A couple came to see me a year or so ago. They appeared in different Zoom windows because they were in separate houses. A few weeks earlier she had moved out.
Communication between them had broken down. They hadn’t been arguing but had not been “connecting” in the way she thought a married couple should. In the end, she decided enough was enough and left.
How long had the problems been going on, I asked. About a year, he said. About two years, she said.
They had three teenage children. How were they taking the separation, I asked.
I don’t know, she said; they’re not giving much away. Well I don’t think they would want us to be apart, he said. But I think they’d want us to be happy.
It was a sad, low-key meeting. Neither of them shouted. Neither showed frustration. Neither shed tears. It was a relationship that hit the doldrums, then drifted toward danger and was now close to the rocks.
Why didn’t they come to counselling two years ago?
Probably it didn’t occur to them. After all, things were not disastrous.
They co-existed in the same house, not enjoying each other’s company much. But getting on with their busy jobs and doing a ‘good-enough’ job bringing up the children.
There was no crisis to make them sit up and think: we’ve got to do something about this before it’s too late.
It’s a pattern that we see over and over again in the counselling room.
And lockdown has resulted in even more people continuing to live with someone from whom they’ve become increasingly emotionally distant without seeking outside support.
Sadly, for many this has created a ‘cold war’ type atmosphere with couples running separate households and living lives isolated from each other, despite residing in the same house.
And we’ve all seen the figures showing a disturbing rise in domestic violence and abuse situations in lockdown. This illustrates that many are living in dreadful circumstances.
Essential maintenance or emergency service?
So why is it that we don’t regard couples counselling as a standard maintenance cost necessary for the upkeep of our relationships?
Why do we treat such support as an emergency service to call on only when things get really tough?
We talk a lot these days about how mental health is as important as physical health. But are we just paying lip service to it?
Because we still don’t see emotional ‘check-ups’ as as important as physical ones. Particularly when it comes to our relationships.
A new pair of glasses
Part of the issue is that it’s quite tricky to explain precisely what couples counselling gives you.
How eye-opening it can be to have an independent person in the room commenting on the dynamics between you and your other half.
The added clarity and objectivity it gives. To see your partner through someone else’s lens and you hear them say words you’ve probably heard them utter a thousand times but suddenly with a new perspective.
And the feeling of being seen by someone. Your feelings being given weight and meaning without the veil of years of history that distorts our partner’s perspective of us
Hammers and chisels
One damaging implication of the lack of upkeep of our relationships is that, when they do break down, people use tools to deal with it that aren’t fit for purpose.
They may well go straight to a lawyer rather than a therapeutic professional. Unfortunately, their resentments may be so entrenched by that stage that they take a more aggressive approach than is appropriate. They (wrongly) believe that a forceful approach will relieve their distress.
Because (although it may sound counter-intuitive), taking a purely legal approach to relationship breakdown is like using a hammer when actually a chisel is required.
This is what the 2020 Family Solutions Group report ‘What About Me?’ would describe as an excessively ‘justice’-driven response to relationship breakdown.
Any family practitioner worth their salt will tell you that getting fixated on ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ is unhelpful in matters relating to children. Far better to take an approach geared to encouraging co-operative parenting.
The right kind of support is crucial for that. Ideally a holistic approach taken that incorporates law and psychology. And which uses tools such as mediation, collaborative law and which involves therapeutic professionals.
One of the problems is that there is no government department in England dedicated to family and children unlike Wales.
This is not helpful, particularly when you consider Australia who have their Relationship Centres where couples and families can access support, be it counselling, mediation or other resources at all stages of a relationship.
Consideration for relationships and communities appears to be embedded in the fabric of Australian society in a way that it isn’t over here.
We appear to put our relationships to the bottom of the list. Letting them trundle along, yet still expecting them to survive if not thrive.
What to do?
The Family Solutions Group report recommended that Family & Relationship Hubs should be widely available to provide holistic support for separating couples.
But why not have a service that sees people at all stages of their relationship rather than just at the end stage?
At present, many couples only decide to seek help when problems are too painful to bear. That makes it more difficult to repair the relationship than if you catch the problems before they harden into habitual behaviour.
There’s momentum amongst family practitioners to improve and diversify how we help separating couples and families at the moment. So let’s extend this support to earlier on in relationships.
Let’s make it the norm for couples to actively maintain their relationship health just as they would water a plant regularly.
Because if this last year has shown us anything, it’s that our relationships are everything.
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