My husband and I have been going to couples counselling now for around three months, seeing the fabulous Frances Amaroux who specialises in working on relationships. She has chops as a poly counsellor and understands the intricacies and complexities of building relationships within a poly framework, whatever that may be for the couple concerned.
When we first began seeing her, our relationship was under a lot of stress. We’d just lost our baby in early pregnancy and were trying to unpack the fallout. My husband was struggling with the anxiety of going through the visa process to qualify for permanent residency. We’d sunk into a state of constant conflict and competitive arguments, with a big empathy gap on both sides (despite me thinking at the time that my husband was the only one lacking empathy – I’ve since realised I had some work to do as well). Neither of us was enjoying the day to day of relating to each other because of some serious relationship skills deficits on both sides. Our first appointment was pretty rough, and revealed starkly just how much we were struggling.
Frances was robustly caring, yet pretty frank that we had a lot of work to do. She was also frank about all that we had going for us. She sort of presented us with a choice: break up, or work on our relationship. Neither of us wanted to break up. We just wanted to not feel so miserable all the time.
She took us back to the basics – she talked about the three circles to be cared for: our individual circles or “I spaces” and then the third circle of our relationship or “we space”. I know, it sounds hippy dippy but hey, it’s good stuff to contemplate and getting ‘back to basics’ has been good for us, and in three years we’d just been feeling it out and hoping for the best. She quickly assessed some of our biggest hurdles, and gave us simple tools to start taking them apart.
Thankfully, both of us had a starting point of goodwill, and I’m grateful that’s the case. Knowing that about ourselves, and each other, is the best start. Cunning Minx, a poly commentator who has been podcasting with the amazing Poly Weekly for over 10 years, mentioned in a pod-cast I was listening to the other day that “the assumption of good faith” was a really important ingredient in communication and negotiations. That really struck me and I’ve taken it quite to heart. I now try every day to assume my husband is working on things in good faith, and try in as many ways as I can, to reassure him I am doing the same. That assumption makes a HUGE difference – because how can you possibly work out a problem if you’re convinced your partner is out to get you? Instead if you’re uplifted by the assumption that you’re both trying your level best to work things out with each other’s well-being in mind, you’re liberated from a certain cynicism that really shrinks trust.
We both love each other enormously, and thanks to Frances we’re no longer in constant “emergency” mode. We’re getting increasingly skilled at checking our ego at the door of our marriage and instead focusing on being well in ourselves, taking care of each other’s wellbeing, and taking care of the “third circle”. We’ve concentrated on being ambiently aware of each other’s mental health, how the other person’s day is going, and we’ve also started to assess our individual happiness – how much we are taking care of ourselves personally (because this has a huge impact on how we relate to each other, obviously.) I think my husband has been doing too many practical things for our relationship, and not taking enough time for exercise or hobbies, and he is starting to address that. I’m trying to take better care of my health, and I’ve taken up crochet, which really comforts and engages me. Having a hobby again is great – something just for me. Poly is still kind of on the backburner, but is on the “discuss again soon” list now that things are settling down. Getting our relationship right before engaging with others has been a priority.
Some of the key skills and ideas we’ve learned include:
- The importance of developing ambient empathy – being aware of each other’s wellbeing and state of being as a basis for making decisions and communicating with each other. We do this by checking in through the day with texts, phone calls, emails or whatever works and using a numbers system – asking how each other are on a scale from “1-10”. That establishes a bit of a baseline from which we can ask questions. “How come you’re only feeling a 5? What’s happening today?” Or “I’m glad you’re an 8! I’m a 9 because I’m getting a lot done at work today.”
- Not flooding. I’m a BIG flooder. When D asks me a question or we discuss something I TALK AND TALK AND TALK and he only really processes the first two things I’ve said. Using the numbers system above helps make emotional information a bit more concise, and then he can seek out more clarity, little by little, and get a picture of what’s going on that he actually understands. Nothing is gained by me talking if he is unable to process what’s being said. So slowing down and chunking out information is important.
- Active listening. A lot of lip service is paid to this, and sure I’ve HEARD the term a million times but actually practising active listening well is pretty hard. What is active listening (other than something I need to practice a lot more?) It is when somebody talks and you reflect back to them, paraphrasing and without judging or commenting or adding to it, what they’ve said to make sure you’ve fully understood them. They can then clarify if you’ve not totally grasped it. When you have fully understood them, you can move on to the next point. “So what I hear you saying is that you felt pressured when I asked how long it would be before you can get your citizenship?” Reflect, seek clarity, reflect. Rinse and repeat. It seems like such a simple thing but it really reduces the chances of conflict based on misunderstandings.
- Owning your shit and not talking for others. This is pretty important because we were both shocking for it. Rather than just talk about how we personally felt about something, we were talking about what each other thought/felt, which was causing a lot of aggrieved feelings. Pretty much nobody likes being spoken for, especially when the other person is making a bunch of negative assumptions. Increasingly, we just try to speak about our own perspective and then inquire as to what each other are actually thinking/feeling.
- Topping up on affection. Frances encouraged us to keep, as much as possible and is consensual, a constant drip feed of affection and care flowing between us. It could be something small – a touch of a knee, a kiss on the head, a nice friendly text, a shared joke, a cup of tea made, or generally reminding the other person you think they’re pretty cool. Keeping the other person aware that you love them, and they are loved, means the “trust account” gets filled up all the time. When shit hits the fan, we are finding we are now so much more resilient and accommodating of each other because of that baseline of care and tenderness.
I’m really glad we’ve started this process in the aftermath of the loss in early pregnancy of our baby, Elliot, because I think it will make us stronger parents. Both of us (and some of our friends if I’m being honest) were feeling scared about the consequences for a child of our poor communication; my pregnancy with Elliot had really highlighted some of the major flaws in how we connected. And rather than split up and waste the last three (mostly really enjoyable) years, we decided to work on our stuff collectively so we could deal with the issues at hand before I got pregnant again. I am so glad we did! Things are looking so much better, and now that we’re feeling functional again and can go weeks without conflict (and when conflict arises, we are dealing with it SO much more carefully and thoughtfully) I feel we have a fighting chance of having a relationship that actively supports the well-being of another life.
We just got the great news that my husband has been made a permanent resident, which is a huge weight off his and our shoulders. Now that lots of pressures are off, we can breathe a little, and try to enjoy each other as we prepare for the next stage of our lives together.
Next up on this blog: negotiating “job roles” as we embark on our next pregnancy! TBC…