Taming Supermum: Tanya’s Counselling Journey

Tanya looked like a busy but successful mum. She was in her mid-40s, had a long-term partner and three children in their teens. As her children have grown, she had gradually been increasing her work hours as a teller in a building society.

However, Tanya lost her mum just over a year ago and misses her. She had been feeling overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted a lot of the time. Tanya had also increasingly struggled to sleep. She would wake up very early in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Yet, in the midst of busy life, she has just got on with it.

It all really hit her when she was offered a promotion at work. Tanya felt she ought to be excited, but instead she just felt overwhelmed. Until this point, Tanya hadn’t told anyone about how she was feeling or about her issues sleeping. There just wasn’t time to voice it in ordinary life.

However, when a friend talked to her about her own struggles, she felt able to open up. That friend recommended counselling at Relate Northamptonshire. Tanya also discovered that Relate’s National Partnership with The Bank Worker’s Charity meant she could get free counselling. So she took the first step and booked her first session.

Skills in Sleep Hygiene

During Tanya’s first session, it quickly became clear that lack of sleep was the first hurdle to feeling well. We talked about the idea of sleep hygiene: cleaning up the hours before we go to sleep to help us sleep well.

We spent some time exploring some simple skills in sleep hygiene:

  • Turn of electronics an hour before bed.
  • Develop a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Listen to a sleep app – there are many free and premium apps available.
  • Don’t drink caffeine.
  • Reset process – if awake for more than 20 minutes, get up, have a warm drink then go back to bed and practice breathing techniques.

Tanya decided which of these ideas she’d try first, and we practiced the breathing techniques together. I also set her a task: to pay attention to when she felt most overwhelmed.

The Supermum

When Tanya came back to her next session, it was clear that her sleep had been better. The breathing techniques had worked well. She also listened to sleep music on her headphones to help her drop off again. Tanya also tried a few sleep apps until she found one she liked.

Being more rested had really helped Tanya to notice her emotions. She identified that the morning rush to get out the door and the dinner-homework-bed routine completely overwhelmed her. She felt panicky and out of control.

As we explored her feelings further over the next few sessions, we identified together a voice in her head that said she must be supermum, and if she’s not she’s a failure.

We named this voice the Internal Supermum. Tanya told me about what this voice said about being a supermum. It was clear that Internal Supermum was very critical of Tanya, saying things like:

  • Everyone else’s needs have to come first.
  • If you get it wrong you’re a failure.
  • Supermums don’t have needs, because they always think of everyone else.
  • Everyone else can be forgiven, but not you.

Tanya realised that Internal Supermum was very mean to her. This internal voice was driving a lot of her panic and anxiety.

The Kind Voice

We explored where this Internal Supermum came from. Tanya talked about her past – she was raised by her mother after her father died of a heart attack. Her mum went to work, looked after the two children and made their clothes. Tanya felt like she should cope, just like her mother did.

When I asked Tanya what she thought her mum would say to her if she was here, listening to the conversation, it took her a few minutes before she could answer.

Her mum would say she was important too. She would say it’s important to take time for herself. Her mum would want her to look after herself. Her mum was not Supermum.

Tanya remembered some of the things her mum used to say when the children were young. She would come over to help, and tell Tanya “go and have a break – don’t clean or tidy, just rest.”

For Tanya, the loss of her mum has meant the loss of that kind voice – an external justification to take time out.

Kindness in Community

After a very emotional journey, Tanya began to wonder what other mums think and feel. She decided to ask a few, and found that many of them find the morning rush and the after-school chaos hard. It felt good to know she wasn’t on her own.

We talked about the need to tell her partner how she felt. This was a releasing moment for Tanya, bringing into the open the turmoil she had been in. When her partner heard how Tanya had felt, he was very supportive about making practical changes.

They decided that, as a family, they all needed to help with the morning routine. She didn’t need to do it on her own, because her children aren’t little any more. They were reluctant at first, but soon the children got used to sharing out the jobs between them. This was a fairly simple set of tasks:

  • They made their own lunches.
  • Her eldest likes cooking, so cooks one night a week.
  • They set up a washing up rota.

They also decided to get a cleaner, to release Tanya so that she could take the promotion.

Tanya talked about how all these little changes were like that kind voice to her. Every time someone else did their job, it said to her that she didn’t have to do it all.

Taming Supermum

In our final session, we spent time looking back at the journey Tanya had been on and reflecting on what she’d learnt about herself.

Tanya realised that she didn’t want to be Supermum! Her children are growing up and there is capacity to be so much more. She’s taking the promotion to be a team leader at work. She’s started to meet friends, to exercise, to plan holidays.

Her Internal Supermum had isolated her into one role. But she is many things: a partner, a mum, an employee, a friend – and, first and foremost, a woman in her own right. She needs to be kind to herself and give herself space so that she can do all these things.

There were two moments that Tanya felt showed how much she had grown. She had noticed a few days ago that she was feeling overwhelmed. So she listened to some sleep music while she prepared the dinner. That moment of kindness to herself would never have happened a few months ago.

The second one came from her daughter, who asked what was going on because she seemed so much happier and more content. Tanya suddenly realised that this change wasn’t just about her own wellbeing. She was also modelling a better kind of motherhood to her kids – showing her daughter a balanced way of being mum.

Ending well

Tanya was well on the way to taming Internal Supermum. She could turn the volume down on Internal Supermum, and was finding her own internal, kinder voice. She shared how equipped she felt from the counselling – given the tools and knowledge she needed to continue her wellbeing journey.

If like Tanya, you need help just call our friendly support team on 01604 634400 to book counselling with Relate Northamptonshire. Take a look at our National Partnership information to check if you might also be eligible for free counselling through our Partnerships.
This fictional story was told by Caroline, a clinical supervisor at Relate Northamptonshire.
This story is part of a fictional series about the counselling journey. These are drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience and reflect what counselling can be like and the impact it can have in our clients’ lives.

Tools for Transformation: Dave’s Counselling Journey

When Dave rang our support team, he felt it was his last chance. 

He moved in with his partner four years ago. They were both divorced with grown-up children from their previous marriages. 

As with many couples in this situation, from the outside they looked like a perfect pair. They loved having family gatherings with their children and grandchildren. They had an active social life and were cheerfully busy together. 

But, privately, things weren’t as good as they looked. Problems in their relationship were being kept under wraps and ignored, until Dave could not ignore it any longer. He felt that, if he didn’t do something, he was going to lose his partner. So he contacted us.

Initial Meeting

At our initial meeting, Dave talked about the regular arguments he and his partner were having. They made him horribly uncomfortable, and each argument was followed by a long silence. Communication stopped entirely for a while, and then resumed as if the argument never happened. He commented that he didn’t argue with his first wife – so he did not know what to do.

 As a part of our assessment together, we teased out the state of their relationship through a series of questions, such as:

  • Do you feel you can be yourself with your partner?
  • Do you feel free to spend money as you wish?
  • Is there anything you feel you can’t talk about with your partner?

The last question in particular gave Dave pause for thought. He realised that he had thought so, but now wasn’t so sure. Some of the things they talked about led to arguments – particularly their children. A competitiveness had grown between them, around their children and their performance as parents and step-parents; there were some things Dave was afraid to bring up.

As we probed that question, Dave expressed his frustration that his partner didn’t see his son in the same way he did.  He felt defensive of his children and hated it when she criticised them. 

Even in this initial assessment, it became clear to Dave that he found it really hard to listen to his partner’s perspective. And as we ended this assessment, Dave said that his partner knew he was coming to counselling – she felt it was his problem that he needed to solve.

The Argument Map

Dave came back to our second session even more determined to do something. He didn’t know what needed to change, but was afraid that if he didn’t do something, he would lose her.

We started our session by mapping out their arguments. What triggers them? What happens when the argument is triggered? We work out each step of the argument: what we would see and hear as the argument progressed? Then, how would it end? How long would the silence last? Who would break it? Would they return to the argument?

After mapping the argument, we noted Dave’s emotions on the map. What did he feel at particular moments? Anxiety, fear, anger, defensiveness… He talked particularly about his own shouting during the argument. He hated shouting, but in the heat of the argument he did behave out of character. His overriding emotion was one of frustration at not being able to get through to his partner.

Hearing habits

Arguments between couples are, as you would expect, very normal. The problem with arguments is the breakdown in communication: during an argument, no-one is listening.

There are plenty of methods or tools we can use to shift an argument, so that communication can start again. Dave and I discussed a number of different methods he could try. He chose a couple he was interested in, and together we explored ways to approach it with his partner.

One of the exercises he chose was a listening and talking exercise. This involved him inviting his partner to a conversation where he listened with no judgement, no comment and no argument. He simply reflected back to her what she said. Then, they swapped, and it was the other person’s turn.

Initially, she was resistant to taking part in the listening exercise. However, Dave persisted until he found a way to approach her so that she could engage in it. And, for both of them, it was a lightbulb moment.

The Lightbulb Moment & The Blow-out

When Dave returned to his following session, he came with mixed emotions. As a couple, they had a lightbulb moment with the listening exercise. For both of them, it built an emotional connection they hadn’t felt in a long time. 

And then, the next day, they had a huge blow-out argument. 

Dave was disheartened by this – having felt like they had found a solution, it all fell apart so quickly. But we talked about the challenge of moving that kind of connection from the planned, non-confrontation moment to the normal, day-to-day communication. 

The reality was the listening exercise was outside their comfort zone. It was new. It was different from what they did before, better, though still new and uncomfortable. Dave felt encouraged by this reflection – they could keep practicing listening together until what felt new and difficult became more natural.

Defusing arguments

We revisited our argument map to look at how we might make space for these new methods in the midst of an argument. Dave recognised that if he behaved differently during the argument, there was an invitation for her to behave differently in response. 

We discussed two particular tools for him to try:

  • I statements. Deliberately shifting language from ‘you did’ or ‘you said’ to ‘I felt’ or ‘I heard’. This picks up on the listening exercise – instead of being about blame, it’s about sharing how I felt in a situation. For example “you don’t care” becomes “I feel uncared for when you don’t make time for me”.
  • Choosing to stop an argument, make some space and then come back to listen.

Both of these tools defuse blame arguments by shifting to a listening mode. When Dave employed these tactics, his partner was completely thrown. The argument fizzled out. 

This built a new rhythm for them. They would take half an hour to calm down separately. When they came back together, they used the listening exercise to find out what was going on. 

This new approach had an impact on their whole relationship. Dave was much more confident that they had a future together. And they were having fun again, laughing together and enjoying each other’s company. 

Ending well

As we ended our sessions together, we looked back and considered what had changed since Dave started counselling.

Dave felt that everything had changed! He particularly noticed that his partner was much more receptive to listening to him, now that he was listening to her. And although arguments still started, both their behaviours in the arguments had changed. Their arguments were more quickly defused, and therefore no longer destructive. 

Dave was confident that the tools he had learnt would help them sustain a healthy relationship. He also knew that he could come back to counselling if necessary – or both of them could attend together.

This story was told by Lin, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in couples & families.

It is common in relationships that are struggling for one partner to refuse to come to counselling. Yet, as Dave’s story shows, individual counselling can make a huge difference in a relationship, as one partner changes their responses & approach to the other. And often, the couple will come back to counselling together because they can see the restoration counselling brings.

If you’re in a relationship that’s struggling, speak to our support team. They can discuss your needs with you and offer you the right service to allow your relationships to flourish again. 

Top Tips for Christmas Mental Health

Magic family time together around the Christmas tree… Laughter, smiles and love… Christmas never quite lives up to our expectations, does it?! In fact, it’s one of the most challenging times of year for relationships. A recent poll by Relate National said 78% of people in the East Midlands expect Christmas to put pressure on their relationships! And the emotional ups and downs of Covid-19 add pressure this year.

This can be for all sorts of reasons, many of which are mentioned in the video below:

Relate’s Top Tips for Flourishing Relationships Over Christmas

So what can we do to manage our relationships well over Christmas? Here are some top tips to help you:

  • Calculate your budget and plan a Christmas you can afford rather than going all out and then worrying about how much you’ve spent.
  • If circumstances mean you can’t meet with certain loved ones, talk openly with them about it. Consider arranging a video call on Christmas Day or meet them on another day during the festive period.
  • Be sensitive to what people have been through during the pandemic. Look out for family members who may be struggling with their mental health. Give them the option to get involved and let them know you’re there for them, but don’t put pressure on them to be the life and soul of the party.
  • Know that the perfect Christmas doesn’t exist so don’t put pressure on yourself to create one.
  • Plan some time outdoors so kids can let off steam and everyone can get some fresh air.
  • Try setting an intention for Christmas day. For example it might be to ask for help when you need it and accept help when people offer it.
  • If you think fall outs are likely, steer clear of discussions about contentious topics, such as politics or religion.
  • Plan deliberate space into your Christmas diary for everyone to catch up with themselves. Don’t be afraid to block time out as booked that’s just for you.
  • Take a breath! We all need a bit of space at times so why not check out Relate’s Christmas Sanctuary – an online haven which includes a guided meditation, self-help articles and a quiz which you can access if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • If you need to talk to someone impartial about your relationship and wellbeing concerns over Christmas consider Relate’s WebChat service. You can access a 30 minute online chat with a trained counsellor.
  • how to listen wellAbove all – communicate! Make sure you listen well to one another, creating quiet to connect in the midst of this busy season. This handy guide to good listening is a great starting place for intentional conversations.

Finding Support

Although our offices are closed over the Christmas period, there are plenty of services that can help you manage your mental and relationship health over Christmas. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, from those around you or from an impartial service when you begin to feel overwhelmed!

 

Learning to Listen: Stina’s Counselling Journey

 

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young teenager discovers better connection and mental health through learning to listen.

15-year-old Stina was a chatty, smiley teenager with many friends. Her friendships could sometimes be volatile, but after arguments were quickly restored.

teenagers sitting on a wall togetherA few months ago, Stina seemed to deflate. She was no longer open with her family or her friends, and seemed lonely and withdrawn. She refused to tell her mum what was going on, and was angry when her parents tried to talk about it.

Stina seemed to be sinking deeper into loneliness and anger – her parents couldn’t get through to her. So they contacted our support team to see whether we could help.

She reluctantly agreed to come to counselling via Zoom, and appeared at the first session wary and disgruntled.

Initial meeting

We spent some time during our first session establishing a relationship. A bond of trust is vital in counselling, giving permission to open up and be honest no matter how unclear or ugly our emotions may seem to us.

When Stina began to relax into our time together, I asked her to draw a picture of herself with her friends. We looked together at the picture she had drawn, naming the different people and examining what she had made. Stina commented that, in the picture, she was a bit separate from the others.

After a pause, she also said that Stina in the picture seemed angry. This lead to her sharing that she had recently started a relationship with someone else, and had made that relationship her priority. Stina reflected on a feeling of being excluded from conversations with her friends, because she’s not spending time with them as before. She also acknowledged that when this happens, she feels angry – but with a deeper feeling of sadness underneath.

Digging Deeper

Our following sessions were spent exploring the root of the anger and sadness, and the disconnection with others.

We talked about moments when Stina did feel happy, and we noticed that those moments often happened when she felt connected to others. This link between happiness and connecting with others took her by surprise. As we talked about why this might be, Stina recognised the value of being heard by others and listening well. Both hearing and being heard built a sense of happiness in her – a wellbeing and positivity. It made her feel better about herself and about other people.

Our conversation shifted at this point to focus on home. Stina’s home was a very busy one – both her parents work, and she has younger siblings too. She feels unhappy at home, and linked that to not feeling listened to. But she also noticed that there were times when her parents were deliberately listening to her. The best moments of connection for Stina were when the TV was off and they were not looking at their phones.

Learning to Listen

As we discussed listening, and what good listening looked like, Stina began to notice that she wasn’t great at listening! She noticed how distractible she was, and how quickly she interrupted people.

Stina also reflected on how bad her friends were at listening too, in ways that she hadn’t noticed. There was often the desire to be heard, but not the desire to listen – and this was actually really unsatisfying for everyone. Stina realised that she was now recognising that her anger and loneliness were often triggered by poor listening skills in her friendship group and family.

So Stina and I worked together on a list of what good listening looks like. We decided good listening includes:

  • Eye contact. Meeting someone’s eye helps them know they are the focus of your attention.
  • Body language. Turning your body towards someone, not crossing your arms as if defensive or cross… Our bodies communicate how open we are to hear someone.
  • Avoiding distractions – especially our mobile phones, but other things too. Putting down something we’re fiddling with; turning off music or the television; putting down our book or magazine. Laying aside the things around us tells someone else that we’re really listening.
  • Paying attention verbally and non-verbally. This means the little noises or gestures we make that tell someone we’ve heard what they’re saying. Good listening isn’t about giving solutions or answers to what people are saying, it’s about hearing and reflecting back what we’ve heard.

Stina decided to put these things into practice when she was spending time with her friends. We agreed to talk about the impact it had when she came back to her next session.

Empowered to Listen

When Stina came to her last session with me, she came in smiling. She told me how great her listening experiment had been! Not only had she felt good about the way she listened to her friends, she’d also felt that they’d responded by listening better to her.

Her anger and sadness were gone and her friendships felt so much better.

Stina also told me about a significant moment with her mum. She’d wanted to talk to her mum about something, but her mum was browsing on her mobile. Stina asked her mum to put her phone down so that she could listen to her. Her mum responded really well, and put her phone down to pay attention to Stina. She felt really affirmed and empowered by her ability to ask for good listening.

As we ended our time together, Stina drew a picture to remind herself what good listening looked like. She drew herself, amongst her friends, listening well and being listened to – and included all the great feelings of connection, trust and confidence that came with good listening.

This story was told by Annie, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in young people.

Listening well is a vital skill in any relationship, and something we learn and practice. But, when we actively build good relationship skills like listening, we set ourselves up for much better, more stable future relationships. If your relationships are struggling, like Stina’s were, we can help you work out how to build healthy habits for better relationships. Find out more about young person’s counselling or contact us today to book.

Men’s Heads & Hearts

One in five men in the East Midlands think that men should pay the bill on a date

New Men’s Heads and Hearts report from Relate and eharmony unpicks complexities of dating and relationships in the 21st century

Young couple on a dateOne in five men (20%) in the East Midlands still think the man should pay the bill on a date. A similar proportion (19%) of men surveyed across the UK feel the same but interestingly less than one in ten of all women (9%) surveyed agree that men should be the ones to pay.

This is according to polling carried out as part of the new Men’s Heads and Hearts report from leading relationships charity Relate and relationships experts eharmony. The report combines insights from interviews with Relate counsellors and consumer polling plus service data. It looks at how men are feeling about dating, relationships and their mental health and wellbeing as we emerge from an extraordinary 18 months.

Social norms that we once took for granted have become fraught with confusion since emerging from the latest lockdown and over one in ten men (11%) surveyed in the East Midlands think that the pandemic has caused them to lose confidence. So it’s not surprising that feelings of uncertainty are also prevalent in the dating world with one in ten men (10%) surveyed in the East Midlands admitting that they are scared that they are going to say or do something wrong on a date. This increases to 15% of male respondents in the West Midlands. Across the whole of the UK, 60% of men also confessed to having felt insecure about going on a date.

Communication is Key

Relate Counsellor Josh Smith thinks that preconceived views still exist in many parts of society and this is leading to men feeling confused about their roles when dating or in a relationship: “Men are still fighting against the stereotype of needing to be the ‘strong one’ in a relationship and this coupled with increased insecurities following the pandemic has led to many men feeling unsure how to behave when dating or in a relationship. Over one in ten males (12%) surveyed in the East Midlands think it’s harder for men to date now than it was 10 years ago. I think the key is for men to communicate and be honest with partners about how they are feeling. Many men want to do this but may need encouragement or support to be able to open up.”

Rachael Lloyd, relationship expert at eharmony adds: “It can be confusing to know what to do or say when dating and this can leave some men fearful and unable to be themselves. However, communication is key. From the initial stages of dating right through to relationships and marriage, we know that couples who see the most success are the ones who are able to communicate effectively and seek help when required.”

The #MeToo movement

The research also explores the impact that the #MeToo movement has had on men. Just under one in four male respondents (24%) in the East Midlands think that the movement has impacted their approach to dating compared to just under half of men surveyed (47%) in the West Midlands. Over a third of all men surveyed (39%) have felt the impact with 14% feeling more informed about the importance of consent. One in ten male respondents (10%) feel ashamed about how they have previously treated women and 8% say it has made them recognise their past behaviour was unacceptable.

Despite these realisations there’s still some way to go – a quarter of men surveyed across the UK (25%) said they’d not really heard of the #MeToo movement and more than one in ten (11%) think #MeToo is exaggerated.

Relationships, Dating and Male Mental Health

Despite the challenges men face when dating, the report highlights that more men are opening up about their feelings when in a relationship. Over one in five men surveyed (22%) in the East Midlands report that they can talk openly to their partner about their mental health compared to 17% of men surveyed across the UK overall.

Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it feels like more needs to be done to help the large majority of respondents who are still struggling to be able to discuss their mental health and wellbeing. Even more so when just under one in five male respondents (18%) in the East Midlands report suffering from poor mental health[1].

There is a clear gender gap when it comes to accessing therapy too, with almost double the number of all women surveyed stating that they have accessed some form of counselling in the past compared to men surveyed (23% and 13% respectively) – despite a similar number of mental health issues being faced.

“On the whole, society is becoming much more open about mental health – but men can still feel a certain stigma when it comes to discussing things that might make them feel vulnerable,” comments Relate Counsellor Josh Smith. “While it’s positive that 22% of men surveyed in the East Midlands feel able to open up to their partner about their mental health, this means there are many men who don’t and it’s clear we also need to do more to encourage men to access support such as counselling for their relationships and wellbeing. Getting support early is key and can be really beneficial.”

To access the full Men’s Heads and Hearts report please click here.

Find out more about individual counselling and couples counselling with us, or get in touch to book an assessment.

[1] This finding combines respondents who said ‘very poor’ and ‘poor’

A Series of Small Steps: Jon’s Counselling Journey

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a man overcomes his mental health challenges through counselling and begins to rebuild his relationship with his family.

Jon was not sure at all about coming to counselling. His colleague from work recommended it to him after noticing that he was struggling with his mental health. Jon decided that he’d give it a go, so got in touch with us to book an assessment.

man climbing staircaseInitial Meeting

Jon had come because he was feeling depressed and, to his surprise, anxious. He hadn’t yet been to see his GP for a mental health diagnosis, but he felt unmotivated, low, sad and anxious. He also felt angry. Jon had little patience with his teenage boys, leading to him snapping a lot. And he was arguing and bickering regularly with his partner.

We talked through what had happened for Jon in the last year. Lockdown had meant the whole family was in the house, with the two boys home schooling. This had been very difficult – no-one had the space they needed. And Jon didn’t have the outlets he’d usually use, such as going to the pub on a Friday night or watching sports with friends.

The rest of the family went back to school and work, but Jon continued to work from home. He was finding it very difficult to be motivated for work. He described often finding himself staring into space thinking about things rather than working.

Surprised by anxiety

As life began to open up, he was looking forward to going back to his usual social circles. However, he was surprised by anxiety. He had clammy hands, felt a bit sick and wanted to leave – he didn’t want to be there, even though he’d been looking forward to it. Even thinking about being at the pub left him feeling really nervous.

He also talked about the poor relationships in his family at the moment. His partner wanted him to talk about how he’s feeling, but he didn’t know how and it always ended in an argument. He couldn’t connect with his teenage boys and often argued with them too.

Jon also wasn’t convinced that talking was going to achieve anything. However, he agreed he’d give it a go and see what happened. We also talked about going to see the GP for medical support if his depression or anxiety get worse.

Techniques for anxiety

Before we ended this assessment, I talked through two techniques for managing anxiety. The first focussed on senses:

  • Find 5 things you can hear
  • Find 4 things you can see
  • Find 3 things you can touch
  • Find 2 things you can smell
  • Find 1 thing you can taste

Focussing on your senses brings you back into this moment and roots you in this place; it prevents your anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control.

The second one was 4-4-6 breathing:

  • Breathe in for 4 counts,
  • Hold for 4 counts,
  • Breathe out for 6 counts.

By focussing on your breath control, you calm your heartbeat and slow your breathing down, which calms your mind and emotions too.

Jon wasn’t sure about the idea of doing these in public – he felt like it might be embarrassing! But he took them away with him as a possibility.

Understanding counselling

In our next session, we talked about why counselling can be effective. This was an important conversation for Jon, as he was sceptical about the idea.

The conversation involved some psychoeducation – learning about the impact on the body and the mind when we suppress our emotions.

Jon explained that the thing that bothers him the most is having to talk for 50 minutes in the session – it felt like a very long time to fill. So we started with a particular topic: understanding the cycle of anger.

We identified what Jon’s triggers for his angers are. Jon said that, within the family, anger is triggered by his partner not feeling like he’s doing his fair share of the chores. It came from disagreements around how they manage the house together. Jon also experienced anger when his partner asked him about how he feels, and pushed him to express himself. He also found it is triggered when his teenage boys refuse to do what they’ve been told, or don’t respond in the way he expected of them.

At work, Jon had a few colleagues that he clashed with. The personality clashes between them quickly caused a rise in anger for him.

The behaviours that arose from this anger include yelling, arguing, bickering… often causing a response that further triggered anger.

We talked about how to break the cycle of anger. One of the techniques I offered Jon appeals to him as it feels safe to do – no-one will notice what he’s doing. Whenever those feelings of anger arise, Jon is to walk away from the situation and give himself time to calm down. When he’s calm, he can go back and communicate with the other person, not out of the heat of the moment but having let his anger settle.

Releasing emotions

Jon tried this technique and really liked it. He found that when he came back from calming down he was able to avoid an argument and address the problem. He and the other person could communicate properly with each other.

Jon was now gaining confidence in the counselling room. As he saw the fruit of some of the techniques we talked about, he became more willing to open up.

I asked Jon to think about how his family dealt with emotion when he was growing up. He can remember many arguments, but once the argument had ended, it was never discussed again. It was dropped, swept under the carpet and everyone moved on. Jon recognised that the suppression of all those emotions wasn’t good. There were never resolutions, so the same clashes happened repeatedly.

We also talked about how the men in his family expressed emotion. As the bread-winners, the strong ones in the house, no emotions were displayed. He’d grown up in an environment in which emotions were for women, not men. For his family, strength did not have emotions.

As we discussed this over the course of a few sessions, Jon noticed that his relationships with his family improved. He saw that he had managed his emotions better and communicated better.

Not responding when he was angry had huge benefits. He was having better conversations with his children, who were also communicating better. Jon walking away to calm down gave them the space they needed to calm down. The family unit was changing its culture around how to communicate and how to disagree. They were all opening up more about their feelings. Because Jon is not suppressing his anger, he has helped removed stigma around expressing emotions in their home.

Hearing and being heard

As we drew towards the end of our time together, we talked about ways in which Jon could improve his relationship with his partner. He recognised that they needed better ways of communicating.

I invited him to have a conversation with his partner about what each other’s expectations were around communication. What do they need from each other?

She talked about not wanting to be interrupted or talked over. She also found it frustrating that Jon quickly assumed she was getting at him for something.

Jon and I talked about techniques they could use to be better communicators. Things like being really clear about turn taking in conversation: when one person has their turn, the other listens without interrupting or completing their sentences. They can then respond when it’s their turn, equally respected and listened to.

Jon and his partner carefully chose a time where they could talk without interruption from their boys, and regularly practiced communicating in this way. It made a huge difference. They both felt understood and closer to each other. For Jon, all the tension had gone from the home: he and his partner were working as a unit, there were less arguments and the whole family was much closer.

Ending well

We reached our final session, where we reflected on Jon’s journey.

Jon felt so apprehensive about counselling and embarrassed by the techniques I shared with him. But using them has been hugely effective. There are big improvements in family communication, and everyone’s working together. Jon feels less stigma opening up about his feelings because he can see the benefits for himself and everyone around him.

He looks back to how he felt when he started counselling six weeks ago, and everything has changed. He feels a lot more motivated for work because there is so much less stress in the family home. Jon can focus more on his work and complete it in his working day. So he’s not trying to catch up in the evenings, which means he’s sleeping better and feels more positive.

Improving relationships at home means he doesn’t feel sad anymore. And he’s taken some small steps in going out again. Using some of the techniques we discussed has reduced his anxiety. His mental health is much better.

A series of small steps

I observed with Jon as we end our time together that we had tackled the mental health problems he’d faced one small step at a time. First in simply coming to counselling; then in anxiety techniques, then anger management…and so on. The series of small steps had built up to better mental health for him and better relationships with his family. And if he finds himself stuck again, he can take that first small step and come back to Relate Northamptonshire for more support. We are always available if he or his family needs it.

Individual counselling is not just for women. It is for men too, as Jon’ story shows. Take that first small step today and book individual counselling with us.

This story has been told by Kelly, Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in person-centred therapy.

Out of the shell: A journey with Aly

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young teenager builds her self-esteem and confidence as she explores her gender identity.

Aly’s parents contacted Relate after months of growing concern about their 14-year-old daughter. Over the last six months, she’d slowly retreated. Their chatty child had become more and more silent until she was barely talking to anyone. Where she previously would love being part of family activities, she now refused to leave her room. She wasn’t doing many of the things she used to love and had started struggling with school. Often, the thought of going to school would trigger a panic attack on Sunday evenings. Some days, her parents just could not get her out of bed – she was listless and low on energy. 

Aly’s parents tried many times to talk to her, but nothing worked. It was the GP who recommended Relate Northamptonshire to Aly’s mum as a first course of action. Thankfully, Aly agreed to come to counselling: an encouraging moment for Aly’s parents. It seems that Aly wanted something to change too. 

Initial meeting

At my initial meeting with Aly, I start by explaining to her what counselling is. This is an important conversation. Young people are often worried about how to start talking to me, and who I might talk to about what they say. 

I spoke to Aly about confidentiality. Nothing she shares in the counselling room will be told to her parents or anyone else – unless I am concerned about her safety, or someone else’s safety. 

I also explain to her what to expect of me and what’s expected of her. Many young people come to counselling expecting a magic wand waved to solve all their problems. While, as a counsellor, I bring lots of important and useful things to the room, there is no magic wand. They have to engage with the process, working alongside me to find a better way forward.

I then invited Aly to tell me what life is like for her at the moment. And I leave space – time for Aly to think and put words to it. She is not rushed here; this time is her time.

She slowly begins to open up: “I just don’t want to talk to people”, she says. “I feel sad. Alone. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Being different

As I listen, she tells me how much she hates being in public, particularly at school. She doesn’t feel like she can be who she is. She talks about the rejection and bullying at school for people who are different – and how the fear of that stops her from being herself. Amongst her peers, she feels unable to express or explore her gender identity.

One particular moment she relates is when she talked about joining the football team – which is made up solely of boys. Her friends laughed and teased her about it for weeks.

The picture Aly is building up is one of anxiety, low self-esteem and low mood. There’s also a hint of anger at her experiences. She expresses the feeling that it would be better to be dead than live like this.

When Aly has had the space she needs to express herself, I ask her some ‘silly’ questions, which help us probe into why she feels the way she does.

We talk about how she knows she feels sad and anxious. She says it’s when stays in her room and wants to be left alone. She also talks about panic attacks the night before school. And for her, she just never feels happy – nothing helps at the moment.

Before ending this first session, we talk about her goals for counselling. What does she want to get out of our sessions? 

Aly decides that she wants to feel happier. She wants to feel comfortable being who she is. At the moment for Aly, that feels like an impossible goal. 

Discovering hidden strength

Over the following session, I begin to help Aly understand her life stage and the emotions that come with this season. I’m normalising and validating all Aly feels – it is ok to feel as she does, and it is something many people like her feel.

We also talk a lot about anxiety and low mood: what they actually are and where they come from. Together, Aly and I begin to identify things that keep her feeling low or trigger a rise in anxiety, and the things that lift her mood and calm her anxiety.

Aly begins to understand that she can influence how she feels. The things she chooses to do might maintain a low mood or lift her mood. One thing she realises she’s stopped doing is drawing. She used to draw all the time, and she felt good when she drew. But somewhere down the line she stopped drawing. So we agree a small challenge for the coming weeks: to draw for 5 minutes a day. 

During the week, Aly manages to draw regularly and comes into our next counselling session obviously feeling encouraged. Drawing has made her feel just that little bit happier. And she has done it herself!

I build on this moment of recognition by talking about the other strengths I’ve heard from Aly. It’s important for Aly that she knows what counts as success for her. The fact that, despite feeling low, she gets up, washes and goes to school counts as a win. We talk about all the small wins of her day – all the moments when she does what she needs to do even though she feels miserable. Aly is beginning to see herself differently. She is seeing herself as stronger and more capable than she thought.

Processing anger

As Aly begins to gain some self-confidence, she also begins to face up to and express anger. It quickly becomes clear that her anger is rooted in not being accepted for who she is. She feels like she’s in a shell, and not allowed to break out of that shell and be herself.

When trying to process anger (and other big emotions), it really helps to create a metaphor around it. 

Is it like a volcano? A monster? What does it look like? What colours is it, and what shape? I invite Aly to draw a picture of her anger and explain it to me.

As we unpack her anger, we begin to see that there are some things Aly can deal with now. But there are others that are outside her control. So the question becomes, how do we learn to be ok with what’s not ok?

We talk about accessing different gender-diverse communities who feel the same as her, through services like Mermaids or GIDS. She can learn more about what she’s experiencing and read others’ stories too. Just knowing she’s part of a community will help her cope with what she can’t contain.

Fizz for blood

I also talk to Aly about toxic emotions. We imagine them like a bottle of fizz shaken around. How would it feel to have fizz for blood? It would be horrible, and also damaging to our insides.

Toxic emotions are the same. The emotions aren’t wrong, but if we don’t find a safe way of releasing them, they leave us feeling horrible and damage us inside.

With anger, it can be helpful to destroy things in a safe way to release the ‘fizz’. Aly realises that she could draw some of what she’s feeling, and I suggest that afterwards she could rip it up – not only has she got it out of her, but also destroyed it. 

Learning on the low days

Throughout counselling, Aly has up and down days. She finds this really hard, and her internal dialogue is one of failure. 

I help Aly to reframe her down days as learning days. These days are opportunities to experiment with different things to find out what works. It’s ok not to know – nobody knows; we all have to learn. 

Aly and I decide together that ‘failing’ is success, because it means she’s learnt what doesn’t work. She becomes more and more adept at reflecting on her bad days and figuring out what she can learn from them. 

I begin to see growing resilience in Aly. She tells me in one session about a low day she had. She stayed in bed all day. But when the evening came, she realised that she needed to get out of bed. Aly got up and watched a film with her parents. We talk about what a huge step forward that is: she had the strength to choose differently.

Ending well

As we come to the end of our counselling sessions, we revisit Aly’s goals. She can see that she feels happier. Although she still feels awkward about dressing the way she wants, she feels less afraid than she did. 

And Aly has made a huge decision: she has signed up for the football team next term.

I work with Aly on a timeline of her journey, mapping out where she started to where she is now. It’s a tremendous difference! I ask her how she did it – what thoughts did she give up and what habits did she pick up? 

As Aly and I discuss her journey, she is learning that she is the champion of her journey. It is her actions and choices that have brought about this change. And because she’s done it this time, she can do it again, whenever she runs into another stumbling block. 

I also make sure Aly knows where she can go if she hits crisis point. She puts numbers in her phone for services such as No Panic, YoungMinds or Papyrus. And she knows that she can come back to us too in the future.

Aly realises that she will still have wobbles and down days. But she has so much more self-confidence. She is empowered to deal with her emotions and feels that she is ok with who she is.

This fictional story is told by Toniiae, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in children & young people.

The teenage years bring many ups and downs as young people explore who they are and work out who they want to be. Issues such as gender identity and sexuality can play a part in their journey, and for some teenagers, can bring emotional and mental health struggles. Counselling can make a real difference, helping them build resilience for both now and the years to come. Read more about the service we offer or contact us today to book counselling.

Pandemic decreases self-esteem

Just over a quarter of people in the East Midlands report decrease in self-esteem compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Just over a quarter (26%) of people living in the East Midlands say their self-esteem has decreased[i] compared with pre-pandemic levels. In contrast over a fifth (22%) say their self-esteem has increased[ii], which was also the same across the UK as a whole. In London almost a third (31%) reported an increase in self-esteem levels. The Welsh appear to be struggling with self-esteem the most – 31% reported a decrease and just 17% reported an increase.

This is according to new report ‘The Way We Are Now 2021’, released by leading relationships charity Relate and relationship experts eHarmony during Relationships Week (5-11 July). The report combines insights from counsellor focus groups and consumer polling, plus website and service data. It considers how single people and couples have reacted to lockdown easing and identifies key attitude and behaviour changes, as well as offering tips from counsellors for building healthy relationships with yourself and others.

Relationships Week logoThe research found that adults across the UK recognise the importance of good self-esteem with almost two thirds (64%) of adults surveyed agreeing [iii] that self-esteem is linked to success in a romantic relationship – this dropped to 58% of those living in the East Midlands. That’s why Relate Northamptonshire is using Relationships Week to encourage people to work on arguably the most important relationship of all: the one with themselves.

Are you one of the 25% who has been struggling with your self-esteem? We’d love to help you. Book counselling with us today or find out how individual counselling works.

#loveyourself

Relate Counsellor Holly Roberts said the pandemic appears to have contributed to a split in self-esteem levels: “A positive and balanced view of yourself is critical to overall wellbeing and building strong relationships of all kinds. It’s great that just over a fifth of people in the East Midlands feel their self-esteem has increased but for others it has taken a big hit. As we focus on ‘getting back out there’ don’t forget to take some time to also focus on yourself. Learning to love yourself can mean different things to different people – it might be joining a face-to-face exercise class now that’s possible again, saying no to a social engagement, or getting some support such as counselling.”

Across the whole of the UK, the top reasons for self-esteem increasing compared to pre the Covid-19 pandemic were paying more attention to physical health (30%), realising how strong they are for getting through a pandemic (24%) and taking up a new hobby (24%).  For those who said their self-esteem decreased during the pandemic, this was driven by inability to socialise with friends and family (48%), money worries (42%) and not prioritising physical health (40%). Comparison with others on social media (23%) was another key factor. Low self-esteem is currently more prevalent among women than men, with 32% of women saying their self-esteem decreased, compared to pre Covid-19 pandemic, whereas only 18% of men said the same.

“A positive and balanced view of yourself is critical to overall wellbeing.”

These findings are supported by Relate’s own website data which shows their page on low self-esteem has recently seen a 125% increase in page views, suggesting people are keen to work on their self-esteem now we are emerging from lockdown[iv].

Relate’s own data also shows that the number of 18-34 year olds attending counselling on their own at Relate has increased by 7% since before the pandemic.[v] They want to encourage even more millennials and Gen-Zers to get in touch by accessing their online self-help content and attending services such as individual counselling to work on issues relating to low self-esteem, friendship and finding love.

Self-help singles
The report[vi] shows over two in five (42%) single people said they either have or are more likely to enter into short but intense romantic relationships with one or more people since restrictions have relaxed. Three in ten (30%) of single people surveyed said they make more effort to learn from previous mistakes and/or recognise unhealthy romantic patterns. Over a fifth (23%) of people use self-help resources including books, online quizzes or advice from wellness influencers more than they did pre the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, 18–34-year-olds surveyed were the most likely age group to say that they use self-help resources more than pre the Covid-19 pandemic (32%).

Over a quarter (28%) of single people who said they are more likely to enter into short but intense romantic relationships since restrictions have relaxed said it’s because they now have a better sense of what they want from a relationship, and a similar number (24%) don’t want to waste any more time. However, sex presents an issue for some. One in four (25%) feel ‘out of practice’ in the bedroom, while over one in eight (13%) are not ready to be intimate again.

Rachael Lloyd, relationship expert at eharmony said: “Lockdown was hard for a lot of people, but it also gave singles the time to work out who they are and what they’re looking for in a partner. While it’s only natural that some people feel nervous about having sex again, lockdown has also created a boom in more meaningful dating, with people keen to find real substance. At eharmony, we’ve seen this kind of thing happening before – traumatic environmental events invariably lead to spikes in dating and people wanting to connect deeply with each other.”

The state of Britain’s couple relationships
Looking at those in relationships, the pandemic has sped up how quickly couples[vii] are reaching common relationship milestones including saying ‘I love you’ for the first time (68%), getting a pet (59%), buying a house together (58%), getting engaged (63%) and even trying for a baby (61%).

And for couples who have been in a relationship for a year or longer and whose quality of relationship has gotten better since before the Covid-19 pandemic, reasons include more quality time together as a family (46%), the opportunity for more open and honest conversations with their partner (37%) and a spike for some in how often they have sex (20%).

Over one in eight (13%) respondents, however, are left feeling that the quality of their relationship has worsened[viii] through the pandemic. The report found that one in ten (10%) UK adults agreed that having more time apart due to lockdown lifting will help their relationship.

Holly adds: “A key issue we see in counselling is partners not prioritising quality time together. Lockdown meant this was no longer a bone of contention but as restrictions ease and calendars get busier, making time for one another requires a more concerted effort.”

Access the full report

‘The Way We Are Now’ report has been released to launch Relate’s annual Relationships Week (5-11 July). People can access self-help content on learning to love yourself throughout the Week and beyond, and information on services to help boost self-esteem is available at relate.org.uk/relationships-week. You can also download a copy of the full report.

Methodology

Relate and eharmony conducted a focus group with six practising Relate counsellors to gain insight into the state of relationships and single life based as we emerge from lockdown.

Censuswide on behalf of Third City conducted supplementary UK research in June 2021, among a nationally representative sample of 2,002 UK adults (18+) of which 176 were in the East Midlands. A boost of 1,008 UK singles was added to this sample – with a minimum quota set for 300 in Scotland, NI and Wales.

About Relate

Relate is the leading relationships charity and the Relate Federation is the largest provider of relationship support in England and Wales. Offering counselling, information, mediation and support to individuals, couples and families, we currently work online and on the phone with people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations at all stages of life. Find out more at relate.org.uk

About eharmony

eharmony launched in 2000, and now forms part of the ParshipMeet Group the international market leader in matchmaking. Real love remains at the heart of everything we do. In an increasingly fast-paced dating culture, we take a more bespoke and supportive approach to creating relationships. Our unique Compatibility Matching System brings together like-minded singles who share core values and personality traits, which are key indicators of relationship success. We are constantly evolving our matching system, designed by psychologists, which measures each member’s profile across 32 dimensions of compatibility – factoring in traits such as kindness, openness, and communication style. The results speak for themselves – every 14 minutes someone finds love on eharmony. Take our virtual tour at www.eharmony.co.uk.

[i] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat decreased’ or ‘Significantly decreased’

[ii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat increased’ or ‘Significantly increased’

[iii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Strongly agree’ or ‘Somewhat agree’

[iv] This finding is based on a 125% increase in page views between 25 April – 24 May 2021 compared to the previous 26 March – 24 April 2021

[v] This finding compares the monthly averages of 18-34 year olds accessing Relate’s counselling services on their own from February 2020 to May 2021.

[vi] This finding refers to 1,008 single people with min. 150 in Scotland, min. 200 in Wales and min. 250 in Northern Ireland. (18+)

[vii] This finding refers to those who are in a relationship and are planning on doing the following with their partner in the next six months:’ Saying I love you for the first time’, ‘Going on holiday together for the first time’, ‘Getting a pet’, ‘Moving into a house together’, ‘Buying a house together’, ‘Trying for a baby’, Getting engaged’, ‘Getting married’.

[viii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat worse’ or ‘Much worse’

Strength Through Self-Care: A journey with Gill & Sara

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a couple discovered the importance of self-care to maintain a strong relationship.

strength through self-careGill & Sara were happily married for a number of years.  Both career-driven, in jobs they loved and loved their life together.  They had also adopted a young child together and loved being parents. Their life was busy – dropping their daughter off at childcare, out at work all day, weekends spent socialising and being a family.

Like so many others, the pandemic turned their routines completely upside down. Gill, a keyworker in a hospital, became busier than ever. Her job became more emotionally demanding and she worked long hours. Sara, however, was furloughed. She took over all the childcare and the household chores in response to the increased pressure on Gill.

Over time, however, Sara & Gill became estranged from each other.  Sara was more and more desperate as she was feeling isolated and unable to connect with GIll. She wanted to work on improving their relationship, but when she reached out Gill rejected her. Gill felt the relationship was ending and Sara was devastated.

Initial Meeting 

Sara contacted our support team and booked an appointment with us. Gill agreed to attend, even though she felt there was no hope for their relationship. As counsellors, we call this a split agenda: each partner is coming for opposing reasons. It’s a common way to begin counselling. 

Our initial assessment explored the roots of their opposing agendas. It became clear that Covid-19 had completely changed not only their routine, but also their roles and responsibilities in the relationship. 

Gill was very busy at work and expected Sara to do everything at home. She felt too tired for conversation or discussion.

Meanwhile, Sara felt resentful and angry towards Gill. She saw Gill going to work, where she could connect with people outside of the home and began to resent her freedom to socialise. This made her feel angry that Gill was not available for her. Sara also worried that Gill was saying negative things about her and their relationship at work.

There were no arguments – they had simply retreated from one another. The only conversations they had were practical; all other communication had stopped. 

Exploring emotions

At our first meeting Gill and Sara realised that they were both feeling equally upset and helpless. As happens in many relationships over time, they had started taking one another for granted. They needed to find a way to make space to stop, look, and really hear each other.

So we started our second session by exploring some of the emotions they were feeling – creating that safe space to voice their feelings and hear one another.

 Sara expressed her struggle to trust Gill. She felt invisible at home, and with Gill still having some social connections she worries about what was not being shared with her. She also worried that Gill was open to having a relationship with someone other than her.

As we discussed Sara’s emotions, Gill was surprised by the amount of anger and resentment Sara felt. These emotions had become elephants in the room that Sara simply couldn’t express. It’s only in the safe space of the counselling room that she began to voice her feelings.

A small step forward

It became apparent that both of them felt depleted. They had no time on their own at home, no space for self-care. And without re-energising self-care, they both felt exhausted. That exhaustion in turn stopped them from making quality time for each other. They weren’t turning to one another to off-load about challenges of the day, or making space to properly rest on their own.

They were each struggling to take the first step towards each other. So the counsellor set a small listening exercise to complete before the next counselling session. They sat down together a few times, over a coffee or a meal, and deliberately took time to listen to one another. Each time that had to include making at least one appreciation statement to each other, such as “I appreciate the way you make time for our daughter.”

Renewed communication

For Gill, this became a breakthrough moment and she affirmed her desire to make the relationship work. Sara was still struggling with a lack of trust, and was honest about her fear that she could not trust those words. 

Over the following weeks, they kept on making deliberate space for each other and expressing appreciation for the weight the other one was pulling in the family. Soon the humour and fun came back into their relationship. Humour is often the first thing to disappear when couples stop communicating. Hearing it return in this couple’s relationship demonstrated the success of their communication.

Rediscovering self-care

Our conversations began to shift from this point to looking forward. Gill and Sara didn’t want to go back to their pre-pandemic relationship: this was an opportunity to think about what kind of relationship they did want. 

They began to focus on the foundations of their relationship, and we discussed the importance of self-care for both of them, especially during the intensity of the pandemic. Both Gill and Sara began to realise that they needed to help their partner make space for self-care. They learnt to be more vocal about their own needs, and more attentive to what their partner needed. 

This meant that sometimes, when Gill had a very long day at work, Sara would run a bath for her. Or Gill would notice Sara feeling exhausted by the day and suggest that she went out for a walk for space by herself. 

Gill and Sara also decided to continue with their quality time together, purposefully listening to one another and building a new habit of appreciating each other. This was sometimes half an hour over dinner together; sometimes it was a cup of tea in the evening for 10 minutes; or they would head to bed half an hour early to wind down together. 

Ending Well

As counsellors, we don’t want to build relationships that are dependent on counselling. Instead, we help couples build confidence together. Gill and Sara had now formed a new vision for their relationship together, and felt confident enough to carry on. 

They were preparing already for lockdown easing, recognising that a further change of routine was coming. They decided to have ‘management time’ in their week, where they could discuss the practical things of life separately from the quality time for their relationship.

Sara expressed her relief that she had decided to come for counselling – and that Relate would be their safety net if things went awry again. She and Gill both enjoyed their refreshed connection: better communication, a renewed commitment to one another and ensuring space for self-care.

Building good habits as a couple can be challenging. As life changes and evolves, our relationship habits also need to evolve. Like Gill and Sara, we might need to be purposeful, not just for time together but also helping one another make space for self-care. If you find yourself struggling to communicate during a season of change, our counsellors can help you find a way forward.

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.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

One thing Covid-19 has massively altered in our societies is boundaries and personal space. Over a year of social distancing outside our own bubbles has embedded social boundaries we would never have imagined before.

What are healthy boundaries? Here’s some advice from Relate Northants counsellor Sharon.

Sharon on Healthy Boundaries

Our preferences around personal space actually change over the whole of our lives for a variety of reasons. But this particular season has enforced boundaries for us, and broken habits of physical closeness.

So how do we find our way through lockdown easing? Do we throw ourselves headfirst into the physical connections we had before? Do we hold back? Where do we want to be?

These are very important questions, especially for couples and families. Different household members building new boundaries at different points is likely to stimulate a lot of arguments!

Where do you want to set your boundaries?

Exploring boundaries as a couple starts with understanding yourself. The exercise below will help you notice how different circumstances affect you. You and your partner should work on this separately, then come together to discuss what you found out.

  • Think about the different things you did over the last week or two. Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of feeling safe to feeling unsafe?
  • If you felt unsafe in a situation, where do you think that feeling came from?
  • Which situations do you want to include within your boundaries and which do you still want to avoid? Some situations may feel too difficult, but there may be others you’d like to readjust to.

You can draw this out if it helps you. Draw a ‘fence’ in a square. Write on the outside places you didn’t feel safe in blue. Write on the inside places you did feel safe in green. Are there any blue places that you’d like to extend your boundaries to? Perhaps places or activities that you want to readjust to? Connect these up with your boundary line.My boundaries diagram

Working together

The next thing to do is compare your drawing with your partner’s drawing. This should be done without judgement – respect how your partner feels. When you’ve understood the other’s position, you can then negotiate something that satisfies both your desires without compromising the other.

Over the coming months, revisit this boundary map as your own feelings and desires adjust. Keep being honest and realistic with each other and above all keep communicating!

Growing Together

Couples have been under pressure throughout the pandemic in hugely significant ways. Coming out of lockdown will produce its own pressures, some of which may reveal weaknesses in our relationships. But, time and time again at Relate Northants, we have couples leaving counselling saying things like “you saved our relationship”. If you need an impartial guiding voice to bring your relationship back to full strength, you can book a conversation with us.