“Ok! That’s it. I’ve had enough. We’ll have to get a divorce.”
Geoff and Gill came to see me because they regularly got to this angry crisis point. Then they’d step back, things would be quiet but distant for a while and then another wave of frustration, misunderstanding and disagreement would build to a crisis point again. This pattern of communication breakdown was their presenting problem. “We often argue over the meaning of a word – like ‘fine’ – it’s so ridiculous!” said Geoff. “Surely it’s not that difficult to just talk to each other?” exclaimed Gill.
Geoff, recently retired, is self-contained, doesn’t show emotion easily and feels criticised by Gill. She, also retired, speaks of a need to feel loved, heard and comforted and wants to feel valued by Geoff. “I’m always last on his list of priorities!” “I never get it right for her; I feel useless.”
We looked back at why they got together in the first place. Gill’s parents had been drinkers who gave her little attention and stability. She had fallen for Geoff because he was steady, soft, safe and secure. She trusted him to care for her. Geoff came from a quiet family; he was shy and in later business life developed a gruffness to mask this. He had admired Gill’s confidence and her strong opinions; she challenged him but she also made him feel physically attractive and special.
We did a lot of work on their communication to find the dangerous buttons each would unwittingly press in the other. Geoff had collected a huge stack of negatives about himself from their arguments and these seemed impossible to forget. Gill felt misunderstood and never allowed to explain or clarify what she meant.
Sex was still sometimes happening in the relationship. It brought them closer but Geoff always felt Gill spoilt that feeling straight away by wanting to talk. She chose that moment because she felt more secure and valued. But mainly, as is so very common, the negative interactions left Gill feeling the last thing she wanted was to make love when it felt they didn’t even seem to like each other. With improving communication patterns they also had more intimate moments and more sex. It seemed hopeful.
This couple did try very hard to build on these communication changes but kept getting stuck and in facing the lack of consistent progress, Gill voiced that she didn’t think Geoff liked her anymore. She’d had hopes for a happy, closer retirement, “He seems to avoid doing things with me!” Geoff found it hard to say that he did care, “How can I care about someone who doesn’t listen to me and questions everything I say or do?”
They had tried a separation a year or so before they came to counselling but had quickly moved back together. In talking about that very short time apart we discovered that Geoff had felt, “Sad but ok,” on his own but Gill said she had been, “Unhappy and lonely.” In this, what he heard was that she, “Saw me as better than having no one”. She heard, “ I’m fine on my own, I don’t need you.”
It’s tough when a couple don’t want to separate but neither can they seem to be together. They really wanted to like each other; Gill still wanted the closer retirement she’d imagined and Geoff said he wanted this too.
We faced this conundrum together and explored how separation would be both emotionally and practically should they take that option. As I often find, talking through the practicalities and feelings of separating causes a couple to veer away from this big step – and next session they reported a ‘better week’.
But one word or comment was all it would take. Their relationship was still causing each to be unhappy, despite changes in and reflection on their parts in the dysfunctional interactions between them.
Maybe the damage was irreparable? We again faced this ‘stuckness’ in our planned final session. It was hard for them to leave that session and I checked out what driving home that day would feel like. I don’t know what they decided to do