Enter the couple bubble: where love and respect come first
Boris and Rhea have been married for 10 years and have three children, but Boris feels he doesn't get enough of his wife's time or attention. He has been getting increasingly frustrated and shouts at her and the children. Boris thinks that Rhea is cold towards him and does not understand his feelings. 'When I come home, I want her to be happy to see me. I walk in the door, and she barely acknowledges me,' he says.
Rhea complains that 'he yells at me and the kids. He's always angry, and nothing I do is enough.' Boris feels that his wife is unhappy with him, but actually, they have different styles of relating and different needs.
In a relationship it is important to create a space where couples feel that they can relax, feel safe, feel wanted and accepted, protected and cared for. Needs are very important in a relationship and, if not met, can cause a relationship to go sour.
Couples often see themselves as an individual first and as part of a couple second. This alters the way they consider the other's needs and often means that their personal needs override those of the couple.
For Boris, a part of his relational style is that he needs a lot of reassurance that his wife loves him. 'Rhea never says anything nice to me; she doesn't want to spend time with just the two of us. I organise everything - dates, birthdays and so on.' To meet his needs, at times Rhea will need to act counter-intuitively - which means giving to your partner in a way that is not the same as how you like to get your needs met. Rhea will need to make a habit of doing things that make him feel good, such as calling him.
Temperament is hard-wired, and when a person gets angry, they lose the skill to be rational. In this case, it is up to Rhea to diffuse Boris by saying something like: 'Honey, you have had a tough day. Come and give me a quick cuddle, and we'll go and see what the kids are doing.' In the spirit of love, this will quell Boris' need and stop his usual track of getting frustrated when he comes home and feels unacknowledged.
Boris and Rhea came from very different families. Boris was not close to his parents and always felt unloved and ignored, so previous unresolved childhood issues are triggering him. Rhea's parents were also unavailable most of the time, so she developed a sense of not needing them as much, so her desire for closeness is not as prevalent as his.
What helps here is to have an owner's manual for your partner, which means understanding their past, their styles of relating and connecting and what their needs are in a relationship. The more in touch with your partner you are, the better you will be able to calm them when they are in distress, appeal to their needs and be supportive and forgiving when they seem to be irrational.
Boris and Rhea would often end up in screaming matches, which means their biological urge to fight has been triggered. This means they won't be able to solve problems in a healthy manner at that time. The idea then is for them to take time out, not to make each other feel as though they are abandoning them but to have something to say, such as 'I love you, but I feel that I cannot hear you right now, can we come back and talk about this when we have both calmed down?'
Through therapy they were able to learn about each other's moods and feelings. They also give each other verbal and physical reassurance that they can count on each other for anything and that they put each other's well-being first and are each other's first priority.
This is always about mutual benefit. It may look as though Rhea has to do most of the giving, but this is for both of them to be able to share their feelings and worries, and to have their needs met. Boris also needs to fix damage and apologise when he becomes aggressive.
Boris' needs may seem unreasonable to his partner, but the reason he is so insecure is that they have not been putting their relationship first. If Rhea would make herself happily available to Boris, his fears would subside. The idea is to have a couple bubble, where you treat each other as No 1. Cementing this type of foundation will lead to an enduring relationship that will stand the tests of problems and time.
Hayley Thomas is a child, adolescent and family therapist who specialises in eating disorders. For more information, her website is www.relatehk.com