Relationship Counselling in Downtown Vancouver
By Katherine Young, M.Ed, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Vancouver, BC.
“Entering any relationship requires a transformation of the self.” –Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Relationships trigger our hurt and stuck spots. Relationship turmoil where our oldest wounds are repeatedly exposed is is a very painful experience associated with psychological pain and distress.
However, relationships can be our greatest teachers. Relationship counselling offers an invaluable opportunity to investigate unhealed wounds and undeveloped parts. Nothing reveals what needs to be worked on as well as repeated interactions with those who know us well.
Human beings are emotionally and physically built to bond. In fact we bond so easily and so much with others, particularly when we are sexually involved that a great deal of effective relationship becomes about struggling to hold on to one’s autonomy and independence while still staying close and connected to our loved one.
This is the dance of relationship, staying close while remaining distinctly ourselves. The problem is many people, and all of us at times, use unhealthy ways of establishing closeness and also of establishing individuality.
Afraid of losing closeness, we attempt to control our partner; afraid of being engulfed by them we distance, withdraw and coldly shut them out.
Our habits and preferences for maintaining closeness and autonomy usually begin when we are very young and can be very deeply rooted.
In real emotional intimacy we are revealed to our partner. With true closeness, we are most ourselves and we share who we are in our depths. It is through this sharing of the deeply personal that two people can create a beautiful and intimate interpersonal relationship. Real intimacy may look like vulnerably asking your partner to connect with you or it may mean sharing with them that you need solitude for a little while.
Relationships are a System
However, as we have all experienced, relationships are not always intimate. We don’t feel we can be ourselves. We feel pushed and pulled and don’t know how to manage our needs. We may fall into conflict or into detached apathy. Relationships have patterns and cycles, and relationships in conflict have particularly rigid, repetitive patterns and cycles which can be very hard to break because generally the pattern or cycle reinforces itself. A skilled therapist as a third party can be invaluable in helping a couple or an individual identify the system and find new ways of engaging without further entrenching the negative pattern.
In therapy, the partners learn to identify and look at the entire cycle, they can then begin to find ways to break the pattern. Counselling helps the couple to create awareness about how the cycle is created and then clients and counsellor can practice breaking the cycle and try engaging in new ways.
Cycles of Engagement
Some of the most common patterns in a stressed relationship are:
There are a limited set of attachment styles. People tend to have the following attachment styles:
- Fearful/Avoidant or Disorganized
Anxious attachment is characterized by nervous preoccupation with securing engagement with the partner, while avoidance is pretty much the opposite. Avoidant partners mitigate rejection fears by withdrawing from the loved one and finding some form of distraction. The fourth category, Fearful/Avoidant or Disorganized is marked by fluctuation between the two previous styles.
When we sacrifice our personal autonomy too much we can become too involved in our relationship. We’ve probably all felt it, often in the beginning of a relationship and sometimes throughout. We give up our usual activities, we spend all our time with our partner, we lose friends, we stop speaking up about what we really think, we look after our partner’s feelings too much or we sacrifice our own goals and dreams for the comfort and security of being with the person we love. We lose a sense of where we end and our partner begins. Suddenly we are not the fascinating, engaged, attractive person we used to be. Our partner may even find themselves bored with us, or us with them.
Learning to maintain boundaries in a relationship is one of the most effective ways counselling can help create a healthier relationship and a more satisfying life.
Sometimes a couple will navigate enmeshment, arriving, reactively at a stage where they are more able to maintain autonomy. However, this can go too far too with each person maintaining individuality, but at the cost of emotional intimacy and connection in the relationship. This may end in a break up or sometimes, a couple stays together noticing less conflict and feeling, in a certain sense, safer, however many couples at this stage feel there is something missing. Connection has been sacrificed and intimacy is not achieved. Therapy can help a couple learn to create more emotional connection through honest sharing and deep listening and responding.
Goals of Therapy
Different couples may have different goals for where they would like to end up in therapy, however much of couples therapy and relationship counselling centers around exploring the dance of autonomy/intimacy to arrive at a successful marriage of the two, where both people are autonomous, and intimacy is also enjoyed.