Thoughts From The Couch – The relational space

We know relatively little about what really makes a long term relationship work. If we think about the institution of marriage, for longer than not, they were arranged for social economic and political reasons, not for love. With the divorce rate being as it is we can but assume that many enter into marriage with unrealistic expectations and then find themselves confronting issues that seem insurmountable with the option of walking away seemingly the only one. Most of the couples I work with are in emotionally committed relationships whether that includes marriage or not. Many arrive at my door in a state of confusion and despair as the relationship they had imagined they were entering into is no longer bringing them the security, joy and comfort they had initially savoured.

I see myself as a therapist standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before me as well as those inspirational mentors and teachers I have met along the way. I owe much to those whose language, way of being and working fits with mine and from whom I can take forward in my work their presence and the gifts of their wisdom. Hedy Schleifer is one of those inspirational teachers for me. Witnessing her working, I am reminded that although structure and models are useful, they are not always appropriate in the moment. Instead, what is needed is the ability to be creative and spontaneous, moving beyond diagnosis and problems to teach couples what it means to really be alive and living in connection with each other rather than just coping and surviving.

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher when speaking of relationships, said, “Our relationship lives in the space between us – it doesn’t live in me or in you or even in the dialogue between the two of us – it lives in the space we live together, and that space is sacred space.” Having worked with many couples, one of the guiding principles I take with me from witnessing Hedy work and teach is the importance of treating the space that resides between couples as sacred. By the time couples come to therapy, one thing we can almost guarantee is that at least one of them, but probably both, have neglected to treat the space between them that way. Instead, it is filled with many of the toxic qualities that disconnect and distance them rather than keeping them deeply connected. A starting point for change is for the couple to recognise that it is the responsibility of the both of them to take care of their relational space. By acknowledging how important it is to value deeply and treat accordingly the space their relationship lives in, they can start the journey back towards a loving and conscious connection.

Many times couples come with the focus being visiting the wounds of the relationship. Although this is a necessary part of the work we do together, I have learnt that by only focussing on those issues, clients don’t have anything positive to work towards. Because energy follows what we focus on we need to focus on our hopes and dreams, not only our problems and disappointments. With this in mind, one of the first building blocks we work on, is for them to create the vision they aspire to for their relationship, thus fuelling hope and potential. This enables them to visit the pain and hurt that they have caused each other, knowing that they are working towards the shared dreams and aspirations they hold for their relationship as well. As with all therapy, it is not for me to force anyone to be open, honest or to share their deeper selves, but in the knowledge that couples work can be extremely challenging, I aim to offer an atmosphere that provides the healing potential even for those who are profoundly resistant and unsure. As they are the holders of the truth of their deepest longings, I see myself purely as their guide. By focussing on the potential of the relationship rather than only what is lacking, we include the possibility of transformation as couples start to see each other with new eyes.

In the book, Passionate Marriage David Schnarch speaks to the importance of differentiation in relationships, which can be a delicate balancing act. Differentiation is the ability to balance individuality and togetherness, which is especially important during difficult times. The ability to be close to our partner but at the same time holding on to a distinct sense of our individual selves, complete with our own feelings, needs, wants, values and perspectives. From this place, when we start to confront challenging issues, we are able to not only take care of ourselves individually but at the same time take care of our relationship. Beginning to consider our own individual wants and needs along with our wants and needs for our relationship is an integral part of rebuilding and renewing our relationship. So many couples focus on what they don’t have or don’t want and when asked what it is they do want or need they do not know. Connecting through conversation is integral to all relationships. Allowing our partner to express their wants and needs without judging them to be right or wrong allows for a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate into emotional fusion. By holding on to our individuality, we can agree with others without feeling as if we are “losing ourselves,” and can disagree without feeling begrudging and alone.

Hedy teaches that conflict is a friend: “growth that is trying to happen” and should be welcomed as an opportunity. Not easy if we have been bought up with the belief that conflict is ‘bad’, ‘scary’ or ‘should be avoided.’ Perhaps a good place to start is to see conflict as a way of being able to deepen intimacy and connection rather than a dispute or doing battle. When conflict arises, usually one partner will become like an octopus and the other a turtle. The more the energy of the octopus increases in the desire to be heard and understood the further into the shell the turtle will retreat. This dynamic can continue for decades with each partner triggering their ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. By intentionally focussing on truly understanding each other, we create safety, instead of reactivity in our relationship, thus allowing conflict to become the opportunity for growth and healing that Hedy speaks about.

By reframing how we see conflict and as a result being honest and transparent, couples can start to understand the impact of their behaviours on each other. I offer them a way to find each other again even when they have polluted the space between them with infidelity, criticism, hurt, anger, betrayal and all the different ways we do damage to each other. My commitment to my clients is to be 100% present, no matter what the outcome is, knowing that it is only when therapy enlists deep emotions that it becomes a dynamic force for change. For some, the damage is too great, and one or other decides they are unable to continue, for others, I can sit in awe as they emerge from the ashes of conflict worked through together. Whatever the outcome, I am clear on being able to guide couples towards a new way of relating that allows them to have a more empathetic understanding of each other that will serve them whatever course they choose to take. Through the power of connection, with commitment and forgiveness, relationships can be repaired, healed and transformed. It is not easy, but the rewards are profound.

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