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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.