Few things are as painful and potentially destructive to a relationship as an affair.
For many people, the hurt can be overwhelming and can mean a long-lasting rupture in the relationship, sometimes permanent separation.
Well-meaning friends and relatives often reinforce the belief that separation is the only course of action. ‘Kick him out!’ Leave her!’
However they say it, many people want us to take action.
Not surprisingly, so do we.
When we are in pain, it is natural to take action. When the pain is great enough, doing something can relieve the pain and make us feel more powerful. when our partner has been unfaithful, it is we will feel powerless and vulnerable, and these are feelings which are intolerable for most of us.
The problem with this, is that taking action might relieve us temporarily, but it does little or nothing to change the situation. Taking action may mean that we leave ourselves no possibility of reconciliation and repair. There is a lot at stake in breaking up a relationship. The longer we have been together and the more we have invested – children, house, investments – the more we have to lose.
And then there is the emotional investment we have made in the relationship.
I am not referring here to situations where a partner has been constantly unfaithful or abusive. There are cases where separation may be a reasonable course of action.
In most cases, relationships can survive an affair. Many of the couples I see have been able to repair the relationship and even improve it.
If couples are able, in most cases, they can repair the relationship and learn to trust each other again. Trust in the relationship is usually the main casualty of an affair, and it is difficult to re-establish. Most of those who have been ‘cheated on’ remain suspicious and often want to check every email, phone call and text message their partner receives. The cheated on partner will often want to lay down restrictions on their partner’s movements and who they see.
Many of these are understandable and even reasonable, up to a point. Ultimately, though, it is important to give up playing detective, since this rarely reassures us. I often say to couples, that if we go looking for evidence of unfaithfulness, we will find it. It is easy to interpret something that is innocent as betrayal.
That is not to say we should simply be blind and ignore danger signs – far from it! We must learn to be willing to question our partner’s behaviour – respectfully and with willingness to listen
The prime approach to rebuilding trust in a relationship is building the communication between the couple. When we have deeper, more intimate conversations, we build a clearer picture of what is in our partner’s minds. We can become confident about what they will do – and what they won’t do.
Communicating what we a re feeling, thinking and what we want allows us to build a relationship that we want. If we are in a relationship we want, we will not want to destroy what we have.
To have a positive outcome, it is essential to seek professional help. Few, if any, of us are able to have the perspective needed to resolve the issues involved in this situation. A professional counsellor, who you feel comfortable with, can lead you through the process of repairing the relationship and help you ensure that your relationship can continue into the future in better condition than before.
Clients often ask if relationship counselling can really help a relationship. Because most of us are taught to believe that relationship is supposed to be easy, we have an unrealistic view of marriage and long-term relationships. When problems arise we can become disheartened and believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the relationship.
Fortunately this is not the case. Relationship counselling can help couples to resolve their fighting, even if this involves anger and hurt.
Relationship counselling gives couples a safe place to express what is difficult in the relationship. Counselling gives each person the experience of being heard – often for the first time. When couples are able to express their feelings clearly and without the anger which usually comes with it, their partner is able to take in and understand what has been hurtful.
Some couples are concerned that if they go to counselling, one of them will be blamed or made responsible for the problems the relationship. An effective, skilled counsellor is able to help couples understand how the issues that are affecting them have arisen in the relationship. It is the job of the counsellor to provide a comfortable, non–judgemental environment for you to work in. Counsellors work for both people in the relationship – they don’t take sides.
Often people worry that they will be expected to change. This can be very uncomfortable or feel to difficult. We are attached to our own sense of identity and don’t want to lose this.
While it is true the individuals will have to make changes in the way they relate to each other, what really needs to change is the relationship. When we have this perspective, the couple is able to approach problems as partners, rather than opponents.
Relationship issues are often difficult, painful and complex. Having a skilled third person to help can clarify the issues and provide a clear way forward to resolving problems.
The aim of relationship counselling is always to provide couples with a framework for a relationship which can be productive and satisfying to both people into the future.
Couples who argue often ask if there is any hope for their relationship. In most cases couples who argue can learn to change these patterns and have a satisfying, intimate relationship.
The key word here is ‘patterns’.
Usually we see arguments as being about something:
- one of you doesn’t do their ‘share’ of the housework
- you disagree on how the children are disciplined
- you don’t like the way your partner drives
The list is endless! However, although there are issues which need to be discussed and resolved, arguments are more often not about the issue, but part of a pattern that arises automatically between the couple.
How to tell if you are in an argument pattern
Look at your last two or three arguments. Put aside what you were arguing about (the content), and focus on how the argument went.
Most people will notice a pattern emerging. For example, one of you might be the one who gets angry, while the other one withdraws. Or one of you may criticize, while the other discounts what is said.
If your arguments are like this, then you have identified a relationship pattern. Relationship patterns stop us relating straightforwardly as two people. They make us see our partner, not as who they really are, but as though they are wearing a mask.
Relationship patterns feel very real, but they are not! We get caught up in a pattern like this and it is as though we are forced to act a part. Often we realise that our behaviour has not been constructive for the relationship, but couples often feel powerless to change their behaviour.
We might feel like we have been loud and angry or withdrawn and not feel good about it, but this usually doesn’t translate into change. The next time we are faced with an argument, we will fall into the same pattern.
There is hope!
These patterns can seem impossible to change, yet once we understand how these patterns are created and what needs to be done about them, we can often change our patterns of fighting surprisingly quickly.
The first step is to recognise that you are in the grip of one of these patterns and face it together as something for you to solve as a couple. If you can do this, you will have already taken a major step.
The second major step is to ask yourself how you feel when you are in one of these patterns.
The third step is to ask your partner what they are feeling when you are arguing.
The answers will most likely surprise both of you, because you will each have noticed how your partner behaves, not how they feel. It is how we feel that makes these patterns so difficult to change.
If you are the only one in your relationship who recognises there is something wrong, you can still begin to make some significant progress in changing these patterns by following the steps suggested above. The steps outlined can help you begin to turn around the relationship patterns you find yourself in.
For most of us, working with an experienced counsellor who understands these patterns will be of enormous help in seeing them clearly and finding ways to turn them around. I strongly recommend this to all couples. The good news is that couples can learn to turn these arguments into constructive discussions, leading to deeper intimacy.
During counselling we look in detail at these patterns and develop approaches and strategies for dealing with them.
It’s easy to believe that creating a successful relationship requires special skills.
We seem to live in an age where experts are required to help us with all aspects of our life. However, many of the skills for building relationship are not at all complicated.
One of the most powerful is simple acts of appreciation. Appreciating our partner can
take many forms. We can give gifts, give our time, or use words. Appreciation doesn’t have to be complicated. Whatever form it takes, all that is needed is sincerity. When we maintain a habit of
appreciation, it builds a stock of goodwill in the relationship. It creates an atmosphere that feels loving and supportive. Giving appreciation is the best way to encourage our partner to return the favour!
The goodwill created leads to a sense of security in the relationship which means that it is better able to ride out difficult times. Appreciation also has a potent effect on each person’s sense of wellbeing, self–confidence and self esteem.
When there has been a period of tension or arguing in a relationship it can be hard to feel appreciative. At these times the best thing we can do is to remind ourselves about everything our partner has done which is positive and begin to find ways to show our appreciation.
So try it. Look past the immediate problems, open your mouth and say an appreciative word or two. While you’re at it. Include the children, if you have any. If you want happy, co–operative kids praise and encourage them!
For some couples, problems in communication are the toughest issues they face. The simple act of communication becomes a minefield, with couples either in full battle or treading on eggshells. Communication becomes a problem when what is said or how it is said triggers our emotions in a negative way.
When you and your partner have an important issue to discuss which you feel may raise the emotional temperature, there are some simple strategies you can use to make the chance of success greater.
- Agree to talk when the time is right – rather than when you are doing something (such as watching television).
- Make an appointment. This avoids ‘ambushing’ your partner and means they will be more receptive to what you have to say.
- Calm yourself and stay calm.
If you are speaking
- Stay with the issue. Avoid bringing in all the related (and unrelated!) issues that upset you.
- Say how it is for you. Talk about how you feel rather than criticising or blaming.
- Keep it simple.
If you are listening
- Put your point of view in the background
- Don’t interrupt
- Let your partner know you have heard and understood them (even if you don’t agree)
- Be prepared to hear things you don’t necessarily agree with
- If necessary, clarify what your partner has said
Remember – being a good listener is the best guarantee you will be listened to when you raise an issue.
Handled well, difficult conversations can be a positive experience. They can lead you to understand and appreciate each other’s point of view. We’re all different – celebrate that fact!
A partner who misunderstands us or who seems to do things in a way which doesn’t make sense to us can drive us crazy. Counselling clients often express enormous frustration with the way their partner does or says things.
These kinds of differences can lead to real problems in the relationship. People often feel their partner is making things deliberately hard for them by their behaviour or words. Often people feel quite hurt by what comes out of their partner’s mouth.
One example is the person who ‘says things as they are’. This can feel rude or blunt to their partner. Sometimes it feels intentionally hurtful.
So what is going on?
The most common difficulty couples face – and one of the least understood – is differences in Personality Type.
Carl Jung, famous for his pioneering work in psychology, described the different Types in the early 20th Century. Recently, work in neuroscience (examining the function of the brain using sophisticated scanning), confirms the existence of different Types.What does this mean?
Basically, it means that at birth our brains are set to operate in specific ways unique to us. Some of us, for example, tend to favour thinking over feeling, for others, it’s the opposite. When I say ‘favour’, this is not a conscious choice. One way to think about it is that it is like the way in which we favour one hand over the other – we’re either Lefties or Righties.
These ‘preferences’ as we usually describe them, determine how we behave. The example of the ‘thinking’ person in relationship with the ‘feeling’ person can lead to some painful experiences.
‘Thinking’ Types tend to state things objectively or logically. Often they don’t think to take into account a person’s feelings, so they can say things which are hurtful to another person, without intending to.
A ‘Feeling’ Type will often say things in a way which can feel emotionally overwhelming to a Thinking Type.
Understanding our own Type, and that of our partner, can help us develop ways of communicating with each other which are more productive and avoid many of the difficulties couples experience.
In my practice I use Psychological Type work with couples where this is appropriate and help them develop tools to deal with the differences between them.
I will write further posts exploring this issue of Psychological Type.
Sitting down to write this post is a reminder that good communication in a relationship is an absolute essential.
The problem for most of us is that the simple word ‘communication’ covers such broad territory.
At its simplest, communication is about choosing words which the listener will understand. Even at this level, we can still get into trouble. I often work with couples where the listener doesn’t understand exactly what their partner is saying – even in the therapy room.
The next level of challenge in communication is to do with the way we process and give information. Personality Type (Are You My Type), has a lot to do with this, since it determines how are brains prefer to interpret and give messages. Some people, because of their Type, prefer straightforward, factual communication. Others prefer communication which recognises feelings, more than facts. Of course, it is more complex than this, but this gives a flavour of the differences.
The third, perhaps the most important and challenging, is how we are triggered emotionally when we feel under attack or criticised. Most of these triggers are set early in life and can keep tripping us up throughout our life.
So, how do we deal with these complex issues of communication?
A major part of the answer is to keep a consistently open and receptive ear (and mind and heart!), to what our partner is saying. With practice, we can monitor our reactions, learn from them, and develop new ways to listen and to speak. We can learn to manage our reactive feelings and understand how our Psychological Type differs from our partner and how we can make allowances for these differences.
Whenever I write, I’m reminded of how important it is to think of the reader (or listener), when communicating!