A brief vignette of relationship counselling…
Rajesh* sank in the sofa. He was convinced that if he tried hard enough he might disappear. Or at least provide a smaller target.
Vidya* on the other hand was animated, fiery. Articulate as always. Vidya had so many words.
She had in a short space of 10 minutes made an airtight case about Rajesh’s utter incompetence as a partner. His emotional unavailability. His absorption in his work. His profound disinterest in Vidya and what Vidya cared about.
Rajesh looked at the therapist. He could swear that when they had walked in he had seen a small, plain man (granted he had a surprising amount of hair for his age). Now what stood across the room was more like a stone golem, arms neatly resting on the armchair, eyes that could burn you to cinders. The golem listened to Vidya very carefully and, occasionally, turned his gaze towards Rajesh, no doubt to inspect the wretched creature that was destroying this woman’s life.
Rajesh felt anxious. He was sure that if he was not careful he would probably make it worse and prove that what Vidya was saying was true. Vidya had given him an ultimatum. It’s therapy or divorce.
She always was a formidable negotiator.
The problem was, as Rajesh would tell you, that he found it hard to articulate things. He was a very practical man, rational to a fault. Vidya had liked how solid he was when they first met. Reliable, safe.
She had experienced considerable mental health problems and had found Rajesh to be a soothing influence on her. What you saw is what you got. Now all she could see was distance, passivity and inertia. She wanted more than she was getting.
Rajesh had been dazzled by Vidya’s elegance and vivaciousness. She seemed to have words for everything. So many words. Now Rajesh found that he didn’t know how to show Vidya that he cared for her. Everything he did seemed wrong. At times he even hated her for making him feel so small. And this thought scared him as much as it saddened him.
Rajesh didn’t really remember it, and wouldn’t for a very long time, but he had felt like this before when he was a little boy. Back then it was his mother who was performing the forensic deconstruction of his character. His father would not get involved. Whatever Rajesh did was not good enough. He had progressively retreated further and further inside himself. But all this was now buried deep in some corner of his mind. All you could see was what you could see.
Vidya had had a father that was cold and unaffectionate. She never felt secure in his love for her. Her mother was absorbed in her extensive social life and mainly paraded her daughter when some self-boosting was needed. But that too, or at least the extent of it (for the more introspective Vidya), was buried in time. Unlike Rajesh Vidya had responded to this deprivation by rebelling and tearing things asunder. Her father had not seemed to have got the memo.
By now Rajesh was convinced that Vidya had found a kindred soul in the therapist and it was a matter of time before the golem spoke and made his judgement about Rajesh.
He tried to sink a little deeper.
It is very common that relationship counselling starts with one partner bringing the other to therapy. The reluctant partner’s views may range from thinking it will be a waste of time to thinking that they will end up being blamed for everything. The example above is not uncommon.
Let’s get one thing straight though.
The relationship therapist doesn’t take sides. Their client is the relationship. This means they are trying to help you learn about the patterns of relating, the dynamics between you. What you do together that may get in the way of having the relationship you want.
So, here is a little guide for the reluctant partner.
Get involved (assume position)
Being “dragged” into therapy may be another version of a familiar experience. You may often withdraw when it comes to your relationship. That could be because you want to avoid conflict or do not believe you can ever say the right thing (like Rajesh above). You partner tries to draw you out and they have brought out the big guns this time. This is of course a pattern that we will be thinking about during therapy.
But what would it be like to use the first session to say what you want from this relationship? To take space. To reintroduce yourself?
Be open (say it)
Being forthcoming about your worries or objections can often provide the opportunity to have them addressed. Again you may have tried, you are never heard, and you have given up. Maybe staying quiet is your only way of maintaining some control in the relationship. Or your way of expressing anger even.
But what would it be like to use the first session to come out of hiding? To show yourself once more and see if, in this new peculiar situation, things might not play out a little different?
Be honest (tell it as it is)
You may be very worried about being honest. People often tell me that they are nervous that:
“If I’m honest I will make things worse. My partner may feel criticized. We will argue more not less. We will open a can of worms in the session and then things will just get worse in the week.”
Again this will be part of our work. To create a space where both partners feel safe with each other. So that the couple may export this outside therapy.
And what about your feelings regarding couples therapy itself? People have told me:
“I feel I need to be able to fix our problems. It’s a sign of failure if we need to outsource this!”
“We are already very busy. It will be stressful to have to meet every week”
“I don’t want to invest in something without having a clear idea of how it is going to look and how it is going to help”
“It’s very embarrassing to open up to a stranger about our intimate lives”
Being open may make you more anxious (at least initially), and it will certainly make you more vulnerable. But it can also provide some relief because you don’t have to feel so alone with your thoughts and feelings. Because in my experience, the reluctant partner has managed to hide so well that they are often lost even to themselves.
By the way. Did my comment above about Vidya and Rajesh’s backgrounds pique your interest? Could you see some similarities between how they experienced their parents and how they experience each other?
Understanding what brings a couple together is crucial in relationship counselling. You may in fact notice that what attracted you to your partner is what troubles you now.
Keep an eye out for my upcoming post blog Couples: Agreements spoken and unspoken.
In the meantime, if you want to try relationship counselling (or individual therapy ) get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (if you want to come to my Liverpool Street practice) or email@example.com (if you can access High Street Kensington). 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.
*These are not real clients, but composites of people I have met over the last 10+ years.