The nature of our rapidly lived lives can often mean that we lose contact with our partners, writes Richard Hogan.
The intimacy that was once so easily expressed in those early days can quickly dissipate due to the demands and responsibilities each member of the couple feels in that relationship. And the nature of the modern couple has changed too. Couples are generally meeting later in life and therefore having children at a later age, this can place considerable strain on the couple as they try to navigate both working and parenting life together.
Couples therapy poses unique challenges for the therapist, yet in my experience it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of working clinically with clients. I have noticed over the years more and more couples are coming to therapy because of the strain they are under due to the nature of the modern world and the busyness of it all.
However, couples generally only seek out therapy as a last-ditch effort to save the relationship, and in some cases one member of the couple brings another member so that the dissolution of that relationship will be as soft as possible. So, couples therapy can be very challenging for the therapist. The following are some of the areas I work on when talking with a couple in the therapeutic space:
1. Building levels of communication
One of the most striking features of working with couples in modern terms is building levels of communication. Often, due to familiarity or perceived patterns of communication, each member comes to believe they have heard their partner fully. And it is often this mishearing that raises the conflict in the house. In my clinic, I often record the session so that I can show the couple this issue.
It is very interesting to listen to a member of the couple repeat what their partner said. I get them to write it down. And then I bring them into a separate room and playback what was actually said.
It is such a striking moment for the couple as they both come to realise they are hearing what they think or expect to hear and not what is actually being said.
So, it is often about building new ways of how a couple hear each other that helps a couple truly connect again.
2. Mobile phone policy
Nothing has quite invaded our personal space and relational dynamic than that of our technology devices. We have allowed them to consume us and break or normal pattern of communication.
It is a very common scene in any restaurant or pub in Ireland to see a couple out sharing the evening together but they are zombie scrolling their phones, flicking through the minutiae of the latest posts or messages. Often breaking this is what helps a couple reconnect. It is something we all have to do.
We must place a boundary around our personal intimate space with our partner. Our lives are hectic, so when we are together in the house — we need to really be together and not just sitting there while we are emotionally a million miles away.
3. Decrease emotional avoidance
This is something I have experienced extensively in therapy. A source of the conflict is that one member of the couple feels that the other member is emotionally unavailable. But we all deal with stress differently. And we often assimilate traits that our parents exhibited or modelled for us. So bringing these learned behaviours into focus can help decrease emotional avoidance.
I had a wife tell me recently that: ‘He just gets lost in gardening when things get a little uncomfortable.’
I could see a light bulb moment for her partner when I asked: ‘Where did he pick up the message that moving away from the ‘uncomfortableness’ was a good strategy?’
He described a touching moment when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he said that he watched his father clean the house everyday so he didn’t have to think about what was going on, and he realised that he might be doing the same thing. His wife became visibly less annoyed at him with this context to his behaviour. We often get caught in behaviours that we don’t understand. And we can be prisoners to those behaviours until we see them.
4. Re-authoring narratives
Couples often come into therapy stuck in a particular narrative about each other. As the sessions move towards their inevitable conclusion I concentrate on re-authoring early narratives they once held about each other.
The dominant narrative, when the couple comes into therapy, is a saturated problem and negative one. It’s about discovering what those old ways of viewing each other looked and sounded like. This helps the couple to reconnect with those early feelings, which were the feelings that made them fall in love and set out on this journey together in the first place.
Being a part of a couple is difficult. There are compromises and sacrifices that have to be made along the way. But we must not get lost in the dance. Our lives are busy but we must try to hold onto why we set out on the journey together. You will face joy and adversity, but having someone there by your side to help you navigate the slings and arrows of life is truly a wonderful thing.
Richard Hogan is a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three