Couple Therapy - a sign of health or admitting defeat?
By Krisztina Glausius
Head of Clinical Services
‘April is the cruelest month but January is often felt to follow not too far behind in terms of unhappiness and general accumulated misery. Start- of- the year woes can be both caused by, and resulting from unhappy relationships or from isolation and loneliness.
Here at Tavistock Relationships in London, providers of couple counselling and psychotherapy, we often see a significant rise in both couples and individuals coming to us for help, often in a sad and worried state, anxious and confused about how they feel about their partner and about their relationship.
They often tell us that things have become strained and quite unbearable and they fear that if things go on as they are, either their relationship or their own emotional or physical health might break down.
We know from our own professional and personal experience that the run up to the festive season can be a real ‘killer’ in so many different ways; the relentless public bombardment of images created by advertising agencies and marketing committees selling their products with adjacent lifestyle choices, the seemingly endless run-up to the festive season when every moment appears to be filled with picture-perfect families sharing fairy tale meals around tastefully decorated festive tables – all in often painful contrast with our everyday lived experience. When others seem to live in the land of plenty, our own deprivation – lacking in wealth, time, or relationships might feel extremely difficult to bear. But somehow, by now, we sort of know all this. We have developed thicker skins and a healthy dose of cynicism to know that this is mostly for show. We have become familiar with December and its dangers. So it might come as a somewhat unexpected and rather shocking discovery that – having come through the run up to the festive season, - we experience a sudden downturn in satisfaction in the New Year. With the festive season over and well and truly ‘survived’, surely we can put all those anxious feelings behind us and start the new year with fresh hope and confidence – perhaps embarking on a new diet of food or exercise regime, buoyed up by the promise of ‘a new you’.
So why the upsurge in couples and individuals asking for support?
Relationships are hard to do at the best of times and during the festive season most couple relationship are sorely tested. Whilst we recognise these discomforts, it is not always so easy to understand where the pressures and turbulence we feel originate. As couple therapists, we do know about the often hidden but powerful external and internal attacks on our most intimate relationships.
We listen to our client telling us about the subtle pressures exerted by our parents, our friends and by society in general to get on with the ‘business of growing up’, coupling up and settling down, and perhaps, starting a family. What is less easy to know about is what goes on below the surface of our minds, hidden in the unconscious.
Couple psychotherapists are attuned to listening out for subtle attacks on the relationship by our clients’ parents, Oedipal attacks on their intimacy by their children and rivalrous attacks on a progressing romantic attachment by friends and siblings. these attacks raise the tension between the individual needs and the couple needs, making it harder to defend and prioritise the couple asd a unit. This powerful but unseen anti-relational current often swirl below the seemingly benign surface with only the tip-of-the-iceberg recurring circular arguments signaling the threat of a wreck. When our clients tell us about their despair over having the same arguments over and over again, coming out of nothing and going nowhere, we hear not only what they say but also what they do not admit, that is, that at times the pressures on them intensifies.
The traditional scapegoats we tend to blame for our relational difficulties also often fall away over the festive period. When on holiday, it is no longer possible to go on blaming exhaustion and overwhelm on the demands of the working life. In fact, sometimes the opposite can be true and people can feel cut adrift without the predictable routines of the working week and in this way work can hold us together, like an external frame, a corset rather than a spine.
When we spend more time with our family, ordinarily unseen differences can become exposed and this can feel difficult. Imagination, based on our fantasy of who our partner is, can crumble by facing up to their reality when we spend real time with them and their family. There are no easy answers here as anything can be a source of unease resulting in arguments: ‘You fit in too well with my family!’, ‘You are nothing like my family!’ Both can be true and both can scare us as we try and negotiate the festive season.
A health check for the relationship
"it is important to regard couple therapy as a sign of health and commitment to the relationship"
If all this sounds a little bit gloomy or worrying – it needn’t be. We find that many couples or individuals wait too long before seeking help to address some troubling patters or issues in their relationship and the difficulties become entrenched and harder to budge. Most people think of couple therapy as curative rather than preemptive medicine and whilst both can be true, it is important to regard couple therapy as a sign of health and commitment to the relationship. Whilst our clients are often anxious about and ambivalent about seeking help, we tend to regard it is a sign of strength.
“There must be something really wrong with us”
This is not how we see it.
A couple’s commitment to the relationship can be reflected in their shared decision to invest in it in time, money, emotional space and effort – all required in regular weekly couple therapy. To turn up to a shared appointment every week, to be vulnerable in each other’s presence and work together with your therapist on what can be regarded as a private matter is no easy thing.
Couple therapy at its best is about getting to know more in depth about your partner and about yourself in the process as you explore the sort of relationship you create and try and understand why it is not quite how you would both like it to be.
To be able to admit that none of us can do it all by ourselves and that we are in need of help is far from being childish or a sign of weakness – it is one of the fundamental achievements of maturity. This capacity to seek help is in itself already an important marker of being able to be in a couple relationship where we can be vulnerable and dependent on someone else and indeed - as hard as it is may feel - on each other as well as offer support and bear our inevitable differences. Therefore being in couple therapy is as much about the process as it is about the content of the sessions.
But does couple therapy work?
We now know for certain that it really does. Our clients have been telling us this for a long time not only through their communications to their therapist but through their responses to our questionnaires we have asked them to complete before, throughout and after therapy reflecting on their emotional health and that of the couple.
In fact, recently published results of our data shows that couple therapy at Tavistock Relationships indeed effective.
You can read the recognition we have received about the evidence that our approach works from expert professional sources here.
So come in from the cold and book an initial consultation with one of our therapists so that you can take the temperature of the couple relationship and - if it feels like the right way forward - seek couple or individual therapy at Tavistock Relationships. You can book an appointment to see us in London.
Alternatively if you can’t access our central London offices, our Online therapy is available here.