couple counselling

Communication Problems: The Cause of Relationship Angst?

Communication | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Communication | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Do you ever feel that you and your partner are speaking two different languages?  Do you feel that your partner doesn’t really understand what you are trying to tell him or her?  Do you feel that you have the same discussion again and again, without making any progress at all (if anything, it feels like you’re further apart than you initially were)?  Has it got to the point where it just feels easier to avoid certain types of discussions, even though you know they need to happen at some point?  Does it feel like communication problems are the root cause of much of your relationship dissatisfaction?  If any of this ring true, you are definitely not alone.

Without fail, every couple that comes through our door identifies one major issue in their relationship; communication problems.  They describe a never ending pattern of trying to have the same discussion again and again, never fully resolving it.  They end up frustrated, exasperated and feeling like they just spent the last 15 minutes trying to communicate with their partner in two different languages.  Every couple turns to me and says “We need to learn to communicate better.” However, are communication problems really the issue?

There is no doubt that there are communication skills that can help people communicate more effectively such as active listening, reflection, and not interrupting.  These skills are relatively simple in theory and most people are capable of using them.  When I work with couples, almost everyone is able to demonstrate these skills when interacting with me.  They are able to listen to me, take in information and provide me with information about their own experience.  A lack of communication skills is relatively infrequent.  However, when they try to communicate with their partner, all of those skills go right out the window.  How does it happen that two people, who have the basic skill set, go so off course with each other?

Often it’s not a lack of communication skills that is the problem, but rather the emotional intensity between partners that interferes with truly being able to listen to each other.  We enter relationships because we want to feel that there is that one person who understands us, will listen to us, support us and even when they don’t quite get us, will work really hard to at least try.  When we feel that our partner is not really listening or understanding us, this can trigger some intense emotional reactions.  We may feel sad that they don’t seem to care about us or our concerns.  We may feel anger that they are not agreeing with our perspectives.  We may feel attacked, and in response, go on the defensive.  All of these responses, while very understandable and normal, greatly impact our ability to communicate with our partners.  If we are feeling overwhelmed emotionally, it is very difficult to actually listen to someone else; it’s kind of like trying to have a calm, rational discussion while trying to flee a burning building.

Rather than attributing our relationship difficulties to a communication skills deficit, it is more likely that we are having a hard time truly connecting with our partners.  We want our partner to show us that they are truly listening and trying to see things from our perspectives and it is likely that this is what they want from us as well.  

How do we solve these "communications problems?"

1. When approaching your partner, make it your goal to understand their perspective.  S/he will be much more likely to try to see your point of view if they feel listened to.

2.  Really listen to what they are saying; stop planning what you're going to say once they are finally finished.  Just be in the moment with your partner.

3.  If you feel your emotions intensifying, let your partner know.  This can be a cue to take a step back, re-establish a positive connection with your partner, and then continue.

4.  Some ways to re-establish a positive connection can be to hold hands, use humour, recall a discussion that went well, or simply sitting with each other.  It may be useful to discuss ways to re-establish connection prior to more serious discussions.

5.  If things get too emotionally intense, try to put the brakes on the conversation.  Reassure your partner that you are not trying to avoid the conversation, but delaying it until you are able to truly listen.

When we feel that we are being listened to and understood, it is much easier to use the communication skills that we have.  It is when we are feeling emotionally intense, that things tend to get challenging.  Establishing that emotional connection can make all the difference in communication.

Can I Be A Good Parent and Romantic Partner at the Same Time???

Parenting Partnership | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Parenting Partnership | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

I recently posted an article to our Facebook account about the impact of focusing on children on a romantic relationship (you can find the original article here).  This article really seemed to strike a chord with people, often with the painful acknowledgement that their relationship had been sorely neglected since the arrival of children.  Relationship satisfaction tends to dip (or sometimes plummet!) when a child arrives on the scene.  

How can you protect your relationship, while balancing the needs of a family?

  1. View your romantic relationship as the foundation for your family.  Trying to raise emotionally healthy children while the parents’ relationship is suffering is kind of like trying to build your dream home on a foundation of quicksand.  Children thrive when they feel secure within their family units and part of that security comes from a healthy parental relationship.
  2. Make spending time with your partner a priority, even if it means cutting back on activities for your kids.  There is an epidemic of over-scheduling our kids, while severely neglecting our own self-care.  Kids need the freedom to play, explore and just have down time.  While parents often feel guilt about scaling back activities, you are not doing your kids a disservice if they are not in activities every night!  They have a lifetime to learn and develop interests.  While they are off playing, make couple time a priority.  Ask your partner about their day, what is worrying them, what is making them happy.  These moments of connection are hugely beneficial for your relationship.
  3. You and your partner are on the same team, even if you have differences in opinion.  Different philosophies towards parenting can create friction and disagreements in a relationship.  When you and your partner are feeling frustrated with each other, remind yourselves that you are both working together towards the same goal.  You both want well-adjusted, successful and happy kids, but may just different ideas on how to get there.  Reminding yourselves of this common goal can help you both feel less defensive, more co-operative and more open to hearing out the other’s perspective.
  4. Don’t neglect physical intimacy.  While your sex life will undoubtedly be affected by parenthood, try to maintain affection within your relationship.  Hold hands, give hugs, make a point of kissing each other hello and good-bye.  This will also model to your kids the role of physical affection within a healthy relationship.
  5. Don’t forget what first brought the two of you together.  While you’re slogging through the parenting trenches, it can be easy to forget your partner was once a very attractive, appealing human being!  Out of all the possible choices, you picked this person to be your partner.  Remind yourself what it was about this person that got you excited!  That person is still there, you may just need to look a bit harder to see them again.
  6.  Envision what life will be like with your partner once your kids are grown and gone.  Will you have anything in common?  What activities would you like to do together?  What do you want your lives to look like during the empty nest phase?  Having goals and visions of the future can help us keep our relationships on track.  If we don’t put the effort into our relationships NOW, the likelihood of those visions coming true is relatively low.

As with all worthwhile endeavours, the secret to maintaining a strong romantic relationship while parenting is that the relationship needs to be made a priority.  It is so easy to lose sight of our partner for the person that they are when we are mostly seeing them as our co-parent.  However, by making our romantic relationship a priority, we are providing our kids with a healthy model of relationships, investing in the future of our relationship, and doing something that makes us feel good!  Your relationship is worth it.

Can You "Baby-Proof" Your Relationship?

Relationships | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Relationships | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Having a baby is one of the biggest transitions that a relationship ever experiences.  Couples will often identify the birth of a child as the time period when their relationship changed, and usually not for the better.  Couples spend less time together, they are exhausted (and maybe a wee more irritable than usual), their focus is on the baby rather than each other, and it feels like everything has changed.  Research has shown that overall relationship satisfaction significantly drops following the birth of a child.  Most couples are not prepared for these significant changes (we really should start doing a better job at preparing couples!) and it can be very stressful when your relationship starts to feel different at such a critical time.  Is it possible to “baby-proof” your relationship?

The short answer is a resounding NO.  There is no way to avoid that your relationship will change after having a child.  Your lives will have fundamentally changed; you are now responsible for the care and raising of another human being.  Remember in your childfree days when a weekend stretched out in front of you, full of possibility, fun and free time? That doesn’t happen anymore.  Your new bundle of joy does not care that it is Saturday; s/he will still be up at 5:00 a.m and need to be fed, changed, put down for a nap, repeat.  Those long romantic dinners?  Those are now replaced by scrambling last minute to figure out what to feed yourselves (the pizza delivery man is likely the only reason my husband and I didn’t starve to death during the newborn period).  Things will change, they will be more difficult, and there is no way around it; a baby will change your relationship.

However, despite these changes, you can prepare yourselves and your relationship to better cope with these changes.  Firstly, you need to dramatically adjust your expectations about how the new addition will affect your relationship.  Of course, there is no way to fully understand the changes that are heading your way unless you’ve experienced it before, but having a general idea that things will change is a good idea.  We tend to better cope with things when we have some expectations that things will happen.  We don’t tend to do well with surprises.  If you have a baby on the way, ask friends (the genuine, won’t sugar-coat things type of friends) how a baby affected their relationship.  If you already have a child, adjust your expectations based on things that have already happened.  If you and your partner tend to pass out in an exhausted heap everyday at 8:00 p.m., it is probably unrealistic to expect that a late night out is the answer to spending time together.  Acceptance of our current set of circumstances can be hugely helpful in coping with transitions (it won’t be like this forever!).

In addition to setting realistic expectations, having a regular stream of communication between partners can greatly help in protecting your relationship.  Talking about your own experiences, sharing your feelings (even if they aren't pretty), and trying to understand your partner’s experience can help you cope with the changes and actually deepen the connection with your partner.  Talking doesn't have to be focused on resolving an issue, it can just be a way to connect and feel like you’re both on the same team (a very tired, overwhelmed and not at its best team, but a team nonetheless!).   While there is no doubt that the addition of a child will change your relationship, it is possible that this change can be a positive one.