Communication is at the heart of relationships. If we feel we can’t tell those closest to us how we really feel, what’s really going on in our lives or what we’re not happy about, we may end up feeling distanced and isolated. Communication difficulties aren’t always about not being able to say what we feel – it may be that we keep saying how we feel, but nothing changes. We may feel as if we have the same conversation or row with our partner on a regular basis and nothing happens. Repeating rows and arguments is something relationship counsellors are very used to dealing with. Not being heard is just as difficult as not being able to say what we feel.
Another big area that affects relationships is changes caused by life events – children arriving, parents ageing, changing work patterns and losses of all sorts. Changes in our daily lives can be difficult to adapt to, whether or not we have planned and welcomed them. Having a baby might be the most wonderful thing that has happened to you, but it also disrupts your lives, means that nothing is ever going to be the same again and takes a lot of adapting to. Likewise, getting the job you’ve always wanted. We can often be perplexed and distressed by the feelings we have about changes in our lives, even if we wanted and planned those changes ourselves. This can then place a strain on our relationships. We help couples to manage these big changes.
Changes in families, through changing partners, divorce or death, can cause difficulties. As a couple, you may be delighted to have found a new partner, your children may be happy for you, but less than delighted with a different parent figure and new step brothers and sisters joining the family. What starts off as a new life can soon seem such a tangle you wonder whether it was worth it. We often help couples to work out the changes that have occurred and explore ways of managing those changes.
Sometimes couples come to counselling when affairs enter in their lives and cause immense pain and difficulty. Couples often come when an affair has been revealed or discovered. Counselling can help couples manage the immediate pain and disruption and offer a space where they can work through this and look at how they can move forward. Affairs sometimes end relationships, but this isn’t always so. Sometimes they help couples to look at what wasn’t working in their relationship and what they might need to do to build a different relationship for the future.
Loss covers a whole range of issues that people bring. At times, some losses can feel almost too big to hold within relationships. Examples are: the loss of a parent; the loss of a child, or not being able to have a child; and the loss of a job or home. Counselling can help by giving you a safe space where you can explore your pain. Loss can also involve the loss of an ideal, a future or a dream, and as we age, such losses can become more evident.
Is it sex or is it the relationship? Couples often come for counselling saying that sex is a problem, that they haven’t had sex for a while and this is what they want fixing. However, as we listen we often discover that their relationship hasn’t been good for a while either and that maybe they are rowing and resentful of each other. It’s not surprising that their sex life isn’t as good as it could be. Counselling can help you explore whether it’s your relationship that’s affecting your sex life or whether there is a deeper sexual difficulty. All our counsellors are trained to explore couples’ sexual relationships and some counsellors also have additional in-depth training in working with a range of specific sexual difficulties. Please refer to the section on sexual difficulties [link] for more information.
Work, life, children, parents, study – they can all take our energy away from our relationships. Then one day you begin to realise that you don’t know what’s going on for your partner and wonder whether they know what’s going on for you. Maybe you sensed a while back that things weren’t going as well as they used to, or that you don’t seem to spend as much time together as you used to. It doesn’t really matter how it happened; what you notice are the gaps and silences that have developed between you. Counselling can help you to explore what went wrong and help to look at how to bridge those gaps.
Most relationships will experience conflict at some point. Disagreements and rows can be healthy when they are used to help move things on. When they get stuck and the same row is repeated month after month, however, they are not productive. Couples often talk about switching off when a row starts because they know how it is going to end. There is a certain safety in knowing the route and destination of a row, but it doesn’t actually make any change in the situation – it just allows steam to be let off and the pressure reduced until the next time. Being able to disagree and row with positive results is what really helps relationships to develop.
Sometimes rows can get out of hand. Domestic violence or other forms of abuse of power – for example, being made to have sex when you don’t want it, not being able to see friends or family, and being kept short of money – need to be taken seriously. If you feel you are in a relationship where you are being controlled by your partner, we would want to see you on your own to start with. If you tell us that you are in an abusive relationship when you contact us, we will arrange to see you on your own.
If you are concerned about your safety, we would strongly advise that you also contact one of the support agencies, such as Scottish Women’s Aid for further help and support. Violence or abuse of power is never acceptable within a relationship.
We do not usually work with couples together if domestic violence is an issue because we know that it can make the situation worse. However, we would discuss with you how we could work with you individually, or help you find the right help.
Just because a couple have come for counselling doesn’t mean they have the same goals. One partner may want the relationship to continue, whereas the other may want to leave. This is a difficult place for you to be – counselling can help by giving the space to explore all the options and possibilities. We are not here to tell people what to do or how to live their lives. We are here to help them talk through what they want.
People come for counselling to help explore where they want their relationship to go – to see if it can move in another direction or decide whether they need to leave. Ending a relationship is never an easy choice, especially if children or other family members are involved. Counselling can offer a neutral space where you can work through the ending, either individually or as a couple.