You may be surprised to hear that I hope Geoff and Gill (of a previous scenario) did separate. They were trying to move forward from within the quagmire of the ‘unhappy amorphous blob ‘ which their relationship had become and had lost their view of the other and of themselves as individuals.
One woman struggling in this way, reported her surprise at reluctantly going to a cricket club event with her husband. She watched him, suited, tall, elegant as he talked to a group of people …. and suddenly all the feelings of desire she had lost – lost under discarded socks, late trains, uncleared gutters, lack of touch, sharp words, resentment – flooded back. She needed to see him through new eyes, as if from afar.
Separation, and usually I’d hope a couple would give it a good shot of six months, can allow each to develop independently and heal from the pain of the relationship with a break from angry exchanges. It’s true, that for some, a ‘trial separation’ confirms that for both, or one of them, they want to remain apart. For others there is a path back to seeing each other through new eyes, as separate entities and gradually building a new relationship.
Couple work isn’t about helping a couple to go back to what they were before the crisis or before the years of relationship neglect – whatever brought them to counselling. It’s about building something new.
Couples facing the pain of separation, and it’s often one who wants it far more than the other, don’t want to hear that it could work out for the best. Counselling isn’t about prescribing a best solution. The couple have to explore all options and make their own decision.
Separation work involves providing a safe neutral space in which to work out the best way forward. There can be anger and bitterness but the presence of the third person, acknowledging these feelings yet still keeping the focus on moving forward, enables the couple to make progress.
If one, lets call him David, feels the choice to separate is not his, I might see the couple separately. David will undoubtedly have expressed frustration that he hasn’t been given the chance to show he can change. So, I might suggest to him that his behaviour in this separation process could be his opportunity to demonstrate that he’s heard what went wrong and is reflecting on this. Being angry, unhelpful, hurtful and selfish may just go to prove to his partner, let’s call her Debbie, that she cannot consider ‘trying’ any longer.
I also ask him how he feels about himself at the moment, “ Pretty crap!” and what he might do to help his self esteem that is positive, lasting and for him. When we scream abuse at our partner we feel good – but only for a second or two. If Debbie starts to witness changes in how he deals with their separation, and sees him as starting to build his own life – well, who knows?
Many years ago, I did work with a David and a Debbie. It turned into counselling for separation. A year or two later I did an assessment session for a new couple; he looked familiar. As they left he said, “Oh, by the way, my brother David sends his regards. He and Debbie lived apart for a year but are back together and it’s going well. He said it helped them that they separated on good terms. He wanted you to know.”
As a counsellor, it’s not often we get postscripts like this one about David and Debbie. If you read the scenario about Geoff and Gill you will see that after many weeks work I don’t know what became of their relationship.
So why on earth do I do this job? I’m with a couple during an intense period of their relationship, inside it with them in very painful, emotional and intimate areas which need calmness and secure holding by the therapist. But, I must add, it’s not all gloom! We often laugh and often share happy, maybe happy-tearful moments too. I saw a couple just last night and felt really proud of them; such a turnaround from when they first came.
Having clients share ALL with you is the unusual privilege that this work brings.