Initial attraction leads to committing to pursue a relationship. Then the fun begins! There is so much to discover and explore. The mere process of getting together for dates, or not, can be challenging. This stage is often, but not always, followed by getting serious. The concept of ‘friendship with benefits’ may be followed by a more serious commitment to a relationship.
During this second phase, emotional exclusivity is explored, and loyalty is addressed. Privacy can be an important topic for discussion. What is kept within the relationship and what is kept outside of it, must be spoken about. For some couples this stage is intense and serious, for others it rolls along developing as it goes. Preferences about this rely on individual personality types and are often at odds with a partner’s ideas about how to negotiate this stage. It’s all part of getting to know each other.
After a time (it could be of any length), the couple begin envisaging a future. This must include shared visions and dreams. Honouring each other’s dream is a lovely concept which will bring respect and depth to the commitment. The quality of the friendship will determine future compatibility. Fondness and admiration are important. It could be useful to examine whether you are inclined to turn towards the other, or away, during key moments in your journey.
Managing conflict is essential to the process of commitment. Being committed to another person who cannot cope with any conflict at all can be a nightmare to negotiate and a relationship counsellor can help couples understand the issues.
Every relationship begins in a unique way. Some couples head straight in and inform their social networks that they are together immediately; others start slowly and may develop their intimacy over years. There are no right and wrong ways to do this, yet is important to remember that discovering important things about each other such as compatibility, physical connections, beliefs, habits and social styles, usually takes time.
A healthy relationship is based both on trust and respect. This includes the need to be recognised as an individual with rights and valid needs, to feel safe emotionally and physically, and to respect each other’s boundaries and preferences.
Some common myths about relationships are that they will only work if the two are the same in interests and gifts, temperament and emotional attunement, to name just a couple of dimensions. Yet most seasoned travellers along this path will tell you about the importance of difference – because it is in negotiating difference that each individual develops as a person, taking on some of the other while also maintaining a strong sense of self in the face of difference.
While this can often unfold in a relationship where two people can speak openly and listen sympathetically, we often need to learn these skills or understand when to apply them. This is when professional help such as relationship counselling can provide valuable insights and guidance.
This is fairly normal in all ‘love relationships’. Couples then often look for compatibility in their physical connections and their emotional, intellectual and spiritual similarities. While authors on relationship matters may suggest these are important, in reality couples often find themselves attracted to partnerships with people in whom some of these similarities are missing, or not as well developed as they would like.
It is normal to have struggles over these matters. But struggling and having to ‘put up’ with something are two different matters, and relationship counsellors can help you negotiate such obstacles. When you develop skills in communicating about your needs, often the differences between you and your partner begin to shrink.
Indeed, one of the first steps we need to take should be an acceptance of differences. When we accept the other person’s right to be different this then opens the door to change in understanding and the development of pathways towards a comfortable ‘fit’.
To some extent all relationships are high maintenance: how much each person is able to tolerate the level of maintenance needed/wanted by the other will depend on the capacity of the individual and what they are used to. Just because someone thinks they need something in particular does not automatically mean it must be provided. These things need to be negotiated – and they usually are, over the course of the relationship. It is one of the reasons relationships take time to develop.
Sensitivity, attunement, attentiveness are all things that can be learnt and that lead to honest and loving connections. Similarly, it is important to remember that relationships are built on trust: this is quick to lose, and hard to regain.
Healthy relationships need work to maintain connections and growth, and there are many different ways for this to take place. Counselling can help clarify expectations, overcome communication difficulties and promote understanding.
Something that might be operating for the couple around this difference in commitment can be the beliefs each person holds about what being in a relationship means. For some, being in a committed relationship could mean telling their partner everything, spending most of their time together and talking to one another on the phone several times a day. To others, being committed means spending time doing things together but not necessarily talking a lot. Or seeing each other often but still seeing other friends as well. There are not right or wrong answers but, if beliefs about what relationships should be are different, conflict can arise as well as the feeling that one person cares more than the other.
Being in a relationship might feel like the most natural thing in the world to do – or the most scary, difficult challenge to undertake. Beliefs about relationships are often influenced by role models, such as parents. Some people want a relationship just like the one their parents had – others want the opposite! Sometimes experiences in past relationships can affect what people go on to define as important in order to be happy in the next one.
People may experience a readiness for commitment at different stages in life. Work, travel or just being with friends without the responsibility to a significant other can feel more important. So what if you think you might be more willing for a commitment than your partner? Or that you feel ambivalent about the relationship that you are in and aren’t sure how to proceed?
Going to relationship counselling with your partner allows the opportunity to explore one another’s beliefs, expectations and hopes for the relationship. Your relationship counsellor is there to help you to enhance your understanding of the issues you face regarding commitment and to promote dialogue that allows you to find out whether there is enough common ground for you both to make the relationship a success.
However, many couples seek to iron out difficulties before making such a commitment; it can even be the case for couples early in their relationship for whom marriage is not on the horizon. In either situation, relationship counselling can help strengthen the foundations of a partnership and smooth the way for successful and satisfying relating. Some people describe it as a way of ‘checking in’ on the health of their relationship.
In working with these aspirations, a counsellor may often utilise some of the same insight-oriented approaches used with couples who are struggling. The big difference is that the couple are coming to counselling with positive and exciting possibilities for their future together. Counselling would usually enhance this, drawing out beliefs about relationships and historical material which may impact on each person’s capacity to relate comfortably over time. Healthy and growing couples will greatly enhance their chances of being happy together by exploring issues before they become obstacles. The new couple may benefit from learning about ways to collaborate rather than conflict, discuss rather than avoid – and allow difference rather than seeking to be the same.