Monday 27 January 2020

Let's stay together: How to avoid falling victim to break-up season

January can signal the death knell of a relationship, but experts tell Chrissie Russell that a 'reset', and not divorce, could be your saviour

Love lost: Marriage Story lays bare the emotional turmoil a divorce can bring
Love lost: Marriage Story lays bare the emotional turmoil a divorce can bring

Chrissie Russell

It's that time of year again where the pressure is on to start afresh with a new you, a new fitness regime... and perhaps a new relationship? It's no secret that the chimes at midnight on December 31 can often sound the death knell for an old relationship and these early weeks of January are now widely heralded as the most popular time for couples to file for divorce.

But in the rush to embrace everything new in 2020, could some couples potentially be throwing away a relationship that simply needs a bit of work? Hitting eject when reset would do?

Expert: Psychologist Allison Keating advises hitting pause on anger
Expert: Psychologist Allison Keating advises hitting pause on anger

Far from being the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas often puts relationships under strain. We're bombarded with images of 'perfect' families that only serve to make our own domestic set-ups look sadly wanting (no one ever has to tell anyone to take the bins out in The Sound Of Music, do they?). Then there's the emotional upheaval, the financial stress, the lack of routine...

"People are tired and depleted," says psychologist at the bWell Clinic, Allison Keating. "Add in time pressures, financial pressures, and couples can turn on each other."

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But even if things are bad, it doesn't make reassessing your relationship a bad thing.

"The fact we tend to review our lives at this time of year can be beneficial," reveals Susannah Healy, psychologist and author of The Seven Day Soul. "The natural break in the calendar allows us to lift our heads up from the treadmill and look at the big picture. It can be very useful. But what's not useful is when we do it in a 'my marriage isn't serving me very well, I'll just get rid of it' way.

"We have a habit of seeing marriage as a noun, when actually it is a verb, something we need to work at and look after. We tend to think, 'I'm in a relationship and I hope it works out', but that's a very passive approach. We look after our careers, our children. Often we look after the plants in the garden better than we look after our relationship - everything comes before it."

Making time for each other is key, but not just in a 'let's schedule a date night' way.

"Going out to the cinema might be nice, but if you don't fix what's really wrong then the damage can become irrevocable," says Keating.

If a couple is in a bad place, then the first thing they need to do is recognise and address that.

"It's important to say, 'We're in a bad place, I'm being negative to you, I'm tired and snappy and hard on you and what can we do together to resolve this?'. When you argue, you're not on the same team, but when you come at it from a solutions point of view, you're working together."

Fixing something as a couple begins with looking at your own emotions.

"Anger is a secondary emotion and most people stay on the anger iceberg instead of sitting with what they are feeling and the emotions behind that anger," explains Keating. She recommends 'hitting pause' - walking away if the discussion is turning argumentative - and writing out your emotions to better understand the anger.

"It's incredibly difficult to do when you're angry, but often if you tune into your emotions without judgement, the primary emotions - maybe feeling lonely, uncared for, unlistened to, under-appreciated - will reveal themselves as the real cause of that anger. Identify your own emotions so you can bring them back to your partner and have the difficult conversations."

A phrase Keating is a strong proponent of is 'connection before correction' - rather than charging in with 'you didn't do x, y, z', try to connect, ask your partner a question and really listen to the answer.

"Discipline yourself to ask just one more question," agrees Healy. "There's an adage that we should keep our best manners for those we live with - but how many of us actually do that? Allow the other person to talk because it's when we feel listened to that we come closer together." Prioritise a time to talk, avoid 'you never' accusations and try to lead with 'I feel'.

"It's hard, but remind yourself you'll get further in the conversation if you take some responsibility," adds Healy.

"All anyone wants is acknowledgement and to feel safe," adds Sally O'Reilly, counselling psychologist and psychotherapist. "Avoid fake apologies like, 'I'm sorry if I/ if you/ if it...' or 'I'm sorry but...' - they are not apologies, they are dismissals and imply the apology receiver is a little delusional."

She also points out that Christmas can pose an opportunity to open old wounds and it's important to know how those might be affecting how you view your relationship.

"Fresh from Christmas, you might be more easily triggered, especially if there's a dysfunction in your family of origin," explains O'Reilly. "We might interpret things with our old, hurt lens on, be more suspicious and more inclined to find signs of betrayal or disappointment."

In a bid to step away from that negative thinking, O'Reilly has certain questions she feels couples would do well to ask themselves if they want to hit the reset, rather than eject, button on their relationship. Some direct thinking towards the positive: what happened last year that helped you see a lovely new aspect of your partner; when was the last time you laughed together; and what do you need to do to make that happen more?

Others focus attention on what deserves prioritisation: what takes your attention when you wake up - Facebook or your partner's face; what do you attend to when you arrive home - your pet or your partner?

While other questions seek to address issues: when did you last check with each other what you'd like to do differently - food, activity, sex-wise; what do you want from your partner this year; and what are you willing to give?

Rather than out with the old, psychologist Owen Connolly of counsellor.ie believes the new year can present a positive opportunity for couples to embrace their shared history.

"'Reset' is the word," he says. "I would encourage couples to go back to what brought their hearts together. Talk about what it was like in the beginning, book a table for a date and do the little things you would have done at the start when you were trying to impress each other."

Above all, it's kindness and communication with your partner that is vital to improving any relationship. "Don't gripe or complain about your partner to your parents and friends," urges love and relationship coach, Dr Ellen Anne Schultz. "That's not to say you can't confide in those close to you if you are in crisis, but don't make it a casual habit. It has a really negative energy effect on everyone.

"Treat your marriage and partner as a precious entity to be protected, sort things out face to face and don't hesitate in seeking out a therapist or coach if you need extra help."

"Having a healthy relationship is a health matter," agrees Keating. "If you broke your arm, you would go to a doctor. Couples therapy can be hugely beneficial, but both parties have to want to be there for it to work - just like any relationship."

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