Is it time for couples counselling?

More couples decide to separate in January than any other time during the year. We can not conclusively say why this is so – however, the holiday season can place extra pressure and scrutiny on fragile relationships.

Often negative patterns of behaviour and communication between couples have developed over time, leading one or both partners to feel increasingly unhappy in the relationship. Eventually the time can come when one or both parties decides something needs to change if their relationship is going to continue.

Separation is sometimes appropriate when other options have been exhausted. However, many couples can benefit from exploring and working on their relationship issues with a counsellor or psychotherapist. Couples counselling aims to look at what isn’t working well in the relationship, how the individuals perceive what is happening in the relationship, or what might be missing. Over the course of counselling, the couple will work with their counsellor to develop awareness about how the individuals impact on each other, and hopefully generate skills to approach their relationship differently in the future.

Some common relationship problems

(1) Negative reciprocity

Often, negative patterns of behaviour between partners can emerge which is then maintained. When one partner behaves negatively towards the other this increases likelihood that the partner will then respond negatively as well (Epstein & Baucom, 2002). This pattern can create a downward spiral which can lead the couple to feel ‘trapped’ in this dysfunctional pattern of relating.

(2) Different standards and expectations about conducting relationships

Different partners often hold personal standards and understandings about how to behave, communicate in and negotiate relationships. (Epstein & Baucom, 2002). For example, partners may have different views on what is ‘appropriate or desirable’ expression of emotions in relationships. Standards and relationship beliefs often stem from individuals own past relationship experiences and/ or cultural factors.

(3) Pre-established patterns of behaviour

People are also thought to develop their style of human relating as a consequence of early experiences relating to others, usually parents or caregivers (Bobes & Rothman, 1998). These styles of relating are then carried forward into adulthood. An adult may respond to their romantic partners because an old pattern of behaviour has been triggered, and re-enacted without the individual being aware this is what is happening.

There are many more factors that can be associated with relationship problems. Every individual and every relationship is different. Big decisions or negotiating life stages can put additional pressure on the relationship, e.g. moving in together, having children, retirement (Carter & McGoldrick, 1999).

How can couples counselling help?

Couples counselling does not aim to identify who is at ‘fault’ in the relationship. Instead, couples counselling aims to first of all explore how both partners perceive the relationship, and what is going on in the relationship separately. It helps to explore the individual needs of both people, as well as their respective relationship needs.

Hopefully, by developing awareness about why relationship difficulties have come about and are persisting, the couple can then be pro-active to ‘stop the rot’ and entertain the prospect of healthier ways of relating. Both members of the dyad are then in the position to make ‘choices’ about how they want to relate to each other in the future.

Making the decision to come to couples counselling is by no means easy. It will be important for couples to be open-minded and entertain the possibility of accepting change to improve the quality of the relationship. Some form of personal compromise is likely unavoidable. Most likely one partner will initially be more motivated than the other to commence counselling. This is fine and to be expected. The question is whether you are motivated enough to try and work on a relationship that is worth saving?

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