How what annoys us in our partner can teach us what we need


 One of the common themes in couple therapy is each partner complaining about behaviour in the other that they find really hard to deal with. ‘If only my partner would change that behaviour, then everything would be ok,’ they say to themselves.

A common example in heterosexual couples is the ‘rational’ man who finds his partner’s emotionality irritating, while she complains that he is too logical and unfeeling. Or there is the partner who is fiery and sometimes quick to anger, while the other is extremely laid back and avoids conflict.

Another instance is where one partner is very responsible, in areas such as household finances,  while the other is much more spontaneous and loves splashing out on purchases.

Opposites attract

arguing couple.thbThe interesting thing about these kind of ‘opposites attract’ couples is that, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that often they found their partner’s differences endearing in the early stages of their relationship. So, the over-rational man was charmed and excited by his girlfriend’s high emotions, while she felt somehow secure with someone who seemed so stable.

But this initial appreciation of differences can begin to fade when the honeymoon period is over, which is usually from six months to two years into the relationship. A major life event, such as the birth of a first child, can also bring to an end this phase. At the end of the honeymoon period these opposite qualities in the other person start to seem less attractive. In fact, they can become downright annoying.

‘I loved her fieriness at the beginning, it was exciting. But now it feels more like she’s always nagging,’ he complains. She replies: ‘His laid-back nature was very reassuring when we started going out, but now it feels like he’s so determined to avoid an argument that we never resolve problems.’

Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone describe this process in their book Embracing Each Other, arguing that we are all made up of many different parts or selves. Some of these parts we feel comfortable with and others we unconsciously ‘disown’ because they were not welcomed by our family or environment growing up.

When we are in an intimate relationship all these different parts, or sub personalities, are present, they say: ‘It is not just two people who sit down for a nice, friendly, sensible chat. We each have within us numerous selves or sub personalities, each vying for attention, trying to get its needs met.’

Viewing the problem as potentially healing

A couples therapist who works in a soulful way will view the kinds of relational conflicts couples bring as not necessarily negative but as potentially playing a positive role in helping each individual to grow and mature.

This is because, although the process of falling in love is mysterious, we are often attracted to people who have a quality that we have disowned or repressed in ourselves.

So, for example, a child may grow up in a family where showing anger is taboo or the opposite,  where one of the parents is excessively angry. The child may then, unconsciously, repress his anger because it feels wrong or scary. But it is not just his anger but also his fieriness or willingness to risk confrontation by sticking up for himself that is also repressed. As an adult he may find himself attracted to fiery women because they carry that part of him that he has disowned and, at some level, misses in himself.

The therapist can help each partner to move away from such strong judgments of their partner, and instead help the individual to get in touch with their own disowned qualities. In this way, each partner can take responsibility for their own psychological growth and therefore not expect their partner to ‘carry’ all the anger or all the vulnerability or whatever the quality is that is being disowned.




Why no therapist can take you further than they themselves have travelled

One of the most important criteria when choosing a therapist is finding one who has travelled their own path and faced, if not completely worked through, their own difficult issues.

They don’t need to have everything perfectly resolved, even if that were possible. But they do need to have done the hard work of looking at themselves in their own therapy.

Good therapy will have helped them become more aware of aspects of their own Shadow. The Shadow is like our blind spot and is the parts of ourselves that we have unconsciously rejected. It may include vulnerability, anger and sexuality. It is not uncommon for us to see these rejected parts of ourselves in others, and to judge them.

The danger of seeing a therapist who has not done their own work to a deep enough level is that certain areas of the client’s life may subtly become “off limits”, at an unconscious level, in the therapy room.

Danaan Parry in his book Warriors of the Heart tells the story of his therapist who was puzzled about the fact that clients brought all kinds of issues but no one ever came to see him about sexual problems.

He asked for feedback from his clients and one told him she felt very comfortable with him, he was a good listener, made good eye contact and gently encouraged her to go deeper. But she told him:  “However, John, whenever I bring anything up that has to do with my sexuality – all the blood drains out of your face!

“It’s fascinating because nothing else changes. You still maintain eye contact, you’re still a good listener, your body language stays open, but your face turns absolutely stark white…and I get the clear message from you that it is not okay for me to talk about my sexuality.”

This feedback enabled the therapist to explore more deeply his own issues around sex and he realised that an incident when he was shamed by his mother as a child over a sexual incident had made that area of his life very uncomfortable. But he had not realised how he was communicating that discomfort to clients.

This story shows the importance of therapists having done their own work in therapy but also continuing to be curious about where their blind spots might be because it is never possible to become completely free of them. This ongoing work can be done by the therapist in their own therapy or in clinical supervision.

I was reminded of the importance of this area recently when reading a book by child expert Margot Sunderland about using stories to work therapeutically with troubled children. She says it can be tempting for some adults to make the story have a happy ending, even though the child has left the ending unresolved.

“For example, the listening adult may say, ‘No, don’t leave the little peanut in the gutter – let’s find it a nice home to go to.’ This is an example of the adult’s need to make everything all right, when maybe by leaving the peanut in the gutter the child is trying to communicate his feelings of hopelessness.

“This is a common problem when the…listener (usually out of conscious awareness) is running away from her own hopelessness, despair, grief and so on.”

So, seeing a therapist who has not done enough of their own psychological work can make the therapy less rich and less effective.

Instead of unconsciously giving permission for the client to bring whatever they need to, the therapist can turn into an advice dispenser or a rescuer who needs the client to behave a certain way.

Further reading

Warriors of the Heart, by Danaan Parry

Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children


What are men unconsciously seeking in internet porn?



“The soul often manifests itself in the sexual areas of life.”

Thomas Moore

Internet porn is an increasing issue among the male, heterosexual clients I see, and one that can cause a lot of shame as well as impacting on intimate relationships.

Some couples and individuals may have a comfortable relationship with porn and it may be something they enjoy making a part of their sex lives. But for many men it can become something secretive and taboo, which they turn to not simply because of the pleasure it offers but also as a way of escaping difficult feelings.

The easy and free accessibility of internet porn (and the range of sexual activity one can view) means that it can quickly become an instant hit for men who are not feeling good about themselves.

When the need for that ‘hit’, for that escape, becomes a regular way of handling difficult feelings internet porn use can become a problem both for the individual and his partner if he is in a relationship.

For me the interesting part is not just what a man may be escaping by using internet porn, but what he may, unconsciously, be seeking.

To explore this one must ask the individual what he is drawn to in the experience, how he actually feels in the midst of it. Male clients tell me they feel excitement and passion when they are lost in internet porn, that they enjoy the secretive and rule-breaking atmosphere.

Some also feel they are giving themselves a treat or reward and even that they feel somehow nurtured by or attended to by the women they watch engaging in sex.

For some men there is also a pleasure in seeing women treated in a dominating, or even humiliating, way sexually and this may be tapping into unresolved angry feelings towards women that go back to childhood.

Part of the work with these clients is about exploring with them what the porn gives them and whether that is a sign that there is something missing from the rest of their lives and relationships. If they feel excitement and passion using porn, is there a boredom or flatness in the rest of their life or relationships? If so, how can they bring some excitement into other areas of their life?

I would be interested in what might be holding the man back from bringing these energies into his life. Did he grow up with the message that it was somehow not ok for him to express excitement or passion, for example?

If the man feels somehow looked after or attended to by the women in porn videos, does this mean he feels that is lacking in his other relationships with women? Can he ask for these needs to be met in other relationships and can he begin to look after or attend to himself in healthier ways?

For the man who is aroused by women being dominated or treated in a humiliating way I would be interested in how he felt his childhood excitement, anger and sexuality were treated by women. Did he feel those parts were not acceptable and did he feel humiliated by his mother or other females when he showed those energies and emotions?

What I’m aware when I hear the stories of men who have problematic relationships with porn is how the activity, as well as an escape is also a movement towards something.  This ‘something’ is often about feeling alive, connected to one’s excitement, feeling connected to and accepted by a woman.

Even the man who is drawn to porn that demeans women is, in a distorted way, trying to establish a connection with the feminine. If those feelings of anger and powerlessness, with regard to women, can be made more conscious they can then be worked with.

As psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore says, in his book The Soul of Sex, many of the people who came to see him had sexual concerns, “which eventually were revealed as containers of the central mysteries of the person’s life.”