How to improve your relationship
A sexologist and relationship counsellor who specialises in working with same-sex couples, I caught up with Justin Duwe for some insights as to how he helps couples to rescue and rebuild their relationships.
Why do relationships often seem such hard work?
Just like we need oxygen to breathe, as people we have emotional needs - we need to connect with other people, and we need to feel a sense of security within relationships.
However, a lot of the couples that I see in counselling find that their relationships are under stress because they’re missing the subconscious emotional cues that they’re giving each other.
Being able to identify and read these underlying emotional needs is the key to successful relationships.
What’s the process that you follow when beginning to work with a couple who are seeking relationship counselling?
Ninety-nine percent of couples that we see in counselling are in a crisis and they’re actively considering breaking up or separating. Even at that stage, it’s not too late to repair the relationship - if both partners are committed to the relationship.
The first step is to ensure that the couple are good candidates for counselling. For example if there are issues such as infidelity or abuse - physical, sexual, or emotional - then those issues really have to be resolved before any relationship counselling can begin. It’s important to be sure that the relationship that you’re trying to stay in is a healthy one.
Once we decide to go ahead, usually we start with an initial meeting together with both partners present, followed by individual discussions, then coming together to work collaboratively to identify the issues that the couple would like to work on.
The main priority is for both partners to learn how to communicate and how to listen differently.
It’s about learning to connect with each other’s underlying emotions. We use structured questioning to encourage both partners to speak honestly and openly.
Once you can begin to look beyond the obvious secondary emotions - such as anger - and understand each other’s underlying emotions, then this helps the relationship to grow.
Conflict in a relationship is something I always struggle to deal with - what’s the best approach to take when your partner gets angry at times of tension or conflict?
Anger is a clear emotional cue or signal, however anger is usually a secondary emotion. If you become angry or upset when there’s some sort of dispute or point of conflict, it’s likely that there’s also something deeper going on - possibly linking to feelings of fear, dis-empowerment, abandonment, betrayal, or insecurity. Instead of us being able to focus on these underlying emotions, the anger tends to overshadow everything else.
The best way to diffuse a conflict situation when there’s anger involved is to slow it down - anger has a real physiological effect on our bodies and it takes about 20 minutes for those to subside. The best tactic is to agree to get some space and then fix a time to come back to discuss the issue at a later point.
At this point, direct communication is the best approach. Don’t be afraid to say - ’I need some space right now.’ If you’re trying to indirectly communicate that you need space and your partner doesn’t pick up on that, then it’s only going to compound the issue.
Once you’ve both calmed down, you can ask yourself or each other - ’What is it that I’m actually angry about?’ This helps you to become more aware of the underlying emotions that might be triggering that anger.
Another way of looking at it is to consider the context of the situation when the anger arose:
- What am I doing when the anger arises?
- What is my partner doing at that time?
- What are my feelings at that time? Am I feeling lonely? Worried that my partner won’t be there for me?
You may find that the anger is actually stemming from an underlying attachment trauma.
Attachment trauma is often referred to as ’emotional baggage’ but I think that has too much of a negative connotation. We all bring our past experiences and behaviours with us into a relationship. Couples should try and understand the attachment trauma that they’re each bringing to the relationship. Once you can understand whether it’s something about you or about the relationship, then you can talk about it constructively.
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I’m often told that I seem to have a problem with intimacy - how could I work on that?
A lot of people have ‘issues’ with intimacy. We all have a fundamental need for connection and intimacy with others, but usually in a relationship there’s a pursuer and a distancer - both with intimacy needs, but both looking to fulfil them in different ways.
This is where we come back to the concept of ‘attachment trauma’ - your childhood and your past relationship experience will have a direct impact on the level of intimacy that you display, and how you manage conflict within a relationship.
Do people get better at relationships as they get older?
Sometimes. I’ve worked with people of all ages, it depends on the individual and their past experiences. Typically, younger people tend to have more issues and possibly unrealistic expectations. Life experience can help, but relationships are challenging whoever you are.
The key thing is to remember that your relationship is what you create together - your relationship and your life is the product of the choices that you both make.
If you’re both committed to working together to improve your relationship, then you need to learn how to make different choices, and learn how to communicate effectively with each other.