At Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology we’re fortunate to have two couples therapists on our team, Georgia Pierakos and Dr Mariel Sanchez-Rockcliffe.
Georgia has recently joined our team, so we thought we’d take this opportunity to pick her brain about some of the common questions people have about couples therapy and relationships.
So what’s the secret weapon of happy couples?
Happy are couples don’t happen by osmosis. They require concentrated intention to always be in tune with the vibe of the relationship and to be prepared to call time out and work on problems as they arise.
We all get caught up in life’s pressures sometimes, but the task when it comes to relationships is to hold the intention that the relationship is important. Once you both agree that the relationship is the priority you’re half way there in terms of doing the work to keep it ‘happy’. The best recipe for a happy couple is to find a way to grow together in the same direction.
Relationships can be hard work. Why do you think that is?
There is nothing wrong with having some hard times in your relationship, in fact that is a part of growth. Most people notice relationship hardships when they face a life stage change such as moving in together, getting married, having a child, career stressors, financial worries or illness.
Noticing that your relationship is struggling is the most vital step. It means you honour and value your connection with your partner enough to want to try and work through it. This is powerful.
People often come to counselling feeling blamed by their partner or blaming their partner. Being stuck in a vicious cycle of blame, criticism, resentment, and neglecting the difficulties, is the hard part of the relationships. It’s these behaviours that make a relationship hard work, not the relationship itself.
What can people expect from couples counselling?
Couples therapy varies depending on your therapist. My approach is fluid, but in general I try to understand the problems the couple is facing. I look to understand what behaviours have come about as a result of the stressors they are facing and why and how these behaviours are maintained. I help the couple to introduce new behaviours and thoughts to soften their approach to one another and work towards empathy, as well as a shared understanding of the problems.
Couples therapy is hard work…don’t underestimate it! The hard work can really pay off though, of course! I always tell clients to give themselves space after sessions to reflect on what is discussed in session. I suggest they keep a journal of any thoughts that come up for them and we can review them in the following session. Most of my clients don’t keep a journal but they do start to notice the thoughts and feelings that come up for them in the session and after the session. This awareness is often a major turning point for changing long term thoughts and behaviours, slowly and with support.
What are a few of the more common reasons people come to a couples therapist?
Conflict and communication is the main topic. Underlying this can be a lack of shared goals and common purpose, lack of quality time with partner and a lack of intimacy, financial issues and work pressures and the pressures of a raising a family and being part of a wider family or community. Partner roles and expectations are not areas people really talk about until they run into problems.
What happens in couples counselling when one person is more motivated to come along than the other?
That’s a very common scenario when a couple comes to therapy. It’s always important to respect where each person is on the journey to seeking help for their relationship. The fact that the less motivated person has come to the joint session is a strength and I will always look to add value to their presence in the session. They may be less willing to really engage in the process and it can take a while (several sessions) for people to develop trust in their couples therapist.
I work a lot with ambivalence in couples and the work I do in that area can provide structure to the less motivated person and this helps them engage in a more safe way.
How can a couples therapist help after an affair?
An affair in a relationship needs to be recognised as having creating a major breach in trust. It has exposed vulnerabilities for the individuals and the relationship and often is complicated by the fact that friends and family have offered their bias opinions on the matter.
Again, I try to determine what the couple wants to get from the sessions. Understanding how they got here is a key part of the work. Do they stay and if so how can we rework a healthy connection? If they end the relationship, again how can they end their relationship on amicable terms? What new insights have been learned to support them with future relationships they pursue?
Events come into our lives to teach us something about ourselves and our journey. Affairs are socially constructed to be the ‘ deal breaker’ for relationships, but I challenge couples to determine their relationship goals not on cultural and societal pressures but to look deep within and cultivate their own desire and value for their relationship.
What are your thoughts on how becoming a parent impacts a relationship?
Having a child is a major life transition whether you are a single parent or in a relationship. It’s very common for relationships to feel strained as they adjust to new roles, responsibilities, expectations and values about parenting. Often couples are on one income causing the added layer of financial pressures and career worries.
Having a baby automatically creates new needs that need to be prioritised by the couple. It can destabilise the relationship as the parents try to find their feet and understand their new reality and manage competing demands. An uncertainty usually develops and with the support of a couples counsellor a couple can find resolution and integrate this change with support and knowledge that couples therapy will incorporate parenting strategies and work on strengthening the couple connection.
What are some of the key factors in relationships that seem to last?
Some of the things the factors that are at play in lasting relationships are that the partners:
- Want and are able to grow together
- Have a sense of their separate self/identity
- Are interdependent
- Agree that the relationship is a priority
- Are caring, sharing and respectful
- Do little things for each other regularly
Do you have some tips for rekindling the spark with your partner?
If you’re trying to rekindle a relationship, but there is some kind of “elephant in the room” this can lead to a sense of dread or feel forced. But if you have no significant sticking points then:
- Honouring your intention to rekindle the spark and to do the work. This means both partners will need to put in similar effort
- Allocating time on a regular basis to connect emotionally, socially, physically and recreationally
- Being sensual without having sex. Taking a bath together, going for a couples massage and connecting with your physical senses of sight, smell and touch
- A simple old fashioned walk in the park or by the beach. Connecting with nature is so powerful. It invigorates us and has an instant calming effect. If we are automatically calmer we can relax in the moment and just enjoy our time with our partner without distractions and with a more regulated emotional state.
Can a couples therapist help with deciding whether to separate?
Yes it certainly can. It can helpful when couples are not sure about whether to end the relationship or when one partner wants to end it but the other partner wants to save the relationship. These are both very common situations.
I generally ask the couple to commit to not making any decisions until a certain amount of counselling sessions are undertaken. Usually somewhere between 8 and 12 sessions. I provide a semi structured approach to these sessions and this helps contain any anxiety either party has about the relationship. At the end of the structured sessions they can decide ( with greater insight) what they each wish to do. Usually most couples are on the same page with their final decision. Counselling in this case will bridge the gap in the polarised positions of the couple.
Could your relationship do with a tune up? Or are you feeling stuck or unfulfilled? Why not book an initial appointment with one of our couples therapists? Give our friendly support team a call on (03) 9376 1958 or fill out our online booking form here.
The image in this post was taken by @crew via Unsplash.