Thousands of clients attend our counselling sessions every year. Below, we show you some real and typical examples of our counselling work. These examples have been anonymised with the agreement of the clients involved.
Mr and Mrs H. have both had to work from home and are really getting on each other’s nerves. Angry words in the coffee break, too little “me time” and no sex after work anymore.
Mr and Mrs H. decided to log into the online counselling. They have been married for seven years, always used to go out a lot, loved travelling, have a large circle of friends and enjoyed eating out whenever they could. They always got along so well together. The fact that their marriage is childless has never been an issue – they had each other after all!
They coped well with the first corona shutdown, working together at home and spending the evenings outdoors with neighbours or friends, or cycling around their local area, or even ordering their favourite food to eat at home. But then came the second wave. It somehow felt different, and they no longer feel so close – it is more like being alone together …
They still both work from home, although the atmosphere is tense and challenging. That has also had a knock-on effect on the atmosphere “at work”. Neither of them can properly relax during their breaks because there is so much complaining and moaning rather than pleasant conversations. Even while making a coffee in the kitchen, minor issues may lead to serious relationship problems. Most of the time, they both prefer just to work all day. But this increases the stress levels and the tension. Mr and Mrs H. start to avoid each other and cannot understand what has happened to them.
This is exactly where I come in and explain to Mr and Mrs H. that many couples are going through the same thing right now. Corona has brought an end to their familiar structures and lifestyles, and people not only have less balance in their lives but also face more existential issues like security and how to plan for the future. What’s more, working from home and restrictions on going out have led to a feeling of being enclosed, particularly during the darker months: no space and no time for being an individual, no “me time”, constantly “living on top of one another”. This makes people feel like they have no freedom, and they often blame their partners for that. Women may think their partners should do more of the housework, while men say they don’t always want to be told what to do. He should see all the things she does around the house, she argues. He does, he answers – what else is he supposed to do?! Neither of them feels understood or taken seriously.
As a counsellor, I know that this is the moment when the dynamic of a relationship can shift. Both parties feel the other one is somehow looking down on them and wants to tell them how things should be done. You start to feel inferior and become defiant. Interestingly, however, the situation looks the same from both sides. Each person thinks he/she is sitting at the bottom of the seesaw – the power is at the top and the helplessness is at the bottom.
How is it possible to escape from this muddled situation in these corona times? I ask Mr and Mrs H. what they wish for? Mr H. would simply like to have the peace and quiet of their relationship back, while Mrs H. wants to feel close again. She would then feel more understood once more and certainly be more interested in sex. Yes, the couple’s sex life has also suffered during the current situation.
I decide to do an exercise with them, which can also be done online or over the phone. In the first part of the exercise, they should both write down what they themselves could do to improve their situation as a couple. They should take some cards or pieces of paper and write one thing per card. It is good for couples to remember things that they used to do for each other. They can then read out what they wrote. They are both surprised: Mr H. says he could listen to his wife more, spend less time on his phone, and surprise her with flowers or other small gifts again. Mrs H. wants to do more asking and less telling, call him “darling” again, and leave him in peace with his phone. They both have a good laugh about the phone. They can then take the cards from the other person which they would find most helpful. The other ones can be left alone with a “thank you” – nice ideas for a solution but not really necessary.
In the second part, I ask them both to write down what they need from the other person to make them feel better in the given circumstances (and not what they do not need!). This pile of cards is also read out at the end: Mr H. says he needs more time from Mrs H. to do the kind of things that she does quickly – while complaining. He would like his wife to be calmer if he does things differently. He wants to be able to hang his jacket on the chair at the dining table, would like to have the living room to himself now and then, doesn’t want to argue about everything but would like to hear a simple “yes” instead – and he would also like to cosy up on the sofa with her again.
Mrs H. would like him to hold her in his arms again, she doesn’t want to be left to do all the household chores, and would also like him to look at her in that special way again. She needs gestures of love, like the little notes they used to leave around the house for each other. She would like to be appreciated and noticed more. She would then feel more like physical proximity again. And yes, she also wants to have the living room to herself sometimes. They both laugh at that point too.
Afterwards, both say which of the other person’s needs they really can and want to fulfil – this also helps to clarify where unrealistic expectations are made of one’s partner. Although nothing is set in stone here, at least these needs can now be taken care of and responsibility assumed so that the two partners feel less helpless.
The couple also discuss the needs that were not selected by their partner. For example, Mr H. says he doesn’t know what is meant exactly by household chores because he feels unsure what to do in many instances as his wife always does them. He is also not sure how to handle the topic of appreciation. This shows how important it is to convey our needs in a way that can be measured: How exactly does Mrs H. detect appreciation? Precisely how often should Mr H. help out with household chores and which ones should he do?
Solely by focusing on fulfilling their own and each other’s needs, with the help of this exercise, the two partners are open to each other again and appear more positive – I can even see that via the computer screen. They face each other more, look into one another’s eyes, and laugh more together.
At the end of the session, I ask how they want to divide the living room. Really pragmatic! And how can they transfer what was important to them before corona into the current lockdown situation? It is often possible to achieve more than you think when you take a close look at things. The working from home situation calms down too, and even their colleagues and customers benefit.
For homework, I tell them to touch each other more, hold and kiss each other – and not to have sex for a whole month. This is because sex is not (yet) possible for Mrs H. in the present circumstances – that was one of the cards that she didn’t pick up. They both hesitate. But in the case of a sexual block, it is important to be able to approach each other cautiously again without being in “danger” of feeling “obliged” to have sex. As emotions follow the body (the touch), which science refers to as “embodiment”, the probability of succumbing to the temptation to have sex is quite high. Well, worse things happen!
Mr M., 42 years old, arranges a counselling appointment and states his topic to be “Problems at work”. At the first appointment, he angrily reports that he has received a written warning from his employer. He has been at the company for ten years now. He is always loyal, good at his job and gets on well with everyone – and this is the thanks he gets! He believes the reason why he regularly has short spells of ill health is his susceptibility to infections. He has also been late for work a few times, but says this is “stress-related”.
During counselling, it transpires that he has already had a few meetings with his boss in the past. The topics of misconduct at work and frequency of mistakes were raised.
Mr M. describes his private life as follows: He has been divorced for two years. The separation and the fact that he only sees his 12-year-old daughter at the appointed times have cost him “many sleepless nights”. The whole thing is topped off by his financial concerns resulting from his maintenance obligations and the new situation. He didn’t want anyone at work to know what he was going through, saying “I just needed the money for myself and for my family”.
In the end, he also reveals that he regularly uses cocaine. Just now and then to begin with, but now more often: “It’s the only way I can stand this misery”.
After a series of questions, the counsellor helps Mr M. to see things from the perspectives of his boss and ex-wife: “I don’t understand how they managed to be so patient with me …”.
After a few more counselling sessions, Mr M. agrees to an out-patient drug rehab, including withdrawal and processing his addictive behaviour. He also informs his boss about his plans to attend out-patient therapy. In a very open discussion, Mr M. hears, to his relief, the reasons for the patience he had been shown: His boss has a very high opinion of him and does not want to lose his services. This left him feeling highly motivated to return to work in good health as quickly as possible.
The Fürstenberg Institut is recognised as an addiction advice centre, among other things, and cooperates with a variety of specialist clinics. Mr M.’s counsellor finds a place for him at a centre that can treat his needs. After his therapy at the clinic, he arranges more meetings with the Fürstenberg Institut for follow-up care and to help him get back to work properly. In this context, he has also planned another meeting with his boss.
Mr M., 47 years old, has a job in a management position. He is married and has two teenage children. He comes for counselling with his wife and began with the following problem: He is extremely busy at work and therefore only gets home late in the evenings. Sometimes he also has to work at weekends. His wife complains to him because she feels that he leaves everything to her, including the problems with their teenage children. She has already spoken about a separation if the situation doesn’t change. The resulting arguments between them mean he’d sometimes rather stay away from home and he then chooses to spend even more time at the office.
During counselling, the couple begin by blaming each other for their problems: "If you didn’t work so much", "If you didn’t complain all the time". After the first meeting, Mr M. and his wife think about what they’re willing to change. They then set about trying to implement these changes during the course of their counselling sessions:
The most important result of the counselling is that the couple find that these changes – small at first –succeed in reducing the tension and help them to appreciate each other more. In general, this has a positive impact on their relationship and the overall atmosphere at home.
This impression regularly comes across in counselling. Irrespective of what the subject matter actually is: a conflict seems to be a state of affairs that most people want to end as quickly as possible or – even better – avoid from the beginning. To achieve the latter, many people pay a high price. However, conflict also brings a chance to develop. Those who avoid arguments miss out on this important opportunity.
For example: Sandra S. shares an office with an older colleague. This colleague is in the habit of keeping the window open all day, in summer and in winter. She turns down Sandra’s polite request to air the room from time to time but otherwise keep the window closed. Finally, the two women end up arguing and the older colleague storms out of the office, slamming the door behind her. Sandra S. is upset by this and decides to apologise the very next day and to accept the open window without any further comment. She just wants a peaceful atmosphere again. If she had implemented this plan, she would never have found out the real reasons for her colleague’s need to have the window open. In closed rooms, the older lady suffers greatly from claustrophobia which she also finds embarrassing.
Tolerating and discussing conflict, instead of avoiding it, can lead to acquiring important information. And after all, it is a fallacy to believe that things don’t exist because you don’t talk about them. They will then just smoulder away with no explanation. You have to ask what is better: oppressive humidity or a refreshing thunderstorm. Conflict and arguments are part of life. That might be unpleasant at times, but they are important for our development.