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20130718-233005.jpgIf you are a woman, please try not to get too irritated by the seemingly arrogant presumption of a male writer – a curmudgeonly old one at that. Of course, I don’t really know what all women want. However, in my work as a therapist I have worked with lots of couples over the years, and as I wind down for the summer and sup my iced lattes, I have been reflecting on patterns. (I am aware that not all couples are heterosexual, but my observations here relate only to them.) Some men, take note. The things listed below are really important. Even as you sit reading this, device in one hand and beer in the other, their presence or absence is strengthening or corroding your relationship.

A Relationship With Another Responsible Adult

If you are a teenager, being in relationship with another teenager can seem natural and fun. You both have little responsibility and are able to enjoy the freedom. However, many women have children in the next 10 years. At thirty women want another responsible adult in their relationship to share the burdens of caring for the home and family. They have found themselves facing responsibility and don’t want to face that burden alone. They certainly don’t want to have to care for another teenager, selfishly doing their own thing and protesting about any attempt to encourage co-operative conformity.

Sadly, some men don’t adapt to the need to stop being a carefree teenager and grow up and take on adult responsibility of taking significant roles in caring for house and children. They want to carry on much of the behaviour they started when single. In attempting to get change, the woman often becomes the nagging mother and the man becomes the naughty boy. For a very brief period these roles may be amusing. However, they very rapidly generate resentment. The woman may become depressed and leave. The man may become withdrawn, or leave the relationship to find someone who is more “fun”.

Emotional Intimacy

If I had £5 for every time a woman sat in my office and said, “I just want to know what he’s thinking and feeling!” I would have been able to retire years ago. If you ask couples what being in a couple means and what obligations partners have towards each other, they will talk about financial care and about sexual fidelity. However, they never talk about the obligation to communicate with each other. But appropriate communication is a crucial in relationships. Silence, or lack of communication at the right level, can be so cruel and toxic.

It can be useful to think of communication at four levels. Level one is social – It’s hot today, isn’t it? Level two is factual – We need three litres of milk when you go to the supermarket. Level three is about beliefs – I think it’s wrong to do that. Level four is about emotions – I felt really upset when you said that. Many couples communicate on levels one and two and sometimes three, but fail at level four. Women especially mourn the lack of emotional intimacy and are often understandably resentful that some men associate “intimacy” solely with physical intimacy. An important way of improving a relationship is for men to make the effort to find a non-blaming, and non-aggressive way of opening up about what they are feeling. For some men, it may not be a natural thing to do, but it is a skill worth learning.

Someone Who Takes Initiative

This is partly related to the first point about women wanting to be in relationship with a supportive adult rather than with a problematic teenager. Some wearying aspects of child behaviour in a partner are a passivity and a chronic dependency. “I don’t mind what colour we have on the walls. You decide!” “I don’t mind where we go on holiday. You organise it!” “The tax disc on the car has run out. Will you get a new one for me?” “I don’t mind where we go out for the day. You organise something!” If you are a woman and the above statements are ones that you often receive, you know you are longing for another adult in the relationship to be responsible and to take some initiative. You long for a surprise evening out when someone else has organised the child care and booked the restaurant. You long for a holiday where someone else has helped make a decision and where your partner has organised the insurance, the passports, and the currency. You just long for another adult to take some initiative and share in the burden of making things happen.

Someone Who Speaks Love In A Language You Understand

We all learn different languages of love – how love is expressed to us when we are growing up in our family, and what kind of things have to happen for us to feel loved. These languages of love are often different for each partner in the relationship. For example, some people learn to feel loved when they are given surprises and presents; others feel loved when mundane tasks are done for them or when they are spoken to in a particular way. When part of a couple we naturally express love in ways that we learned to do so as children. While our intentions may be good, we may be expressing love in a way our partner doesn’t quite fully understand. It is like us speaking German but our partner only really understanding French. Kind of sweet, but ineffective.

I once new a man who said that his wife was depressed, so he thought he would show his love and support for her by buying a new washing machine! Sometimes some men think that being loving means throwing money at a problem, when perhaps all their partner’s want is some emotional intimacy. Sometimes some men feel that being loving means working hard outside the home, when perhaps all their partners want is to hear, “I love you.” Sometimes some men may feel that being loving means helping with the washing up once a month, when perhaps all their partners want is daily help with domestic chores or an occasional surprise meal in a restaurant. it is important to learn to speak love in the language your partner understands.

Examination Results

At the time of writing this it is July, and soon the A Level Examination results will be out, and all over the UK some couples will be feeling that their time of parenting children has come to an end, as eighteen year olds start to see themselves as fully-fledged adults (and perhaps leave the nest). I know too that this could be a busy time for me. Over the years I have seen many shocked men in their fifties sitting in my office saying, “She just walked out!” Years ago, middle-aged women, unhappy in their relationships, were held there, partly by historic disapproval of divorce, and perhaps partly by knowing that mortality rates meant that they didn’t have too long to wait for freedom. Now, both men and women can expect to live another 20 years at least, and once the children have left, more and more women are deciding to leave the relationship and try to get their legitimate needs met elsewhere.

If women were to draw up a list of things they wanted in a relationship with a man, I strongly suspect that the above four things would feature. What do you think?

Conquest

This book left me with mixed feelings.

I bought it on the basis of seeing Nick Hyam interview the author who is a multi-award-winning documentary producer working for the BBC. It is the first book in a series of four that starts before the Battle of Hastings (the Battle of Senlac Ridge) and goes through to the signing of the Magna Carta.

On the plus side, the book reveals a lot of historical detail and gives the readers a sense of the political and military turmoil in England both before and after the famous battle. I found it illuminating to learn of the almost chance nature of the famous defeat, and of the brutality that William demonstrated both before, and in the years after the battle. The book ends just after the Siege of Ely in 1071.

However, despite reading it to the end, I did struggle with it for several reasons. First, on a minor note, although it is based round a real historical character (Hereward of Bourne – known in legend as Hereward the Wake), I was never quite sure how much was fact and how much of his story was fiction. At least with Dan Brown or Scott Mariani they always tell you at the end which bits of the plot are factual and which are made up. There was no final note from the author to inform me.

Secondly, the quasi-evangelical moralistic tone started to annoy me. Throughout the novel Hereward is fighting to defend England and we hear speeches and see his thoughts about this worthy purpose. And as well as the nationalism, there are also worthy thoughts about leadership. It started to have the feel of a medieval hagiography. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just didn’t appeal to me.

Thirdly, the writing didn’t do it for me. The structural device is that the old warrior is describing his life to some youngsters, and perhaps, because of that, the narrative tends to be linear. As an ex-English teacher I have marked thousands of compositions that read, “And then we did this … and then we did that .., and then we did this …” I’m afraid I found parts of it boring. I wanted more conflict-tension-resolution. I also found the style to be almost romantic and lyrical. This suited a hagiography, but it didn’t create a page that drew me in and made me want to read.

I won’t be buying the other three books. In his interview with Nick Hyam the author admitted that telling a story in prose rather than on TV proved to be harder than he had expected. On the basis of this book I don’t think the author has quite succeeded in overcoming the difficulties he faced.

The Abomination

Someone said, “If you like Dan Brown, you’ll like this.” They were wrong. I like Dan Brown, but I loved this. I did really enjoy this book for several reasons.

First, the plot was fantastically intriguing. Three seemingly unrelated incidents happen to different people in different parts of Venice. The author then skilfully takes us on a journey where we are invited to link the incidents together and then use that knowledge to resolve the ending. What I particularly liked is that, for the most part, it seemed credible. The plot doesn’t depend on anything that stretched the imagination beyond reason, and its complexity keeps you on your toes right to the end.

The second reason for enjoyment was that unlike some novels that race across the world and back, this book, for the most part, was firmly grounded in Venice (despite the fact that Venice is sinking). The stink of the city was both literal and metaphorical. It provides a reinforcing backdrop to the corruption and crime in the place involving the police, the mafia, the church, the criminals, and the spies. But the reality of the city also gave space for the reader to pause and enjoy, and to learn about Venetian life. It gave time for the characters to eat at the restaurants, and to occasionally make love. And of course, the duplicity of the Venetian mask also provided another overarching metaphor for the plot.

Thirdly, and partly related to my previous point, I enjoyed the detail which gave the text a convincing authority. For example, we learn about the influence of the Mafia on the city, the techniques used by people traffickers, the protocols for paperwork on a US military base, the operation of drones, the Italian justice system, some of the conventions used by computer hackers. I knew I was reading a novel, but for the most part, the detail encouraged me to believe wholeheartedly in the world I was being invited to inhabit. The book was interesting.

My fourth reason for enjoyment was the flesh that the author gave to the main characters. I cared about them. I enjoyed watching their relationships develop. They weren’t cardboard cut-outs, but were “real” people capable of subtle feelings and interaction. The female detective was interestingly different. I really wanted them to be ok.

Notwithstanding the above, I have a couple of minor quibbles.  First, I have read all of Dan Brown and most of Scott Mariani and one of the things I really dislike about their novels is that they sometimes have to employ completely unrealistic solutions to getting their characters out of plot conundrums that they have written them into (survival despite being ridiculously outnumbered, for example). Personally, I was unconvinced by how the author got two of his characters back to Venice after they had briefly left it. It didn’t seem credible to me, and was a weakness. Secondly, I was invited to care for a major character for most of the book, and the relationship that he was forming, and then this person was summarily dismissed towards the end. I felt very let down. Perhaps this thread will be picked up in a future novel.

Couples in Collusion: Short-Term, Assessment-Based Strategies for Helping Couples Disarm Their Defenses

by

Dennis A. Bagarozzi
The basic premise of this book is both simple and yet diagnostically powerful. The author argues that when a couple enters therapy, both partners have either explicit or implicit understandings of what can—and, more importantly, cannot—be discussed in therapy. Collusion between partners, whether consciously or unconsciously negotiated, serves two basic functions: to protect the partners’ respective selves and to preserve the dyadic status quo.

Bagarozzi argues that couples enter therapy when these collusive agreements have failed in some way, and many of them would be content with therapy that allows them simply to return to the status quo. However, although ignoring unconscious processes in their clients’ relationships can lead to short-term ‘success’, the author demonstrates that working through the inevitable defensive resistance and doing genuinely ‘deep’ work can ultimately produce richer outcomes for the couple.

Although not formally divided in such a way, there are four ‘parts’ to this book: the theory, the description of patterns of collusion, the discussion of assessment, and the case-studies. Although considering myself moderately well-read, I did struggle with some of the theoretical discussion and was aware of my own lack of reading in object-relations. However, other parts of the book do draw from a variety of theoretical backgrounds.

The author uses a series of informal questions as well as more formal questionnaires to assess his clients and their relationship before ‘treatment’. I found the former useful and have already incorporated them into my own early sessions with couples. I could see that the latter did reveal useful areas for discussion, but as most of the instruments used are not made available in the book, and as I would be unwilling to use a battery of tests at the beginning of therapy, I didn’t linger much over these paragraphs.

Despite the above negative quibbles, at its core, the book has much to offer the Private Practitioner who works with couples. The book opens windows onto possible psychological underground (for example, collusive defensive patterns, acting out and monitoring and restraining, couple mythologies, complementary defensive systems, primitive defences in borderline and narcissistic disorders). Then, the author patiently uses his wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise to lead the reader across the minefields to the other side (demonstrating how to defuse a few mines along the way).

Most counselling books have case-study material at some point. However, I particularly enjoyed the ones in this book. Bagarozzi gives us key background information before allowing us the ‘see’ his interactions with the couple. We see the positive outcomes as well as the disappointments. I admired the way he was aware of, and able to deflect, the attempts by the couples to draw him into the collusions.

This book informed me and left me wanting to continue to strive to become a better therapist.

A Coming Out

I used to be an evangelical Christian. In the summer of 1966, I got ’saved’. I literally came out – I got up out of my seat in front of family and friends at a Billy Graham rally at the age of 13, and decided to follow Jesus. That faith and commitment lasted for a long time, at least until 2000. I was a lay preacher, a pastoral counsellor, a church leader, and a Christian author. I was in hook, line, and sinker. However, over the past 7 years I have slowly abandoned that faith.

Of course, I know that if my Christian friends were reading this they would say that I am trying too hard. That the fact that I am having to write about it just proves how insecure I am in my new atheism. I would argue that since so many of them ask me about what has happened to me I have had to think things through, for their benefit, and to make sense of the massive change for myself. It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen in any neat, logical order, but it has happened, and what is written below is a poor attempt at an explanation after the event.

Although a degree of general unease and doubt had been happening over a number of years (Does God really answer prayers? He doesn’t seem to answer mine. What is the point of singing hymns? Why am I struggling to make a book written in a series of foreign cultures over thousands of years relevant to my life today? How long can I go on doing mental gymnastics about apparent inconsistencies?) the change really took off when I was ill for a year. During that time I spent a year virtually at home, unable to go out and face crowds, and certainly unable to go to church. To someone who had believed that my life would fall apart if I didn’t go to church, I discovered that I was actually enjoying the absence. I certainly wasn’t missing the two Sunday services, the leaders’ meeting on a Sunday afternoon, the midweek meeting, various other meetings with groups or individuals. I started to enjoy the freedom and realise that my faith was not helping my enjoyment of life or blood-pressure.

Over a number of years I had been doing more and more training as a counsellor which involved me in reading more about human beings in an attempt to understand them better. As this happened, I became more and more uneasy with the template for humanity that I had inherited from my Christian faith. If I was honest with myself, I knew how difficult (and superficial) change really was, and that neat Christian solutions to change often only tackled the surface leaving deeper issues untouched. It no longer seemed good enough to exhort people (and myself) to stop doing things because they were wrong. I started to question the wrongness of some things, and certainly questioned the ability of people to stop despite the apparently available divine aid.

Because of my background in church I initially used to receive a lot of requests for counselling from people within the Christian community. As a counsellor I started to see more of the Christian underbelly. From within the Christian community I have personally come across ’senior’ Christians involved in multiple affairs, anal rape, child sex abuse, cottaging in the local toilets, visiting male and female prostitutes, physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse, wife beating, and bullying. Need I go on? I write this, not in judgement, but simply to make the point – if Christianity did work, and if it did significantly change people at a deep level, that wasn’t always apparent from some Christians. Their tragic experiences, and my own inner struggles and powerlessness, just confirmed my own doubts about efficacy.

As part of my counsellor training I did a 3 year course that forced me to confront a very difficult issue that I had been wanting to avoid. Up until this point I had taken an evangelical view of homosexuality. Homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so. I was to be compassionate towards gays, but not condone their practice. That was easy as I didn’t personally know any gays. On my course, two of the three tutors were gay. During the three years I got to know them, deeply respect them, and grew increasingly confused and ashamed as I listened to their stories of their inner struggles. I also started to read up-to-date research on homosexuality (Wilson, G. and Rahman, Q. (2005) Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation. London: Peter Owen) and concluded that I could no longer toe the party line. And if my party line was wrong on this, it could no longer be trusted and was probably wrong on lots of other things as well.

I know that many Christians would argue that I am rejecting the package and that I should not necessarily reject Christ himself. At the moment I cannot see a meaningful way of separating the two.

Writing this marks a kind different coming out. I am declaring myself a tentative non-believer. It feels slightly odd, but at the same time much more comfortable than where I was 13 years ago.

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