Expert tips: A psychotherapist on how to look after your relationships

Lockdown has tested relationships like never before. Good communication is crucial

If your partner’s behaviour is creating anxiety for you, you need to talk to them about it. Photograph: iStock

If your partner’s behaviour is creating anxiety for you, you need to talk to them about it. Photograph: iStock

 

In the past few months, relationships have been tested like never before – particularly between people sharing the same house during the covid-19 lockdown. Alice Kelly, a systemic psychotherapist, is clinical manager at the Clanwilliam Institute for Family and Relationship Psychotherapy in Dublin. Here, she shares some advice.

1. Talk to each other!

Communication, or lack of it, is one of the main issues in relationships. Good communication is a core need of every healthy relationship. If your partner’s behaviour is creating anxiety for you, you need to talk to them about it. Think about what exactly it is that bothers you – it may actually be related to historical experiences in your life with different partners or family members. Express your concerns as the only way to get past them is to work through them, together.

2. You’re not a mind reader!

One of the biggest traps people can fall into is assuming they know what their partner is thinking or feeling. They may have no idea how their behaviour is impacting on you. Conversations about how you’ve been feeling can be difficult to start. However, opening up communication and intimacy with your partner, can ultimately protect the bond that brought you together in the first place.

3. Social media and relationships

People can become overly consumed with posting the right couples photo, or with how many posts their partner shares about their love for them. This can create relationship anxiety. Some people prefer keeping that side of their lives private, so try not to equate the lack of your presence on your partner’s page to their lack of love for you. Stopping obsessing about whether or not your partner posts about you online, removes so much pressure, and brings you back to being present in your relationship in real life.

While many happy and heathy relationships are portrayed on social media, we only witness the seemingly perfect snapshots of people’s lives, and not the reality of the day to day humdrum. Your relationship is about you and your partner, and the number of “likes” you get online should not impact on your sense of security within your relationship. If it does, then you need to take a step back and see what else might be feeding that lack of security or trust.

4. When relationships end

There is no magic pill that will make everything better after a break-up. Being honest with yourself and others about your feelings is important. Let yourself cry and be upset. Expect to be hit with waves of emotion out of the blue. The difference between the grief for a lost relationship and grief for the death of a loved one, is that with death you know the person is not coming back. The ending of a relationship can still offer some hope for reconciliation. This hope can often prolong the grieving process.

Do nice things for yourself. Don’t make major life decisions in the immediate aftermath of a break-up. And always remember this too shall pass. Your heart and head will heal with time, and enthusiasm for a new future will slowly return. Embrace it!

5. Blended families

The early years of a blended family can be challenging. Stress in a new family situation is normal, and it can take time for everyone to adjust. Challenges can start even before living in the same space. It’s important to keep talking. Parents need to communicate constantly with their children, especially about any major changes.

New relationships between child and step-parent, and new sibling/step-sibling, require time and space. Family roles may be impacted, causing distress. Children need to feel some sense of stability and routine. Prioritise them. Acknowledge the challenges and ask for their input. Acknowledge that they may be experiencing “grief” for their old family dynamic (if after a divorce or separation), or grief following the death of a parent. Be patient.

Family therapy can be very effective for blended families to help members communicate with each other, and prevent resentment from building up.

6. Anxiety – our inner critic

Being anxious in one part of your life can seep into other elements of your life, so learning to manage anxiety will have a positive impact across the board. Speaking to a professional can help unpack the foundations for your anxiety and build up tools and techniques. The toolkit is different for everyone, but may include exercise, meditation, mindfulness, alone time, breathing exercises, therapy, and even medication.

All of us experience anxiety at some level, and at certain times in our lives it can increase and become difficult to manage. The critical inner voice we have about ourselves, and our relationships, may be fed by childhood experiences within our family, or in early social interactions. A constant critical voice in your head can slowly chip away at your self-esteem and self-belief. Talking about it brings the inner voice into the outside world, and into a space where you can challenge that critic, and reclaim ownership over your own thoughts.

Remember to breathe! When we get anxious our breathing quickens and breath shortens, reducing the oxygen reaching the brain, and making our thinking “fuzzy”. When people are stressed or anxious, they often describe not being able to “think clearly”. Anxiety is often fuelled by irrational thinking patterns, so slow, deep breaths can help calm you down and bring clarity of thought.

7. Grief

When someone we love passes away “normal” life goes on, but with this massive gaping hole where that person used to be, and where your lives intertwined. We have to learn to adapt to a new way of living without that person.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Self-care and self-compassion are so important. If you feel upset, let yourself cry. If you feel angry, let yourself vent. Going for a walk, or doing something requiring a lot of physical energy like a boxing class, can serve as an outlet for pent-up tension and emotions.

Be a bit selfish. Don’t say yes to things you don’t feel able for; take a step back from work if you need to. Spend time with people with whom you can be sad and upset without question. Tell stories about the person you lost; laugh about the things that drove you mad about them. Don’t feel guilty about having fun or a laugh with your friends. It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped missing the person you lost. It’s okay to feel happy about other things.