On (Saint) Valentine’s day, our thoughts turn to love. As a couple therapist I often work with couples to explore how they can find love again after years of being together.
It’s often helpful for couples to think of the things that attracted them in the first place. Couples talk of their similarities (in tastes, interests and activities), but also of their differences. It’s the differences that can be particularly telling, and the very things that bring couples together can be the things that years later threaten to drive them apart.
There’s quite a lot of theory behind couple therapy about what love actually is. An important school of thought is that we are drawn to others who make up for things that we ourselves think we are missing. To illustrate this, let’s take a fictitious example – Stephen and Jane. Stephen struggles with is own confidence and decisiveness, and part of the attraction to Jane was that she makes quick confident decisions. Jane however finds it harder to ‘get’ people in depth; to understand their emotions. This is what draws her to Stephen.
What’s really going on here is not just the thought that together Stephen and Jane can be a good team together, but that the partner is missing part of their jigsaw – we often hear of people talking about a partner early on as making them whole. The (unconscious) hope is that they can each learn from each other, and become more like the other. In doing so they are discovering or rediscovering lost or missing parts of themselves. Lost or missing often because of messages they heard in childhood about the sort of person they are, how their families sometimes simplistic personalities for them versus their siblings or compared to respective parents.
As time goes on, and as life gets busier, the learning from each other can stop, and partners often play to their strengths. Jane’s decisiveness means she ends up making all the decisions, leaving Stephen feeling powerless. Stephen’s emotional literacy means he’s the one who is closest to the children, leaving Jane feeling excluded. The very things that brought them together become the apparent problem.
Couple therapy can help untangle and understand these dynamics, recognise they are a shared problem, and address the joint problem rather than resort to blame.
The process takes time and investment, but this way of working at a deeper level on couple problems can create lasting change. Couples often present to me with a different problem, such as communication difficulties. But communication is the symptom, not the cause. Although in the short term we can think of some symptomatic relief, like anything in life, lasting change comes from getting to the roots of the challenge.
Finally a word on St Valentine himself. It’s contentious as to why Valentine is the patron saint of love. Some say he conducted secret marriages at a time when they were banned. Others say St Valentine’s Day started as a feast to celebrate decapitations. As well as love, marriages, and engagements, he was the patron saint of young people, greetings, travellers, bee keepers and people with epilepsy. It seems St Valentine himself was as complex as relationship problems can seem, before couples come for therapy.