Why we need regular relationship health checks
Last year I saw a young couple from south London who came to counselling to try to salvage their 12-year marriage.
The wife had virtually decided she’d had enough. After a handful of sessions, she didn’t appear again. It was left to the shell-shocked husband to try to make sense of what had happened.
The truth is, they’d come to counselling too late.
In the first session the wife explained they’d had a crisis five years earlier when she had told her husband that she wasn’t happy. They had three young children under the age of 10. Communication between them was irritable or plain angry. They should try counselling, she said.
He reassured her that this happens to all couples; that they didn’t need to panic. It would be OK.
Maybe he’s right, she thought. She bottled it up.
But over the next five years the resentments continued. Intimacy fizzled out. Finally she had had enough and demanded that they see a therapist. The evening before he had overheard her on the phone complaining bitterly to a friend about him. Only then did he realise with a jolt that they were perilously close to the end of the marriage. So he agreed to come to couples counselling.
But it was too late. If only they’d come five years earlier they would have had a chance of catching the problem before it slipped beyond their control.
If relationships had a regular health check – a session for an hour with a good couples therapist asking the right questions, let’s say every three years – it would almost certainly reveal issues that needed working on for the health of the relationship.
Here are a few of the questions the therapist might ask:
· What is worrying you about your relationship?
· If you argue, how quickly do you recover?
· Is one of you feeling angry, undervalued or let down by the other?
· How is intimacy between you?
· Do you find quality time to spend together away from domestic pressures?
These are questions that a couple can ask themselves, of course. In fact the relationship support organisation Relate has devised an MoT quiz which asks some of these kinds of questions. But it can help to have a third person in the room (or on Zoom) probing a little deeper or asking about something they haven’t thought of.
After that hour-long meeting the couple will go away with a few things to work at. Or they may decide that a few more sessions might be useful.
So why do couples not seek help when there are early signs that their relationship is in trouble?
First, quite simply they may not realise that there is a problem. They are so used to feeling disappointed or resentful that it becomes a habit. They may believe that in time it will go away.
The second reason is that, having noticed that things are not right, they feel that life is too busy at the moment to address the problems – resentful silences, little or no intimacy, rows about domestic duties, feeling worthless in the relationship, and so on. Lots of things contribute to this feeling that we’re too busy to deal with “us”: stressful jobs, young children constantly needing attention, lack of sleep, health or money problems – they all contribute.
Third, people often procrastinate when it comes to difficult things. How many people do you know who won’t go to the doctor when they are not well? They tend to put it off and hope the symptoms go away. It’s human nature sometimes to brush things under the carpet.
The couple I mentioned at the start didn’t do the repair work on their relationship when the cracks were showing. And sadly for them and their three children, they broke up.
It needn’t be like this. We all try to keep ourselves healthy. Relationships need looking after too to make sure they are healthy.
And the sign of a healthy relationship? The key one is to feel safe opening up to your partner if you’re feeling worried, anxious or resentful. What you need from your partner is for him or her to listen kindly, not judging or criticising you, and trying not to be defensive. If that openness is present there’s a strong chance the relationship is in a good state or can repair quickly.
Love, trust and respect are at the heart of this. So we need to be vigilant to make sure we nurture these things. A relationship check-up may be just the help that’s needed.
If you’re wondering if a relationship health check might help you, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.