As a couples therapist I work with couples of all ages, from different countries of origin and levels of wealth. The difficulties they are experiencing are also hugely varied, from a loss of connection as a couple, to high levels of conflict and everything in between.

I have however started to notice one thing couples despite their differences, often lack, and that’s a support network. Many if not most of my clients don’t have a local extended family they can call on for support. Support is increasingly needed these days as many couples both work full time, and juggling this and childcare is a real challenge. As families have become busier, extended families have also become more dispersed, as people have travelled and settled away from their families of origin, whether that’s within the UK or from elsewhere. 

As the age at which parents have children has increased, even if grandparents are nearby, they are often less able to help.  Or, they are healthy, active and relatively wealthy, and are busy enjoying their retirement.

It can be particularly difficult I think for couples where one is from the UK, the other from another country. The migrant partner can often not only feel isolated from family, but also that they have started to lose their cultural roots and can sometimes feel not fully understood here.

It’s hard, too, when there is family nearby, but relationships are strained and help isn’t forthcoming.

Lack of family support tends to mean it’s the couple (as distinct from the parent) relationship that gets put low down the priority list. The focus becomes work and parenting, to the exclusion of an intimate couple connection, including the sexual relationship.  This can lead to a cold distance, or conversely a cycle of bickering or arguments, often ostensibly about other points of contention. But underneath, it’s the resentment around loss of loving attention that are the real issue.

For families who lack a support network, the children are often not used to having others look after them.  They can then gradually become very attached to one or both parents, instilling anxiety in all on occasions that they are left with others.  The children’s needs then become part of the cycle.

Couples can however successfully start to slowly build a network of support, once they recognise the cycle they are in. Yes, children may protest at first if they are used to mummy or daddy but then a babysitter turns up. But it will get easier – they might still not choose it, but it’s healthy for children to become aware that their parents have other priorities at times.

School parent networks can be an ideal way to find support, and to give and receive at different times.  It depends of course on how dispersed the children are in the school, but play dates and sleepovers amount to free childcare that children actually want to have. While the COVID era put an end to that, only now are parental networks coming back to full strength.

Finally, some parents can be reluctant to ask for support, fearing their demands will be unwelcome. It’s often hard to imagine the goodwill and generosity that might actually be out there, if only people are asked.