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.
Gill & 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.