Rethinking Sex: A Journey with Steve & Jen

This series tells fictional stories using made-up names of the journey people experience through counselling. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience every client’s story is unique; what remains the same is our desire to helping you with who you want to be.

At the start

When Steve & Jen came to sex therapy, they were at a loss. Ever since their marriage 2 years ago, sex had always been painful – and now Jen had been diagnosed with vaginismus, a condition where the vaginal opening contracts too much to allow comfortable sex.

Sex therapy is quite different from counselling. Its purpose is to deal with the psychosomatic causes of sexual dysfunctions – in other words, the psychological and emotional factors that make sex difficult, painful or impossible.

So to start with, we talked in detail about their history from childhood.

Jen’s parents both worked when she was a child so after school and in the holidays she would go to her grandma’s house. Her grandma was much loved, however Jen picked up many negative ideas about sex from her. She considered sex to be dirty, not fun and painful – it was only to be within marriage and necessary for producing children.

Of course, these messages weren’t conveyed outright. They were ideas that Jen picked up and understood over time, and they shaped her expectations of sex.

Jen went off to university from an all-girls school. Suddenly, there were men around her who were interested in her. Something seemed to be going on that she didn’t understand: people seemed to be choosing to have sex with others they weren’t married to… Jen couldn’t quite compute her inherited understanding with the world around her.

She got together with Steve after university. At first, sex was ok, but over a few weeks it began to get more and more painful. It became a constant challenge and struggle in their marriage.

Steve & Jen have come to sex therapy because they want to find a way of having sex comfortably.

Journeying

After covering their history, I make a treatment plan for them. This is another way sex therapy differs from normal counselling. In sex therapy, clients engage in a programme of exercises that begin to rewrite their relationship with sex, usually over the course of several months.

Jen & Steve are both surprised to discover that this plan starts with no sex at all. The plan begins with booking time with each other every week to engage in lots of physical, non-sexual contact.

One of these exercises I asked Jen & Steve to do is the sensate focus exercise. It’s about paying attention to the sensations in your own body as you touch your partner. So, when Steve strokes Jen’s stomach, what does her stomach feel like? How does it relate to what he sees? And for Jen, what does it feel like when Steve touches her? And then they swap over, with Jen stroking Steve’s stomach.

The sensate focus exercise is non-sexual, not intended for arousal, nor is it a massage. It is essentially a ‘selfish’ exercise.

Each time they complete the exercise, they can talk through with each other their experience and they take notes to share with me at our next session.

This feels very strange at first for Jen & Steve, but when we discuss the outcome of the exercise, they are surprised by the impact it’s had. It has built intimacy and connection between them that they have not experienced before. Jen also admits that knowing it wasn’t allowed to be sexual has helped her to relax and feel safe when Steve touches her.

It’s about trust all along the way. Trusting that your partner will not do something that you don’t want them to do.

As we continue to see an increase in the trust and intimacy between Steve & Jen, and carry their treatment plan forward, I meet with Jen individually. It allows us to explore together the impact of her background on her experience of sex. We begin to unpack and process her experiences and her emotions, creating space to reshape her thinking.

Progression through the treatment plan continues, always at the pace that Jen & Steve are both comfortable with – in both body and mind.

We begin to introduce some sexual elements to their relationship again. Steve now begins to understand the difference between intercourse and sexual intimacy. While intercourse describes the physical sexual encounter, sexual intimacy starts with complete trust and non-sexual physical intimacy.

Jen & Steve are finding for the first time that their sexual relationship is satisfying and enjoyable – even without necessarily having intercourse.

Ending well

Over the course of their treatment plan, Steve & Jen have seen what they thought was impossible become possible.

And yet the most precious outcome for them is not that they can now comfortably have sex – but that they are enjoying a deep intimacy and trust in each other, of which sex is a part.

One thing clients realise over the course of sex therapy is the sheer complexity of sexual dysfunctions. It’s not a quick thing to fix. It’s wrapped up in so much history and emotion. It is far more complex than my clients ever foresee.

Journeying together with clients in unpacking and overcoming all the psychological and emotional barriers to a functional sex life – and seeing couples enjoy a wonderful intimacy and trust together – is tremendously rewarding.

Psycho Sexual Therapy (PST) is available for couples and individuals who face a wide range of sexual difficulties. This can be diagnosed issues, such as vaginismus or erectile dysfunction, or relational struggles caused by challenges in their sex life.

Find out more about sex therapy and how to book with our therapist.

This story was told by Chris, a Relate Counsellor qualified in Psycho Sexual Therapy.

Breaking Free: A Journey with Clare

This series tells fictional stories using made-up names of the journey people experience through counselling. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience every client’s story is unique; what remains the same is our desire to helping you with who you want to be.

At the start

When Clare arrived for counselling she was in the middle of a divorce. Her marriage of 15 years had ended.  She had nothing –no job, no money, no home – and was caring for a teenage son on her own.

As she told her story, she began to reveal some of the trauma she’d been through. When they were dating her husband had loved and adored her, poured out gifts to her, been everything she sought and longed for. Stability, strength, love, appreciation… they married after a year, and he changed overnight.  She found herself, desperately doing all she could to please him and keep him happy, walking on eggshells constantly.  Occasionally, that wonderful, loving man would be back – and then disappear again all too soon.

Journeying

During the counselling sessions, we were able to make sense of her experience which rings true for others in domestic abuse relationships:

  • He mirrored her: listening to her desires, hopes and dreams he became all that she wanted.
  • He love-bombed her: he was more than she expected, showering her with gifts and telling her “you’re my everything.”
  • After their marriage, she went through what we call ‘trauma bonding’. On the rollercoaster between the highs and the lows, she would desperately seek the high, doing all she could to bring the loving husband back to her
  • He isolated her: saying she didn’t need to work, he would look after her. He was cruel to her friends, so they didn’t come round anymore. He “took care” of all the money, controlling every penny.
  • He gaslighted her: he convinced her that she was crazy, that she was making things up – and she began to doubt herself.

For Clare, naming these behaviours was a revelation. She began to see his powerful and controlling behaviour and realise that she had been in a domestic abuse relationship.

As we broke down what had happened over 15 years, we drew a timeline of what she had endured.  Once Clare began to see it and understand it, she could begin to accept it. Once she accepted it, she could begin to let it go. It didn’t need to define her today.

We began to look at he

r strengths. She was a survivor. She persevered. She was brave.

We began to look at who she was, and who she wanted to be. She was a people pleaser, but she didn’t want to be that anymore. She wanted to learn to trust herself again.

Claire began to develop and practice ways of listening toherself and making her own choices in relationships, which led to a growing confidence in herself.

Ending well

Clare unpacked her life in our counselling room and as we came to the end of her sessions, we repacked her bags with the things she wanted to keep. She left behind everything she didn’t want: the past is always with us, but all the power of the past – its lies, its behaviours and its oppression – was released.

At Relate, we are always clear how many sessions a client has with a counsellor; this was really important for Clare to know. So that at her last session, Clare left free from the trauma of her past relationship, and free to be who she wanted to be.

We often think of domestic abuse relationships as being physically violent, but they are not always like that. Check out this helpful chart for the eight signs that can help you diagnose abuse in a relationship.

You may recognise some of what we have covered here and suspect that your relationship is abusive; you may, like Clare, be leaving an abusive relationship or perhaps feel like you’re carrying the baggage round with you from a past relationship. Wherever you are in your journey, you can book counselling with us. Please get in touch today – we’d love to share your journey to freedom. 

This story was told by Debbie, a Relate counsellor specialising in mental health.

Top tips for managing panic attacks

Panic attacks are increasingly common. They are also treatable and you can make a full recovery and never have another one.

Whilst they can be very frightening they are not dangerous. Some of the things you may experience can be scary but remember these will pass. Panic attack symptoms include:

  • racing heart
  • sweaty hands
  • breathing faster
  • dizziness

In this video, Annie gives some tips on how to manage panic attacks.

Annie’s top tips for managing panic attacks

  1. Remind yourself ‘This will pass’, ‘I am safe’
  2. Open your eyes look at the space you are in
  3. Stamp or ground your feet into the floor
  4. Say your name and the day
  5. Slow down your breathing
  6. Find five things around you and pay extra attention to them. Use all 5 of your senses.

Tip 6 is particularly useful. Here’s an example of how to engage all your senses:

You’re at school and you focus on your jumper as one of your five things.

  • Really look at your jumper: what do you see?
  • When you touch it how does it feel?
  • Does it make a sound (maybe you could gently flick the sleeve, can you hear anything)?
  • Does it smell of anything? 

You may want to carry a mint or a sour sweet for one of your 5 items and really focus on that using all your 5 of your senses including taste. 

If you know you are experiencing panic attacks and would like more support you can of course contact us. You are not alone. This will pass.

More information

If you aren’t sure if you are having a panic attack, we would recommend you talking to your GP. If you live in Northamptonshire message CAMHS LIVE (details below). There is also plenty of information and support on the sites listed below.

No Panic

No Panic offers advice, help and support for those suffering from anxiety based disorders for 13-20 year olds (including OCD and phobias).

You can find out more about them here or ring to chat to someone on 0330 606 1174.

 

YoungMinds logo

Young Minds Crisis Messenger is a free text service provides 24/7 crisis support if you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need support. It is simple to text them, you could just put something like ‘I am struggling’ and they will message you back.

You can find out more about them here – or text YM to 85258.

 

Anxiety UK

Anxiety UK offers advice & support for people with anxiety stress.

You can find out more about them here. They are also available from 10am-8pm on 03444 775 774, or text them on 07537416905.

Papyrus is a charity dedicated in supporting children and young people under 35 who are having suicidal thoughts. They are open weekdays 9am-10 pm and weekends & Bank Holidays 2pm-10 pm.

Papyrus is also there for you if you are an adult or young person worried about someone experiencing suidical thoughts.

Visit their website, text them on 07860 039967 or ring them on 0800 068 41 41.

 

Childline logo 2018.png

Childline is a charity you can call or chat with.  For the 1-2-1 chat you need to be registered – it only takes a few minutes but it is a good idea to do this when you are feeling okay so you can quickly access it if you are struggling.  Childline is not 24 hours at the moment (this may change). You can chat to a counsellor between 9 am and midnight (you can not join live chat after 10.30 pm).

Find out more here or call them on 0800 1111.

 

the lowdown - supporting young people

If you live in Northampton The Lowdown runs a crisis cafe once a week for anyone aged 12-18. You do not have to go to the cafe at the moment – you can chat to them remotely as well.

Check out their opening times on their website.

 

Back to Home

Another crisis cafe once a week is run by Youthworks in Kettering for anyone aged 12-18.

You can go to the cafe – just ring ahead, or find out more on Twitter. Visit their website or ring on 01536 518 339.

 

Camhs live image

CAMHS Live is a run by the child and adolescent mental health service in Northamptonshire  and you can live chat with them on weekdays. It is for Young people 13 years and older and parents or carers wanting advice and information about emotional wellbeing and mental health services.

Visit their website to start a live chat with them.

4 reasons why the man cave matters for mental health

the man caveIs escaping to your man cave a joke in your house ?  Well here’s four reasons why it’s brilliant for your mental health.

1: It’s a place to be alone.

Life is loud don’t underestimate the value of being on your own, surrounded only by your own noise. Choosing time on your own builds mental energy and resilience for life.

2: It’s a place to be purposeful.

Your man cave might be a garage, your Xbox or the garden shed. Wherever it is, it’s a place you go to be purposeful, where your attention is absorbed into a task and you get the satisfaction of completing a project. Focussing deeply on your hobby brings welcome perspective on other parts of your life.

3: It’s a place to connect.

Your man cave, as all men know, is a space away from everyone. Except… those people you invite in. You might game with friends; talk carburettors and pistons with mates or drink homemade brew with other homebrewers. These connections are incredibly valuable to your mental health; those you invite into your space are people you connect deeply with and can turn to when the going gets tough.  The depth of relationship is more important than the quantity of friends.

4: It’s a place to remind you of your value.

There are so many ways in which we can lose our sense of value and in your man cave you set your own rules and measures. It’s a place where your self-worth increase and as the unconquerable master of your own space you can go on and master the world outside.

Sometimes your man cave isn’t always enough. So, our expert counsellors are ready to help anyone, regardless of their gender, to find their strength, value and purpose again.

Get in touch today – we’d love to help you.

You are not alone: finding help in the face of suicidal thoughts

Often, when you have suicidal thoughts, you can think “I am alone.”

We absolutely recognise how difficult things may be for you at the moment, and you may feel that things will never change, that you can’t tell anyone one what’s going on inside or that it all feels too much to manage. Please remember that you that you are not alone, you may feel very lonely, but you are not alone.

There are people you can talk to who will listen without judgement.  Below, there are the details of many support services that are there for you.  If you feel able to have a look whilst you are feeling okay it can be useful to store phone/ text numbers into your phone so you can easily access support if you are struggling you could give them a different name (for example store Young Minds Crisis Messenger as YM).  It can also be useful to have the contact information of some 24 hour support such as Young Minds Crisis Messenger and Samaritans.  We would recommend you saving the details of more than one as support times may alter or be busier due to COVID-19.

If you are in crisis and do not feel you are able to stay safe then you can call 999. If you are too distressed to speak and you are on your mobile phone and remain quiet the operator may ask you to cough or tap the phone (so they can make sure the number hasn’t been called by accident). You will then be asked to press 55. This will put you through to their silent solution service. Remember you are NOT in trouble – they are there for you.

If you feel suicidal you can go into the accident and emergency at your local hospital.  If you don’t think you can speak then write down that you are struggling and having suicidal thoughts and just hand over the piece of paper to the receptionist or one of the team.

In the video below, Annie (one of our young people’s counsellors) gives you a great way of working out who is there to help you, 24/7. And below the video, you can find all the links to different organisations able to help you through.

 

YoungMinds logo

Young Minds Crisis Messenger is a free text service provides 24/7 crisis support if you are experiencing a mental health crisis and need support. It is simple to text them, you could just put something like ‘I am struggling’ and they will message you back.

You can find out more about them here – or text YM to 85258.

 

Papyrus is a charity dedicated in supporting children and young people under 35 who are having suicidal thoughts. They are open weekdays 9am-10 pm and weekends & Bank Holidays 2pm-10 pm.

Papyrus is also there for you if you are an adult or young person worried about someone experiencing suidical thoughts.

Visit their website, text them on 07860 039967 or ring them on 0800 068 41 41.

 

Childline logo 2018.png

Childline is a charity you can call or chat with.  For the 1-2-1 chat you need to be registered – it only takes a few minutes but it is a good idea to do this when you are feeling okay so you can quickly access it if you are struggling.  Childline is not 24 hours at the moment (this may change). You can chat to a counsellor between 9 am and midnight (you can not join live chat after 10.30 pm).

Find out more here or call them on 0800 1111.

 

the lowdown - supporting young people

If you live in Northampton The Lowdown runs a crisis cafe once a week for anyone aged 12-18. You do not have to go to the cafe at the moment – you can chat to them remotely as well.

Check out their opening times on their website.

Back to Home

Another crisis cafe once a week is run by Youthworks in Kettering for anyone aged 12-18.

You can go to the cafe – just ring ahead, or find out more on Twitter. Visit their website or ring on 01536 518 339.

 

Camhs live image

CAMHS Live is a run by the child and adolescent mental health service in Northamptonshire  and you can live chat with them on weekdays. It is for Young people 13 years and older and parents or carers wanting advice and information about emotional wellbeing and mental health services.

Visit their website to start a live chat with them.

Mindfulness Resources: Recommended by our counsellors and you

Mindfulness is a great way of understanding and processing our emotions, particularly in times of high pressure, change and intensity – like this Covid-19 pandemic. These resources are a collection of recommendations from our counsellors, trustees and you! If you have a resource you would like to recommend, please get in touch with us on Facebook.

For Adults

  • 50 Ways to Feel Happy by Vanessa King. “There’s chapters on resilience and exercise and loads of fun things to do.” Recommended by Rachel, one of our trustees.
  • St Peter’s Centre for Mindfulness – purchasable podcasts on the practice of mindfulness. Recommended by Anna on Facebook.
  • Headspace for Adults – an app for Android & Apple devices. Recommended by Kerri on Facebook.

For Children

  • My Little Happy Book by Kikki K. Recommended by Max.
  • You Are Awesome by Matthew Syed. Recommended by Rachel,  one of our trustees.
  • Secret Science by Dara O’Briain. “Explains how stuff works like hormones and planes, deals with procrastination & what happens to your brain when you play video games!” Recommended by Rachel,  one of our trustees.
  • The Happy Self Kids’ Daily Journal by TheHappySelf. Recommended by Gemma.
  • Headspace for Kids – an app for Android & Apple devices. Recommended by Kerri on Facebook.

Negotiating Difference

A lot has been written about why people fall in love.  It’s the first question I ask couples that come to see me.  Sometimes it’s simple: “We’re good friends and it felt right to move to the next stage”.  For some it’s a physical attraction or finding someone they can talk to about anything. For others it’s that feeling that they are ‘safe’.

A partnership is two people coming together, both with their own personality. There are a few differences I’ve observed that can lead to misunderstandings and frustration. And right now, during lockdown, these can be even more obvious than they were before.

To help in understanding these differences I’ve used the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, a well-known tool for assessing personality types (it’s important to focus on the descriptions rather than the definition of the words – they are different):

  • ‘Intraverts’: People who get their energy from being alone, sitting on the sofa, reading a book or going for a walk. They will leave a party early because they become emotionally tired & need to be alone; they aren’t anti-social!
  • ‘Extraverts’: People who get their energy from being with others. When extraverts are emotionally tired, they will suggest going to the pub or a club to relax and recharge. Much more comfortable in large groups it allows them to re-charge their batteries.
  • ‘Perceiving’: People who know what needs to be done and are happy to do it although will rarely have a plan as to when. They are much more likely to wait until the last minute as they will find more ‘interesting’ things to do.
  • ‘Judging’: People who love lists and hate surprises! There’s always at least a rough plan in their head for the rest of the week or the holiday.  They are methodical and get frustrated if their list isn’t completed in time or someone suggests at the last minute that they could do something completely different.

So, how does this play out in relationships?

Some time ago a couple came to see me …

He was an Extravert and Perceiving style with a senior job that involved a lot of daily administration.  If he didn’t do the administration every day, it would get out of hand and as a ‘P’ this was a daily challenge.  By the end of the week he would be emotionally exhausted and in dire need of meeting people to recharge his emotional batteries.

She was an Intravert with a senior job that wasn’t just emotionally exhausting but physically exhausting too.  At the end of the week when she wanted to recharge her batteries, she preferred to go home and be left to herself to read a book and let the world wash over her.

So, at the end of the working week, each wanted the other to join them in their ‘down time’ and it was causing conflict.  I explored their differences with them and they started to understand how their needs were the opposite of each other. They came up with their own solution: he went to the pub with his friends. She would go home and sit on the sofa chilling out.  He would come home after an hour or two and they were both to enjoy the weekend together.

If you’re experiencing conflict right now, consider whether it is to do with your personality types. How can you make space for one another’s needs during the current crisis?

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out – and that’s what we’re here for! Find out about couple counselling today and how it can help you overcome your conflicts – and emerge stronger as a result.

How things change: relationships under construction

I have a ‘postcard’ in my hallway that reads ‘The road to success is always under construction”.  I often tell my clients that applies to your relationship too.

Most relationships start off lighthearted, full of joy and expectation.  We ‘fall in love’ for all sorts of reasons and with that person everything is possible: sharing a hobby or travelling, enjoying sport together, amateur dramatics or gardening.  For some, it’s having a career, for others it’s getting married and having children.

Initially it looks like a straight road that you can choose to travel down at speed or just amble along and admire the view.  And then, after few years, the road begins to twist and turn and you find you must change gear, slow down or even come to a stand-still.

So, what twists and turns have my clients told me about?  Marriage, the first child, promotion, moving house, someone close dying, the ‘in laws’, redundancy, moving town, children leaving home, unfulfilled career ambitions and now the unexpected challenges that coronavirus has brought such as social distancing and limits on our day to day life.

Each one can change our perspective on life.    And all this happens alongside our own life-stages, our twenties and thirties, the big ‘0’ birthdays through to mid-life (crisis, what crisis!) and retirement.

The good news is that all these twists and turns can be negotiated with change, goodwill, generosity and patience.  However, we are not always prepared and able to fulfill the emerging needs in our partner or sometimes we simply don’t know how.  And that’s where help from a Relate counsellor can help couples emerge stronger and better placed for the future. Find out how we can help you and your partner.

Bereavement during Covid-19

Relate counsellor Dee Holmes gives her advice for those who have experienced bereavement at this time. More and more of us are being affected directly by loss due to COVID-19, and Relate Northampton are here to help.

Experiencing a loss during this season of lockdown is particularly traumatic. If you’re grieving a loved one and need some help in the process you’re going through, we’re here to help you.

Contact us today to book an appointment, or find out about individual counselling sessions.