• Couples counselling can help you and your partner move away from limiting spoken and unspoken communication traps, teaching you how to truly listen

  • Gilead Yeffett explains you can overcome unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns and move communication away from 'always' and 'never'

  • If you are looking for a couples counsellor or therapist, you can find one here

Mark and Kate, both in their late 30s, had been together for 10 years and had two children, but they were not happy, something was missing, their life seemed to have been taken over by everyday chores.

In couple relationships, a lot of communication is highly coded. A tiny movement or word from one can trigger so much in the other, so I focus on communication. I am a Gestalt therapist (where integrating the client’s feelings with their actions and perceptions aims for a greater level of self-awareness) and how people relate to each other is important to me.

Once goals are established, it is important to look into what is going well between them. Trust and friendship in relationships are two of the key factors for a successful one. How they spoke to each other was part of what we spent time paying attention to and practising more useful options. For example, I asked Kate to tell Mark something she didn’t like. She said, “You always roll your eyes when I ask you to help around the house. I feel patronised”. Then Mark had to repeat what he’d heard and say how that made him feel. It’s often an emotional moment for couples. Sometimes things are revealed that they have never heard their partner say before.

Each of them also had the chance to show that at times they had behaved in exactly the opposite way. 'Always' and 'never' are sweeping statements, which can stop us from truly listening and this exercise proves that. They might say, “It’s not always, it’s sometimes - and then sometimes I do the opposite!” For example, Mark pointed out how he takes initiative without being asked. He then said he felt patronised when told what to do all the time. This exploration helped them both see how they use punishment - patronising - to meet their needs.

A few weeks into the process I wanted to bring in more of their history, behaviours and beliefs they had learnt in their respective family of origin. This can shine a light on some of our relationship preferences and patterns but we are not talking about predetermined behaviour. Mark seemed to be anxious in relation to women, his experience was that the women he was growing up with were unreliable and he felt childlike with Kate. Kate wanted more from him: she told him she wanted him to “man up”.

Mark was hurt by this comment, but he was able to accept that. I wanted to know what she meant - to break it down into everyday activities. “I want to feel he can protect me, not necessarily physically, but if I bring problems he can help without getting worried himself”. Also she felt insecure financially, although they both work.

We looked into how they connected and what happened when that broke down. A good fight can help us negotiate our needs and understand what we are willing to give up and what not. What’s important is how a repair the relationship.

Getting near the end of the 12 weeks, I could see many changes. They had learned to reach out and to truly listen and work through intense emotions such as fear of being abandoned (in Kate's case), her need to control part of Mark's behaviour or of being a failure (in Mark's case). We all need to be able to say what we need and to feel that we are being heard, in order to feel loved.

Further reading

Why couples therapy benefits even healthy relationships

Finding personal space in a couple relationship

What happens in couples counselling?

Relationship therapy saved our marriage