As a professional couple’s counsellor, it’s an occupational hazard that I only get to work with unhappy couples. Fortunately, I often do get to experience a transitional stage where a couple begin to transform their relationship into something that’s more positive and more happy for the two of them.
I am sharing these five “secrets” (not really secret!) based upon my observations. Whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian, how couples moves their relationship from an unhappy state into a more happier state have common features.
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1) Couples spend quality time on their relationship.
At least by the time a couple begins to meet with me for couple therapy, the couple have stopped spending time on the relationship.
This is sometimes due to the fact that sometimes couple learn to not communicate for very good reasons – and by not spending time on the relationship those reasons can be kept under lock and key
Living together is not spending time on the relationship. The relationship is that thing that the couple have created together (and sometimes begin to destroy together). Learning what the relationship is for a couple (it can be different for each couple) is the first step.
- Some couples set a “date” night once a week.
- Some set a meeting night once a week to discuss their relationship.
- Some keep a “relationship” diary where both partners can write messages to the relationship about what’s going well (or not).
Sometimes a poorly relationship needs some focussed time spending on it. It can simply be that the couple have forgotten that their relationship needs care, and for a while it needs to be nursed back into help.
2) Couples can hear each other’s communication.
One of the more frequent interventions I make in couple’s counselling is “What did you make of what your partner just said, there?”.
Couples who are in a distressing relationship can often answer “I don’t know”, or misunderstand their partner, or say things like “Well if he/she loved me I wouldn’t need to explain”. These couples have have lost their skills in communicating. It can be a very painful state to be in.
Inviting each partner to learn what the other partner is saying can be very helpful. If a partner gets the communicate message wrong, it’s helpful for the partner to patiently teach the other what was meant (avoiding chastisement).
3) Couples can be comfortable when apart from the relationship.
Some couples have found they have unintentionally excommunicated all their friends to the point where only their partner exists in their world. There may have been an unintended plan in doing this – I’m talking attachment styles.
When thinking about attachment styles (eg the early relationship of the infant to its caregiver) the infant may be secure; that when mum goes out of the room the infant will carry on playing, knowing at some level that mum will be back in a bit. On the opposite scale, an insecurely attached infant will be greatly distressed when mum disappears for a little bit. For more on attachment styles, read “Attachment Theory – an Overview”.
Deeply felt insecurities may manifest in the relationship. Jealously (“where were you all night?”), suspicion (“who are you seeing behind my back?”), are just two manifestations.
Having partners understand how each other attach in intimate relationships can help both partners appreciate where unpopular behaviour stems from (sometimes way back in the past). Showing consistency (eg going out with the lads every Thursday night causes anxiety, but coming back home at an hour both partners agreed) can greatly help address initial change from insecure attachment to something more secure. Secure attachment can handle unplanned behaviour (eg coming home late) where as insecure attachment may not.
No-one can tell when you’re lying. Honest!
There are many reasons why people lie, and as a therapist one of the greatest demands on my practice is consistently authentic. It’s essential that I demonstrate trust-able behaviour, consistent responses, holding boundaries agreed up front. It’s a form of replaying the holding care that a care giver does (or should) when the infant is very small.
In the beginning, it’s likely that you and your partner were more truthful with each other than later in the relationship (ever heard of “pillow talk”, for example?)
Introducing inauthentic behaviour or telling lies will be felt at some level by our partner. If you find there isn’t a place to tell the truth, maybe secret #1 might be the first place to address this.
5) Couples recognise their relationship as being unique.
When problems arise, everyone may have a say: your family, your friends, your partners family & friends, work colleagues, the people next door. They’ve all been through it… but have they?
In couple therapy, part of my role is to provide an encouraging atmosphere of promoting the couple coming up with ideas and solutions of their own. I don’t have any exercise that if performed correctly will cure the relationship’s problems. I have no magic words that will make the unhappiness go away. But what I do do is help a couple to realise that their relationship is pretty much unique and that they do not have to adhere to what society says is the behaviour of a happy relationship (see Secret #4!).
In society, we usually want to fit in, so we make our behaviour fit with everyone else. We know that mum and dad never had a bad word and never argued. We know that the couple over the road were married for 70 years and never spent an might apart. Except … what people say about how their relationship works may not be quite the truthful story.
Helping a couple to disengage with what they think is supposed to be the right way to behave in a relationship, and helping them engage creatively and with inspiration with what they would both like in the way of relationship-behaviour can contribute greately to making their relationship work … after all, there’s no relationship quite like theirs.