Hindsight is a beautiful thing. As I sat chatting with relationship counsellor Nicholas Rose, slurping on black coffee in London’s leafy suburban Chiswick, I couldn’t help wishing that I had been researching this story in my early 20s - but then I guess I wouldn’t have had the experience of numerous failed relationships to make me fully appreciate the pearls of wisdom that Rose was sharing.
While Rose specialises in same-sex relationship counseling, in his view: ‘Gender does add an additional dynamic and complexity to same-sex couples, but gay and straight couples generally follow a similar cycle in their relationships.'
The first is 'Storming': The passionate beginning of the relationship. Next comes 'Forming': Agreements, boundaries and expectations begin to be established. And finally 'Norming' is when outines and patterns begin to be established.
Of course couples can experience issues at any of these stages of the relationship cycle - for Rose, the underlying cause of relationship problems is generally to do with change of some kind: ‘It’s essentially a breakdown in understanding between the two partners - something that was previously clear has now become unclear.’
For example one of the partners may suddenly be working long hours and it may not be clear to both people why this is happening; the frequency of sexual contact may have diminished over time and this is causing confusion; or one partner may want to change the agreed boundaries regarding sleeping with other people or where Christmas is spent - all of these are examples of how a change of some kind can negatively impact a previously stable relationship.
Based on his experience with clients, Rose categorises the most common change triggers as being:
But what makes some couples realise that they have an issue and to seek counseling to help overcome it, while other couples choose to walk away from the relationship?
‘There are generally a range of factors,’ explains Rose, ‘often one of the couple has had a positive experience with counseling in the past; friends may have intervened and suggested counseling; or a specific argument has been so destructive that they’ve realised that they need professional help.’
The length of the relationship also seems to play a key factor, believes Rose: ‘Human attachments form and generally strengthen over time, so the longer that you’re in a relationship the harder it is to leave. Six months in it may be relatively easy to walk away from someone - after 15 years that’s a much tougher proposition.’
It may be unconscious, but a healthy partnership will generally enable the couple to:
At the start of a counseling programme, Rose often finds himself stepping in to play the role of referee - but the aim is to work with the couple so that they develop the tools and techniques that enable them to effectively use this communication framework themselves.
‘At the start,’ says Rose, ‘it’s often as simple as showing a couple that’s okay to call a "time out" or to agree a safety-word. Once the couple have learnt how to prevent conflict escalation, they can move forward to start to look at the issues causing the conflict and work to understand each other’s points of view.
'The bottom line is that there is no right and wrong, it’s about finding the right way for that couple to communicate - they have to have a commitment to reach agreement, this will then enable them to rebuild trust and intimacy.’
Always keen to learn from the mistakes of others, I quiz Rose on how to spot relationship problems and deal with them before counseling becomes the only solution.
He suggests five easy steps you can take:
I finish my coffee and leave leafy Chiswick feeling a little bit wistful but a lot wiser. Relationships are hard, but it does give me some comfort that I’ll be a bit better equipped for the next one that I tackle.