Is your relationship headed for the rocks? According to this couples' counsellor, hiding feelings of hurt and resentment, withdrawing from emotional and physical intimacy and neglecting to maintain a connection are tell-tale signs.
“So, what brought you in today?” I asked Karen and David*, a couple in their mid-thirties.
“I can’t believe I actually came,” David said. “I’ve been absolutely dreading this.”
Karen grabbed a tissue and dabbed away her tears. “The truth is, I’ve been trying to get him to come for about five years.”
Many couples put off counselling until separation or divorce looks almost inevitable, and I wish they didn’t. As David admitted later in our session, “I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had come when Karen first asked me to?”
Frankly, I never imagined myself counselling couples. Wouldn't that mean just listening to people yell at each other? While this certainly does happen on occasion, I’ve found that more often than not, it’s about allowing two people to have a second chance — to say hello to each other again rather than goodbye. As someone who’s helped many couples rediscover their love for one another, I’m here to share the secrets to a healthy relationship that I’ve learned along the way.
1. Find the emotional reason behind your anger.
“I’m still mad about that,” Karen told David in session. “You were always going out for drinks with your co-workers while I was at home changing diapers.”
“Why did that anger you, Karen?” I asked.
“Because I had so much to do,” she said. “I could have used the help.”
“Why else?” I asked.
“Doesn’t he want to spend time with his family? Doesn’t he like hanging out with me?”
Karen wasn’t angry at all—she was hurt. She was hurt because he was avoiding going home so they wouldn’t argue, which had become part of their nightly routine.
I never buy into anger when I see it in session—I usually see it as an emotion that’s masking a deeper, underlying feeling someone is afraid of expressing. Anger is considered a “secondary emotion” in the world of psychology, meaning it's an emotion that's just a reaction to other feelings. Conversely, primary emotions are the genuine, authentic feelings we have to situations. These typically include sadness, shame, embarrassment and hurt. Most people prevent others from seeing their primary emotions at all costs, using anger to conveniently create a sense of distance between them and their partner instead.
2. Don't underestimate the importance of intimacy — and I don't mean sex.
I'm talking about emotional intimacy and kind-hearted physical touch, like hugging, cuddling and kisses on the head or hand. I’ve heard many men express that they miss the most innocent of physical gestures. I’ll never forget when I witnessed a man turn to his wife and say, “I just want to hold your hand. I just want to sit next to you on the bleachers at our son’s soccer game and feel you beside me.” Occasionally, I’ll ask couples to hug each other—an exercise that seems somewhat cheesy and silly at first, but always becomes a long, heartfelt embraced filled with tears, “I love yous” and apologies. Sometimes, words aren’t enough; we need physical touch.
3. Remember you have a role to play.
Yes, we have an important role to play as a partner, and it becomes all too easy for people to forget. When conversations revolve around when the kids are getting picked up from school, when's dinner or who's taking who to after-school programs, we end up not asking questions that foster our connection. How was your day? How have you been feeling lately? How can I support you? These simple questions go a long way for couples who haven’t felt seen by each other in quite some time.
Whether I’m working with university students or elderly couples, heterosexual or same-sex partners, new lovers or old ones, I've found that all any of us really want in life is to feel seen and loved by the people we care about most. We all can put a little more care and thought into our relationships, and as soon as that's recognized, they have the power to become so much more fulfilling.
*Names have been changed.