This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a couple overcome communication weaknesses to build a stronger future together.
Tom & Mary had been together 4 years when lockdown began and had been living together for two years in Tom’s house. They had great plans for the future having sold Mary’s house, and were getting ready to sell Tom’s house to buy a home together – when the pandemic started.
The last 4 years hadn’t been a simple journey for them. Tom’s previous marriage broke down many years ago, and his children, now adults, struggled to accept Mary into their lives. Mary had 3 grown-up children, and while she had had two long-term relationships, they felt threatened by this new relationship. Life wasn’t straightforward but they had begun to build relationships with their stepchildren… another thing put on hold by lockdown.
Tom was then made redundant, and Mary was furloughed, so finances began to get stretched and living in the house all the time together brought out tensions between them that Tom couldn’t make sense of. Mary often lost her temper and would shut down when he tried to discuss it with her. He started worrying about this relationship falling apart like his marriage had
He knew they needed help, so he got in touch with us at Relate Northamptonshire.
Mary is very reluctant to come to the first couple counselling session, but eventually is persuaded by Tom who’s keen to restore their relationship through counselling.
However, Mary refuses to acknowledge any part in the breakdown of their relationship, and in our first session announces that she isn’t sure she wants the relationship to continue.
At this point, it is really important to see each of them individually, giving each partner time to share their perspectives on the relationship, and their relationship history. These individual meetings are completely confidential, so give both Tom and Mary the ability to speak openly with their counsellor.
I meet with Mary first. It becomes apparent that her previous relationships were mentally abusive. She is only just beginning to recognise what that abuse did to her emotionally: low self-esteem, low confidence, the inability to make decisions, and particularly struggling to deal well with conflict. As we discuss her past, we notice together a similar pattern from her childhood – her parents didn’t manage disagreements well either.
Tom, on the other hand, feels completely helpless. He’s desperate to get this right. In his first marriage, his wife drove everything and he went along with what she said – but he wants to learn to be stronger and more assertive in this relationship. He’s worried that it’s not working, but he doesn’t want to go back to the way he was before.
It is clear from their two histories that there is a significant communication gap between them. They both bring lots of baggage to the relationship that they haven’t unpacked together. This is leading to a lack of understanding between them.
In our next session, with both Tom and Mary, we focus on the need to rebuild the foundations of their relationship. I start by setting a very simple exercise of active listening 3 or 4 times a week. Tom and Mary sit down together at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. One speaks to the other without interruption, and the other then reflects back what they have heard. They listen not only to one another’s words but also their body language and tone. The listener also avoids inputting their own opinion or comment. They are practicing really hearing each other’s perspectives.
Over a number of weeks, this practice begins to bear fruit. They find that the cycle of arguments is beginning to be broken and instead, they are finding ways to listen to each other.
Through this process, Mary is able to communicate that she feels trust has been broken. Tom spoke to his children about what was going on between them before he started counselling, which felt like a betrayal. It has further damaged the relationship she has with his children. Tom apologised for his actions, but Mary is still left with the sense of broken trust.
An individual session with Mary helps her to realise that she wants to tell Tom about her previous relationships but feels crippled by fear and shame. We discuss the possibility of telling her story in the dark, where she can’t see his face – but while cuddling to give physical reassurance of his presence.
Mary decides to have this conversation, with Tom using his active listening skills to really hear her. Mary feels safe in the dark with him, and he is able to show that he respects her voice – and that she is emotionally safe with him.
It’s a huge turning point for them both. Tom begins to understand Mary’s responses, and he adapts his words and actions so that he doesn’t trigger those memories in her. And in return, Mary begins to trust Tom, and is no longer acting out of fear.
Mary and Tom have been on a huge journey through counselling. Their unspoken past created a big gap in understanding between them. As they leave counselling, they have learnt how to communicate and have started to bridge that gap. They can disagree well, without falling into an argument. And they continue to practice active listening.
It’s wonderful to see them begin to think once again of the future, and plan a life together. They are intentionally rebuilding relationships with their stepchildren, with each other’s full support; Tom is looking for work; and they hope in a year or two to buy a house that’s theirs.
Both Tom and Mary are aware that they may face further challenges in the future – and both say they would be quick to return to counselling again if things go awry.
We always have an open door at Relate, because we know that building bridges takes time – and relationships are a work in progress.
This story was told by Lin, a Relate counsellor specialising in couples & families.
Many relationships have been deeply stretched by the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that these crises points can become moments to build new strength in intimate relationships. If you and your partner are struggling to communicate well, get in touch with us. It could be one of the best things you ever do for each other.