The Secret to Saving Your Relationship: Eight Lessons From a Couples Therapist | Marriage
SUsanna Abse is The Marriage Counselor’s Marriage Counselor – 30 years of practice giving her unparalleled insight into the challenges couples face without dampening her curiosity and originality. This serene and witty 65-year-old man is demanding but non-judgmental; I imagine you would feel able to say absolutely anything in front of her, unless it was bullshit. You would trust him with your marriage, but you would want to take your A-game.
Abse cannot start estimate the number of couples she’s seen since her first in 1986, but puts it at tens of thousands of hours. She’s worked with all types of couples, from those who “butt heads and scream and get up and out” (she calls these couples “dollhouse” in her book – people who break things with no sense of consequence), to those who think there was never anything wrong and don’t understand why they are suddenly in trouble.
She usually sees a couple weekly or bi-weekly. Her work is instinctive: a couple will continue to meet her for as long as it takes. “I absolutely never know if a couple is going to break up or not,” she says.
After Covid there has been an increase in the number of couples seeking therapy, but this may not be as dramatic as one would expect. The field is booming because millennials, and even younger couples, are seeking help earlier in their relationship — at a time when older generations would simply have stopped. The increase is unlikely to be affected by the popularity of shows such as the BBC’s Couples Therapy, which shed light on this usually hidden process.
When she started practicing, “there was a rule that you never ask questions, as a psychoanalytic practitioner,” she says. “Now most therapists are much more interactive and will ask questions directly about the problem.” Abse’s approach is distinguished by the fact that “I can never see a person without asking questions about all the people who have known them or not. They are always in the context of a relationship with other people, or a missing relationship with someone.
In the 1990s, the work of the famous American psychologist John Gottman was all the rage in marriage circles: published in 1983, the “four horsemen” theory was that one could predict which couples would separate from four red flags: the criticism , defensiveness, contempt and stone walls. It has also fallen into disuse, and Abse says, “A lot of couples will be dismissive at times, or obstructive at times. It’s a defense, right? Or revenge. My job is to trace back to its origins, when it started between the couple, and then further back – what it means to them as individuals in relation to their own childhood experience.
Abse doesn’t make rules. So let’s just call this list eight essential truths for a happy relationship.
It’s good to fight
Usually, if a couple never argues, it’s because “things have been parked,” says Abse. “Once you open it up, actually, there’s a lot of feeling there and upheaval – there’s just been a smoothing and a covering up.” Generally speaking, this argues against intimacy, if you don’t show each other. In Abse’s book, Tell Me the Truth About Love, she describes a couple of “babies in the woods”, two people who have so strenuously avoided conflict with each other that they turn their angry outward and are in constant combat with their neighbours, family, friends. Alternatively, avoidant couples may find that their children become the “receptacle for trouble.” The couple is very united and reasonable and kind. And then they have a child who beats people, takes drugs, acts out. All the difficulty between them was projected onto the child.
“I often make the joke, ‘I listened carefully to all the submissions and I pronounce…’,” says Abse. “To say, look, you both feel like this is a courtroom, and you give me evidence. There is a vulnerability there, that I will judge them; that one has done something heinous and is in the doghouse, and the other is safe. It’s not like that at all. You cooked this together.
An example where people are looking for a decision is proximity. “One person wants to get closer, and the other finds ways to get away,” she says, and they might think a therapist can tell them who’s right. But there is no right or wrong because they created this situation together. Usually there is a system there, what family therapy used to call a remote control system. There is an unconscious connivance to maintain distance between them, even if only one person complains about it.
Use ‘I feel…’ rather than ‘You always…’
It’s the old saying about marital conflict that you should use “I” words instead of accusations. It’s worth considering why the accusation is easier: you make yourself very vulnerable when you describe your own feelings, especially if they are fearful or sad. “It’s probably not just between couples, it’s a disease of humans,” says Abse, “that we’re so worried about our vulnerability that we’re aggressive in order to cover it up. Sometimes it’s not sure show people how fragile you are. It’s best to show your hand: “If you feel anxious about talking to someone, don’t just tell them, tell them that you you’re worried about telling her. Say it’s hard for you.
Not having children (well, do it if you have to)
A message that shines through so many – perhaps all – relationship struggles is that what brought the couple together in the first place was not a shared love of hiking or a similar upbringing, but reflected the dynamics of their childhood that they hope to recreate. , or overcome, or both, or maybe they don’t know which one.
“Those expectations that you’re going to meet a loving parental figure that you dreamed of as a child – couples can do that for each other, but that becomes impossible when you put kids into the equation. Because then there’s a real baby out there, and there’s not much left to nurture and nurture. It becomes a conflict of needs.
Relationship satisfaction typically plummets after children. However, “many couples grow, mature and deepen their intimacy by having children”. So maybe the rule is, do it or don’t, just know that it will change your relationship in ways you can’t prevent, and you also can’t anticipate what that change will do to you. to feel.
Have sex (or not, but at least notice when you stop)
“There are a lot of non-sex couples out there,” Abse says, rolling out his trademark non-prescriptive tone. “Of course it is possible. But if you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and probably into your mid-50s, and there’s absolutely no sex, there’s a risk that it could lead to the end of the relationship. . People want liberation, they want intimacy, it’s an important part of life.
If your sex life is crashing, don’t just assume it will pick up; anxiety builds around it, and with it the ability to communicate. “You see the couples who haven’t had sex in 25 years, who come to us and say, ‘Can you help us?’, when they’re in their early 60s. Probably not.
The starting threats are A bad idea
“They’re really corrosive,” says Abse. “They fundamentally undermine the sense of security, and you need that to be able to have disputes, conflicts and resolutions.”
Don’t label yourself
When I was young, I found it funny that everyone thought their mother had histrionic personality disorder and their father was on the spectrum. Now everyone thinks their spouse has borderline personality disorder or ADHD.
“I get it with kids – you have to tag them in order to get resources. But I don’t think it’s helpful at all with adults,” says Abse. “I have patients who have autistic characteristics, but so what? Still need to understand it. Diagnosing adults with ADHD is crazy. Call it anxiety.
“A lot of times couples come in and think, ‘We’re in couples therapy. It’s all over.’ They want it to be nice, they want you to be nice, they want them to be nice. They want to feel good. safety, which is completely understandable. It’s a scary thing. And the looming fear, of course, is that the end point is separation. But the process of seriously considering any relationship is “so often a question of psychic separation, because they’re caught up in a dynamic that they’re very confused in. They’re projecting onto each other, they don’t know who is who. It always involves separation in terms of looking at someone again. one. It’s just a question of whether it’s a real separation. It takes courage.
Abse’s book is dedicated to her husband of 40 years. It reads: “To Paul, my truth seeker friend. It’s true, she says, “it’s what happens. He thinks he has the truth, and I know I have.
Tell Me The Truth About Love: 13 Tales From The Therapist’s Couch by Susanna Abse is published by Ebury (£16.99). The Guardian masterclass, Falling and Staying in Love: An Interactive Workshop with Susanna Abse, takes place June 15 at 6:30 p.m.