Thoughts From The Couch – In the beginning

Over the past few years I have noticed an increase in the number of couples looking for pre marital counselling. Although statistics show that around 50% of marriages end in divorce, divorce rates are at their lowest levels in over forty years.There are various reasons suggested and more than likely a combination of factors. One thought is that more people are living together before getting married, thus having a greater sense of what they are getting into. Another, is that many people are getting married when older, meaning most are more mature, with increased relationship experience, and as a result more likely to have a greater understanding of what it takes to maintain a long term relationship. Interestingly there are no official figures for the number of couples who cohabit and end up separating.This is the fastest growing type of household in the UK, and most probably plays a significant role in the falling divorce rate.

For many “couples therapy” is a stigmatised term accompanied by shame and the notion of failure, and yet not all couples come because their relationship is in trouble. Unlike traditional couples therapy, which is most often attended when a relationship has serious issues, premarital therapy aims to prevent couples from falling out of love and into lasting disappointment. I use the term ‘premarital’ and yet, see many couples of differing sexual orientations, who have no desire to get married, but want to be in a committed relationship in whatever way that works for them. They hope to use therapy to understand themselves, their partner, where difficulties may arise and how to work with them as they do. In Letters of Life, Rilke writes; “they must not forget, when they love, that they are beginners, bunglers of life, apprentices in love – must learn love, and that (like all learning) wants peace, patience and composure!”

A popular societal manta is “love is all you need” and whilst I won’t disagree that love is essential for a happy relationship, it is not enough to solely rely on. Anais Nin wrote; “Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” I am often touched by the genuine love and curiosity in the room when sitting with couples still with the powerful desire to understand each other. At the same time I am reminded of just how little we are actually taught about love relationships outside of witnessing our parents. For many replicating their parents relationship is the very last thing they want to do and so they come to therapy with no real understanding of how love might work, but with a deep desire to learn.

No one really prepares us for the challenges we face in relationships. We hear that living alongside another person is hard, but don’t really know what that means until we are faced with our own experience of it. We each have our idea of what a relationship should be like. We carry with us the hope and dreams often formed from when we were very young. When a relationship runs into difficulty couples can feel failures and very alone. Gone are the days where support comes from parents, community or spiritual guides. As more and more people find themselves socially isolated the demands on the relationship mounts. Couples find themselves with nowhere to turn, and a pressure to sort things our for themselves.

A willingness to accept imperfection in oneself and ones partner is vital for the health and longevity of a relationship. In his poem Listening to the Koln Concert, Robert Bly encourages couples to let go of the demand for perfection in our partners and ourselves. His creative imagery of love in relationship is a reminder that all relationships need generosity, compromise and forgiveness.

“When men and women come together,
How much they have to abandon! Wrens
Make their nest of fancy threads
And string ends, animals

Abandon all their money each year.
What is it that men and women leave?
Harder than wrens’ doing, they have
To abandon their longing for the perfect.

The inner nest not made by instinct
Will never be quite round,
And each has to enter the nest
Made by the other imperfect bird.”

Whilst still filled with the hope of a future together, therapy can offer transformational conversations that allow for the letting go of the belief that it is someone else’s responsibility to make us happy and feel good about ourselves. I believe that communication is the bedrock of a successful relationship. I am not talking about conversations that skim the surface of important topics, but those that dig deep into the psyche of our partners, so that we emerge with a different and hopefully more compassionate understanding of how our partner thinks and the cause of some of their reactions, along with our own. With the ability to have courageous conversations couples are more able to take risks and learn to repair any ruptures that take place as they feel safer and more trusting of each other.

Some couples come with a specific topic they want to investigate, others come for guidance. They can explore topics with a third party that they haven’t been able to navigate or even thought of by themselves. Whether it be around sex, money, children or how they hold the vision for their relationship, along all the other issues that confront relationships, they can look carefully at their expectations of themselves and their partner. They can face their blocks, assumptions, projections and move their relationship from unsure back to solid ground.

Most importantly clients learn that relationships are not static, like people they change and grow.The relationship they are starting out with will not remain the same as the years go by and that is a good thing. Life happens. Circumstances change. We change. We fall in and out of love with our partner all the time. There are days it all feels worthwhile and days when we want to run away. That is all part of being in relationship and something few have the courage to admit.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes normalises what is probably one of the most important things to remember when entering into a committed relationship when she says ; “To love means to embrace, and at the same time to withstand, many, many endings and many, many beginnings, all in the same relationship.” When things get difficult we don’t have to leave. A real relationship is two imperfect people not giving up on each other

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