Thursday, 5 November 2009
Last year a couple came to see me who were hooked on excitement but since starting a family were now struggling with all the changes that this had brought to their relationship. The couple, Jenny and Steve (names changed), had enjoyed a liberated sex-life, with risk-taking and spontaneity important to both of them. Of course, this had changed after conceiving their first child, and since then, for the past 2 years, they had seen a steady decline in their sex life as well as intimacy as a couple. For couples with new babies this can be a common observation but not necessary a problem for all. For Jenny and Steve it had become a problem.
At the beginning of therapy, Jenny and Steve showed confusion, resentment and some anger towards each other. The real issues had clearly become mixed up with added misunderstandings and stresses of current everyday life and they did not know where to start to unravel the problem. One of my first tasks was to help them separate the current events from the underlying issues. I explained to Jenny and Steve that if they could resolve the real issue, then much of the current resentment, confusion and anger would dissipate. Also, in practicing truly listening to each other and in dealing with the changes as they arise, they would gain new depths of intimacy together.
As with all expectations about what it is to be a couple, I explored firstly their learned beliefs about what is important to them in a relationship and what important qualities are needed from their partner. These are the beliefs that we hold that are unique to us as individuals and have been learned from our own unique life experiences. Jenny had grown up in a very authoritarian household, with a submissive, stay-at-home mother and overly dominant father. This was something that Jenny despised and had vowed would not happen to her. It would be fair to say that this was one of Jenny's "triggers" for the anxiety she was now experiencing in her own relationship, paralysing her from being able to talk openly about it. Steve had grown up in a religious family, and feared that because his parents were quite sexually repressed, with his father absent and highly critical, that he would be too. Needless to say, their current situation was triggering considerable anxiety for them both, more so than it would for another couple without these triggers.
Exploring their learned fears, we began to challenge their perspective from something along the lines of "we are going to be just like my parents, I can't bear it" to "at times it's ok to be passive, not have sex. If we can talk about it, rather than get anxious about it, then we can create something better together. We are not a sum total of our parents' experiences, rather something different entirely". They also explored what they still loved and appreciated about each other. After this, Steve and Jenny seemed calmer, more connected and at times held hands as they opened up. They were realising that their choices were much wider than either ending up just like their parents or in being the exact opposite. In over-compensating by doing the exact opposite to their parents, couples are still reacting to the past rather than dealing with the present. Finding their own equilibrium point became more possible when their fears were aired and put into the past. Jenny had also been repressing her anger, unknowingly responding in a similar way to her mother. Jenny worked specifically on learning how to deal with anger through not denying her feelings, nor letting them get on top of her either to the point where she would just lose it.
Task 1: - Jenny and Steve, individually in therapy, explored, balanced and reshaped the expectations of their relationship. In order to do this, they put to bed some of the learned fears about passivity, mundane life and a relationship that wasn't 100% sexually-charged. Rather than fearing their current situation, they explored understanding it in the context of everything else happening in their lives.
Task 2: - Jenny and Steve listened to each other's story and fears and confessed that they had never talked about their need for thrill-seeking lovemaking in this context. They also acknowledged the enjoyment they received in lovemaking, touching, kissing and holding, and did not necessarily need the thrill-seeking. In doing so they were taking a wider perspective of their sexuality that gave them meaningful lovemaking and contact through many avenues. If couples have difficulty with this stage, keeping a pleasure diary while going back to the basics of touching, holding, caressing and appreciating can help provide added insight.
Task 3: - reintroduce some spontaneity into the relationship, within the context of now being a family of 3. Jenny in particular craved more spontaneity and so Steve listened to this and found that this was something he could easily do. Hiring a baby-sitter and booking a restaurant, coming home with flowers or just sending a text to tell her he was thinking of her, became things that Steve would happily arrange to give his wife a break, surprise her and give her more one:one attention.
Task 4: - Jenny and Steve practiced "good" anger in therapy and then outside at home. This involved recognising it early and expressing it clearly in terms of how they were feeling. They were able to talk about specific aspects of each other's behaviour that irritated or angered them without judging or condemning the other.
Over the weeks Steve and Jenny discussed accepting and appreciating some of the more mundane aspects of being a family, and creatively found new ways of being spontaneous, loving, physical and exciting. The insecurity and confusion lifted releasing much of the tension, and instead of pent-up resentment, they were talking and listening.
This was a particularly satisfying case as here were two people willing to take on and face their problems, as well as make the changes. Jenny began to see that at times she could be passive and it was OK for Steve to take the lead without it meaning that she was headed down the same road as her mother. Steve could see that both he and Jenny had some differences in their sexuality and just because they were not always connecting sexually, this did not need to mean they would become like his own parents, but that he could let Jenny know how he was feeling rather than panic. They both learned to see their problems in the context of here-and-now and realised how much of their interpretations had been tied up in their own history, which was really no longer relevant.
Having a baby will usually introduce many changes into a couple's life, not just sexually. It can highlight the more hidden, learned fears and unrealistic expectations that as adults we can hold. Through exposing them, Jenny and Steve were able to change how they viewed the "crisis" and move on from it. Jenny and Steve reported that going through such a test had allowed them to now experience an even deeper level of intimacy, growing even closer together as a family as well as a couple. This is lovely to see but even lovelier to experience!