Relationship Counselling and the common issues I work with
It’s a big “ask” of a relationship to navigate all that happens – the ups and downs of life together over long periods of time. We change, we're not the same people who start the journey and this affects the relationship. Needs may change and the challenge becomes whether the couple can negotiate these needs together or if the needs are so different that they become too much for the relationship to sustain.
It’s easy to feel loved when we tend to work hard, listen and communicate in the early days together, when we often feel very attuned and connected. It’s much harder to stay connected with external and internal stressors which arrive in all our lives. The challenge to a relationship is how to stay connected through challenging times.
As a Relate qualified counsellor I have experience working with couples seeking support with various crises in their lives together.
Change and adjustments occur at all stages of life together, and can greatly challenge a couple's relationship, whether that is moving in together or dealing with children leaving home or retirement.
When you love someone you give hugely of yourself. You invest in your relationship emotionally, physically, materially and on many other levels. Often this mutual sharing is compared to an emotional "bank account" we open up together when you first get together. People give freely when they fall in love and it feels mutual. In happy times we have "credit" to draw on which can help us through.
In prolonged tough times it can feel like there's nothing left to sustain us in our relationship and we can feel hurt or resentful particularly if we feel we have invested and our partner has stopped, or it can feel like a stalemate, where no one is making deposits. Sometimes it can feel so painful we can wonder if we should "close the account" or "cut your losses".
It can be scary, painful and frustrating that the relationship that we have nurtured and taken care of, often for years, feels like it is "dying or seriously ill".
Having problems is normal. We have both good and bad times in our life. How we get through troubled times together is often a good indicator of how strong our relationship is. It’s also important to remember that relationships are fragile and need tended – sometimes life events can prove too much for the relationship despite the couple's best efforts. Troubles test our love relationship and getting through together can strengthen a couple.
What is Relationship Counselling?
Relationship counselling helps unpack the life history of the relationship, taking into account various perspectives - from each half of the couple to children to extended family - with a view to understanding and to get perspective on how difficulties arose, and ideas for what can be done about them.
Counselling will invite you to reflect on the past to make sense of the "here and now" and hope to work to improve the future. We often arrive at counselling after we have exhausted every other avenue.
I find that we will usually have tried everything we can individually or together to tackle tricky conversations and find our own solutions. Normally people initially find it a bit strange to discuss their often very intimate problems with someone who is a stranger to them. Counselling does not tell you what to do or take your control and choice away for you.
If life can create blocks for you, which mean your own resources are overstretched and your resilience depleted, counselling can help you access your problem solving, open up possibilities, change perspectives or help you reposition yourself to the problem.
Relationship counselling works in collaboration with you to create the changes you want. Relationship counselling can be accessed individually or as a couple. You may want to reflect on your relationship yourself, sometimes to work out how you feel in order to have a conversation with your partner. Sometimes couples prefer to attend counselling together and couple counselling works to enhance this desire for better communication.
Your counsellor is not a judge, and will work hard to remain neutral, not taking sides or imposing her opinion. Counselling is not about who is right or wrong, although it does hope to help people take personal responsibility. Several versions of a story will always exist, depending on who you ask. Counselling will work to help you understand subjective meaning and how they impact on you and your partner.
What are the most common reasons people seek out relationship or couple therapy?
- Commitment: Moving in together, Marriage or Civil Partnership
- Same Sex Relationships, Transgender, Cross-dressing & Relationships
- Sex and Intimacy In Relationships
- Impact of Sexually Transmitted Infections Counselling
- Uncertainty about the future of your relationship - Is your relationship over?
- Starting over / Rebuilding when your relationship ends
- Bereavement change and loss
- Following an affair
- Pregnancy Parenting
- Working and Parenting
- Adolescent Children
- Blended families or Stepfamilies
- Life stage changes like Menopause or children leaving home
- Retirement Counselling
- Coping with crises
- Rebuilding or repairing relationships
- Separation work
- Communication issues
- Family of origin issue
- Sexual issues
Frequently Asked Questions
We are at a Commitment stage: Moving in together, Marriage or Civil Partnership – Can you help?
Any of these involve big adjustments. Any change, even positive change, can be stressful. You may have left your family or friends or your own place to live with a partner. Practical decisions like who does what about the house will get decided and may be heavily influenced by expectations of roles and unwritten rules.
These ideas may be different for you and your partner, and because they make sense to you it may be tricky to understand why your partner has different ideas.
Working out finances and talking about money can be difficult. Couples find money, sex and children the topics they most frequently struggle with.
Sometimes people say the first year of cohabiting or marriage is the most difficult. This is because the initial "falling in love" feelings often don't sustain beyond a couple of years and longer term loving will begin. This stage can involve doubts and differing expectations.
Lots of books are written about what doesn't work in relationships and not so much on what does work.
Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee researched healthy relationships and developed Seven Tasks which successful or lasting love relationships achieve.
These tasks are:
- Task 1 Separating from the family of origin
- Task 2 Building togetherness and creating autonomy
- Task 3 Becoming parents
- Task 4 Coping with crises
- Task 5 Making a safe place for conflict
- Task 6 Exploring sexual love and intimacy
- Task 7 Sharing laughter and keeping interests alive
Source: Wallerstein J, Blakeslee S, the Good Marriage How and Why Love Lasts
Do you work with diversity LGBTQ+ relationships?
An intimate relationship is ideally a safe place where each person can be themselves and no one is subjugated in a relationship or because of their relationship.
Our society has been historically oppressive of same sex relationships, for example, with mental health and legal categories promoting inequality between same sex couples and heterosexual couples.
We humans are attachment creatures and we are hardwired to connect, want to feel safe and enjoy each other’s company. The connection is the part that makes it a relationship, not the assigned gender identity of the person. We have a right to feel safe with our choice of partner and in our gender identity.
Systemic attitudes and expectations ranging from family, friends, community to culture and society etc, can be supportive or detrimental to non-binary people. There attitudes can persevere and cause oppression and distress despite lots of great work on inclusion and diversity going on in our communities.
Do you work with Sex and Intimacy in Relationships?
Sex can be an important part of our intimate relationship and can be one of the most difficult things to discuss. Often a problem with sex can indicate a problem with the relationship. Alternatively relationship problems can take their toll on the couple’s sex life.
Counselling about intimacy helps uncover individual and couple ideas about sex and where they originated, feelings and attitudes about sex, the impact of early relationships or trauma as well as individual ideas about sexuality.
Intimacy is more than sex – it involves feeling safe and connected in relationship – it describes the emotional connection as well as the physical. Sex will get challenged in long term relationships. Pregnancy, terminations and miscarriage can affect sex. Becoming parents may change sexual feelings and role expectations of each other. Fertility struggles may also have an impact on the fun of sex. Sex may change over time, or with the impact of illness or surgery. Menopause for women and erectile difficulties for men can change sex for the couple in a long term loving relationship. Partners may be or become differently paced with their sexual needs. How we feel about our bodies at any given time may affect our sex drive.
Counselling can uncover myths about sex and gender roles and help a couple share these meanings with each other. Therapy can help you build a better sex life, by having realistic expectations helping you think about making time for intimacy and creating the right conditions. It can help a couple talk about what they want and share their ideas about sex from beginning to end: from desire (what turns you on) to arousal to having sex to orgasm to afterwards.
Sexual counselling is different to sex therapy which tends to be for Specific sexual problems - The British Association of Sexual & Relationship Counselling www.basrt.org.uk lists sex therapists who can help with specific sexual problems e.g. loss or absence of desire, ejaculation difficulties (premature or delayed), erectile problems, vaginismus (penetration is difficult or impossible) or orgasmic difficulties.
Can you help with the Impact of a Sexually Transmitted Infections on our relationship?
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI's) often exist and pass between sexual partners without the person(s) even knowing they have an infection. The only sure way to know you have an STI is by having a check-up at your local Genito Urinary Medicine Clinic. Conversations about STI's can be full of shame and blame. People find them really difficult to speak about - to a partner or doctor or counsellor. Some STI's can have damaging long term effects on fertility if untreated (e.g. Chlamydia can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease). Some STI's can pass from mum to baby, or might only become discovered when you find yourself pregnant. Because we often can't tell how long an infection has been around it can raise worries about trust and fidelity in couple relationships. The impact of a STI can remain long after the diagnosis or treatment. It can affect intimacy, self-esteem and trust - and counselling can help undo some of the damage and problematic myths of STI's.
Having worked for ten years in a regional Sexual Health (GUM) Clinic as a sexual health adviser I have a lot of experience in the area of sexual health and use this to help in counselling relating to Sexually Transmitted Infections.
I’m at an abyss and uncertain about the future of my relationship – Can you help to work out if this relationship is over?
Intimate relationships do not usually end neatly and cleanly. Normally they are on and off, up and down several times before they end. It may be more one person's idea more than the others. Whether you are the person considering ending the relationship or the one who has been dumped, endings are normally very difficult. There may be a time when working through problems or changing the relationship could make enough of a difference to recover your relationship. This can be a highly emotional and enormously frustrating time. It may feel like that time has passed or it's too little too late. It may feel that you want to work on the relationship but your partner has moved on from this. It isn't easy because both partners are usually in different positions to the relationship or on different "chapters".
There are simply three choices when it comes to your relationship:
- To change it for the better for both of you, this usually involves both of you changing.
- Putting up with it as it is, knowing it won’t change but knowing how it works and that you both know how to be in it.
- Leave it.
People usually have tried over and over to problem solve their relationships before they approach counselling. Relationship counselling works to help couples see if they can save their relationship, or to find a way of making an end. Couple counselling does both rebuilding and separation work.
Do you work with bereavement, loss and adjustment in Counselling?
Several kinds of bereavement can affect your relationship:
- Death of a parent / parents possibly several parental losses happen over a short period of years.
- Death of a child - this is the most acute form of grief. It feels unnatural for a child to die before a parent. Both parents may be struggling with overwhelming anger and guilt which makes it very difficult to stay in emotional contact.
- Facing your own mortality or loss of your health or fitness.
- Death of your partner - which ends physically ends your relationship on you. Perhaps you have lived more years with your partner than you lived before you met them, and can't begin to conceive of life without them.
Stages of the grief process may involve: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, though many people experience this as nonlinear – with triggers and waves that can leave us feeling feel overwhelmed by the intensity and struggling to breathe. Anxiety and depression can be more common in grief. You may be at different places with regard to loss or death or at different stages of the loss cycle. Strong emotions are raised and can challenge your dealing with this together. One partner may want to talk about loss and the other not. It's not uncommon for the woman to want to look to the past and talk while the man may have an eye to the future and focus on moving forward. Often both partners feel the pain but have different ways of coping with these difficult feelings.
Communicating through all the stages: talking and listening, are very important for a couple working through the impact of loss. Counselling can help normalise some of these responses and help you discuss them together. Source: Litvinoff, the Relate Guide to Better Relationships
I’m starting over – can you help me when my relationship ends?
People will say a relationship end is like a death, only trickier, in that there is no clear ending to grieve the relationship. Feelings and hope can take time to die. Communication will often continue as parents and this is difficult because although conversations may be trying to keep focussed on children, there may be an undercurrent of emotions you feel as an ex-partner. The stages of recovery are similar to the any other grief, and then some. The process may include:
- shock / denial
- disbelief / denial
- feelings: fear / sadness / depression / loneliness
- guilt / rejection
- letting go, rebuilding self-worth / friendships
- trusting again
- learning to love again / or accepting it’s okay to be single
- accepting yourself as a sexual person
- identifying personal goals and finding personal freedom (accepting)
To make things trickier each partner / ex partner may be at different stages in the process.
Counselling can help you:
- Understand what went wrong
- Explore patterns of behaviour
- Cope with emotions
- Manage continuing to parent and deal with the impact on your kids
This work is usually done individually or within a family counselling context. Sources: Litvinoff, Starting Again: How to Learn from the Past for a Better Future; Fisher and Alberti, Rebuilding when your Relationship Ends
Can you help following an affair?
Trust gets fractured when an affair is uncovered. Whether an affair is uncovered in a traditional way e.g. telephone number or receipt in a pocket or with today's technology advances via emails or social networking sites the impact is similar. People trust in intimate relationships in their own individual way and people have different meanings and ideas about what breaks trust. The betrayal breaks individual trust but also hope dreams and expectations.
People sometimes describe an affair as a "blot" on their "picture of trust and intimacy", which cannot easily be removed. Conversations about affairs can be difficult for a couple. The partner who has had the affair often finds it difficult to talk about as their partner feels so hurt and they often want to talk about how to move on. The partner who hasn't had the affair often wants to know "why" and feels stuck there.
Finding a balance of understanding of how come it got to happen in your relationship and what needs to happen so it's unlikely to happen again, as well as understanding and reinvesting in the couple relationship is some of the counselling work involved. Trust in a couple relationship involves reliability, predictability, honesty, loyalty, commitment and shared boundaries.
Counselling can help you understand why the affair happened. Counselling can help you look at the triggers for and type of affair. Affairs can often be a symptom of relationship problems rather than a cause and can occur for several reasons for example: to end a relationship, to maintain a relationship, for revenge, for attention, to avoid intimacy or to experiment.
They can be triggered by life crises or changes e.g. family bereavements, mid-life, money worries as well as relationship problems. Work can involve recovery from betrayal and helping your children cope with the news. It may also help you look toward the future... whether that means reconciliation or separation.
Do you work with Parenting & Pregnancy?
A first baby, even a very wanted baby can take some getting used to, for example tiredness, less money and less time. Becoming parents brings our individual meanings and expectations of what we think are the roles of mother and father. Having a baby can rouse strong feelings for parents- love, frustration or jealousy. Your sex life can change because of physical or emotional factors.
Infertility, (when you have tried to conceive for a year but it hasn't happened), can lead to tricky conversations, medical investigations and strong feelings of loss, anger and even guilt or blame. Having sex to conceive can change enjoyment and spontaneity of sex.
Parenthood - Common developmental changes are: parenting ideas/ whether to become parents or perhaps dealing with fertility problems or sexual health, dealing with pregnancy loss through miscarriage.
Working Parents - Balancing decisions about who works and who cares for the children can create a lot of mixed feelings. Making time to communicate, negotiate and deal with feelings that arise for both of you is crucial, particularly when juggling home and family life as well as work.
Adolescent Children - As parenting involves a balance of protection and preparation, you might find when children are very young you do more protection and when they develop through teenage years and into young adulthood may mean you spend more time in preparation. With adolescent children your home may be chaotic and challenging. Boundaries get pushed and can put a lot of stress on all family relationships.
Children Leaving Home - When children leave the nest is another period of adjustment. It might be the first time in many years or decades since it was just the two of you. When you are less occupied with the day to day life of children living at home it you may find being together stressful, this may take its toll on your relationship or create doubts about its future. This can be a time when you might not be "on the same page" any longer, or discover you have little left in common, except for your children.
Counselling at any of these stages can help you unpack individual ideas and work toward joint solutions. Source Litvinoff, the Relate Guide to Better Relationships
Blended Families (Stepfamilies) - The word "family" will evoke individual images and meanings for us. This may be formed of parents or adults and children. It may incorporate extended family e.g. grandparents. Traditional ideas of family roles e.g. "breadwinner" and "stay at home mums" have helped define family pictures, and our images and expectations of family historically. Divorce rates and other changes have helped create more flexible forms of family e.g. couples in a same sex relationship, unmarried parents, single parent families or when children may be young or grown up. Hayman cites family as "a group nearly connected by blood or affinity". Forming a new relationship where the previous one has ended, whether through divorce or death, can mean dealing with ghosts of the past, dealing with grief, managing unfinished business. Where there are children to the first relationship then communication with the ex-partner and other parent may continue for many years to come for the children's wellbeing, particularly if children are young. Negotiating parenting with your ex-partner may be tricky especially if there are a lot of conflicting needs. Children may feel very powerless in a parent's new relationship, particularly if there is another child to this relationship. Roles can be adjusted and challenged by another relationship or marriage. This can be for the partners/ ex partners/ new partners / children / grandparents etc. The system can get shaken up. The role which stays is that the children's parents will remain the children's parents despite what happens the couple's relationship. If children know they are still loved and the parental relationship breakdown is not their fault, as well as not hearing parents "bad-mouth" each other, they are more like to cope better.
Counselling may help unpack emotive issues and help you work through these in a more constructive way. Source: Hayman Step Families.
For further information on parenting a useful link is: www.familylives.org.uk.
For further information on mediation (where conversations and decisions about children or property can be conducted outside court): www.collegeofmediators.co.uk
Changes in Employment are affecting our relationship
In the economic climate with increasing cost of living, we live in worries about employment and redundancy are very real for most couples. This can put enormous pressure on a relationship, particularly if the major earner's job is lost or under threat. Redundancy consultations can put great pressure on the couple and family.
The relationship balance can get upset and talking about money can be even more difficult than conversations about sex. Losing your job can mean obvious economic struggles as well as losing routine and role or sense of purpose. Your work role can be an important part of your identity and confidence can get damaged by job loss. This can impact on your ideas of what a man’s, or a woman’s role is, in relation to providing for the family.
In losing your job you may go through a loss process like any other grief. There may be feelings of shame, blame, fear, anger. Feelings like these can be explored in counselling and each partner’s position considered, with a view to perhaps finding a new balance and finding practical solutions. For example if the partner who earned the major salary loses their job then domestic arrangements may need to be re-set. It may mean a rebalancing of who earns the major salary. More traditional roles and expectations can be challenged.
Therapy can help, as although the above may make absolutely logical sense, it may challenge emotional beliefs and values about roles and expectations learned early in life. Unpacking these and understanding them together can help you find more creative solutions to these problems. Source Litvinoff, The Relate Guide to Better Relationships
Do you work with Retirement issues in Counselling?
By retirement life stage, you may well have built up a lot of resilience and overcome many hurdles over perhaps many years. You may have come through several other life stages: Marriage / Children / Work / Bereavement etc.
Stopping work, even a planned stopping, may raise a lot of similar feelings as loss or work by redundancy. Your sense of purpose can disappear with your work role, which you may have had for decades.
You may be spending more time at home or with your partner than you ever have before and this can introduce new stresses and strains to the relationship.
If you have developed outside interests or hobbies these may help buffer the loss left by work ending. You may each have had different expectations of what happens now and the word "retirement" may have different meanings to each partner.
Roles may be rebalanced, and decisions about how to fill time may be needed. Conversations about how each partner sees the future can be helpful. Counselling can accommodate some of these conversations. Source Litvinoff, The Relate Guide to Better Relationships