Couples counselling: Am I married, or am I a prisoner?

Am I married, or am I a prisoner? An edgy question for an online article I’m sure. Believe me when I tell you however that in my couples counselling practice in Bishops Stortford. this is a question that I hear posed by one member of a marriage on a near daily basis. I regularly meet couples where one party has strong emotional needs they demand the other fulfil – and fulfil them constantly. Sometimes these needs are simple and reasonable –  ”Please ensure you give me a cuddle when I am sad and weepy” is one such example of a reasonable request. On the other end of the scale are demands like: “You are responsible for ensuring that I NEVER feel sad or weepy. In fact, if I ever DO feel sad or weepy about any element of life, then it is your fault and I won’t speak with you for a week or until you’ve apologised enough to satisfy me that you are truly sorry!”. You may think I’ve gone a bit over the top with that second example, but trust me, I haven’t.

What we are looking at here is, in reality, a clearly identifiable and describable dilemma. Essentially, it can be seen in the following questions:

  • What level of responsibility do each of us carry for the emotional needs of our partners?
  • How can I tell if a behavioural request/demand from my partner is reasonable, or if he/she is asking way too much of me?
  • How do I set boundaries such that when too much is being asked of me, I can say “No” in a way that doesn’t require me to lose my cool, my dignity and my credibility?

These are incredibly difficult questions to answer in a short article such as this, but believe me when I say that they are answerable. There is no question that we each do carry a certain degree of responsibility for the emotional needs of our partners.  However, this changes over time and from situation to situation. Of course there are times when we absolutely should be putting ourselves aside in order to comfort and console those we love. A bereavement or other similar life event is a typical experience we might go as far as taking a day or two off work for in order to be there for our partner.  Even here however, there are limits as to how much we can do, and where we need to begin encouraging our partners to begin supporting themselves. There is no specific formula to know when that limit has been reached, but in couples counselling it is absolutely possible to find those boundaries and set them in place in a way that is right for each, individual couple.

As to behavioural requests, this too is definable to a degree, but is also very specific from couple to couple and situation to situation. Some requests: “Please don’t leave your pants on the floor, but put them in the laundry basket” as an example, are perfectly reasonable. Such requests are made from the point of view of “Come on mannn, we’re supposed to be a team here, please do you fair share to be a teammate”. On the other edge of that spectrum are requests that effectively mean: “Please don’t do that for no other reason than I don’t like it” variety. These requests are trickier because it really comes down to the question: Why don’t you like it?

If the answer is: “I don’t like it because it triggers off a deep emotional response in me that causes me pain”, then that may be a good enough reason to ask that you not do it, and quite possibly you should comply. If however, it becomes clear that it is impossible to clarify the reason for such a request beyond: “Just because I don’t like it”, this maybe harder to defend. Again, in couples counselling I would work with a couple and talk through these various behavioural requests one by one to help them identify which ones are genuine and reasonable, and which are more matter of one party wanting to be in control of the other.

The final question in my list of three above speaks to the point of how and when to say “No” to your partner. I completely understand that this can be difficult, and that some people really struggle hearing the word (whilst even more really struggle saying it). In my Bishops Stortford couples counselling practice I regularly help couples find the way to either say the word “No”, or to be able to hear it. “No” doesn’t mean “I don’t love you and I don’t care about you”. Quite often it means “I do love you, but I can no longer keep doing (or not doing) the thing you’re asking of me”. Working through these scenarios with a qualified therapist is usually easier than people think, and leaves people with a much more balanced relationship than they thought possible.

If you find yourself wondering if you’re married, or are a prisoner then couples counselling can most likely help you. If you live in the general Bishops Stortford area and feel that couples counselling might help, please contact me on 01279 834467 for a fully confidential, no obligation discussion of your needs before setting up any kind of appointment.