Whether you've been together for five years or fifty, no couple is immune from relationship difficulties. In fact, relationship problems are the second most searched for issue on rscpp.co.uk - second only to depression. These problems can feel deeply personal, and you may feel that you'd rather solve them between yourselves. However, a therapist can provide a neutral take on your situation, to help put your issues in perspective and get you working together as a team again. Two RSCPP clients told us about their experience of relationship counselling with Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman.
James* and Sophie*, both 27, met at college 11 years ago, when they were just 16. After leaving college, the couple lived together throughout university, and were married at the age of 24.
"I think I expected something to change after we got married, and it didn't, which is nice, because getting married shouldn't alter anything, but life did feel a little bit empty after we'd spent so much time and money and effort on having this perfect day," Sophie explains. We probably spent a year or so [after that] just enjoying ourselves, planning holidays, but we felt a bit empty and lost. I know we were only 24 or 25, but it started to feel a bit like we were going nowhere almost."
It started to feel a bit like we were going nowhere.
Two years into their marriage James and Sophie decided to start a family, and began looking for a house of their own to buy. However, having been told conception may take time because of Sophie's health issues, they were surprised to find themselves pregnant within just six weeks - a discovery that gave their house hunting an added urgency. "Everything happened all at once," Sophie says. "Within six months we were pregnant and had a new house. Everything changed in such a short period of time."
At this exciting but stressful time, James says, "We were really close throughout the pregnancy, and I tried hard to look after Sophie. Obviously the house was stressful, but also exciting because we were becoming homeowners, so it was a good time, full of fond memories, but also a lot of stress at the same time."
However, it was when their daughter Grace* arrived that the couple really felt the strain on their relationship. "I'd say the issues started about six to eight weeks after she was born," Sophie says. "You don't realise what sleep deprivation is like until you've had a child, and I very naively thought that a child would change things for six months and then things would go back to a relative normality. I actually realised once she was here that, although she's the best thing that's ever happened to me, nothing would ever be the same again, and that was quite frightening really."
After ten years together, adjusting to life as a three proved challenging, and Sophie and James, who both grew up without siblings, struggled to adapt to the pressures and responsibilities of parenting. "Although we do have really good family support, we felt like we needed to do things for ourselves, but because neither of us had any experience really with babies, neither of us knew what to do. I would be saying ‘should we do this?' and James would say 'should we do that?' Neither of us was right and neither of us was wrong, but it started to cause arguments.
It was harder than we thought it would be, and I don't think there's a new parent up and down the country who wouldn't say that.
"We were sleeping in shifts and putting pressure on ourselves, so it was a really odd time. It was harder than we thought it would be, and I don't think there's a new parent up and down the country who wouldn't say that," she adds. Six months later, the arguments had become so bad that Sophie and James sought therapy through rscpp.co.uk in a bid to save their new family.
Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman is based in Shenley. Despite not being local to James and Sophie, the couple found Brenda after searching rscpp.co.uk for a therapist who could offer convenient telephone sessions that would allow them to fit the therapy around their full-time jobs and parenting.
"Because of Grace we needed someone who could do evenings, and we couldn't both leave the house because we didn't want to let our parents know, so we had to have someone who could do either Skype or phone," James explains. "We looked at a lot of profiles, and then we decided on Brenda because she's obviously well qualified, and I was happier sharing with a woman, and so was Sophie, so she ticked all the boxes."
James and Sophie had weekly sessions with Brenda, initially "laying out the background for [her] to understand where we'd come from, pinpoint where things might have started going wrong, and what was actually manifesting the arguments," James explains. "She was really friendly and very easy to talk to. I think what was quite helpful for me, because I'm not much of a talker, was that she asked a lot of questions and directed the conversation well."
For Sophie, Brenda was like having "a wise aunt. She wasn't trying to say she understands everything but, because she's a mum as well, and she understands children, it was a lot easier. Also because she was a bit outside the relationship, so obviously she wasn't so affected emotionally, the ideas she had were very logical - 'try this and see if it works' - and it felt good to have somebody impartial, who could see logic rather than just seeing all the emotions."
It felt good to have somebody impartial, who could see logic rather than just seeing all the emotions.
In their initial sessions, the couple set goals around "managing their expectations of life with a new baby, and being able to stop arguments when they felt they were going round in circles or that they were escalating," Brenda says. Their goals also included "being able to talk to each other at a later stage, when things felt calmer, understanding that outside influences can make things feel worse, and letting certain things slide with regard to micro-managing home life."
As their therapeutic relationship developed, Brenda says they began to discover some underlying issues around both being only-children, family pressures, and influences from their own parents. "Their goals changed over time to incorporate being able to ask for help from each other, taking the initiative in talking about problems, and learning how to discuss, rather than argue," she explains.
Both James and Sophie explain that he was initially more reluctant than his wife to seek therapy, and this reticence was one of the first challenges to overcome in their work with Brenda. "At first I was quite nervous of it," James says. "I didn't like the idea of having to share my feelings with someone else - I suppose it's a very manly thing to admit. I wanted to be able to solve it as a couple, and I couldn't at first see why we couldn't."
He adds: "I remember feeling extremely nervous about the first session, and worrying someone was going to turn around and say ‘you need to be apart immediately.' I just remember trying to be as open as I could."
I wanted to be able to solve it as a couple, and I couldn't at first see why we couldn't.
Knowing James felt this way, Sophie too approached their first session with some anxiety. "Because, when I'd initially suggested therapy James had said that he didn't want to, it made me feel like I was forcing him to do it," she says. "After the first session I felt a lot better, because we came out of it with ideas that we could try and do."
Besides James' reluctance, Brenda says the initial challenges they worked to overcome were the couple's feeling of disappointment about how their relationship had changed, and their guilt for feeling the way they did. For James, a major challenge was "taking the risk of asking his partner what was wrong, and being unsure of her reactions," Brenda explains, while Sophie's biggest challenge was "wanting to manage things, and at the same time feeling overwhelmed and resentful."
For both James and Sophie, the most significant breakthrough was being able to establish a technique for really stopping and listening to each other, and learning when to walk away from an argument. "Improvements began to show after even the first few sessions, when their arguments seemed to be more open and they were able to leave them before they became heated," Brenda says.
"They became more self aware of how much their lives had been fairly ordered until now - meeting when they were young, going to university, living together, starting their careers, going on holidays, enjoying their lives together, planning their wedding, etc. Their life stages were carefully mapped, and then they found themselves floundering in unknown waters."
While most of their sessions took place together, both Brenda and Sophie attribute some of their most important breakthroughs to individual sessions, which Brenda says helped with "uncovering some of their worries about the other, and then bringing those into their joint sessions."
James and Sophie have now been working with Brenda for 12 months. After initially having weekly sessions, they have gradually reduced the frequency and now touch base every couple of months. "They both now seem very hopeful of their relationship, and are keen to make new memories as a family of three, and continue to strive for more intimacy as a couple," Brenda says.
For James, the most important outcome has been that "me and Sophie are happier, and Grace seems happier because we are. I think we started to understand each other and ourselves a bit more. I've learnt to communicate my feelings better, and be more aware of my own feelings instead of bottling things up. In a way, we've learnt how to argue," he says.
I've come to terms with the fact things are never going to be the same again.
Sophie too says their experience of therapy has had, "a massive impact. We're still together as a family, which is the main thing. It's made me come to terms with the fact that things are never going to be the same again, and I'm ok with that," she says.
"I can imagine if you're a parent and you're still pining for the times that used to be, that must have an effect on your child. So now the fact that I'm happy must make a much more positive environment for Grace to grow up in."
Therapy was entirely worth the time, effort, and money. We're far better for it.
James adds: "I suppose every couple's different, and I was very nervous of it initially, but it was entirely worth the time, effort, and money. It was worth everything, putting that risk out there. If you want to work as a couple, it helps enormously just understanding yourself and each other, and I think we're far better for it."
*The clients' names, and the name of their daughter, have been changed and their consent was provided prior to both interview and publication