that’s what you’re doing. But sometimes boundaries become blurred and we aren’t sure where one of us ends and the other begins. This can happen at the beginning of a relationship when trust is being built and emotions are intense. We can become enmeshed in the relationship and neither one is sure what is okay with the other or what they need. This is when we begin to lose our sense of identity as a separate being. Knowing who you are and what your needs are in a relationship. Conversely, we can become so independent in a relationship that we become strangers navigating life on parallel paths that rarely seem to meet. Knowing your attachment style is helpful in understanding the need to be very close to your partner, or the need to create distance.
To establish good boundaries you may want to consider talking openly about your thoughts and needs in the following areas:
- Time together
- Physical intimacy
- Emotional intimacy
- Respectful communication
- Household duties
- Time with others
- Time alone
- Work schedule
- Online presence
- Extended family
If one person is setting boundaries and the other is not, this can breed resentment in the relationship. The key is to talk openly about your feelings and to listen to your partner do the same. If your partner’s needs are as important to you as your own, you will be able to establish boundaries that work for both of you.
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love ~ Amir Levine & Rachel Heller.
- Hold Me Tight ~ Sue Johnson
- LoveSense ~ Sue Johnson
- What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal ~ John Gottman & Nan Silver
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert ~ John M. Gottman & Nan Silver