Couples therapist bbc show advice
Relationships

“I’m a relationship therapist – this is what I wish I could tell every couple”

Couples therapy isn’t just for marriages on the rocks – more and more young people are turning to counselling to solve their relationship problems. Here, therapist Simone Bose explains how to fix yours 

Arguments are almost never about what they appear to be about. Take the age-old dispute over doing the dishes, for example. For one of my clients – let’s call her Rachel – coming home after a long day at work and seeing a stack of plates in the sink again left her raging with her husband. “If you want a maid, you could just hire one instead of turning your wife into one,” she apparently screamed at him. His response? Storming off to his study, slamming the door and “locking” her out.

While the row may have seemed to start over chores, it wasn’t until 44 minutes into our fourth session that she finally understood the real issue: how they deal with conflict as a couple and communicate. In this case? Not brilliantly. This is where I come in.

Over the last seven years of running my own private practice and working for counselling service Relate, I’ve seen a huge increase in the number of couples seeking therapy – especially younger ones. In 2020, Relate reported a 30% increase in clients in their 20s and 30s since 2014 in the UK. Everyone has their own reasons for coming to therapy, but recent TV shows such as the BBC’s voyeuristic series Couples Therapy and Esther Perel’s wildly popular podcast Where Should We Begin? have definitely increased demand. They’ve normalised the process and helped people see the value it can bring to a relationship. In short, it’s our job to give people the tools to deal with arguments and, crucially, prevent them from happening again.

Everyone is always fascinated to know what really goes on in a therapist’s office. With its statement sofa and cosy fireplace, my office in Fitzrovia in central London could be mistaken for a normal living room (if it wasn’t for all the boxes of tissues everywhere). Since the pandemic though, more of my appointments take place over Zoom. It’s rarely been an issue, although a client’s partner did once fall asleep on a call, and there was a very awkward moment involving me shouting his name at the screen trying to wake him up. In normal circumstances, though, I expect sessions to be emotional, not sleep-inducing; there are tears but there’s also laughter, something I find very rewarding.

To help fix a client’s relationship, I always begin by identifying the patterns they are falling into. We’ll start by deconstructing a recent argument. Many women, like Rachel, hold resentment. In Rachel’s case, she’d watched her mum look after her dad for years without receiving much acknowledgement in return. Her husband’s indifference towards her was therefore triggering. Rachel decided her husband was lazy and, over time, she unconsciously began searching for proof to corroborate this accusation, making her question whether she could even be with him anymore.

Things in relationships can escalate quickly if you don’t communicate your feelings properly – you need to get to the root of why you both react the way you do and what each of your triggers are. This is the advice I give to help people do just that.

IDENTIFY YOUR LOVE LANGUAGE

People assume adultery is the number one issue people come to me with. But, actually, it only makes up around 10% of clients. Most of the time, the couples I see have simply grown indifferent to each other. One way to help you reconnect? Discovering what your “love languages” are. Stay with me on this.

The concept was created in the 90s by Dr Gary Chapman to explain the five different ways in which we each give and receive love. The languages range from “quality time” to “acts of service” – once you know your partner’s, you’ll better understand how to show them love in a way that is meaningful to them.

For example, if you believe you’re showing love via performing acts of service (like making them a coffee in the morning or surprising them with dinner reservations) but your partner’s love language is actually “physical touch” or “words of affirmation” then it won’t have the impact you hope it will. You’re literally speaking different languages. Intrigued? Take this simple quiz to find out your own language.

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ASK THE HARD QUESTIONS EARLY

While younger couples might be more clued up when it comes to communication, they will still often avoid having important conversations about their overall expectations in life. Before you’re a year into a relationship, I would suggest having asked your partner things like: do you want kids? Do you want to get married? How important is family to you? Do you want to buy a house? That way, you’re both establishing what you want from the relationship early on, and you can make decisions according to that. It might sound obvious but you’d be surprised how many couples skate over – or don’t even cover – this ground during the getting-to-know-each-other stage, which then becomes a real sticking point later on.

BE BRUTALLY HONEST ABOUT MONEY

Money creates issues down the line, too. With one couple I saw recently, a man had become the main earner when his wife, who also had a lucrative job, gave up work to raise their child. Conflict arose when he started to control their money and limit her spending. She became resentful because she felt as if she’d lost her independence. The answer involved creating a structure for handling finances together.

Despite how far millennials believe they’ve come from the relationship patterns of their parents’ generation, this is a really common issue. You have to have very open and clear conversations about how you expect money to work once you’re committed to each other. It’s not a sexy topic, but it’s one every couple, regardless of how much they earn, needs to get comfortable discussing if the relationship is going to have longevity.

FORGET OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPECTATIONS

With Gen Z clients, there’s a whole new remit of issues that come up. Posting provocative photos online (bikini pics, for example) is a problem that crops up in heterosexual relationships. The guy often interprets it as the woman trying to find another man, while, for her, it might be about wanting validation to feel attractive.

It usually takes a while to get to these admissions. I then ask the couple to see the situation from the other person’s perspective before we come to an agreement that they both feel comfortable with. It often involves compromise and, crucially, understanding.

Porn is another hot topic for younger couples. Some clients base their intimate encounters on what they’ve seen on screen because they want to make sure they’re really “good at sex” and “keep hold” of their partner by being experimental. In that case, I talk about their upbringing, what would feel good if they weren’t performing and encourage both partners to take a break from porn or to find porn that they can enjoy together. So many issues arise when we focus on what our relationships should look like, versus what it actually feels like from the inside.

MAKE TIME FOR EMPATHY

The one thing I tell all my clients no matter what state they come to me in is that you need to have more empathy. I work with people to help them understand their partner’s actions, so that they can be aware of the unspoken underlying factors. There will be a reason why they don’t, for instance, naturally share affection, or why they never take the initiative to organise date nights. In working out what those things are, you’ll start to feel safe with one another and, in return, you’ll become more open about your own problems. With empathy, it’s possible to validate someone without necessarily agreeing with them. 

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CHOOSE YOUR MOMENT

It sounds obvious, but when it comes to sorting out problems with your partner, timing is everything. So many people misjudge this, but the best way to begin a difficult conversation with your partner is simply asking: “Are you available to have a chat?” It might sound a bit formal, but this way you’re not invading your partner’s space or catching them by surprise. It also gives them the chance to set their own boundaries and ask to revisit the conversation when they are feeling calm.

It’s also important that you take a break from a heated discussion when you need one, but remember to reassure your partner when you do. Tell them something like: “I want you to know that I’m coming back – I’m not running away.” This will stop you from losing your temper but also from them getting into an anxious thought spiral, where they feel unloved or abandoned.

CUT OUT THE BLAME

When you’re in a state of conflict, the amygdala, better known as the fight-or-flight part of the brain, is activated. Under these circumstances, people feel unsafe and therefore act in ways that will allow them to feel protected again – whether that’s storming off, shouting louder or changing the topic.

We all like our voices to be heard and it’s upsetting when you feel the one you love isn’t listening to you. My hack for this is to ask couples to talk for five minutes in “non-blame” language – swapping out phrases like “you’re so lazy” for “I’m feeling tired from clearing up, could you help?” I then get the other person to say what they actually heard when their partner was talking, before swapping to give the listener a turn. By taking out the judgment, your partner will become more receptive to your words and listen to them rather than shutting them out.

Ultimately, the most important thing to know is this: working on your relationship doesn’t mean it’s not working. It’s a pledge to try and make things better. It shows that you both love each other enough to try – and that in itself is worth saving.

As told to Annie Lord