Relationship coaching: why are relationships so important?
Relationships are central to our lives. From our very earliest years, we come to know how important our relationships are. Good relationships can protect us and keep us healthy; of course bad relationships have the power to do the opposite.
Sheldon Cohen, of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is one of the world’s leading researchers of the relationship between social support and health. In one of his most interesting studies, he gave a group of people a virus that causes the common cold. He also asked them whether they:
- were married
- had a parent with whom they had contact
- had a family member with whom they had contact
- had a neighbour with whom they had contact
- had a friend with whom they had contact
- had a workmate with whom they had contact
- had a schoolmate with whom they had contact
- were part of a wider group with or without religious affiliation
Participants who ticked at least six of the roles listed above (basically, the people who had good social networks), were only half as likely to develop a cold in the days after being exposed to the cold virus, compared with those who were less socially integrated.
Cohen’s study has been generalised in a mega-review of over 300,000 people, which showed that good social relationships can make use live 5 years longer. Five years is a long time. It is as good as smoking is bad. Smoking reduces your life span by an average of five years. Read more about this here.
And why do good relationships have such important health benefits? Feeling supported and secure is validating, it means that we have people to go to who can help reframe our experiences, support us when things are difficult. All of this will reduce the levels of cortisol rushing around our bodies, in turn reducing our blood pressure, and regulating our sleep and digestive patterns.
What is relationship coaching?
If you are someone who struggles to find or maintain close relationships, you may benefit from working with a relationship coach.
Relationship coaches work with both singles and couples. Like most coaches, relationship coaches take generally healthy people and improve their performance in the area they are struggling with, in this case relationships. They help clients understand themselves, and identify and reach their goals.
Just as coaching is not psychotherapy, a relationship coach is not a couples’ counsellor. Relationship coaching is not right for a couple where one or both is working through trauma or serious mental health issues - that would require the support of a psychotherapist or counsellor - however relationship coaches can help with issues like trust, communication, home life problems, parenting or co-parenting difficulties.
You will find that some life coaches incorporate working with relationships into their practice, as well as other areas. You will also find coaches who describe themselves more specifically as relationship coaches or dating coaches.
We might think of romantic relationships first and foremost, but relationship coaching can be applied to a range of different relationships, including:
- Family (parent and child, for example)
- Sexual, partnered and/or married couples
A relationship coach may work with the couple, for example, or they may work with an individual who is seeking to address their own relationship difficulties, such as:
- Work-related relationships skills like networking
- Dating skills
- Making and building connections
- Overcoming a fear of commitment
- Recovering after relationship breakdown
Common relationship difficulties a relationship coach can help with
This is key, because many of us will repeat harmful relationship patterns without even realising that we're doing so. Attachment theory suggests that our primary manner of relating to others is influence by our early experiences with our main caregivers. Whether we have a secure, anxious or avoidant attachment style may influence how we form connections. You can read more about these different attachment styles here.
A relationship coach will use questions and deep listening to understand your particular patterns of relating, your relationship history, how your past loves and breakups may have bought you to where you are now. The relationship coaching process will help you to really understand how your relationships have shaped you and help you to reflect honestly about what you might be bringing into your relationships, both good and bad. With this knowledge, you'll be better equipped to meet the right people and form positive connections.
3. Co-dependency, assertiveness and setting boundaries
Co-dependency can be described as follows:
"When we believe we cannot survive without a certain relationship or person, unhealthy and addictive patterns emerge. We are what’s referred to as “co-dependent”. We will do anything to hold onto a particular relationship – ignoring unacceptable behaviours, distancing ourselves from family and friends, losing our moral compass and often risking our health. The relationship/person is the centre of our lives and becomes an obsession. We lose sight of who we are." Read more on this here.
Co-dependency often shows up as a repeated pattern of relationship behaviour. A relationship coach can help you to identify if this is something that characterises your past relationships. If it does, your relationship coach can help you to move forward in future relationships in a way that is more healthy in the long-term.
Relationships can be seen as a collection of exchanges – we need to both give and take in a healthy relationship. Sometimes, we might find we always play the same role, that of carer or nurturer. If this resonates with you, working with a relationship coach can empower you to be assertive and to set healthier boundaries.
Through increased understanding and self-awareness, you will also be equipped to identify when relationships – whether this is romantic, friendship or workplace – that are toxic. Relationship coaching can give you the confidence and boost your self-worth to be able to end relationships that are harmful to your health.
4. Shyness, self-consciousness and self-confidence
You may feel extremely shy when it comes to trying to meet a partner. You're at a loss of how to 'market' yourself on dating sites and you can't seem to be yourself on dates. Your relationship coach will help you understand where these limiting self-beliefs come from and how to overcome them, leading you to dating success.
6. Pre-marital concerns
If you and your partner decide to get married, it is understandably an exciting time. No one gets married and thinks that they won't stay married. But the reality is that marriage is a serious, challenging relationship in which there will be inevitable ups and downs.
Pre-martial relationship coaching gives you and your partner the space to really address any important concerns – perhaps there are some things you've never actually even spoken about, preferring to avoid difficult subjects, but would like to before the big day. Taking this kind of conscious, realistic view on what marriage means – while perhaps doesn't feel to some like the most romantic thing in the world – could genuinely increase your chances of the happy, long marriage that you are aiming for.
7. Managing conflict and differing views
If you find you and your partner don't agree on something important, it can cause a painful rift. Perhaps you have different ideas about the future: having children, where you should live, how you should manage your work and home life, what life should look like for your family.
Societal messages around relationships instil an unhelpful belief that conflict often signals the end of a relationship, that you aren't with the right person. While some difficulties are so fundamental they cannot be overcome, some amount of conflict is natural and can be worked through. You may try to deal with this yourself, but you both find you're repeating the same arguments again and again. A relationship coach can help you to communicate more peacefully and constructively.
8. Breaking up and divorce – and life beyond
The end of relationships is often painful – and it's unfortunately rare that two people split in a totally amicable manner, or even close to amicable. It's not impossible though and, especially if you have children involved, you and your partner may seek the help of someone outside the relationship to help you split with as little destructiveness as possible. A relationship coach can help you do this, working with you to create a plan, manage expectations, hold you accountable to what you have set out, and help manage any potential conflict.
Life after the end of a serious relationship can feel like a whole new world, and not always in a good way. The dating world changes very quickly, and many newly-single people might find themselves feeling under confident and overwhelmed. If finding a new relationship is a priority for you, hiring a relationship coach during this period will give you the space and time to work on the areas of relating that you may feel like you've forgotten how to do and make starting out anew feel much more manageable.
Further reading on coaching
Coaching for specific issues
Different types of coaching
Last updated 25 November 2020