Five steps to the perfect relationship
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. As I sat chatting with relationship counsellor Nicholas Rose, I couldn’t help wishing that I’d this kind of conversation in my early 20s - but then I guess I wouldn’t have had the experience of numerous failed relationships to make me fully appreciate the pearls of wisdom that Rose was sharing.
Rose specialises in same-sex relationship counselling, in his view:
“Gender does add an additional dynamic and complexity to same-sex couples, but gay and straight couples generally follow a similar cycle in their relationships.”
According to Rose, relationships generally go through three main phases:
- Storming: The passionate beginning of the relationship.
- Forming: Agreements, boundaries and expectations begin to be established.
- Norming: When routines and patterns begin to be established.
Of course, couples can experience issues at any of these stages of the relationship cycle. According to Rose, the underlying cause of relationship problems is generally to do with change of some kind:
“It’s essentially a breakdown in understanding between the two partners - something that was previously clear has now become unclear. For example one of the partners may suddenly be working long hours and it may not be clear to both people why this is happening, or the frequency of sexual contact may have diminished over time and this is causing confusion, or one partner may want to change the agreed boundaries regarding sleeping with other people or where Christmas is spent. All of these are examples of how a change of some kind can negatively impact a previously stable relationship.”
Based on his experience with clients, Rose categorises the most common change triggers as being:
- Bereavement or loss
- Issues around children
- Health issues
- Financial issues
But what makes some couples realise that they have an issue and to seek counselling to help overcome it, while other couples choose to walk away from the relationship? According to Rose, there are generally a range of factors:
“Often, one of the couple has had a positive experience with counselling in the past, or friends may have intervened and suggested counselling, or a specific argument has been so destructive that they’ve realised that they need professional help.”
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Rose suggests that the length of the relationship also seems to play a key factor:
“Human attachments form and generally strengthen over time, so the longer that you’re in a relationship the harder it is to leave. Six months in it may be relatively easy to walk away from someone - after 15 years that’s a much tougher proposition.”
Rose advises that a healthy partnership will generally enable the couple to:
- Mediate: The couple are able to identify the source of conflict and agree a compromise.
- Referee: If there is a point of conflict then the conflict is contained and worked through - as opposed to escalating out of control.
- Facilitate: Able to listen and speak with each other without blaming.
At the start of a counselling programme, Rose often finds himself stepping in to play the role of referee - but his aim is to work with the couple so that they develop the tools and techniques that enable them to effectively use this communication framework themselves.
“At the start, it’s often as simple as showing a couple that’s okay to call a ‘time out’ or to agree a safety-word. Once the couple have learnt how to prevent conflict escalation, they can move forward to start to look at the issues causing the conflict and work to understand each other’s points of view. The bottom line is that there is no right and wrong, it’s about finding the right way for that couple to communicate - they have to have a commitment to reach agreement, this will then enable them to rebuild trust and intimacy.”
Always keen to learn from the mistakes of others, I quiz Rose on how to spot relationship problems and deal with them before counselling becomes the only solution. He suggests five easy steps you can take:
- Look for change and articulate this to your partner: For example, “I notice that we don’t hold hands in the street any more, I wonder why that might be?” or “You shouted at me today, you haven’t done that before, what’s happened?” The key here is to articulate your questions in a safe way, not to be confrontational.
- Don’t make excuses for the other person by interpreting their behaviour: For example, “We haven’t had sex for a while, I guess he must be stressed about work.” Avoiding a problem will only compound the issue.
- Make regular time for each other: This is particularly important as your relationship matures.
- Never assume that you understand your partner or that they understand you. Humans are complex and emotional beings.
- Don’t leave it too late before seeking professional help.