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Nathalie McClure

Relationship Counselling for Couples and Individuals

Shiplake (Henley-On-Thames) RG9, Oxfordshire

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Affairs and how relationship therapists work with them

Posted on February 4, 2014 at 7:17 AM Comments comments (72)
As part of the BACP requirements for Continuous Professional Development, I recently attended a training course on Affairs and their impact on the couple relationship. It was a fascinating course with therapists from different cultures, training and moral values. Affairs are always a controversial subject, often touching both therapists and clients deeply and on a personal level. 25% of couples coming for relationship counselling present an extramarital affair as their reason for seeking counselling. A further 30% of couples disclose the existence of affairs in the course of therapy. These numbers only reflect the prevalence of affairs for couples seeking counselling but there are obviously many more couples not seeking counselling who have been, are or will be impacted by them.   

So how do therapists work with couples impacted by the disclosure of infidelity, be it with a real person, virtual or through the use of pornography? First it is essential to understand that such disclosures are often experienced as cataclysmic for the unsuspecting partner. Some authors e.g. Glass (2002), liken the symptoms experienced by the ‘betrayed’ partner to the ones experienced by people affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This emphasises the intensity of the trauma experienced within the couple and how critical it is to dedicate a considerable amount of time to acknowledge and work through these symptoms. 
Others like Monika Sheinkman (2005) concur that working with trauma is an essential part of the work that needs to be done when dealing with affairs but disagree that it should be the only focus of therapy. She recommends that the couple and therapist should take this opportunity to develop a full picture of the reasons for the affair taking into account the contextual and cultural factors. This echoes my clinical experience when dealing with affairs. I generally find helpful to ‘normalise’ the situation and all the intense thoughts and feelings experienced by the couple and reassure them. I then do a lot of work exploring the motives and the circumstances leading up to the affair. 
Controversially, Sheinkman suggests that monogamy is often assumed to be the ideal but in fact it may not be essential in certain cultures nor for certain individuals. I guess this has been recently illustrated in the differences in the French/British press coverage of the adventures of Mr Hollande and his various partners… Sheinkman rejects the idea that affairs are ‘immoral’ and ‘abnormal’ and also brands the language of betrayal as unhelpful. Levine (2005) acknowledges that in a long-term relationship people change and what was assumed at some stage about one partner may no longer be true. His approach is fairly direct offering his ‘hunches’ to the couple regarding the motives and meanings of the affair hoping to trigger debate for the couple. Levine’s approach is similar to Sheinkman as they both recommend the need to present a balanced view of each partner’s difficulties and perspectives and not only focus on the basic ‘Victim’ and ‘Perpetrator’ concept. I believe this is the most helpful way for couples seeking to salvage their relationship but for it to be successful a pre-requisite should be for the affair partner to take full responsibility for his/her actions. 
Sheinkman also disagrees with the values of absolute transparency and truth telling as these can further increase the trauma that therapy is aiming to address. While I think there is a lot of merit in Sheinkman’s approach, my clinical experience is that the cheated on partner often is desperate for the full truth. Hours are being spent picturing every minute detail of what might have happened. Cheated on partners often believe they are still being lied to and until they ‘know’ they have been told everything, they cannot move on. Ultimately the affair needs to ‘make some kind of sense’ to the cheated on partner to allow him or her to move on. 
     
Glass, S. P., (2002). Couple Therapy after the Trauma of Infidelity In Gurman, A.S. & Jacobson, N. S Clinical handbook of couple therapy 3 ed. New York: Guildford Press.   
Levine, S. B., (2005). A clinical perspective on infidelity. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Vol 20, No. 2. 
Sheinkman, M., (2005). Beyond the trauma of betrayal: Reconsidering Affairs in Couples Therapy. Family Process 44:227-224.
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Has your relationship survived Christmas?

Posted on January 6, 2014 at 10:09 AM Comments comments (122)
You may have heard that early January is the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers. They report on average an increase of 30% in new enquiries post Christmas/New Year break compared to the rest of the year. Relate, the leading organisation providing relationship and couple counselling in the UK, also records significantly higher than average calls and demand for appointments in January than in any other month of the year. 
So why is that? People have generally high expectations for this time of year, thinking they will have a wonderful family time putting themselves and their loved ones under a lot of pressure if things don’t go according to plan. Or you may have to spend Christmas with your in-laws or other relatives you may or may not get on with, creating tensions between you and your partner. Crucially, Christmas is an idealised family time when couples are expected to spend their time together with their children (and enjoy it!). The usual avenues for escaping or hiding from a less than satisfactory relationship i.e. office, hobby, friends, etc…, may not be available during that time, making it all the more obvious that something has to change. 
In the weeks leading to Christmas, I ask my clients if they are anxious about Christmas. For the vast majority, the answer is yes. In this case, couples find it helpful to explore those anxieties, whether stemming from previous negative experiences or just worries that their still recovering relationship may struggle under the added pressure. Discussing how they can support each other and what they can do to make life easier for them during that time is key i.e. if they are hosting and relatives are staying with them, what are the house rules? When will the presents be opened? Is there a rota for cleaning up? Most importantly, remembering that they are working as a team so that they, as a couple, can have the best possible Christmas. Making sure they allocate a little bit of time just for themselves away from the chaos tend to help too… 
If you feel that, unfortunately, your relationship is not quite as good as it could or should be, then help is available. Relationship counselling is a great resource and can offer couples insights into what is happening with them and their family, leading to opportunities for change. 
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Difficult transition to parenthood? You're not alone!

Posted on December 5, 2013 at 5:44 AM Comments comments (131)
Did you know that 2 thirds of couples experience a significant drop in relationship satisfaction after the birth of their first baby? While for some couples, relationship satisfaction will eventually recover, for most couples the low will persist. It does not take a rocket scientist to identify the causes of such a drop: lack of sleep, constant demands of a new baby, being stuck at home a lot of the time, lack of freedom or spontaneity. But also, becoming a parent is a huge adjustment for both partners, not only in terms of lifestyle and what they might want to achieve in life, but crucially it sends one back to their own childhood i.e. what kind of child they were, how was the parenting they received, what do they want for their own child, what do they want to replicate and what do they want to avoid. Furthermore, research tells us that it is the changes that men make to their behaviour during that adjustment period that can significantly improve relationship satisfaction. This appears surprising at first and definitely at odds with what happens the rest of the time when trying to address relationship issues where efforts from both partners are much more balanced. So why is that? In the majority of cases, it is still the woman who is the partner staying at home to look after the baby and therefore the most impacted by his/her arrival. As she struggles through adjusting to her new life, to feelings of guilt that often come with motherhood and to find her new identity as a woman and a mother, could it be that increased understanding and support from her loving partner make all the difference? It is fascinating to observe what that one third of couples who successfully transition from childless couple to parents do differently. The overwhelming difference is that these couples work as a team. They are aware that they are in it together and must work together to get through the bad nights etc. They acknowledge each other’s contributions and support each other through thick and thin. And when, inevitably at times, tempers run short, they try to repair the situation quickly and don’t let anything fester. There are many ways any couple can learn to do this and, obviously, relationship counselling can help. If you like books, a good starting point is “And Baby makes three” by John and Julie Gottman (2007). The Gottmans are a real life couple of American relationship therapists who have developed over the years a keen interest on how couples handle the transition to parenthood. The book can be a bit cheesy at times but offers lots of tools and tips parents can use or reflect upon. 
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Modern life turning people off sex?

Posted on November 27, 2013 at 7:16 AM Comments comments (75)
Have you seen the BBC news article titled ‘Modern life turning people off sex’ yesterday http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25094142? It describes the findings of a once in a decade poll of 15,000 brits enquiring about the number of times they’re having sex per month. Significantly, it is the first time since the poll began that a reduction in the frequency people are having sex has been registered. Dr Cath Mercer from University College London was quoted as saying “…we also think modern technologies are behind the trend too. People have tablets and smartphones and they are taking them into the bedroom, using Twitter and Facebook, answering emails.” I am not surprised by these findings as they confirm what my clients have been reporting more and more during relationship counselling. Couples can easily spend the whole evening side by side on the sofa each on their smartphone or tablet hardly saying a word to each other. When people are tired at the end of the day, this is easy entertainment requiring minimum effort and certainly no ‘real’ human interaction. Not exactly a turn on, is it? Things get worse when technology gets in the bedroom, as people tend to fall asleep on their phone/tablet instead of turning to each other for a cuddle. So if you’re in bed reading this, maybe something to think about?
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