Couples, love and what keeps us together (or not!)

Jan 14, 2018


By Lucy Cavendish


As January progresses and the full enormity of the post-Christmas blues hit, I find myself thinking about how my life has changed over the last few year. Six years ago, the longest relationship I have ever had, with the father of three of my four children, broke down. Although I am now happily married, I do look back and wonder what I could have done to make that past significant relationship work. Maybe there wasn’t anything I could do but, as the years have passed, I have questioned that. I am now a trained couples counsellor and this has led me to audit my own behaviour all those years ago.

In fact, the break down of this relationship probably catapulted me in to training as a counsellor. Many things happened and it led me to feeling absolutely poleaxed by the sweeping emotions that overtook me at the time. I felt I owed to my children, to any future relationship and to myself to work out what was going on.

In the end, I simply really wanted to understand why we do the things we do or, more specifically, why I did the things I did. I could see there were patterns in my behaviour and this often led to me hurting those around me. I realised that the only way I was ever going to make a more successful relationship – such as my current marriage – was to work out what my patterns are actually about. I decided the only way to do this, for me, was to train and I have spent these last six years doing precisely that (and the training will never cease, there is always more to know).

I have picked apart my own behaviour and now, as I see couples, I feel I have a much better insight as to what goes on between two people. Sometimes I wish I’d known better how to be a bit more compassionate, communicate better, try to see things from the other person’s point of view, feel empathy for their experiences rather than just seeing things through my own Lucy-shaped lenses..

So, this is what I now know about love – or, maybe more specifically, about relationships. It takes a lot of energy and time to keep it all going. Relationships need to be nurtured and monitored. They need to be thought about, mapped out, respected, boundaried and given time, space and gravitas. They need to somehow involve intense sometimes terrifying intimacy and vulnerability yet, within the relationship, each person needs the right to dance to their own tune sometimes. They have up and downs. Sometimes the person who loves us the most seems the one person hell-bent on our destruction.

Some people can’t handle these downs. I have one couple for whom anything less than perfect spells disaster. They came in to therapy to look at their one apparent disagreement (about matching up socks) but soon the pattern emerged of two people who weren’t really sure that a) each one loved the other one and b) they weren’t sure they deserved love as they didn’t actually feel that loveable deep down. The ‘perfect’ relationship which they were working so hard at promoting just wasn’t sustainable yet their fear of admitting this was so huge that the row over the socks almost led them to the divorce courts. The ‘you-don’t-match-the-socks-properly’ led, over weeks, to their admission that, for him, her apparent refusal to care about his socks made him feel deep down inside that she didn’t care about him and that, moreover, no one had really ever cared for him. In essence, he felt unloveable and didn’t really believe his wife’s protestations of genuine love.

This is the problem with relationships. I now know that two people in an intimate relationship are bound to clash. Sticky emotional issues rear their heads, like gremlins that we have all effectively frozen in our pasts that are starting to de-freeze and ready to wreak havoc

It’s only now, when I look back and think of all the things I could have and probably should have done that I realise how deluded I was. No couple is happy all the time. No couple rarely has a cross word. If I meet a couple and they tell me they never argue, I see a huge red warming button over their heads. Everyone possesses those feelings we don’t like to own up to. We all feel anger, rage, shame, jealousy, fear and that’s absolutely fine as long as we recognise these feelings and deal with them so that they don’t become overwhelming. Couples who are in total agreement about everything worry me. Where do all those nasty feelings go?

The other thing I know is that a couple is made up of two people. That sounds rather obvious but when two people meet and fall in love, they go through a period of limerance whereby they are so happy and possessed and obsessed with the other person that they merge in to one whole. This is the period when the madness of first love happens. It feels deeply romantic and utterly amazing. However, after about six months to a year – two at most – the limerance fades and what are left with is two people who are not really sure who they are now they are no longer joined at the hip.

What I have realised over the years is that I am not very good at being in a couple. It’s a real effort for me. Part of this is to do with the patterning of my childhood. I was essentially brought up by a single mother. I don’t really have a role model of how a marriage works. I’m not really sure what men do in relationships. My mother rather subtly conveyed the notion that, as long as I was economically independent, all would be fine. Yes you might need a man to father your children but above and beyond that….it may be no coincidence then that I am not with the fathers of my four children. I had no model of happy family life with a mother and a father and, although that’s a more simplistic answer than the reality of it, it goes some way to explaining why I find it so hard to engage in long term committed relationships.

What I didn’t know was that I needed to give and take, to compromise, to accept that not everybody does it like I do.

This has taken years of learning. I still find it hard. I am so used to doing everything by myself or with just me and the children, I forget I’m married sometimes. I often find myself booking holidays for me and my four children almost forgetting that my husband is now also part of this unit. Fortunately I’m married to man who understands this. He gently nudges himself in to our lives on a daily basis and I have to remember to acknowledge this. This is the other thing I wish I’d known – praise your partner, be appreciative, be kind, say think you when he/she has done the umpteenth thoughtful thing..

In essence, I wish I’d thought about who my ex and I were as people rather than as a couple or as parents who threw themselves overwhelmingly in to their children’s lives. I work of this a lot with couples. Children can be used as the ultimate avoidance strategy. Who feels they can complain when a father/mother spends hours engaging with their kids but not with their partner?

I see this is my couples practice a lot of the time. Couples come to me in crisis. They are no longer communicating that well, sex has gone, the children or other family members have taken over, money is tight, hobbies are more important than spending time with each other, social media is their bedtime companion and what I often get in front of me are two people seething with resentment toward the other person.

Each of them will tell me the pitfalls of the other and yet most people find it hard to see it in themselves. It’s very adversarial, an “I’m-right-you’re-wrong’ system.

My job is help them regain the closeness and understanding they once had. On a simple level, the best place for us to in in order to feel loved and grow is in a relationship. That sounds simple and what I know now is that it’s so much more complicated than that. My husband and I try to remember one simple thing – tomorrow’s another day. So tomorrow we try harder, try better and, in the end, our shared desire to be married and remain married is what keeps us together. It’s not easy but at least I know now that tricky, difficult, tiring is all good. I embrace – or try to embrace – the lows as well as the highs and I feel a lot better for it.


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