There are some big changes ahead that will soon alter the accessibility of couples therapy here in New Zealand. The six sessions that have been traditionally funded by the New Zealand Family Court, and have therefore been free to all couples will soon be discontinued. The government claims that it does not have any place involving itself in relationships. So convinced was the government that it had no business involving itself in this domain, the minister announced that funding for couple counselling would be discontinued, even before the results of a fairly extensive review of the functioning of the Family Court was announced. In the end though, it's all about balancing the books, and this of course is the driving factor in this change of policy. But, forget the government for a few minutes (they've probably forgotten about you already). Because further down the page, you will discover two simple, yet very important ingredients that will sustain your relationship, and potentially put many couples therapists such as me, out of work. (Hey, I'll cope....).
I've been meeting with an increased number of couples lately as they try and get issues in their relationships sorted. Maybe they have heard about the funding changes that are ahead, or maybe they just felt it was time to roll their sleeves up and address things . Either way, this is good for me (I like to be busy, and I especially like to see the changes that a motivated couple can bring to their relationship) and it's good for them, as most issues that contribute to difficulties in relationships are very fixable, so long as the partners do not let the issues sit there and go unattended to.
As I've said on these pages several times before, relationships need to be worked at. Couples with healthy relationships generally realise that whilst things can be challenging at times, the relationship will generally do OK, so long as it is not taken for granted, and that it is frequently attended to, almost in the same way that you would attend to the needs of another person. Such attention and/or work can of course be in the presence of a therapist, but over time, couples need to be able to look after their relationships themselves, and need to make sure that tending it becomes a regular part of their lives.
I know for some people, the whole idea of combining the terms 'work' and 'relationship' together in the same sentence do not even make sense, that for them, the two words do not even really fit together. However, like most things in life that are important to us, we have to put in at least some effort. And here's the thing: the people who are in what we might describe as successful relationships know this already: they do not take the relationship for granted, they work at it.
It's good for couples to think about conflict in their relationship and how it wound up there. I know I've talked about ways of managing this in earlier postings. And no doubt I'll do so again, because I think this is so important. But it's useful to think too about what is behind the conflict in the first place. A lot of the conflict in our relationships (not just couple relationships) is about minor stuff - I've noticed from being exposed to a lot of conflict situations over the years, that the players involved are often stunned by the relatively minor nature of what the conflict was about in the first place.
You probably have your own ideas as to why people (especially those in couple relationships) have conflict. And I thought I had a pretty good understanding about this also. The usual things that are likely to spring to mind for most of us are areas such as money, disagreements about kids, problems with wider family. But it also turns out that things can be bit more complex than many of us might imagine. The more substantial conflicts, which if not addressed can be potentially damaging to the relationship, are not always so obvious. Let me explain further: A major study at the University of Michigan back in 1989 (but still very relevant) which involved six hundred participants, discovered that although there were gender similarities around conflict, there were also some fairly big differences. But before I mention these, I need to say yet again, that conflict is OK. It's part of being human, and it's actually necessary for several reasons that I won't go into today. What is not necessary or OK, however, is when it's not managed, and when it then becomes destructive to relationships.
So what are these other sources of conflict in couple relationships? For starters this research discovered that women would feel there was issues in the relationship if they feel neglected by their partners, meanwhile men perceiving conflict, were likely to feel that women were self-absorbed. Women also complained about their partners being condescending, and the men in the study claimed that women were moody.
John Gottman at the University of Washington had similar findings in his research, noting that the men involved in the study fond women to be too immersed in their feelings, and were often overly emotional, whereas their partners were likely to describe the men as emotionally distant or closed-down.
Not surprisingly, there were differences around the intimate aspects of the relationship. Men claimed that women were withholding or controlling with sex, whereas women claimed that men don't get the bigger picture with sex, that it needs to occur within a climate of closeness and that on-going affection needs to be part of the bigger relationship picture. Women also felt troubled by partners who were sexually demanding, but also by partners who generally treated them in a condescending manner, or viewed them as being less able to understand things in a way that men might. They also did not like it when partners offered them practical solutions to emotional problems.
Similarities for partners of both genders were that infidelity was a very likely source of conflict and was likely to be very damaging to the relationship. Also both men and women cited abusive or aggressive behaviour as being damaging to the relationship, as well as partners openly admiring people of the opposite sex.
John Gottman also offered something that I thought was very significant. He claimed that the biggest cause of conflict, which over-rode all of the factors mentioned above, is that whether or not partners of either sex feel loved and respected. The absence of these ingredients in a relationship means that it's likely to get in to a major downward spiral.
Even though this all of this stuff above does not sound very good for relationships and can lead to big conflict if left unchecked, the reassuring thing to remember that with some conscious effort, and some hard work (yep - back to that again), it is all very fixable. There is probably no relationship that is so wrecked that it cannot be fixed, so long as BOTH partners are ready and motivated to do something about it. And also, the importance of what we might describe as the pure basics of LOVE and RESPECT: when other points of conflict sneak in, by managing to stay focused on love and respect, and managing these in sincere and genuine ways, then all the other stuff will be so much more easily negotiated.
So put a therapist out of a job today. Work on your relationship - it's like a small child, in that it cannot be left to look after itself. And regardless of what the issues are, keep demonstrating love and respect to your partner.
If you missed what I said earlier in the year about the importance of being taking charge of your relationship, jump over here and read about the importance of staying focused on keeping your relationship functional and healthy. Or you can access a useful quizz here, if you want to look further at the quality of the communication in your relationship.
Talk soon.... or if you live in Christchurch NZ, and you want some face to face help with your relationship, feel free to contact me here.
"Some occasional thoughts about families, relationships, and other things that distract us...."