Perhaps the most common problem presenting to psychologists are relationship issues, with conflict being among the most disturbing. We enter relationships with good intentions and usually for the best reasons – attraction and love. Yet conflict is inevitable in any long standing relationship. At worst conflict can result in serious violence with tragic outcomes, and at best conflict makes us wonder how something starting so well results in stalemate.
Conflict arises as a result of many complex issues. Competing interests, limited resources and outright power struggles find relational partners at loggerheads. Sex and gender differences in how relationships might ideally function come high on the list of issues to be addressed. Similarly partners differing family of origin (foo) upbringing, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and cultural/ethnic differences also play a significant role in generating conflict.
These may be played out in disagreements over money, child rearing practices, sexual expression, and household chores among other things. An exploration of each partner’s history, especially their relational history is usually in order to assist understanding of the factors exacerbating the problem. Similarly, an exploration of each person’s core beliefs, unexamined assumptions, values and biases helps to facilitate finding common ground on which to base a counselling intervention.
Unfortunately, the commonest source of information about relationship functioning is from the mass media. Given editorial space limitations and entertainment (rather than educational) value, mass media commentary on relationships tends to be grossly oversimplified at best and simply wrong at worst. CPCCPC therapists are focused on addressing the real life complexities of relationships informed by robust and recent scientific research and clinical experience.
The currently high rates of separation and divorce can be attributed to serious conflict over sometimes unresolvable issues, yet many separations/divorces need not have occurred with earlier, thorough interventions even for serious issues such as affairs or violence. Although some clients come to therapy with a pre-determined decision to stay or leave a relationship, therapeutic focus at CPCCPC is on growth and education of the partners rather than premature decisions to stay or leave. Understanding the relationship dynamics is important either way, with the final decision resting with the client/s.
Unaddressed relational issues commonly find a way of disturbing others. We all know the often unspoken rules – not to bring home life to work, and vice versa – yet relational issues habitually cause distress to others close to the people in conflict. Unresolved these issues spill over into other family relationships, friendships and workplaces. Conflict between parents (or step-parents or ex-partners) creates ongoing problems for extended family and especially for children and adolescents.
Relationship concerns are often best examined from the point of view of both partners, yet often one partner is unwilling to attend therapy. We notice that couples are more likely to resolve issues and conflict when both are engaged in the process. Conversely, even when couples decide to separate, relationship counselling therapy can benefit each partner in their next relationship. Needless to say, their relationship functioning will affect children, and this needs to be taken into account whether the couple stays together or separates.
If you have relationship concerns, and wish to grow the relationship, it might be ideal to invite your partner to participate in therapy with you – note this is an invitation, not coercion. If your partner declines to participate, there is still much you can learn, with them or without them. Keep in mind that it only takes one partner to leave, to terminate the relationship, but it usually takes 2 to make it work and thrive. At CPCCPC we believe it remains the decision of the relationship partners to decide whether to reconcile or terminate: our function is to grow the people involved.
We might also caution about unsolicited advice from non-professional others. It is common for other to give advice about relationships, but it is a serious problem when their advice originates from entertainment media, especially when complex problems are given simplistic advice by poorly qualified columnists. This problem is made worse when the person giving advice has strong beliefs about relationships based on their own personal problems. In our work we spend considerable time debunking unproven beliefs about relationships, and trying to bring an objective (fact based) view of the problem. People’s relationship difficulties are far too important for their future happiness to accept unqualified advice, or unproven beliefs or ideology, as a source of wisdom.
For relationships that fail and separation ensues, the costs can be enormous, both emotionally and financially. Although we do not make the decision to stay together or leave, it is abundantly clear that relationships terminated lightly can cause great heartache and huge expense (including legally) with long term consequences for the partners, and for children. We think it advisable that ALL possible options be explored in depth before decisions are finalized.
We would encourage you to call and discuss some of these concerns before beginning the process of exploring relationship outcomes – even if you have already made up you mind – and this is especially true if children are involved, or if legal proceedings will include disputes over joint estates. Arguments over children, money, and estates can be some of the ugliest, and most costly, mistakes people make when emotionally distressed. We would strongly advise seeking professional psychological assistance in such matters at the earliest stage of your thinking. We don not suggest this as a way of judging your eventual decision, but to improve the chances of a civil outcome if separating – and of a viable thriving relationship if you decide to stay together. Premature decisions based on strong emotions and conflict are usually costly ones.
B.Nursing, B.A. (Psych),
B.Soc.Sc (Psych Hons), MAPS
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools...