Got that Christmas feeling?

Christmas fills some with joy and others with dread.  It is often a time of ought to, need to, should do and duty.  Decisions, arrangements and shopping which for some light up the darkness of winter and for others make them want to hunker down and hibernate.

The social pressure for Christmas (and indeed New Year's Eve) to be a time of fun can turn to stress if you feel you are not having fun.  The expectation of having a wonderful time is in itself filled with feelings of failure if you're not having a wonderful time.

For many, the pressure of Christmas starts earlier in the year when trying to decide who to spend it with - navigating the feelings of various sets of parents, in-laws or siblings who perhaps all want a bit of you at Christmas or who you feel duty bound to spend some time with.  This often causes tension between couples when deciding whose parents they will visit/invite this year.  

The truth is christmas can be an unhappy time for many - a time of difficult childhood memories; of the absence of loved ones; recollections of loss and illness; a reminder of ones own loneliness at a time when everyone else is with someone.

At this time, family members unnaturally forced together, mixed with alcohol and rich food, can fuel some fiery family feuds and cause couples to come apart at the seams.  It can be a tough time for many.

Christmas is the inevitable punctuation of the year's calendar.  Love it or loathe it, it's here to stay.  Be kind to yourself and others by lowering your expectations of Christmas day and accepting that 'it is what it is'.  It is, after all, just another day. 

Let me know if I can be of any help to you either before or after, but in the meantime I wish my readers a 'Good Enough' Xmas and abundant health and happiness in the coming year.

'Difficult' people - how to survive them

Sitting listening to my clients, I often get a familiar feeling when a troublesome person they are talking about looms large in the room, filling it even in their absence.

The frequency of this experience surprises me, and leads me to understand that the 'difficult' person who has been brought to the counselling room via the client's story may be a 'narcissist'.

Could the 'difficult' person in your life be a narcissist? Your mother, father, friend, sibling; your partner,child, husband or wife?

Are you drawn in by their charm and repelled by their cruelty?  Do they make you feel both adored and despised?  Have you learnt to bite your tongue for an easy life even though it's not the life you want for yourself? Are you afraid to voice your needs?

The charm, control and mercurial qualities of the narcissist are well drawn by E.L James in the character of Christian Grey in the popular 50 Shades trilogy.  To my mind the strength of the story is not in the salacious sexual scenes, graphically described and often discussed in the press and amongst enthusiastic readers; the strength of the story is in the healing of the deeply hurt child in Christian.  Anastasia Steele is his incentive for change.  The consistency of her love for him and her feisty challenging of his more controlling behaviours enables him to see the need for change in order to be with the woman he loves.

Narcissists can exhibit a set of behaviours which are both enticing and repelling; at its worst this behaviour can be threatening or dangerous; at its best it can be confusing and perplexing as the narcissist baits and switches, charms and disarms and generally leaves people confused and abused. Narcissists do not aim to behave this way and are not fundamentally bad people - they have not had the benefit of unconditional love, consistent parenting or safety as children.

If you have a 'difficult' person in your life who keeps you where they want you with their minipulative and controlling  behaviours, it may be time to review the part you play in allowing them to behave as they do.  It takes two to create a relationship.  You can choose to put up with it, end it or change it.  We have more power to initiate change than we imagine.

Wendy T Behary in her book 'Disarming the Narcissist'  - 'It is possible to maintain your own composure and self-esteem when dealing with narcissistic people.  It can also help you discover empathy, and, in some cases, even compassion for the narcissist in your life, bringing to you more peace of mind and helping to improve your relationship.'

No longer 'in love'

What happens when you are in a relationship where you love your partner but you are not 'in love' with them?  There may have always been a mismatch in the level of feeling you had for one another or it may have happened after many years together.

A couple I recently counselled come to mind.  They had both experienced divorce before they met through work.  The attraction for him was instant, physical and protective and for her it was more gradual and became solid.  He helped to parent her children for many years and they lived with a high level of harmony.  He had been her rescuer, her rock and her lover, but now he became her brother, her father and her jailer and she could no longer consider him as her lover. She loved him but was not 'in love' with him.  He loved her and was 'in love' with her. They were getting on really well on a daily basis, but she had reached breaking point.

Loving can be enough for some couples - a good enough reason to stay in the relationship where peace, harmony and mutual understanding exist, what reason would there be for doubt or dissatisfaction?

If only it were that simple.  What happens to the yearning for physical connection, for excitement, for lust and for sexual satisfaction within such a relationship; what do partners in a long-term amicable partnership do with that part of themselves?  How do they fulfil that need in themselves when it's not there for them at home?

Remaining content with the relationship you've got has a lot to do with attitude.  Whether you can mentally count your blessings and find peace and contentment in the relationship you are in; and whether you can physically control your yearnings so that they do not become destructive actions.

Loving each other but not being 'in love' with each other is not an uncommon state.  Rather than leaving things as they are and not discussing how you feel about each other, why not try some open respectful communication - this will build honesty and transparency between you and may even take you to a softer more loving place.  Who knows you may even fall in love all over again.

 'you have to keep falling in love . .... . you just have to keep falling in love with the same person'. Tony Parsons 'Man and Wife'.

The Damaging Affair

Adultery is always damaging to the couple relationship.  The extent of the damage depends on the nature of the dishonesty, the level and duration of the deceit; and how distressed and betrayed the partner experiences the infidelity.  Everyone reacts differently in these situations so there is no precise recipe, sequence or outcome to follow.

The effect of a 'third' in the relationship creates at the very least - loss of trust and feelings of betrayal.

Each couple is different.  An affair would mean the end of the relationship to some - the betrayal being too great to recover from.  Others, whilst feeling hurt and betrayed might decide that in the context of having been together for many years, the affair is not going to mean the end of the relationship.  There are those who turn a 'blind eye' to indiscretions imagining that if they are not 'seen' they cannot hurt. Kate Spicer in the Sunday Times writes an article entitled 'Adultery: it's the grown-up way to love'.  She quotes Catherine Hakim who advocates harmless 'playfairs' as beneficial holidays from a marriage. In her book The New Rules, she recommends dating sites for affairs on the side, saying this is the way for a marriage to last. 

How can lying, holding secrets and being intimate with extra-marital playmates possibly strengthen the couple bond or make the marriage closer? When secrets are held from each other; when there is a lack of honesty; a failure to communicate openly, the relationship is in a disconnected and dangerous place.  

When a relationship is lacking in honesty it is only a matter of time before the opportunity arises to have an affair.  Peggy Vaughan writes in The Monogamy Myth 'Attractions between people do, in fact, go on all our lives.  Marriage and even the deepest love, commitment and devotion do not stop these attractions.  How we respond to attraction and temptation has more to do with personal history and psychodynamics than with morality'.

Relationships vary hugely.  From the strictly monogamous on both sides to open marriages where either partner can sexually do exactly as they please whilst remaining married and committed to each other.  I have seen examples of both these extremes and much between - couples who have affairs in secret; couples who tell each other about their sexual indiscretions to anger or arouse them; couples who 'play' together with other sexual playmates to spice up their own sexual relationship; couples who have a sexless relationship and are happy.

Being a couple is a unique experience and should be a shared experience. There is no right or wrong way, as long as it works for the two people involved.

However, what seems to be most important is that truth and honesty prevail. With help it is sometimes possible to repair a marriage broken by an affair.  If both partners are willing to explore their emotions and understand the underlying reasons for the affair with honesty and lack of blame, it is sometimes possible to move on to an even stronger and more closely connected relationship beyond.

'The hope for monogamy lies in making a conscious choice that specifically involves a commitment to honesty' - Peggy Vaughan ' The Monogamy Myth'.

End of the line?

Couples who seek my support are often in crisis.  Either one or both partners have reached the 'end of their tether' on some level.  They are so caught up in the negative cycles of their day to day battle they can no longer see the wood for the trees.  They often view what is happening in much bigger and bleaker terms than may be the reality.  Conversely, there may be nothing left to salvage.

The desire to save your marriage can be overwhelming; the desire to end your marriage can be equally overwhelming.  This is never an easy decision and takes time to understand the full situation in order to make a balanced assessment based on sound thought processes rather than hurt, angry, knee-jerk reactions.

Setting aside time for some couple counselling sessions will help to clarify the state of the relationship.  At its best, the couple can find new more harmonious ways of being together - to regrow their love and appreciation for each other - this is sometimes a surprising outcome when a couple is 'at war' and apparently cannot find a way forward.  Even where one partner has been unfaithful, mending and strengthening of the relationship can still be achieved with hard work, understanding and determination.

Sometimes, however, reconciliation cannot be achieved. After trying everything to save your relationship, if you still decide to separate, counselling mediation can be used to help remain balanced about what needs to be done in order to achieve separation . Goal-focused sessions where the practicalities of who is going to move out, the financial implications of running two homes and most importantly working together to ensure the continued love and care of your children can all be discussed in safety.

Spending some structured time together to sort out your emotions and the reasons for this ending can also be a really useful way to fully understand with clarity the need for separation. Allowing time to be reasonable, realistic and rational about your situation, without resorting to argument can make the difference between an acrimonious or amicable ending.

Children should not be used as marital glue - it is better for children to have two happier parents who are separated than living within the disharmony of an unhappy parental relationship

Investing in the bank of Us

So often I hear stories either from individuals or couples about neglect in their relationship - taking each other for granted is common until things go very wrong.  Only then the couple make an effort to save themselves, but by then it may be too late.  Whilst busy with the mundanity of everyday life - the demands of jobs, children, household chores - they forget to invest in their relationship, and pay the ultimate penalty for their neglect - relationship bankruptcy.

This particularly occurs when two individuals are busy with their young family.  They are parents and partners together and whilst caught up in the ever-increasing needs and demands of their young children, they often forget their own needs for mutual appreciation and for time set aside to be a couple together.

By choosing to find time for each other the balance can shift from 'all about everything else' to 'something special for the two of us'.  Taking time out for each other will give you the chance to remember what it is like to be a couple again - set apart from the family you have made together. 

This does not require grand gestures of gifts and weekends away.  A care-free walk hand-in-hand on a summer's evening; a getaway camping trip to be close to each other and the elements; a 'date-night' now and then.  These are a few simple ways to keep your couple connection alive - by making room for the 'us' you are making sound investment.  In the home environment, a foot or back rub offered without needing to be asked; a spontaneous loving hug; an admiring glance; a warm smile - these are simple little gestures that can help keep the warmth and connection in your relationship; stolen moments away from the pressures of life.  The children also benefit from seeing a wonderful demonstration of warmth and love, an example they can emulate when they are adults.

These simple measures can prevent the dissatisfaction that quickly leads to sniping and bickering  - which can in turn lead to major unhappiness between you.  In the hum-drum and excitement of life you can easily lose sense of why you are together and potentially lose each other.  All human beings desire to be someone's 'special person' but for each of you to feel special needs investment from both sides.

If time spent together leaves either of you feeling as though something is missing or that the love and conversation has died, it could be time to seek help to facilitate you to a warmer, more connected relationship.

Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike - J.K. Rowling

Sunny side up

One of the easiest things in life is to focus on negatives. There are those of us who naturally have a 'cup half full' attitude to life and others who just as naturally have a 'cup half empty' view-point.  We all differ in this regard and may be optimists in certain areas of our lives and pessimists in others. For example, someone who has always done well at work may perpetually have a positive attitude to their work and how it will be in the future; the same person may feel pessimistic about their couple relationship due to previous negative experiences with ex-partners.

We are all influenced by our past experiences and sometimes have to work hard in order to put these negative experiences behind us to prevent anticipating a repeat.  Negative expectation brings about the negative.  For example a person who believes that they are not good enough to be in relationship with their partner could quite easily, over a period of time, make this a self-fulfilling prophecy so that their partner no longer wants to be with them.

Henry Ford of the Ford motorcar summed up this phenomenon in just a few words - 'whether you think you can or think you can't - you are right'.
A negative out-look can make the worst occur.  Whilst looking on the bright side and hoping for the best can bring about positive outcomes.

Understandably, couples I see often come to counselling concentrating on the negatives in their partners.  They arrive entrenched in the difficulties of their relationship.  They have arrived at an impasse.  Part of my role is to facilitate the understanding of the present situation; help to examine the historic journey to this point; explore the realistic options available and help to ascertain if there is enough mutual appreciation to begin to find an 'adjusted' way forwards.

Reviewing what you like about each other can be a simple way of resetting the dials on the way you think about your partner - by shining a light on the positives things can start to look a lot brighter.

Turn your face to the sun and the shadows will fall behind you - Maori proverb

Couples of all shapes and sizes and many guises.

It is human-nature to seek closeness with other human beings - for each individual to want a 'special someone' just for them.  Some people do this to the exclusion of all others, their codependency becoming a tight-knit unit of two with no room for self or for others.  The lack of air between this couple often suffocates individualism - and yet seems to provide a mutually beneficial comfort for both partners.  Some couples are happy with this arrangement.

Other couples seem to have no commonality in their lives.  The coming together is infrequent and at best polite.  They are ships passing.  Again, this might suit both partners and might be exactly how they want their relationship to be.

Other individuals choose a partner with whom they have things in common so that they can have shared interests and activities and can pursue these together whilst also doing things apart.  In this type of coupling there will be room for individuality, room for separateness and room for personal growth.  And yet even in this balanced, equitable coupling there may be a fear of abandonment and a fear of engulfment working in opposition to each other.  The fear of abandonment in the relationship maintains the longing for closeness; the fear of engulfment prevents the loss of self.  The separateness and autonomy are there to preserve the individual in the relationship and paradoxically to allow closeness to exist.  If the togetherness is too close, there is no distance to travel to find each other.

Esther Perel in her excellent book, Mating in Captivity states 'with too much distance, there can be no connection.  But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals.  Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side.  When people become fused - when two become one - connection can no longer happen.  There is no one to connect with.  Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.'

The fit of a couple is as unique as the individuals themselves.  There is no right or wrong in how a couple fits together so long as it works for both of them.  When one or other partner is no longer happy or when disharmony is prevalent, perhaps it is time to seek help from a couple counsellor who can facilitate the communication needed between you to move forward more harmoniously.

When the Fledglings Fly

As parents we spend about 18 years nurturing, supporting and encouraging our children to become incrementally more independent so that when they finish their A levels, they attempt to leave the family unit.

Whilst this is a significant, exciting and often fairly terrifying move for the 18 year old, it is also significant and fairly terrifying for the parent/s and siblings left behind.  Apart from short periods of separation for school camps, or holidays with friends/relatives the young adult is now moving off for the first time to his/her independent life.

After the mounting stress of supporting your child through years of exams, university visits, university choices, personal statement, university offers, more exams and finally results, you are now preparing yourselves for a major shift in your relationships - with each other and with those left in the family home.

Logically as a parent you think your child moving off to the next part of their life is a good result - the culmination of years of effort; the natural progression and what you had always hoped for them.  Beyond the logical part of this 'loss', there is a parent in mourning.  A part that is unfortunately referred to by the wholly inadequate catch-phrase 'empty nest'.  To my mind, this does not remotely cover the powerful range of emotions now being experienced by the parent/s.

It is well-documented that mothers feel this rise of emotions more keenly then fathers; however Tom Utley wrote in The Daily Mail 26th September 2011 a brave and refreshing account of his experience as his fourth child left home for University entitled  'After 26 years, our four boys have all left home. Is it too unmanly to admit I'm suffering Empty Nest Syndrome?'

The emotions experienced as the young adult leaves home defies explanation.  Seemingly from out of nowhere comes a welling up of tears and feelings of emptiness, loss, anxiety and even abandonment.  The rational mind is able to reason and understand what is happening, yet these emotions rise from a deep place inside us which seem illogical and uncontrollable.

These emotions are similar to those elicited when experiencing a bereavement - and as with bereavement, no-one can predict how long you will grieve.  These feelings will last for how ever long it takes for the new dynamics at home to feel 'normal'. 

Children leaving home is a huge life change.  Using a Counsellor to explore and make sense of these profound symptoms of change can help alleviate some of the loneliness whilst validating your very real experience.

Human beings are the only creatures on earth that allow their children to come back home - Bill Cosby

After the Babe Arrives

A male client once told me how he thinks it is a cruel trick of nature that once a woman has had her babies she is no longer sexually interested in her man, now the father of her children.  His opinion was formed by his own experience of having a close intimate relationship with his long-term partner until their twin boys arrived.

It does seem to be a frequently experienced phenomenon for the couple who were in a loving, equal relationship to find much has changed beyond the baby's arrival.  Indeed, for some, this is experienced as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed.  Sometimes the man feels strange about making love to his now pregnant partner, and sometimes it is the pregnant mother-to-be who is not interested in sex or feels protective of her unborn child.

There is no doubt that the arrival of the first baby completely changes the couple unit - they are now a family, and whilst being completely besotted with their new baby, their relationship has changed forever and their individual identities have also changed forever.  They have become parents jointly and mother and father separately.  They have very little or no time for each other as a couple because all the attention is now on the baby.

Whilst some couples manage this transition really well - are full of understanding and love for each other in their new joint situation and in their exhaustion - many couples struggle to get back what they feel they have lost and struggle to find themselves in their new roles.  This is often more apparent with new dads who feel pushed out, supplanted by the baby who is now the centre of his woman's world; and who feel the weight of responsibility of having a new dependent.

It is however possible to reclaim your intimate relationship with your partner if the will to succeed is there for both of you.  If the dialogue around sex and physical tenderness has become embarrassed it will be hard to move forward without some helpful intervention.  It is important not to allow the rift in your physical relationship to continue for more than a few months - habits quickly form and are harder to break the longer they exist.

Starting a family need not be the end of the intimate relationship you had.  With determination and mutual understanding you can be both a family and a loving, connected couple.

Sex matters

An on-going physical relationship is pivotal to the healthy, loving functioning of any committed long-term coupling. Sexual contact is the part of the couple relationship that makes it differ from a friendship - it is integral to making this relationship more connected and profound than any other.

Many couples seeking therapy need help with sexual issues.  These are often around the theme of:   man wants more sex and woman wants more warmth, affection and consideration so that she feels like having more sex.

With honest and open communication in the relationship it could be possible to sometimes have loving, connected sex and sometimes have raw, primal sex.  Just as we have different moods and our appetites vary according to our moods - one day muesli, another day full-english breakfast - so too can our sexual moods vary in need.

There are two people involved in the sex act and therefore two varying moods to consider.  Indeed one partner may feel turned-on while the other has no desire at all.  What seems to often happen in this scenario is that the partner who is not in the mood for sex will refuse their libidinous partner in a careless manner which can make him\her feel rejected and unloved.  This type of rejection can be scarring and injurious to the connection in the couple and sets up on-going problems not only in the bedroom arena but also polluting other areas of the relationship. This is where couples could find counselling a good way of unlocking these old patterns of behaviour to find a more fulfilling way of being together.

If one partner has a sexual need, and the other partner is not up for it at that time, would it be so bad for him\her to lovingly assist with satiating that need.  This could mean brief intercourse; manual or toy stimulation; or encouraging masturbation in order to fulfil the sexual craving. When communication is open and unembarrassed, these things are possible.

From my observations, and if sales figures of female sex toys are to be believed, I would say there is not much difference between the sexual drives of men and women. The difference lies more in the craving for affection, consideration and connection versus the contentment in intercourse and orgasm as an activity.

How does this gap get bridged in a long-term loving relationship?

One key may be for the man to learn to take pleasure from giving pleasure - quite separately from his own direct physical stimulation and pleasure.  By giving his woman pleasure she feels his consideration and love for her and then experiences a warmth and connection to him and in their love-making.  In short, she is more likely to want to have sex with her partner - creating a win win for all concerned.

Sex is important so make it matter.

Life is for Living

Many times we hear stories of people who spend their lives working towards retirement only be be struck down by ill-health or death either just before or just after they retire.

A new book out by Bronnie Ware called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, sets out the five biggest deathbed regrets she heard about from palliative care patients. In brief these are regrets about: not being true to oneself; working too hard; not expressing feelings; not staying in touch with friends; and not allowing oneself to be happier.

How can we get the balance right - to work enough to meet outgoings; to love enough to have close relationships; to have fun enough to feel life is fun; to exercise enough to feel fit and well; to do nothing enough to feel some space in our lives?

How can we get the balance of what we need to do - the fundamentals of earning a living, looking after our children, shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for elderly relatives - and what we want to do. Where is the space in our lives to do the things that would gladden our hearts or give us a sense of joy?

It is possible to fulfil dreams as we go through our lives rather than waiting until we retire; until the children leave home; until an elderly relative has died. These are the excuses I hear over and over from clients who are not getting on and doing the things they want to do.

It is realistic perhaps to leave the big dreams for later because of our responsibilities. Yet sometimes we use these responsibilities as an excuse for not getting on and doing the things that would make life so worth living.

Instead of waiting for retirement, life can be fully lived. Each day can count as a special day by finding small things that make the day feel worthwhile or meaningful. Living your dreams now on a smaller scale can give you fulfillment in the present rather than saving it all up for retirement.  The bit we know for certain in life is that one day we will die.  The bit we do not know is when we will die. 

A Tibetan proverb sums this up wisely and succinctly.

Don't be the pigeon who 'spends all night fussing about making his bed, and dawn comes up before he has even had time to go to sleep'.

How about living your dreams while you have the health and energy to enjoy them?

Life is for living - and life is now.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Most of us would admit to showing respect to the dustman who removes our rubbish and the postman who delivers our letters. This is common decency - a level of respect shown to strangers. 

I wonder how many of us show that basic level of respect at home to our loved ones?  It repeatedly saddens me to hear stories of how couples who love one another and who have chosen to be together frequently show each other less respect than they do to strangers.

It is worth considering how you deliver everyday communications at home to your partner and family.  Notice if you show a lack of respect in the tone of your voice; the words you choose to use; the way you say those words - is it possible that you are barking orders loudly with insulting language showing no consideration or respect for the recipient's feelings?

It would seem that the everyday mundanity of relationships can quickly deteriorate into disrespectful communication.  This often leads to one or both partners feeling small, hurt and indeed angry. At its extreme this can amount to verbal abuse which can grind the other partner down until they feel very low about themselves. 

This cycle of rudeness can be broken .  Firstly with the realisation of disrespectful communication; then by the application of effort to consciously stop this automatic behaviour; followed by the use of respectful considered communication - what your loved ones deserve.

Familiarity breeds contempt - and children    Mark Twain 1835-1910 American Author

As you Sow, so shall you Reap

'Relationships are hard; they need constant effort to make them work'

'If your relationship needs working at you're with the wrong person'

Which statement are you more inclined to agree with?
As a couple counsellor I would say that a relationship always needs work and attention to keep the warmth, understanding and intimacy alive; relationships need to be tended to; worked at with consistency.  Neglect, disrespect and taking each other for granted are the greatest enemies of the couple relationship.

A close couple relationship needs a balance of things done together and things done apart; an openess of communication to avoid misunderstandings; an equality in decision-making and above all a mutual respect for each other as human beings who don't necessarily agree about everything.

Neglecting your relationship and minimising rather than solving issues between you can build to a crisis point from which it is hard to return.  Consistent care and attention can prevent this, and visiting a couple counsellor before things feel dire or untenable can avoid reaching a crisis in your relationship.

You can expect to harvest the fruits of your behaviour - As you Sow, so shall you reap.

I am a qualified counsellor with over twenty years' experience of one-to-one work with individuals of all ages, ethnicity and life-styles. You are my priority during each session we spend together.  I offer a quiet, safe room where you can explore and heal. I offer you time, integrity and respect.