Working with couples: When 1 + 1 = 3

Working with couples: When 1 + 1 = 3

3 July 2014

Linden Green – Senior Manager, Clinical Services at Interrelate – discusses ways to bring the relationship into focus when working with couples.

This is the third short article in a series of resources being released as part of our Focus on… Strong couple relationships.

Probably the most common mistake that is made when working with a couple is to consider that you are only working with 2 personalities. In reality, there are always at least 3 who have come to see you. There is partner 1 and partner 2, and then there is something a little less tangible, but no less real: the relationship itself. It is always separate to the individuals, however its life is entirely dependent on both partners. Some describe it as existing “between” the 2 individuals (the glue that holds them together), and others describe it as surrounding the couple (the environment in which they exist).

The growth of the fairy-tale myth of love – that a relationship will continue “happily ever after” – has led to a loss of understanding that “the relationship”, this third entity, must be fed and nurtured if it is to survive through the years of a long-term commitment. When a couple says, “we have just grown apart – there is nothing left,” what they may actually be saying is “we didn’t feed our relationship and it has shrivelled up and died.”

This can sound depressing. However, relationships are highly resilient things, and if a couple makes the decision to feed, nurture and put their neglected relationship through intensive physiotherapy it can ultimately regrow. But there is one key factor: it takes both people to resurrect the relationship, but it only takes one of them to let it die. It is a couple responsibility.

So, what can be done once a couple has gone through the process of uncovering and resolving the hurts and grief of their relationship, or when they have just decided that things have become a little stale and they want to put their relationship back on the right footing?

The answer is within reach of every couple: be intentionally-loving. While simple in theory, in practice this can be very difficult, as the key ingredient is sacrifice. The focus of the relationship needs to shift from “how I will be pleased, loved, nurtured, etc.” to “how am I going to please, love and nurture you.”

There are 2 simple steps to help partners become intentional in their love:

1.  Ask – The most important part is finding out what each partner experiences as love. It should be stressed that partners shouldn’t assume that the way they feel love is the same as the way their partner feels it. Many years ago a writer named Harville Hendrix in his book ‘Getting the Love You Want’ included an exercise for couples called “re-romanticizing”. This exercise required each person to write 3 lists about their partner:

  • The things you currently do that I like.
  • The things that you used to do that I wish you still did.
  • The things that I wish you would do but that I have never asked you for.

Completing these lists can be an eye-opening experience for a couple. If something has been included on one of the lists that has been the subject of an argument in the past and/or is still a source of tension with the couple, then this should be left off the lists.

2.  Do – Put these findings into practice. The key to this is that each partner has to do something from the lists every day, regardless of whether their partner has done something special recently or whether they believe their partner deserves it or not. That is, each person needs to deliberately choose to feed the third persona, the relationship. By acting in this way, each person is actively building and creating new habits and behaviours that can ultimately create dramatic change in their long-term relationship.

Read more about the services offered by Interrelate:


simple but to the point and useful tip which I am going to incorporate into my counselling
N Nevin

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Linden Green

Linden is Senior Manager, Clinical Services at Interrelate.

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