The Steps Towards Change - Couples Counselling Twickenham
Truth and Reconciliation
Whatever reason you come into couples counselling, it can be both rewarding and challenging to find a way forward. Understandably change brings about a certain amount of anxiety. At times you may feel vulnerable, but progress can be made if you focus on the process of healing and repair, not just your individual expectations. You need to accept that although you may have valid reasons to be upset or disappointed with your partner, there is nothing to be gained from playing the blame game.
Each of you is an equal participant in your relationship, except perhaps where abuse is concerned. And you must be willing to address your own issues; not just point out where your partner went wrong. You will need to find a way of collaborating and negotiating the changes you want to make equally. So rather than focus on arguing, you need to find common ground and a reason to trust each other.
Forming agreements and negotiating boundaries is a key to building better relationships of trust and respect. Listening attentively, with empathy and understanding, even when you find it difficult to hold back from defending yourself, is the first step to better communication.
You also need to put the work in at home and use counselling sessions constructively. You will get to express how you feel and deal with your difficulties and conflicts honestly, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve. And you need to listen to each other, however, much it hurts. This means accepting the need to change yourself, not simply win the argument. Be brave, be open to new ideas and willing to let go of the past, as you make positive changes and mistakes along the way. If you're willing to take small risks, be emotionally present and empathetic towards your partner; you'll be less afraid to experiment with the process together. And more accepting of your vulnerabilities and flaws, as your journey begins.
At Counselling Twickenham, I will support you with impartial feedback, commentary on your patterns of behaviour and communication, and alternative ways of relating you can practice at home.
Recognising conflict – in many relationships conflict arises because of the differences between you and your partner – such as your values, beliefs and behaviours. And your differences may have become intolerable. You want your partner to think, feel and behave like you would, but they don’t. This creates a cycle of fear, judgement, shame and anger. In couples counselling you will explore how conflict is triggered in heightened states of arousal, when you're feeling vulnerable and defensive. Your emotions are aroused to a fever-pitch and often responding to psychodramas from the past, rather than what’s actually happening now. This triggers a fight-and-flight response, or even being overwhelemd and frozen to the spot. In this state you’re unable to self-regulate or even think straight. In couples counselling you will look at how your thought processes can become confused and frightening; your ability to express yourself is diminished and your emotions are so intense you have become lost in them. In couples counselling, you will learn to pause and stand back. You will work on undoing compulsive behaviours that show signs of disproportionate anger and defensiveness.
Recognising co-dependence – in couples counselling you look at how conflict is often born out of co-dependent relationships. This is where the roles of both people serve a particular purpose or desire to get your individual needs met. This gets enacted through a series of transactions that meet your needs in dysfunctional ways – e.g. I’m stressed, your stressed, we fight, you hurt, I apologise, you sooth me, we have sex, I get relief. They are also designed to trigger immediate gratification and meet the roles each person plays – I am your valued rescuer or caregiver, you are my helpless dependent. You need drugs and alcohol, I feed your habit and look after you. I'm wounded and vulnerable like you, let’s look after each other. Co-dependent relationships often involve desperately agreeing to an unfair compromise and compliant behaviours to maintain the patterns of dependence. This way the valued roles of “victim, rescuer and perpetrator” can be acted out in a repetitive psychodrama that suits your survival strategy. However, co-dependence becomes a trap that both people resent in the end and want to break free of. And this is where conflict arises.
Recognising your own patterns – in couples counselling you will learn to focus more on your own patterns of behaviour rather than your partner’s; because this respects each person’s autonomy and right to choose. You must address your own issues, whether your partner seems willing to change or not. Although sometimes there are genuine relationships of abuse and victimisation, most couples are equally capable of being abusive, controlling and manipulative in their own way. By recognising your own attachment styles you may be able to identify unwanted and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, you have learned from your parents in childhood or past relationships. Once you learn your patterns of attachment and behaviour in relationships, you can decide what you want to keep (because they’re constructive) and what you want to discard (because they’re destructive).
The role of negative anticipation – most people are unconsciously aware of the other person’s patterns of behaving and anticipate them in advance before they happen. It’s like playing a screenplay in your head before you interact. A kind of dress rehearsal, where you predict what your partner will do and say next. And then you use a strategy designed to defend against the predicted outcome. The more you anticipate conflict or unwanted behaviour from your partner and the more you predict the potential outcomes; the more likely they are to get enacted, until it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. Counselling helps you to pause before getting caught up in this psychodrama, so you change the unwanted behaviours.
Reconciliation, not getting what you want – in counselling you both need to aim towards reconciliation, rather than getting exactly what you want – such as proving your partner wrong, taking revenge, or gaining the moral high ground by judging them guilty. At first you must prioritise the needs and boundaries of the relationship, rather than working out who gets what out of any transaction. You must be wary of thinking in ways which get your terms and conditions agreed to by your partner, because you believe they are to blame for the problem. Reconciliation must be mutual and equally negotiated; not for the benefit one more than the other.
Different versions of the same truth – in couples counselling there is always two or more versions of the truth. No one has monopoly on the right version; or the logical way of doing things. Many times over in couples counselling one person has claimed to be the logical one, but all your behaviours are based on emotional responses whatever you belive. There are always two people in a relationship – two participants, two observers and two equally informed adults (even when one is more vulnerable than the other). You must be wary of secretly hoping you partner will be ‘found out’ as inadequate or to blame by the therapist. You do not have sole ownership over the ‘Truth’ or a so-called ‘logical way of seeing things’. If there is any such thing as pure rationality it does not exist in the heightened drama of conflict. Any agreements and boundaries you discuss in counselling must accommodate both people’s needs and differences, or you will only sabotage your chances of a working relationship.
Who has to change? I do – you cannot expect to bring along your partner to counselling and the therapist determines which one is wrong and which one is supposed to change. You cannot change other people without controlling them by force or coercion, which is neither love, nor intimacy. The only person you can change is you – by agreement and consent. It is always a risk for anyone to change, especially if that person feels they have been the victim of unfair abuse in the relationship. But changing is designed to benefit both of you as free and independent persons, not force you to compromise to the will of your partner.
Tolerance and appreciation of your significant other – we all have a natural range of tolerance for other people’s differences and diversity. Some of us may have a narrower range of tolerance than others. The breadth of your tolerance depends on your willingness to learn, to remain open to change and be curious about your partner’s differences; rather than threatened. Different values, beliefs and ways of behaving can be of genuine value and benefit to each person. Your partners can offer you ways of seeing things you don’t have yourself - one may be passionate, the other calm and mirror these qualities to each other.
Seeing the human in human being – in couples counselling you will learn that it is easy to feel threatened by other people’s differences and to demonise them when you're feeling vulnerable. You need to recognise that judging and shaming the person you love will not win you any awards for compassion, love or respect. You need to adopt an attitude of openness and tolerance and show that you see and appreciate their humanity and independence. That you love them for who they are and not berate them for their so-called shortcomings and inadequacies. Blame does not encourage change, it stifles it.
Complimentary and opposed – You will both learn in counselling that having different personalities can help you act in complementary ways, rather than in opposition. For example if one person is adventurous, outgoing, passionate and affectionate; the other may help them to appreciate a capacity for becoming more relaxed, calm and content with their life (without having to make them feel restrained, or controlled). The quiet one can occasionally help the other to slow down and appreciate being, rather than doing stuff all the time. The passionate one, can help the other to adapt to change and try new things without fear of failure.
Aggressive or passive – sometimes in couples counselling you will discover one person may be an ‘aggressive communicator’ and one person may be a ‘passive-aggressive communicator’. No one owns the moral high ground. Each person is capable of being controlling and emotionally abusive whether they are openly hurting the other person with their words and accusations, or whether they are withholding their emotions and punishing the other person with silence. You will learn to behave in ways that challenge these 'old scripts' and be more assertive in the way you communicate. A good way of seeing assertive communication is: "Me first, with you in mind". Aggressive commeunication is: "Me first, at your expense". Passive aggressive is: "You first, at my expense (but I'll get you later)".
Interference of the past – in counselling couples often become aware that traumas, memories and events from the past are interfering in their present relationship. You will learn with respect and compassion to challenge your script ‘about how to do relationships’. And let go of your survival strategy from any unconscious behaviours you have imported from past relationships and childhood. And slowly learn to change them for the better.
Acceptance of the past – you need to accept the past and let it go, if you're going to move on. Bringing endless lists of grievances to the counselling sessions and trying to settle 'old scores' as preconditions to change are not helpful, they are destructive. Agreeing to change must come without a checklist of expectations, as it means trying something new.
Agreement about the way forward, without preconditions - setting preconditions are often shaming and obstructive to genuine, meaningful change. You will need to address the past and acknowledge your part in any conflict. Even apologise, if necessary, but in a way that is fair and encourages healing to take place. Anything less than willing consent, means that the likelihood of frustration and resentment will soon creep back into the relationship. You cannot batter you partner into submission, only encourage them to see the benfit of change.
Negotiating boundaries – there are many different kinds of boundaries, but none of them are fixed and need to be flexible enough to be adhered to. You may have ‘red-line’ boundaries such as not accepting violent behaviour, but most boundaries change over time and need to be continually, renewed and negotiated. They must be respectful of your common interests, as well as the independence of each person. And they must be mutually agreed, without fear or favour to one person or the other. You may be fearful that boundaries are restricting, but they allow you to know where each person stands. You cannot keep breaking the boundaries you set and carry on regardless. You must agree and respect the consequences, even if you fear your partner may not like them, otherwise there are no limits. And anything goes.
Focus on the relationship, not the person – if you turn your discussions into a game of “I win; you lose”, the relationship ultimately suffers and you both lose anyway. Winning the upper hand is about control and power, not love. Although you must learn to respect each other’s independence and boundaries, each person needs to communicate in ways which show appreciation for the relationship and not just manipulate what you can get out of it. One-sided relationships never work, as they always leave someone disgruntled.
Active listening – active listening means being attuned to each other’s feelings, body language, facial expressions and eye-contact when you’re communicating; not just interpreting the meaning of your partner’s words. Listen with openness, generosity and non-defensively, before you answer or reply. Try not to simply wait for an opening in which you can talk and justify your argument. You may not always agree, or feel what’s being said is fair, but you need to let the other person feel heard before you give your own response.
Acknowledgement of my pain/your pain – if you have been in conflict a long time you need to address each other’s pain and vulnerability. You need to ask yourself, openly and honestly, have I hurt the person I love, intentionally or not? Am I willing to acknowledge that I may have caused pain, accused them unfairly or judged them? Have I been threatening or violent in pursuit of my aims? If you can acknowledge, it shows your partner you have learned from your mistakes. You can accept them and you're willing to take responsibility. It does not mean you should atone, to satisfy your partner’s desire for redress.
Responsibility, not blame – if you focus on accusing your partner and blaming them for all that is wrong in your relationship, you’re not winning their trust and confidence. Nor are you allowing them the space to grow and change. Blame is a one-way street to failure and does not make room for encouraging responsibility, or a genuine willingness to reach out. If you blame, accuse or shame them into submission, you have achieved nothing but ruling over a very cold, lonely kingdom.
Building trust and empathy – even if you believe you’re the victim of manipulation, abandonment or abuse for years you need to move forward, by fostering a spirit of goodwill, empathy and compassion. If you're genuinely the victim of abuse you need to consider levaing your partner. The trust and confidence of your partner, is never won at the end of a gun. No logic, or argument will persuade your partner to change if they do not feel understood and appreciated. Empathy develops trust, because you need to feel safe and understood by your partner, particularly when you’re vulnerable.
Vulnerability and compassion, before anger – even though it’s a risk and not always appropriate if you’re being abused, showing vulnerability to your partner and asking for compassion is a much more reliable way of inviting them to understand you. Offer them your point of view, rather than grinding them down with threats and ultimatums. Being vulnerable together means showing you are equal and have a shared interest in the relationship, rather than demonstrating how powerful you are. This only creates a sense of fear and inadequacy in whoever is the most vulnerable.
Healing – try to focus on healing the wounds. Be kind, gentle and generous to your partner, rather than demanding change or unachievable goals. Simple gestures are best.
Change - things will not change overnight. They change incrementally as you learn to embed new patterns of behaviour. Do not fix the standard so high that you set yourselves up for failure. You need to focus on the day-to-day process and allow enough space and time for your new patterns to evolve. Ask yourselves what is sufficient for me to feel satisfied, not how much can I get?
Expressing feelings – express your emotions and own what you feel, without blaming your partner or accusing them of ‘making you feel’ that way. The emotions you feel are your responses to a situation, even if you’re aware that your partner can be manipulative and ‘presses buttons’. You may notice that intense feelings arise unconsciously and automatically, but you’re responsible for how you respond to them and how you react.
Assertive communication – when communicating with your partner, the phrase ‘Me first, with you in mind’ is a helpful way of thinking. What this means is that assertive communication is not about being aggressive or passive, but communicating clearly, directly and openly with your partner. Allowing yourself to respond authentically, without needing to justify or explain yourself. Being self-interested, is not the same as being selfish. It means looking out for your needs, but not at the expense of others. It means reflecting on you want and then taking others into consideration.
Focus on the person, then the relationship – over time you need to rebalance the dynamics of the relationship towards yourself as an individual in partnership with your loved one, rather than getting caught up in co-dependent relationships.
Managing conflict – refrain from reacting with a knee jerk response. Create an internal boundary by standing back a moment, from your impulse to act. Take a slow, deep breath and notice the space this creates between you and them. Acknowledge your feelings. Sense where the other person is next. Adjust your body posture, your gestures, voice tone and eye-contact to better reflect what you feel. Then negotiate the terms and conditions of agreement, or step away and deescalate the tension with a 'time-out'. Then return to it later, once you have regained composure.
Letting go of grievances – no relationship in the world will ever give you the opportunity to resolve the past, because we can never go back and reshape it, no matter how many times we try. The replay button is obsolete. You cannot redo what you didn’t get in childhood. You cannot resolve unfinished business from past relationships. And you cannot ask your partner to keep doing penance for the grievances you cannot forgive. So stop, let go and get on with taking responsibility for the here-and-now. You can change this moment and this opportunity. Go ahead and live your life differently.
Forgiveness or acceptance – nothing changes overnight. Not you, not your partner, nor the circumstances you find yourselves in. You spent years learning your patterns of attachment and behaviour, crafting your emotions, embedding behaviours into conditioned responses and reinforcing them with constant repetition. It’s the same in reverse, when you change. It will take a long time to learn new behaviours. So focus on the process of healing and not the outcomes you want or expect. This only creates more craving for what you cannot have. Forgive each other the mistakes and regressions you make along the way. Try to focus on what is sufficient, not what more can I have. Accept you are both different. You are flawed. You’re in pain. And you chose each other to try and work this out. Accept your significant other. Forgive. And move on.