Relationship dilemma's - happily unhappy together and unhappily happy together

05 - Sep - 2018

Our latest article on relationship dilemmas has been published in the Chiswick Herald. You can read it below:-



Relationship dilemmas series - happily unhappy together and unhappily happy together

Often people come to therapy to talk about how they feel confused about their feelings in their relationships. For example, they might say they feel unhappy in their relationship but that it is not their partners fault or they may say they feel happy about their relationship although they can struggle with how their partner behaves sometimes. It seems some people will be happy in their unhappiness and some unhappy in their happiness.

One of my first questions is always “have you spoken with them about this?” 

and often the answer is “no” or, “not really”. It is so common for people to struggle to talk about things. Unfortunately it is often the case that when someone struggles to talk about something they maybe judged as not being truthful or honest and that in itself can be a real barrier.

In my experience conversations are often avoided because of how difficult the person struggling with something may find it to start the conversation. For example, they might fear being misunderstood, they might fear the hurt or anger of the other person, they might not know how to start the conversation, how to pick the right time, they might also be thinking that it is not something worth talking about or when they think about what they want to say they find themselves confused and stuck, they might feel guilty about not being happy etc etc. Ultimately they may well fear that by talking things will get worse.

This reluctance is often a really positive sign as it shows just how important the relationship is and that means change, compromise and growth are always possible. 

The relationships I worry about are where apathy and exhaustion have become the norm.

So lets look at how to have those difficult conversations. Firstly there is talking and then there is communication and that they can be very different things. If you have the same conversations over and over again then you are talking and not communicating. Communication is about understanding and being understood and when this happens things can change. 

When people get frustrated about repeating conversations they start to get upset and at this point a common mistake is often made. It is so clear to them what they are saying they locate the “problem” in the person they are trying to talk to and this leads to conflict. Instead what I recommend is that you point out what you are observing, say how you are feeling and what you are then thinking. 

Here is a hypothetical but typical situation. J and P are a couple together for eight years in their early thirties. J has been feeling increasingly unhappy lately and wants them to do more social activities together. They have come to therapy because every time J raises the subject they end up arguing.

In the session J says to P “Do you want to organise a dinner with friends?” and P grumpily replies “Not really, I am too busy with work”. Angry, J replies “you are always busy with work, you work too hard”. P now also angry replies with “well at least I was brought up to understand the value of working hard”.

I ask them to both go back through the conversation and structure what they say differently and to do this I ask them to say how they felt and what they thought and whether there was anything they would prefer the other to do or say. I ask P to now respond to J’s question.

P says “when you asked whether I wanted to organise a dinner with friends I felt stressed and I thought how can you be asking me to take something else on when you know how tired I am?”. J then replies “hearing that you felt stressed makes me sad and I feel confused because when we have dinners with friends I usually do all the organising. I am also not certain I do know just how tired you are, I have thought you look tired but this is the first time you have said”.

P says “I feel confused now because I am sure I have said I am tired but I am also thinking that I misunderstood your intention, I would have preferred for you to say “Can I organise a dinner with friends?”

J thinks for a moment and then says “so you aren’t against doing things with friends? I have been feeling lonely and missing our friends and how we are when we spend time with friends.”

P thinks for a moment and replies “I miss that too”.

They have a dinner with friends and it is a great success but more importantly this change in their communication leads to them to speak about how P feels pressurised to be successful at work as J has been talking about starting a family. They realise that they have not shared their thoughts and feelings on starting a family for a long time and this was the conversation that was actually needed.