As an independent sex and relationship therapist, I provide support to individuals and couples who have questions, concerns or struggles with any aspect of their relationship or sex life. For this blog, I am going to assume that, as you are visiting the Woolley & Co website, you are part of a couple and you are experiencing some degree of relationship distress.
I am often asked by couples, when is the right time to seek professional help and of course, this varies for each situation.
However, from my own experience and that reported by other professionals, most people leave it far too late to ask for help. I think this reflects the cultural belief that once you commit to coupledom, you should automatically know how to create and maintain a relationship that is mutually satisfying and rewarding. The reality is that all relationships go through peaks and troughs and having some support can often help you navigate the difficult times so that you emerge stronger and happier.
So how can I help couples before divorce? A significant part of my work is with couples who are experiencing some kind of difficulty and usually this includes a breakdown in intimacy. I use the term intimacy to describe emotional, physical and sexual connection that a couple can create together. When intimacy is absent, a relationship can feel like a very unhappy, desperate and lonely place. There can be many reasons that cause a couple to stop being intimate. It may be dealing with life events such as fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, parenting, job loss, illness, sexual problems that erodes their closeness. Or it may be a particular act/behaviour that creates the rift in their connection. When the joy of their togetherness hits the buffers and they feel stuck and struggle to see how they are ever going to change their situation – this is the time to seek help.
A confidential space to discuss problems
For couples that feel their problems are insurmountable, I provide a confidential space where they can voice their hurts, hopes, upsets, dreams and disappointments and all are heard. My focus is to provide a non-judgmental environment where couples can risk speaking their truth so that we can identify the beliefs and behaviours that are keeping them in hurtful or unhealthy patterns. From this we will agree practical and realistic suggestions that they can take home and put into practice. I will provide support throughout the highs and lows of this process, until the couple feel confident that they have emerged from their stuck place.
A significant aspect of my work relates to supporting couples where sex is the key problem – this can be lack of sex, difference in sexual appetites, sexual performance difficulties or anything else related to adult sexual relationships.
When someone experiences a problem with their sexual response or feels dissatisfied with their sex life, it can feel so difficult to talk about it as they feel vulnerable and don’t want to risk causing upset or being judged. A natural response to sexual difficulties is to go into avoidance, this is easier than the risk of another upsetting or disappointing experience. Before long, not having sex becomes the norm and this can lead to a complete breakdown of all intimate interaction including affectionate gestures, heartfelt communication and physical closeness. For couples in this situation, I help them re-connect with each other before we explore how they can create a new sex life that is satisfying for both of them.
I also support people who have commenced the process of separation and divorce. Divorce can stir up so many feelings for the people involved – betrayal, grief, guilt, depression and anger to name but a few. There can also be a sense of failure and fear about the future. Divorce is a stressful experience and professional therapeutic support can provide a safe haven during this emotionally-charged time, a space where people can verbalise and work through their feelings and receive the level of support that they need. In this way, sex and relationship therapy can assist and smooth the whole process of mediation and divorce, reducing the levels of stress involved.
Quite often, after a divorce, people have a strong desire to move on with their life and put the past behind them. In reality, there is a risk of finding a new partner not dissimilar to their ex and repeating the same patterns to end up in another unhappy or stuck relationship. Divorce can provide an opportunity for people to move forward, to create more of what they want from a relationship. I often work with people whose sexual confidence has taken a battering after a separation and maybe they are feeling apprehensive about dating again. It can be liberating and exciting for people to re-discover the possibilities of enjoyable intimacy and sexual pleasure.
What to expect from therapy
Finally, I am often asked what can be expected from an initial therapy session. The first session is an opportunity to meet in person, for me to understand what the client wants and to get an understanding of their situation. I expect to confirm whether I can provide the support they are looking for and give an idea of how we will be working together. My experience is that one of the most significant things sex and relationship therapy provides is the space and time for clients to speak their truth, which can sometimes feel like the ‘unspeakable’. All I require from clients is a degree of willingness to change.