Relationship therapy helps each partner see where they have choices available in how they respond to one another, but also how different choices will either enhance or diminish feelings of closeness, connectedness and intimacy.
Tanya Haynes is a founder member and the Director of The Blue Door Practice. She worked as a senior psychotherapist in the NHS for thirteen years and left in 2007 to concentrate on her private practice and consultation, in which she now works full time. As a relationship therapist, Tanya has particular experience of dealing with ‘couples in trouble’ with specific emphasis on the impact of marital stress and divorce proceedings.
Richard Hogwood speaks to Tanya about her role as a relationship therapist, how the pandemic and the rise of social media have affected her field, and top tips for couples considering separation including the importance of therapy as an option.
What does your role as a relationship therapist encompass?
I work with all kinds of relationships: couples, families, professional relationships and the relationship with the self. My central focus is on what happens in the ‘space between’ people rather than ‘within’ people, and identifying patterns of communication they create together. Within relationship therapy it is important to recognise the effect that any therapeutic support can have on the system in its entirety and consider everyone who may be affected by the issues brought to therapy, even those not directly involved.
My first goal when meeting new clients is to establish that I believe I can help them, but equally that they feel I am the right fit for them, as the relationship needs to feel right for everyone involved. Once the process has begun, I start by encouraging clients to share the stories that have made them want to seek help in the first place.
The next step is to help them to look at their stories from different perspectives, in order to try and create new ways of understanding their relationship and develop new shared meanings. We then focus on different ways of communicating, which ultimately involve breaking unhelpful patterns of communication and preventing behaviour that may encourage toxicity.
The therapist’s role involves helping couples identify strategies that are not helping them meet their needs, and to help them identify and apply better methods to attune to each other. It is up to the individuals in the relationship to decide if they then want to create change. If there is a united view, the next part of my work is to help support them in making those changes. I will then stay involved as long as the relationship feels it needs my support and I believe the work is still helpful.
Other aspects of my work including helping those who have already decided they want to end a relationship to both safely leave it in the best way possible for all involved. I am always clear that my professional bias is to privilege children’s needs in any relationship breakdown that involves them. Another of my specialisms is working with infidelity in couple relationships, which usually needs a period of more intense intervention at the beginning of the work together due to the tsunami of intense emotions for both parties.
Couples come to you at many different stages of relationship breakdown. If one or both have already instructed divorce lawyers, how can you try to help them?
When couples come at the beginning of the divorce process I ask them to think very seriously about what kind of divorce they wish to have — one that is adversarial, or collaborative? I then lay out the potential pitfalls of the divorce process when not handled with care.
If they have children, I outline how it may affect them if they choose a more combative option. I also find it useful to know who their divorce lawyers are, as this relationship is vital to the outcome of the divorce process and how it affects a family system.
I then help my clients understand they have choices when managing the process. I believe it is possible to have a ‘respectful’ divorce if a couple can engage in a separation with a shared agenda and values, keeping the need for a healthy divorce above the desire to privilege their own individual pain and grievances.
It is worth noting that individuals may have their own individual psychotherapists to support them through the process of divorcing and this, unintentionally on the psychotherapists’ part, amplifies the sense of individualism rather than relationship. This may not be such an issue if the couple do not have children, but if they do, the parental relationship will continue beyond the marital one. That will work well or poorly depending on how the parents manage it. At The Blue Door Practice we like to offer a team of support to divorcing couples so that their couple therapist and individual therapists are all working together.
What has been your experience with couples during the Covid-19 pandemic? Have you seen the real-time effect of the pressures caused by it?
I think the pandemic shone a microscope on any issues that pre-existed or were already brewing in couples’ relationships, and magnified them one hundred times! All the usual distractions and anaesthesia of everyday and work lives, time apart and travel – which can all act as intimacy regulators or ‘places to hide’ – were removed without notice. Relationships that had previously felt just about tolerable very quickly became intolerable.
We have all also had to manage the previously unimaginable, which has understandably led to higher general levels of anxiety. I think the pandemic has made many people re-evaluate their current lifestyles and face their mortality. This has caused huge waves of discontent in unhappy relationships and I think people have been more ready to make decisions they may not have made pre-pandemic. Lack of access to support systems and focus on domesticity have clearly also been factors that have had an impact.
On the other hand, some couples have seen the benefit of more time at home thanks to remote working, more family time and less time commuting. So while some have really suffered and struggled, others have been liberated from the pressures that come with long hours away from home.
How have you seen the rise of social media impact couples’ relationships over the last ten years or so?
Social media has undoubtedly made connecting and communication outside of relationships much easier and more accessible, which has affected the impact of infidelity on relationships. Affairs are often uncovered through a trail of evidence which is only a mobile phone away.
I also notice that when couples who are in conflict or in the divorce process try to manage complex issues and feelings by text or WhatsApp, it tends to create higher levels of conflict and anxiety. Using email, or writing a considered ‘letter’, are much more contained and helpful way of communicating when feelings are heightened.
It is easy to present as the “golden couple/family” on social media which can pressure the couple themselves to constantly live up to the image, and also make others feel ‘less than’. Media depictions of marriage and relationships rarely paint a realistic picture of navigating the pressures and transitional lifecycles a couple will face.
No fault divorce has recently come into law. Do you think this change will help divorcing couples, in part by avoiding the fallout from inflammatory accusations set out in the divorce petition?
There may be some possible differences at the beginning of the process. I do not envisage this will make a significant difference to the divorce process overall. The fallout from inflammatory accusations is often just a symptom of the unresolved feelings that are already firmly in place, and so this change in process will probably only have a fleeting impact.
The most important consideration is how those feelings are managed by the individual, their ex-partner, their lawyer and their therapist. Collaborative working and respect is what will really make a difference to the process.
What advice do you have for couples considering, or going through, a divorce?
Divorce is an emotionally demanding (and expensive!) process. At Blue Door we would advise any couple considering this option, but not having arrived there yet, to invest in really top-quality couple therapy. This gives them the opportunity to consider a way of resolving the pain and finding a different way forward.
We would still advise couple therapy for those who have decided to get divorced, to support during the legal and emotional processes of separating their lives. This is especially important where children are involved so the couple can find a way to collaboratively co-parent and promote their children’s emotional health at a hugely challenging time. Just as marital relationships are created by how a couple behaves towards each other, a co-parenting relationship depends on how parents behave towards each other. Therapy can help parents to manage their own sadness, vulnerability and any grievance without looking to their children to unburden and receive validation.
We also advise all parents who are divorcing that until the financial settlement is agreed, it is very important to separate all discussions about contact arrangements. In my experience feelings in couples are usually particularly heightened until the finances have been agreed, after which it is easier to find a way forward.
Blue Door have guided many couples and families through divorce, working collaboratively with their lawyers, to help people go on to lead emotionally healthier and more fulfilling lives, whether together or apart. While every relationship is different, one truth stands for all — feelings change, no matter how bad they might be at any one time. Nothing is more important than recognising the consequences of the choices we make, so we all have a duty to really explore the significant decisions we make in our lives.
You can find further information regarding our expertise, experience and team on our Divorce and Family pages.
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