You! Yes, you! You should go to relationship counselling! OK, maybe not ALL of you, but most of my traffic comes from search so the majority of you are reading this because you googled ‘relationship counselling’, wondering if it was something you should try. Maybe you have worries about relationship counselling and you’d like me to assuage them. Maybe you’re just curious about what goes on behind the counsellor’s door. Or perhaps you’re already convinced that you want to do it, but you need (or your partner needs) that final nudge before you take the plunge. If that’s what you’re after, I’m here for you. Here are five valuable things I got from relationship counselling.
My partner and I went to relationship counselling for about eight months last year. We did it for a whole bunch of reasons, all of which could essentially be summed up with ‘we couldn’t remember how to be nice to each other.’ We still loved each other deeply, and we wanted to stay together, but we’d forgotten how to actually make the other person happy. I was so wrapped up in my own self pitying anxiety that I couldn’t understand why he didn’t pity me too. He was so convinced that my sadness was a weapon with which to hurt him that he didn’t pay attention to the reasons I was sad.
We had a lot of fights. Even the nicest activities turned into hellish battles where we fought back-and-forth over seemingly inconsequential things. And all the while we were fighting, we were also both desperately missing each other. Where did my kind, caring partner go? And who replaced him with this shouty, callous arsehole? I’m sure his thoughts were along similar lines: what happened to my feisty, funny girlfriend? And who’s this bitchy, weeping wreck?
We were fucked, I tell you. Fucked.
Then we went to relationship counselling, and now I’m an evangelist. I cannot shut up about it. Since we went, I have told every single one of my friends, and anyone in my family who will listen. And finally, now that enough time’s passed since we finished our sessions, I’m ready to tell all of you.
This is going to be the first in a series of posts about relationship counselling, because you can’t really sum up something so big and important with just one article. But I’m starting with the most important thing, in my opinion: the decision to go in the first place.
“He’d never go to relationship counselling.”
As I mentioned, I’m an evangelist, and in the course of evangelising to friends and family about relationship counselling, the most common thing I hear from people who are thinking about it is this:
“He’d never do that.”
And it’s always a ‘he.’ Let’s be honest here: men find it harder to go to counselling. They find it more difficult to seek help for emotional and mental health issues. It’s why suicide is one of the biggest killers of young men in the UK, and it’s why charities like CALM are working hard to try and encourage men to talk more about how they feel, so they can get the support that they badly need. Men, as a general rule, are less inclined to go to counselling, because for men the very word ‘counselling’ has a huge stigma attached. That stigma is there for women too – I’ve noted the slightly odd looks people give me when I’ve happily chatted about it, as if the very fact that my partner and I wanted to work on our relationship should be treated as a dirty little secret. But the stigma seems to be much harder for men to overcome, and as a result it may be harder to persuade guys to access counselling support than women.
No matter what your gender or the gender of your partner, I’m afraid there are no magic words I can say here that will persuade them to come to relationship counselling with you. But what I can do is tell you why it worked for us, and hopefully give you something to talk to each other about when you’re making your own decision.
1. It gave us a set time/place each week to talk to and about each other
If you read almost any article about relationships, there’ll usually be a section on ‘making time for each other.’ This might be in the form of a date night or something similar. A night where you make it all about you: turn off your phones, look into each other’s eyes, all that jazz. This is a cool idea, and I’m well up for doing this as well, but the difference with counselling is that not only is it time you set aside to talk to each other, it’s also externally set. You’re reliant on your counsellor, and they’re reliant on you turning up. I’ve done ‘date nights’ and I’ve done counselling, and I can tell you that if you need a nudge to actually do what you say you’re going to do (as we both definitely did!) then having that appointment each week is a great way to make sure you do it.
2. Counsellors ask questions you’d never have thought to ask yourself
During the more difficult patches of our Horrible Year 2016/7, the only questions I could think to ask my partner consisted mostly of howls of my own pain and sadness. “Why don’t you LISTEN to me?” or “How can you not understand why that’s hurtful?”
When we sat down with a counsellor, one of the first things she asked us was “What were the primary romantic relationships you saw when you were growing up?” We each spent a while talking through our family history – parents, step-parents, grandparents – and the ways in which each of these couples modelled love. We’d already met each other’s parents, of course, and we knew roughly what the other’s childhood looked like, but discussing it in this way, led by a counsellor probing at all the right questions, gave each of us a much deeper understanding of where the other one was coming from.
For example: my other half shouts sometimes when he’s angry and we’re having a fight. When he shouts, I leave the room to go and hide. I do this because when I was younger, shouting was powerfully terrifying and significant. When he was younger, shouting was a necessary and important way to get a point across. It was a brief, loud blast on an air horn to say ‘I’M HERE PAY ATTENTION.’ In my house it was an ominous siren ringing to spell out doom.
I didn’t understand why he’d shout, and I took every second of raised voice as a warning flag that told me to run. He didn’t understand why I’d want to run, and felt like I was using my silence/disappearance as a way to control him. Just having this conversation made us both understand the other a little better, so now when we fight we do it more constructively.
3. Relationship counselling teaches you how to argue
This sounds like a weird one, because I think we often labour under the delusion that the ‘best’ relationships are ones that don’t involve arguments or conflict. You’re meant to skip through life on a loved-up high, enjoying every single second of your time together, with no horrible rows over the washing up to distract you. Well, that’s bollocks. All relationships will include conflict at some point, it’s how you navigate that conflict that really matters.
When we first got together, we were pretty good at arguing – and, crucially, making up. We had a system. But it didn’t work forever – after a while we started having longer rows, and each one would bleed through into the next so we could never really be sure if we were fighting about money, politics, who’s turn it was to do the washing up or whether we should pack it all in.
I was the world’s worst person to get into an argument with. I have a philosophy degree, so I was literally trained for three years in how to argue like a smug arsehole. What’s more, I am now a blogger, so much of my job involves persuading people to do stuff – whether that’s buying new sex toys or coming round to a particular point of view, persuasion is my bread and butter. I’m also articulate, focused and I have a very long memory when it comes to scoring points. My partner is – and has – none of those things. He is just a kind, gentle person who feels sad sometimes, and is baffled when his sadness is met with counterpoints, analogies, and a five-point-plan that illustrates why I’m right.
This does not make for great arguments. It makes for horrible arguments, which leave both of us feeling drained and miserable and like the other person hates us, with no insight into why the argument started in the first place. Relationship counselling gave us the skills we needed to talk about these things effectively: in a way that was kind to each other and didn’t dismiss what the other one said.
4. Relationship counselling gives you time to breathe
This is the most important point, and it’s the one my other half wanted me to hammer home when I asked him if I could write about this. Some things in our lives never make it to the blog, because he’s nervous or I’m nervous and we’d rather not share. But when it comes to counselling, he was happy for me to write about it, because he wanted other people to get the same feeling he did: that big wave of relief when you accept you’ve got a problem, and you take the first step towards fixing it.
The thing about counselling is that once you’ve made the decision to start, you’re effectively flagging something really important: I Want To Make This Work. When you’re in the middle of the hard times, one of the hardest things is clinging on to the belief that your partner is committed to doing this. You’re walking on eggshells in case you say something that kicks off a fight, and every fight feels like it could be the last. You live under a constant cloud of doubt, wondering if this person is going to leave you. As a result, you never really get to talk about the things you want to, because it’s possible that your off-hand comment could spark the beginning of the end.
That all stops when you pick up the phone and book your first session. Well, it did for us at any rate. The fact that we’d signed up to counselling, on the understanding that it might take months, meant that we gave ourselves a break for those few months. We still fought, of course, and we’d bring the snippets of rage and misery along to our sessions so we could dissect them with our counsellor and work out what the problem was. But those flashes of rage and misery were no longer as torturous as they’d been before, because we’d both signed on the dotted line to say ‘we’d like to end this if we can please!’
It was no longer ‘me versus him’, but ‘us versus the problem’, and just the fact that both of us admitted there was a problem made a significant and valuable difference.
5. You get to become an expert on ‘you’
Let’s face it, your friends are going to get super bored if you spend too much time telling them how much you love your partner. It’s not really the done thing to dominate pub conversations with monologues about the love of your life. But if that person really is a significant love of your life, you probably think about them a lot: in good ways and bad ways.
When those conversations and thoughts are all in your head, it can be tricky to get perspective. To understand that this thing they do is precious and cool, and this other thing is harmful or troubling. We get warped perspectives because we have no one to bounce those thoughts off, and we’re also adding our own layers of interpretation to every action they take. For my partner and I, one of our biggest problems is making assumptions: he reads so much into every face I make and every word I say that he ties himself in knots just answering simple questions, because he’s trying to predict the answer I want rather than giving the answer that’s true. Similarly, I’ll often make assumptions about what he thinks, driven by my own catastrophic thinking and low self-esteem, which are entirely the opposite of what he’s actually thinking in his head.
It’s not easy to recognise when you’re doing this, but relationship counselling gives you the opportunity to examine these assumptions – led by someone who can call you out when they spot you doing it – and become better acquainted with what your partner actually thinks.
Should you go to relationship counselling?
There’s so much more I could say here, hence why I’d like to turn this into a series if I can. But if I don’t get time to write more detail on it, the main thing I’d like to say is this: if you’re not sure whether relationship counselling is for you, it probably is. If you came to this article after googling it, wondering whether it could help you out, it probably can. It might not help in exactly the way you expect, but it will buy you the time and the headspace to really explore what’s happening with your relationship. It can teach you new skills for listening and understanding your partner – and these skills aren’t just useful inside romantic relationships, they can help you outside those relationships too.
I’m wary of saying ‘everyone should try this!’ because I spend so much of my time talking about sex. What works for one person will turn another one off, and there’s no universal trick to guarantee that this or that shag will work out, or this or that relationship will last forever. So I’m not going to say that all relationships would benefit from counselling: there are some that can, and should, end. I’m also not saying that longevity is the only quality to measure whether a relationship is successful: I’ve had plenty of wonderful, fulfilling relationships that were short and sweet and breaking up doesn’t have to be the tragedy it’s often painted as. But what I will say is if you’re in a committed relationship, and you feel like something’s broken, relationship counselling might be the best decision you make.
Relationship counselling helped us escape the cycle of the same old fights, and move into a place where we were actively trying to build on things rather than tear them down. When we first walked in to counselling, we knew we still loved each other, in a powerful but abstract way.
Relationship counselling reminded us that ‘love’ is a verb, and we have to practice it every day.
There are lots of different relationship counselling providers, and if you have specific needs it’s well worth Googling around the topic. But for what it’s worth we used Relate. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!