Couple Relationships FAQ

Platonic-Couple Counselling (Professional & Non-intimate Relationships)

For the purposes of this article, I define a “couple” is two adults involved in a relationship … any form of relationship.

Whilst some assume that ‘couple counselling’ is only for couples in an intimate (meaning sexual) relationship, because a couple relationship does not have to be sexual,  marital or a civil-partnership, then couple counselling is also not exclusively for those only in such relationships.

Couple counselling can be very helpful to platonic relationships.

By “platonic relationships” I would include:

  • Business partners.
  • House-mates / flat-mates.
  • Neighbours.
  • Friends.

  • Parent and (adult) child.
  • Brothers / Sisters.
  • Family members
  • … any relationship where two people are involved with each other and who wish to change.

And using family systems theory as his model, Dean Richardson’s Systemic Couple Counselling for Platonic Relationships is ideal for non-intimate couple relationships wishing to change their relationship behaviour.

Systemic Couple Counselling.

Systemic couple counselling is a process that assists two people in a partnership to focus upon their relationship with a view to learning how to change the relationship for both parties’ benefit.

By being deeply interested and curious into how a relationship works, a couple (who may arrive with the story “we’ve tried everything already, how can counselling help us when we’ve already tried everything?”) can be assisted in seeing new avenues and new approaches that they had not been able to see before.

And, for platonic partners intimacy & sexual congress will likely not be a topic for discussion – though if the couple wish to discuss this too them this is available in couple counselling.

What we do in Counselling for Platonic Relationships.

  • Conversation: we use verbal communication to discuss the relationship and the changes to be negotiated.
  • Diagrams: we can use drawings (such as the Ishikawa Diagram) to visually outline how the relationship works.
  • Genograms: we can diagram family trees to document the individual’s relations’ behaviour, allowing us to identify patterns from our families of origins that are being replayed in this relationship (see Wikipedia Genogram article).
  • Role playing: we can act out different scenarios to see how they work (or don’t work).  The therapist may take on the role of one or the other partner in order to participate in changing the current relationship patterns (the observing partner can watch a different approach & be invited to comment).
  • Role Reversal: inviting both parties to swap seats and repeat something (such as a recent argument) playing the role of the other partner. This helps both parties see how they are perceived (and misunderstood/understood) by the other, inviting a conversation about what has been mis-communicated.
  • Separation: couple counselling is not bound in keeping a couple together.  If the couple are looking for a way to separate whilst negotiating responsibilities in the separation, couple counselling will support this process too.
  • Perturbation: whilst learning how the current relationship works, we aim to disturb (or ‘perturb’) the relationship behaviour to make room for new ways of behaviour and relating.

Couple Counselling is not Facilitation, Mentoring or Mediation (and vice-versa).

… but there are similarities and important over-lapping areas (in this table ‘counsellor’ refers to a [tooltip text='Systemic therapy is a branch of psychotherapy that works with families and couples in intimate and platonic relationships to nurture change and development. It tends to view change in terms of the systems of interaction between family members.'] systemic [/tooltip] couple counsellor).

Mediation is a structured process that can be restricted to a small number of sessions.Counselling can be structured too, but tends to invite the couple to decide upon the structure they wish to work in. The work tends to work on the focus of the relationship problem, rather than a set number of sessions, ending with both parties agree the work has been done.
Mediation focuses on the future: how both parties would like things to be rather than have any detailed knowledge of the past.In addition to looking to the future, counselling includes a curiosity towards how the relationship came into being how it is now. This is to support couple’s learning what contributed to the relationship’s current status, in order that the couple can put in places processes to manage recurrences.
A mediator does not overtly try to influence the participants or the outcome.The counsellor keeps the same neutral stance, but may also opt (with the couple’s permission) to “play” the part of one partner in a discussion with the other.  This allows both partners to witness a process different to their own, and invites curiosity towards the different approaches.
A mediator relies on both parties being present.The counsellor also requires both parties be present, but if it has been discussed with the couple first, meeting with one (either or both) partner on their own can be helpful provided that the other partner is brought up to date about what was discussed later on.
A mediator doesn’t explore a person’s feelings in any depth.The counsellor may explore feelings to the depths acceptable by both partners, so that either partner can learn something of how the other partner functions in response to their partner.
A mediator aims for clear agreement between the parties and how they will deal with specific issues.The counsellor also aims for clear agreements between the couple, except to get there the counsellor would assist the couple in helping them learn & understand how their relationship currently works; by being focussed on the couple’s relationship the parties can learn how to change behaviours to alter the relationship.
A mediator remains neutral.The counsellor also remains neural, whilst also being supportive of both individuals and the relationship.

It’s interesting to note that a mediator’s professional role appears to be a subset of a professional couple counsellor’s role and, of course, a couple may choose one approach over the other:-

Marriage counseling typically brings couples or partners together for joint therapy sessions. The pathology of the marital breakdown is explored and analyzed.

Marriage mediation is practical, agreement-oriented and detail-oriented. When a couple identifies specific areas of conflict on which to focus, they learn to use the mediation process to find points of agreement and negotiate conflict-reducing resolutions. Through the process of marriage mediation, couples will be developing and practicing cooperative, respectful, constructive ways of communicating and reaching accord.

(Citations from sourced February 2nd, 2012).

… and as I am writing as a systemic & object-relations orientated couple counsellor, Marriage Mediation’s expression of marriage mediation is precisely a subset of the skills that I include in my professional role as a couple counsellor.

Dean Richardson’s development from Non-Counselling to Counselling Professional.

As this article’s author, it is my position that mediation skills are a subset of counselling skills (albeit both approaches have an important place on their own).  It is therefore interesting to notice my own development as a mediator/facilitator/coach towards practising as a professional couple counsellor…

I began as an IBM-trained business facilitator and coach.

Originally trained in the mid 1990s, my role as business facilitator was to attend meetings that had nothing to do with my own department/business (hence maintaining neutrality) and assist the meeting attendees to identify problem that got in the way of work issues and work through the problems to a resolution that the meeting attendees wanted. By the end of the 1990s, I took the role of head of the IBM UK Facilitator’s Network.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, IBM UK introduced the concept of coaching & mentoring.  I trained to became one of a team of business coaches; the role of the coaches was to meet with certain IBM employees, whom management had identified, to support and assist the employees in aspects of their careers.

It was these roles that began my journey into becoming a BACP accredited counsellor/psychotherapist – and it’s these skills of a counsellor – and in particular my qualification in couple counselling – that I offers to couples (platonic or intimate) who are seeking assistance with their relationship (read more about Dean’s professional qualifications & experience as a couple counsellor…).

Where is Couple Counselling for Platonic Relationships Available?

Couple counselling for platonic relationships is available from Dean Richardson as follows:-

  • Portsmouth & Southsea (Hampshire): face-to-face meetings centred on the south coast in Southsea (click for location information).
  • Skype: video camera conference meetings using three Skype devices – idea for people who are in separate places, even remote countries (click for Skype information).


What to do next…

If you are involved in a platonic relationship with another person, that relationship is causing distress and both you and the other party would like to work on changing the relationship, make contact with Dean Richardson today to discuss options.


‘Tis the Season of Projective Identification – Fa la lah!

A brief hypothesis on the painful loneliness experienced by some as a hypothetical result of projective identification from others.

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

Fa la la la lah, la lah, lah, lah.

As I said a pre-Christmas farewell to a colleague last week, he referred to this period as the ‘nonsense’ season.  It got me thinking: if this holiday season could be nonsense … to whom might this period make no sense?

Opting-out of Christmas.

“How do we opt out of Christmas gifting w/o being Scrooges?”
JenneySavings Advice Forum.

For many people, the approach of the season switches on certain automatic behaviour.  Behaviour coming from certain assumptions and certain expectations:

  • We must prepare to buy gifts for people.
  • We must buy the right sort of food.
  • We must write and sends greetings cards to people.
  • We must begin deciding with whom we will spend days like Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
  • We must remember people whom we’ve barely given a thought to during the year.

Notwithstanding this list comes from this author’s keyboard, there’s an interesting lot of ‘must’ in the list.

For most, preparation for the seasonal behaviour can be stressful and it’s a chore.  For some, this behaviour is natural and pleasant. For some, this behaviour (whether acted out by themselves, or observed in others) it is a painful reminder that there are few-or-no reasons to participate in this seasonal ‘must’ behaviour.

For those who are without families – whether biological or extended – or few or no friends, the holiday season becomes nonsensical. How easily it seems one can be forgotten whilst it seems everyone is running around preparing for a jolly season. Those not participating in the season can, perhaps, emulate the jolly behaviour of buying gifts for people, yet one may also be carrying a heavy heart suspecting that what few social contacts they have will disappear during the holiday season as people venture off towards their families-of-original loaded with tokens of ‘musts’.  One can emulate the behaviour or buying the right food for Christmas day, yet one knows that the food won’t be shared with anyone.  One can decided with whom they will spend holiday days, but it’s likely that friends and and those who are reasonably close will have already decided to attend family events – leaving others who are not family behind.

Rather than simply being ‘nonsense’ for some people, I’d offer that this seasonal period can be an extremely painful reminder of the solitude that some tolerate.  Solitude that is tolerated – even embraced – with pleasure during the counterpart of the year, but a solitude that borders on becoming unbearable loneliness during this  holiday season.

Year-Round Solitude versus Seasonal Loneliness.

“You’d like some other bears!”
Dr. Gina Toll – ‘In Treatment

A human being is a social being – he needs to not be alone.  So, how can it be that solitude (the state of being on one’s own) does not feel lonely (sad at having no friends/company)?

From an object-relations perspective (Wikipedia), our psyche grows in relation to our position with respect to others, and our experiences of them.  Good and bad experiences of significant people from our lives (parents, siblings, teachers, lovers etc), are stored within the psyche as mini-templates: in theory, they become ‘internalised’ objects.

One’s good & caring mother stored away in the ‘loving mum object’ gives some of us the sense that we are cared for, even when mum has passed away a long time ago. 

Conversely, those of us who were given the experience that we were not cared for, could be stored away in the ‘persecutor object’, remaining a reminder that as a human being we are someone who others will not care for.

I’d offer the thought that internalised objects can be a factor in how one approaches being on one’s own.  The word “solitude” is used to describe a choice – that in being without company one feels good.  Loneliness is used to describe no-choice – that in being without company one feels bad.  Solitude is pleasant because one does not sense being alone when accompanied by supporting internalised ‘good’ (or good-enough) objects, whereas perhaps loneliness is the lack of good objects/the presence of bad ones.

Object Relationships & Seasonal Nonsense.

“the self, exists only in relation to other ‘objects,’ which may be external or internal.”
New World Encyclopedia – Entry: Melanie Klein

It makes me wonder how in our society the change in social behaviour (eg the approach to Christmas) effects the meta-structure of the psyche’s internalised objects of participants, observers and affectees.

If, during the year, one can tolerate one’s place in social relationships (e.g. occasional social-meetings with friends, but primarily spending time on one’s own) there would appear to be something in the shift of social behaviour (“we must now prepare for Christmas”) that shifts the meta-organisation of the internalised objects for some (“I am in solitude” shifting to “I am lonely”).

Containment of ‘the loneliness’.

“projective identification may unconsciously aim to get rid of unmanageable feelings but it also serves to get help with feelings”
Patrick Casement – Further Learning From the Patient (cited in Wikipedia Article)

It would be my hypothesis that those who are capable of tolerating, even enjoying, being on one’s own become those who, hypothetically, are capable of holding the fear of loneliness that rest of society must split-off and discharge in order to participate in Christmas.

It’s not uncommon to read Twitter and Facebook posts that many people complain of the commercialisation of the season.  Minor, barely-heard protests from some people about feeling caught-up helpless in the season.  I’d offer that in order to participate in this season – that one must not be alone during this holiday period – that wish for non-compliance must be temporarily blanketed.

From the works of Melanie Klein, and later Wilfred Bion, we have come to understand that the mechanism of ‘projective identification‘ (Wikipedia) intolerable pain within the infant is, unconsciously, sent out to another person ( a care-giver ) who will contain the projection, maybe process it into something more tolerable, and hold it until the infant psyche is able to take it back later.

This meta-process allows something that is very painful – or in conflict with other mental demands –  to be sent away from the psyche that cannot manage it for now, placed into a psyche that can manage it better for the period.

This process is made use of in most psychotherapies (psychoanalytical, psychiatry, psychodynamic counselling) where the therapist may become aware of ‘containing’ or ‘receiving’ something on the patient’s behalf.

A patient revealed some news that the therapist believed he was meant to find worthy of congratulations; whilst the patient sounded excited about the news the therapist, instead, felt huge waves of rage that he was not able to associate with the apparent glad-tidings.  The therapist pondered that he may have been ‘containing’ something split-off that the client could not manage; could not manage at the same time of holding onto the thought that this news was good. 

Notwithstanding other explanations (such as the therapist’s own personal constructs: possible jealousy about the news), the therapist used this experience to inform his questions: gently wondering out loud with the patient about the news and its implications.  What later appeared in the work was the patient’s terrible fear about the responsibilities this news would require of him; that the patient was terrified of the implications and responded to his fear in a very angry manner.

Hypothetically, therapist had experienced the patient’s split-off and unconsciously communicated rage.  The therapist had found himself in a state of conflict:  being expected to reply ‘congratulations’ but filled with something quite opposite.  The patient – without the rage – was able to participate in a normal celebratory appearance whilst delivery the news. The therapist appeared to have been left holding the unacceptable part until the patient was able to take it back.

During this time of the year for Christian-based societies, people either have to participate in the ‘jolly season’, or be able to tolerate the shadow-side of not-taking-part. Those who do not follow the masses have to have huge courage to go it another way.

After all, we still refer to ‘Scrooge’ as a warning to all who do not participate in this meant-to-be-jolly time.

A Seasonal Hypothesis.

  • The holiday season approaches and folk are filled with ambivalence: good times ahead / bad times ahead.

  • To be participating in this holiday season, the psyche may need to split-off the more ‘horror’ parts that would interfere too much taking part in Christmas.  The need to be away from the celebrations (to be on one’s own) are split-off.

  • Via projective-identification, others who are more capable of tolerating ‘be on one’s own’ can hold the ‘horror’ during the season. 

  • Result: a part of society is able to participate in seasonally-expected behaviours, is able to cast off the parts of one that would wish to recognise the nonsense of the period for what it really might be (commercial etc), and others in society who are, perhaps, more used to the pain of non-participation will contain the seasonal-pain until the holiday season dies away for another year.

In Closing.

This is not a jolly hypothesis.

But it is intended intended to offer a thought – perhaps a rescuing thought – to those who are subject to massive-yet-unexplained changes in their feelings during such holidays seasons as Christmas (and as it’s author, I’m aware that this brief essay turns a blind eye to other hypotheses in order to focus on this one).

Perhaps, whilst you are enjoying your holiday season and a moment of ‘Oh I wish I wasn’t here…’ creeps into your thoughts, maybe that might be your Jiminy Cricket moment.  Perhaps someone might enjoy a thought or a message sent their way.  After all, someone may be suffering extra painful loneliness, tolerating in order for you to be able to participate in what you must consider as a Happy Christmas.


Comments welcome.