The first time couples see a therapist, they're scared. There's fidgeting, ring-twisting; deep breaths. Sometimes the conversation starts off calmly, other times with tears. Can you save a relationship that's past its tipping point? Therapists say 'yes', but it takes both parties to make it happen. Carly Gibbs finds out about love in the time of Covid-19 and common issues affecting relationships.
Tauranga psychologist and mediator Kate Ferris could fill her schedule with couples alone.
She works with clients face-to-face, and overseas via online "tele-health or e-therapy".
"There are lots of couples in distress," she says, adding that although no one is exempt from crisis, most are at key developmental stages: getting married, having their first child, their children are leaving home, or they're entering retirement.
Connection underscores all relational issues and if it's missing, it leads to couples being stuck in misunderstandings that leave them feeling insecure, disrespected and lonely.
"Many couples will seek therapy after there's been a big rupture. They're deciding to separate or there's one, big acute conflict in their life. However, more often than not, there are dysfunctional patterns of relating that led them to that place," she says.
"We want to make sure that couples don't do a little bit of superficial, repair work and then slide back into those habits because that's when they're likely just to get stuck again."
If you aren't feeling connected, and you don't communicate well, that's when your ability to navigate challenges goes sideways, Ferris says.
"Then couples get snarky or cold with each other, as they manage their pain and stress in maladaptive ways, which triggers the other.
For those who are threatening to leave and exhibiting "protest behaviours" such as ultimatums, she can work with that.
"Because they're verbalising it, it shows to me that they're still invested in the relationship.
"I hear it all the time: 'Change isn't going to happen'. In those situations, the therapist holds the hope for the couple.
"You let that person burn off their negative energy in a safe way and you look for the softening. Once you get past all the hot emotions and defence mechanisms, we get to the core of it: 'I'm actually really lonely' or 'I feel inadequate'.
"It's when someone is just incredibly apathetic, that couples therapy would be contraindicated. I can't work with couples where one party has emotionally left."
Marriage is at an all-time low in New Zealand. The number of marriages last year dropped to the lowest level since 1960, Statistics New Zealand shows.
But divorces are also on a downward trend. Around 20 per cent of marriages in the late 1990s ended in divorce within 10 years, dropping to about 15 per cent in the late 2000s.
As more people seek help, psychotherapist Yve Gould co-runs the couples weekend workshop, Conversations for Connection, three times a year in Pāpāmoa with therapist Debbie Penlington.
Gould, who trains therapists worldwide, says society and expectations of relationships have changed.
"I look at it from an attachment angle," she says.
"If we're not in a community where your village supports you, or you don't grow up living in the place that you were born and you know everybody, then your partner becomes more important; and while romance pulls us into partnerships, romance isn't what keeps us in partnership."
If you have a broken leg would you leave it untreated? If you have a broken relationship don't leave it untreated.
What does is presence, availability, responsiveness and engagement, she says.
"If my partner can be present, my blood pressure goes down, my level of distress goes down. When our partner isn't available - is drinking, drugging, burned-out or working - we get distressed because we're bonding mammals. We were made to be in a pair.
"I think it's a primal panic when the person who is supposed to be your partner turns away from you or abandons you. We're wired for connection and if that gets broken or becomes unreliable, our brain sends a danger signal and that's why we have higher expectations of our partner.
"You don't have to be perfect, you just have to be present. I think with social media, working hours, children, expectations of families to just pay the rent, that needs emotional presence, that needs togetherness. Being available and able to support one another. It's not how much you earn or what sort of car you drive."
Her advice for struggling couples is to seek emergency care.
"If you have a broken leg would you leave it untreated? If you have a broken relationship don't leave it untreated because it's going to heal crooked and you're going to go on and do the same thing in the next relationship. It's really normal to need help and to ask for help."
Let's talk about sex, baby
Somatic sexuality educator Terri Ewart of Stay Curious is one of a handful of counsellors in the country teaching touch-based intimacy education, which is counselling combined with physical touch.
Issues include one partner having a lower libido than the other, loss of sex drive and erectile dysfunction.
For those who simply want to spice up their sex life, she teaches erotic massage techniques.
"It's like going to see someone who will teach you how to cook but actually, I teach people how to have better sex."
During a session, Ewart encourages touch between the couple, but if they would like her to demonstrate technique, she will do so.
"It's learning how to be with each other at a slower pace, be present with one another, how to feel, and how to communicate.
"A lot of it is teaching people to understand what it is they want, and then giving them the skills to ask for that," she says, explaining that she runs a workshop on navigating intimacy, called 50 Shades of Green.
Ewart says it takes courage to walk through her door in the Lower Kaimais, where sessions start at $150, for 90 minutes.
"New Zealanders are not particularly good at asking for help or not shaming each other when we do ask for help," she says.
"We can work with intimacy issues, and if there is a conflict, it's not the end of the world. We can find a way forward that works for both people, as opposed to someone not getting sex and then going outside the marriage for it, or someone completely shutting down and just leaving it.
"People really struggle to talk about sex and their desires," she says, explaining that lack of open communication is one reason pornography addiction has become an issue.
"Porn allows us to lose touch with our bodies. We need to bring everything back to feelings."
Most of her clients are in their 40s and 50s but she's also counselled older, single clients who want to "reignite their own pleasure".
For couples who don't have sex and have effectively become "flatmates", passion can be reignited if they're both willing.
"I personally feel that a lot of marriages break down because we don't value intimacy and our sexuality enough. If it was given the time and space in our lives, I actually don't believe we'd have as many marriage break-ups. Sex and intimacy is the glue that holds us all together."
It takes two
Rarely do both parties come willingly to counselling.
Tauranga-based relationship expert Jacqui Moulton says there's nearly almost always one who has pushed it more than the other (she calls them the dragger and the draggee), and most couples feel relieved after their first session.
"Actually, we can talk about hard things and stay connected with one another.
"'You didn't storm off out of the room, you didn't fall off your chair in shock. You sat there and listened to my hurt and my pain'."
Often individuals are in various stages of readiness for counselling and they need to feel that a therapist's room is a safe haven.
"There might be tears, but it's a place of openness and vulnerability.
"Often I hear people say: 'He or she doesn't communicate', actually I think we all communicate, whether it's a 'hmph' or an eye-roll, but how do we do it in a way that's safe and respectful to our partner? That's what I teach couples."
Moulton says counselling is about self-responsibility and holding up a mirror by getting each person in the relationship to look at and understand how they tick and acknowledge some of how they are contributing to the dysfunction by criticising and blaming.
"Most people aren't stupid," she says.
"They know what they need to do, whether its about budgeting, sex, the inlaws, or it's about how she squeezes the toothpaste. They can figure those things out; what's more important is that they are able to maintain the connection between them while talking about the difficult stuff."
When life has been upended by adultery, Moulton says forever after is still possible.
"I've worked with a lot of couples where they've been able to recover from an affair, but that takes a willingness from both parties to be able to examine how they've each contributed to the dynamics of the relationship and explore how it led up to that point.
"People don't believe that they can have aliveness and passion in a long-term, committed relationship. The grass is greener somewhere else, right?
"I always say 'the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side of the fence, it just means that your side is a little parched'.
"Everyone's story is unique; however, how we interact with one another is pretty common."
What's also common, is that we all carry baggage and none of us arrives into adulthood unscathed, she says.
"How much are we being triggered by our past? It's actually more about us and our past than it is about our partner, or sometimes our partner will be doing something [that may] be triggering that for us, but that's a huge part of my work, learning to get underneath the frustration."
Furthermore, to understand your partner's needs, you need to understand your own.
Rotorua relationship counsellor and "spiritual soul guide" Debs Rahurahu, teaches among other things, the Five Love Languages written by counsellor Gary Chapman.
If you're relying on your partner to be your everything, that's unrealistic.
"What I find is that (individuals) have often lost themselves in the relationship, so they're no longer doing that personal and professional development of becoming them.
"The better you know yourself and know how to fill your own cup, then you're not relying on the other person to feel loved because you love yourself," she says, noting that you need to be interdependent, not co-dependent.
"If you're relying on your partner to be your everything, that's unrealistic."
Therapists Kate Ferris and Jacqui Moulton answer key questions
What if I feel too embarrassed to go to counselling?
Ferris: Going to somebody that you don't know and exposing intimate aspects of your life is likely to feel strange and unfamiliar, but therapists are trained to be empathetic and non-judgmental.
"It's what we do - we create a safe and confidential space for the work to be done. I know for me, I'm unflappable."
Who do I choose?
Ferris: Do your research. Get familiar with your options and see what speaks to you. Phone ahead and get a feel for the practitioner you're interested in working with. What is their experience working with couples? What types of therapy do they offer?
If it doesn't feel good, don't continue. Similarly, if a therapist doesn't feel like it's a good fit, they will seek to refer you on as well.
How much does it cost?
Session prices vary from roughly $70 to $150 per hour. In New Zealand, we don't have public funding provision for couples. However, in comparison to divorce, counselling is relatively inexpensive.
Ferris: "Going and getting a little bit of support at the front-end may actually prevent significant expense and disaster in your world later on."
What if I'm keen for counselling but my other half isn't?
Moulton: "One person can change the dynamics of the relationship.
It's a bit like a dance. One person changes their steps, the other cannot help but respond differently. I think there is always value in one person coming if their partner is unwilling."
Added to this, it's never too late or too complicated. She recently counselled a couple in their 80s, who had both been married before. Another Bay therapist is counselling a polyamorous triad, where three loves are raising children together.
What can I expect?
The first appointment is typically an intake session. For psychologist Ferris, this enables you to generate a shared understanding of what's going on and to get to know each other before getting into the more structured sessions (the number of which is dependent on your needs).
You can expect a comfortable chair, in some cases a cup of tea or coffee, an exploratory conversation and an opportunity to ask questions.
Is what we're going through normal?
Ferris: "We have a lot of unexamined assumptions about 'normal', and we're often either looking at our friends, family or TV to compare our experiences.
"This leads to unrealistic myths and ideals about relationships - that they should be intuitive and easy, and that our partner should know what we need.
"However, the reality is, relationships require effort, but it shouldn't be a persistent, hard slog."
Ferris says that relationships also change over time.
"There are seasons where times are really good and we have a lot of fun together, and the sex is amazing, and there are periods where there's sickness and we're both stressed at work and one of the kids is doing poorly at school. Long-term relationships go through stages and we need to develop resilience and seek closeness through it all."
Three people share their accounts of relationship counselling
Melissa*, (20s), and Shaun*, (30s).
Counselling experience: Been together four years and have attended counselling for the past year to address family harm issues, which included psychological and some physical abuse.
Melissa says getting Shaun to go to counselling came when she told him to get out of the house.
"I was quite close to ending it," she recalls, and Shaun didn't want that.
"He didn't want to continue some of that intergenerational stuff that he'd seen as a kid, and he could see that was happening, so he put a stop to it."
The pair have one child together as well as a child from Melissa's previous relationship.
After going to counselling, she was "really nervous". "I literally thought 'we're going to have to break up, we're going to lose our kids'. I was really quite scared about it."
Without counselling, she believes they'd either be living in the same pattern and both be unhappy, or would have split.
"He's way different," she says of Shaun. "He doesn't get angry anymore, we can have a discussion, our bond is better, so it just helps heaps."
Her advice for other couples in a similar situation is: "You've just got to find the right fit for you, but you've also got to want it too. If you don't want it then you're not going to accept anybody's help. You can see 20 counsellors and say that none of them work for you, but really, you've got to put that work in."
Derek*, dairy farmer (50s)
Counselling experience: Married before divorcing and entering into a de facto relationship for more than 15 years, which has ended.
Derek says things between him and his last partner had been dysfunctional for some time with multiple "blow-ups", parenting disputes, and lack of intimacy. Despite this, he was blindsided when his partner disclosed she was having an affair.
"I never saw it coming, it was like somebody hitting me with a bat. It floored me," he says. For three days, I was just an utter mess."
He attended 12 counselling sessions as a result and now single, says he's the happiest he's been in his life.
"It's like someone has taken this weight off my shoulders and I've actually got more of a spring in my step," he says.
"The tools I've learned are absolutely golden going forward. Don't get me wrong, I've changed myself for the better too, and I know what I will not want going forward. Talking is what's got me to where I am today."
Anna*, professional worker (50s)
Counselling experience: Married for more than 20 years, issues in Anna's relationship were beginning to affect her wellbeing.
She's been attending counselling for the past six months solo, but the plan is that her husband will join her soon.
Issues arose when she became frustrated by the inability of their relationship to meet her expectations of intimacy.
"Our children are grown up and need our input less, but my husband had trauma in his background. There were times that that just comes back and takes him down," she says, explaining that she developed a coping mechanism whereas she wouldn't bring up the things that bothered her because he was dealing with so much else.
"But in the end, it ended up hurting me," she says.
Counselling has shifted her to a happier and more resilient place, and it's had a domino effect on her husband.
"Sometimes we forget that we need to extend the kindness and tolerance to ourselves," she says.
"That was the very thing I was hoping [from counselling] - that things would be different. Having been married for so long and it being difficult for quite a period, that actually, things could still change. When you have a willingness, you always have that chance of changing."
* Names changed to protect privacy.