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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Couple Counselling – and just when is a discussion an argument

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One issue which can bring clients into a therapy room relates to those misgivings about what is normal. These concerns can include our thoughts and fantasies, behaviours, perhaps our sugar, alcohol or carbohydrate intake or those interactions with others whether that other person is a child, lover, parent or partner.

There can be very real apprehension that things are not right, that this way of being is not right and perhaps even 'that I am not normal'.  Within couple work or relationship counselling that concern can often transfer across into ‘we’. It relates to ‘us’ or ‘our way of doing things’. Are we normal? Is this what other couples do?

I have never been a great fan of looking to the ‘normal’ as a guide for how to live or how to be. And that includes my views on relationships.  This is your life, your relationship and it is up to you and your partner to decide how to be together.  You can establish your own normal.  You can both own your normality.

Perhaps for couples the real challenge comes when there is a discontinuity of view between partners about just what is normal within the relationship. There is something about what we each expect and just what are we okay with. What is our frame of reference and do we still see things in the same way as our partner.

For example when does the verbal interaction which one of us sees as an animated discussion which can be fun suddenly become a destructive argument which is confrontational; and when does sitting together without talking go from being a reflection of warm companionship to instead evidencing  a place  of stultifying boredom?

Ideally couples will have shared views on what is acceptable and will have established a behaviour pattern which works and becomes a norm for that relationship.  Yet sometimes very real differences develope.  Marginal differences are acceptable but clients usually walk into the couple therapy room when that gap threatens to become too wide and fault lines start appearing.

It can be helpful to go back to basics.  What is going on now against what was anticipated when we first met?  What did we expect from each other and from the relationship?  What do we want now? And how have we dealt with inevitable changes wrought by passing years such as children, redundancy, loss, financial concerns together with all the other happenings, some good and some not, which life brings?   How do we now define normal? And just what do we both see as a successful relationship?

Sometimes when ‘playing’ with ideas in the therapy room including that of the so called ‘failed relationship’ I invite views as to which relationship is the more successful.  Is it the couple who live together through to their golden anniversary and beyond, nestling safe in suburbia with 2.4 children plus dog, with a placid gentle relationship with no surprises, no disappointments but perhaps for many years also no excitement; or is it the couple who spend a year together which is passionate, dynamic, deep, incredibly inspiring and stimulating - and which then abruptly ends? 

Which relationship has worked and which has not? Which is successful?

Perhaps we will all have different thoughts on this and similar images. There will be the fantasy from the motion picture and the reality of life in the now.

The evaluation, the judging as to whether relationships has been a success or failure is intensely personal. It reflects dreams, aspirations and expectations. If I go back to the sage of my formative years, Dylan (he now of the Nobel prize for literature) writes that ‘there is no success like failure and that failure is no success at all’. That may be nonsense or profound dependent upon your point of view.   How we want to view success and failure in our relationship will also depend upon the view that we take.

Donald Winnicott, a renowned paediatrician and psychoanalyst made reference to the concept of ‘good enough’. It is an idea that I often return to.  Winnicott maintained a particular focus on mothers and children but this notion of being ‘good enough’ resonates across many different aspects of the human condition including relationships.

Just what is ‘good enough’ as far as this relationship is concerned.  And where does that leave the clients who are wondering about what is normal.

It may be helpful to find some quiet time and space to do that thinking. Perhaps that is where the therapy room can be an effective place whether sitting together with a partner or just with the therapist and you.

What did I want? What did I really expect? How close is my current reality to those dreams both past and present?   If on reflection the relationship is good enough that would suggest that your normality works for you irrespective of what the rest of the world thinks.

But what if the gap is becoming too great. Your sense of normality, relationships and being, may be moving too far away from that held by the other person.  If the chimes of discontent in the relationship are increasing in volume from a faint jingling to becoming a discordant clamour then that emotional noise may be too difficult to ignore?

And in those cases perhaps you do have some decisions to make?







Geoff Boutle

added on 1st November 2016

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