Pardis Samiee, Integrative therapist & Marketing Manager at Tavistock Relationships, explains why life transitions, whether big or small, can affect our relationships.
Life transitions include the milestones that, from a young age, we might expect or want to happen. These can include getting married, having children, buying a house, starting a new job and retiring.
Some transitions are unwanted and unplanned, for example redundancy, illness and bereavement.
Whilst we may assume planned events like marriages and new jobs might be positive moves, they may still leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious or stressed. For example, we may think the birth of a child is a welcome and happy time for a couple, but such a major life change can also present challenges.
Change and uncertainty
Whether planned or unplanned, positive or negative, life transitions bring change into our lives. And of course change can alter how we feel, for example from feeling comfortable and stable to unsettled and agitated.
The emotions that change can evoke can often control our feelings and subsequent behaviour. Our reactions are very individual, so every transition, whether big or small, can affect the relationships we have with those closest to us.
Loss, and the loss of control
Most human beings crave security. Indeed, we tend to thrive most effectively as a consequence of a deep emotional connection and attachment to our care-giver(s). The loss of control that change can cause therefore, regardless of the circumstances, can leave us feeling a whole range of emotions, from fear and frustration to anger and anxiety.
The resulting behaviours can put strain and pressure on even the most stable of relationships.
Unplanned change, such as the loss of child, can be traumatic and particularly difficult for couples to deal with. In fact, loss is a common theme as we transition through life. Whether we lose a job, a way of living or purpose, feelings of loss can leave us feeling the same emotions as those stemming from a bereavement.
We all work through the stages of grief - denial to anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - at different rates. Our different responses to these emotions can leave us feeling irritable, pre-occupied and dissatisfied in our relationships and cause us to complain, criticise and blame.
We all have different coping mechanisms
The way we cope with life changes is based on a very individual mix of genes, previous experience and our environment. So it’s no surprise that we often deal with the same adjustment in a very different way from our partner.
It can be particularly challenging when we become frustrated with our partner’s way of dealing with change. Whilst one partner may withdraw, the other might want to discuss the situation. When one partner wants to fix a problem, the other might see things as far more complex. As a result, we risk becoming disconnected and less intimate with one another.
Therapy for life transitions
Relationship therapy can be a highly effective way of coping with periods in our lives that feel overwhelming and difficult to manage as a couple. Therapists can help in a number of ways:
- Slowing things down - when everything feels confused we need time to think about our responses to situations. Therapists can help us focus on what we can control, and less on uncertainty and loss.
- Acknowledging each other’s emotions - being heard and understood during life transitions can make a real difference. A therapist can explore why we feel a certain way, and help us understand feelings and emotions from each other’s perspective.
- Dealing with things together - when we react in different ways to life transitions we can feel we are on our own, and withdraw from each other. Therapists work with couples to understand what they need and how best to support each other, so that we turn to one another, rather than away.
Scenarios in which relationship therapy may be able to help couples navigate major life transitions
Sarah and Matt met seven years ago and have two children, aged five and three. They found starting a family and parenting challenging before Covid-19. But the stress of lockdowns, financial instability and working from home has intensified their issues. They know the conflict between them is having an impact on their children, and they want to manage their disagreements better to create a more stable family atmosphere.
Tavistock Relationships offers a number of programmes designed specifically to help with parenting and family life. Whether together or separated, straight, gay or lesbian, you can find support and help for your individual situation.
Monica and Tim have been married for 42 years. They have always found strength and support in each other, for example when they struggled to conceive and when they experienced the loss of loved ones. Tim has recently been diagnosed with dementia. Life has been more challenging for a while. Although the diagnosis brings some clarity, both are finding the changes to their quality of life and decreasing connection difficult to cope with.
All shock diagnoses and health concerns can put considerable strain on even the strongest of relationships. Counselling at Tavistock Relationships can help you manage the distress together and understand each other’s way of coping.
Our ‘Living together with Dementia’ programme aims to improve the quality of life and mental health of couples living with dementia.
Sally and David have enjoyed a happy and healthy 35 years together. As they both approach their 60th birthdays, they are facing a very different life. Their children have left home, and as they look to take early retirement they are both apprehensive about what it means for them as a couple.
Couple therapy doesn’t have to focus on a life transition that has already caused significant problems. If we recognise that we are feeling anxious or stressed about an anticipated change, talking to a counsellor can help us understand where the feelings are coming from and how to address any emerging issues.
Tavistock Relationships offers a specific Couples 50+ MOT that can help with this difficult transition in life. The intervention promotes resilience to face the inevitable changes to the couple relationship at this time of life.
Sophie and Emma are really struggling to communicate after the sudden loss of Emma’s mother. Emma and her mother were particularly close, and Emma suddenly feels very alone and distant from Sophie. Sophie feels pushed out as the family come together to mourn their loss. Bereavements can really test the strength of a relationship. If you are experiencing difficulties, relationship therapy can help you understand your own grief, the feelings of your partner and find ways to listen and support one another.