What a therapist wants all couples to know right now

Ella Dove
·9-min read
Photo credit: We Are - Getty Images
Photo credit: We Are - Getty Images

From Red Online

How has your relationship fared during lockdown? Psychotherapist Susie Orbach shares her relationship advice on how to reconnect with your partner...

Susie Orbach is the sort of person with whom you want to share everything.

She is both warm and abrupt, laughs easily, and has a way of listening to and dissecting my questions, that I find both appealing and unnerving in equal measure. Within five minutes of our discussion about relationships, I find myself explaining how the pandemic has forced me and my boyfriend of two years apart for months at a time, due to us not living together, and how some friends, stuck in close proximity with their partners, say they think we’re lucky.

‘I would say you are,’ she tells me. ‘I think it’s a very hard call when couples who have both had lives of activity suddenly have that activity compressed into a small space, even if they do live in a nice big home. In your case, seeing each other again after months of separation means both parties are going to feel apprehensive, but they’re going to cover that up, so it’s important to openly acknowledge and understand that. With time and distance, hopes can run high, so it’s about asking how can we look after one another rather than disappoint one another?’

The pandemic certainly forced many of us either closer to or further apart from our romantic partners than ever before. As one of Britain’s most renowned psychotherapists, famously having worked with Princess Diana and with more than 40 years of experience, Orbach is a font of wisdom when it comes to all things self, love and relationships. And yet the effects of Covid-19 on our perception of intimacy, she tells me, are yet to be seen.

‘It’s an interesting question, but to judge anything at this stage is unnecessary and foolish, we just don’t really know what the long-term impact will be.

‘It might be lovely to be with someone 24/7 on holiday and, of course, some people
have relished the chance to spend more time together, but others need separation,’ Orbach advises. ‘They need to see that their partner is a person who is out in the world. They feel like they have no privacy, and that takes away from sexuality and romance. I think it’s quite hard to feel sexually excited and interested when the whole world has closed down.’

So where do we go from here? If our relationships have been tested recently more than ever before, what lessons can we learn and how we can ensure that they remain strong
in the future? No bond is unbreakable, of course. ‘It depends on a lot of different things,’ Orbach says. ‘But there are techniques you can use to help bring you closer and make you more resilient as a couple.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: FOREGROUND YOUR RELATIONSHIP

‘We choose love. We choose to find it, and we must choose to keep it. It’s quite profound to think that you fall for somebody, you’re very attracted to them and you get entwined, but after that you have to choose to be present and choose to nurture the relationship. Once you have the partner, they can too easily become background. So you have to foreground your relationship somehow, perhaps by making special time together; whether that’s going for a walk or preparing a meal as a unit, or simply remembering to enjoy each other.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: SEPARATION REINFORCES TOGETHERNESS

‘While foregrounding is crucial, I also believe that the more ‘separateness’ you have,
the better you are together. I don’t mean so separate that you don’t have anything to bring to the relationship, but the monotony of each day feeling the same can be easily relieved by one person going out, having their own experience, and then bringing that back to the other to share. People often cleave together, thinking that this will give more intimacy. In fact, it gives less. You become closer by being more separate and more open. By trusting the person is there for you so that you can go out and do something on your own creates a cradle of emotional connection.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: ENLIVEN YOURSELF WITH THEIR OPINIONS

‘What was it that first drew you to the other person? It was likely, in part, their approach to things, the way they saw the world and their interesting points of view.Being in a couple does not mean being melded together, and when that happens too often, as it has for a lot of people being with each other 24/7 during the pandemic, you can begin to forget that the other person has their own opinions. We are always excited to see our friends, and we take on board their opinions almost automatically, whereas often, that is what collapses in a couple.

‘So instead of taking your partner for granted or getting contemptuous, try really listening to them, like you would have done at the beginning of the relationship. Don’t assume you know their point of view – ask for it. Enliven yourself with their opinions. Ask yourself, how can I be engaging with them? It’s a shame that we have to say it consciously in this way, but it’s definitely worth reminding ourselves that people shift and change, and that you are together because you are interested in and excited by who the other person is. If we don’t refresh that inner connection by telling the other one how we feel and listening to them in return, we don’t let them develop and are therefore not nourishing the relationship.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE VULNERABLE

‘I think vulnerability is the whole reason we go into relationships. We want to connect with somebody, we want who we are to be seen, we want to recognise the other person,
to be treasured and to treasure somebody in return. You can’t do that if you’re just playing a role, not showing the full range of who you are.

‘Vulnerability is one of those things that doesn’t always work out the way people want it to – and it’s definitely not the case that women show it more than men. In fact, I think that both genders can be very reluctant to show vulnerability, and yet, it is the thing that draws us in. When you’re looking into somebody’s eyes, what are you looking at? What are you seeing there? You’re seeing the longing to be met, the longing to be seen, the longing to be understood. And that longing doesn’t go away, just because you think, “Okay, I have this relationship in the bag.” It needs to be brought out again, because you need a risk factor in the relationship. That risk factor is saying, “I’m going to show you who I am” – and it’s crucial for a successful partnership.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: WE REJECT LOVE WITHOUT REALISING IT

‘We can very easily over-romanticise our relationships. Ask yourself: are you sure you’re not rejecting the love your partner is giving you because you want it delivered in a certain –or different – kind of way? For example, there might be a woman whose husband washes the car without being asked to, but she doesn’t realise until a few days later because he doesn’t go on about it – and yet she feels disappointed, wanting him to offer hearts and flowers. Fixing the car might be his version of hearts and flowers, but she hasn’t seen that. We can be so tied up in expectation that we don’t recognise acts of love being shown to us, and therefore reject them all too easily.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: LOOK INWARDS WHEN YOU DISAGREE

‘It’s hard to provide a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to managing disagreements between a couple, because, of course, it depends what the argument is over. Tell yourself that the other person simply doesn’t think the same way as you. Then, after that, ask yourself a series of questions: How do I manage their opposing view? Am I disappointed?Can I accept it? Is this a deal breaker? Can I recognise this as being something about them and not about me, or do I feel it reflects badly on me?

‘There are so many differences in couples – one may be the talker, while one may be much quieter and more reticent. However, often with clients, I have found that the talker is not really talking; they’re just babbling, because they also feel uncomfortable and this is their way of covering it up. I’ve worked with several people where there’s just not enough breathing space for the other to have a chance for reflection. It’s about recognising your own longing to be heard, but if you’re the talker, also trying not to take up so much space in the conversation. Each person should invite a response from the other and have the opportunity to speak for themselves without it being a demand on their partner.’

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE: KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO WALK AWAY

‘One sign that a relationship has perhaps run its course is when you can predict the response of the other and you’re not interested in it, or you have contempt for it. Equally, when you think that the person is neglectful and you’ve checked that you’re not the one pushing them away. Sometimes, people are just not compatible, because their interests or sensibilities are too divergent. It happens. It could be two years, five years or 10 years, but realising and understanding that you may have grown apart is perfectly legitimate. You don’t have to be chained to something just because it was once wonderful. Far better to keep that time and those memories inside you as something to cherish but look to
a future with somebody else.’

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