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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 The man may become withdrawn, or leave the relationship to find someone who is more “fun”.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?

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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.

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