The Unexpected Thing That Saved My Relationship

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the six-year relationship with my boyfriend Ben soured. There was no cheating scandal or dramatic confessions of falling out of love. But in the run-up to the clichéd seven-year-anniversary itch last June, we both finally admitted to feeling exhausted by trying to fix something that seemed to have dissolved irrevocably.
Ben and I never used to argue much but early last year our rows became frequent and ugly. As the distance between us grew, the endless bickering became like a joyless game of grudge top trumps. The rot of resentment set in.
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Earlier in our relationship we’d talked about marrying and debated baby names but, as Ben and I limped towards August, we decided to go on ‘a break’ – which we both knew meant a break-up.
I was 29 and Facebook sagged under the weight of friends' engagement announcements and smug honeymoon snaps. Meanwhile Ben and I had gone from knowing each other’s every movement to cutting off all contact.
I felt like a failure, confused about how the relationship I’d thought would last forever had ended.
After the awful initial grieving period I shunned Insta-stalking Ben’s every move and instead decided to make a positive decision for my future. I was sick of my treading-water sales job, so I enrolled in a two-year part-time counselling course, starting last September.
I’d seen the positive impact psychotherapy had had on several friends and family members and it was an area that had always interested me, so I was happy to sacrifice a couple of Netflix nights for studying two evenings a week.
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By understanding myself more I felt more able to unpick our relationship

Before my first class I was apprehensive, imagining my fellow students to be quinoa-chomping hippies wanging on about lilac auras.
The reality was a surprise. It was 90% female but I was impressed by the mix of dynamic and inspirational individuals who had signed up to retrain, or who simply wanted to learn more about themselves.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Five years ago, therapy was whispered about in the UK, we cynical Brits viewing it as the preserve of American celebrities, narcissists and neurotics. But thanks to shows such as Girls normalising therapy, you now can’t move for people raving about how it has improved their self-esteem/ marriage/ daddy issues.
I loved my course from the word go and, during the very first lecture dealing with how we process emotions, I couldn’t help but think of where Ben and I had gone wrong.
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As I learnt about the importance of extending empathy to whoever is speaking to you, managing anger and how our reactions impact on others, all I thought about was my failure to do any of these.
It sounds ridiculously obvious, but listening – really listening – can have a profound effect on what and how much people say. Counselling is about talking and being heard, because it’s rare that anyone feels comfortable enough to really speak about their innermost self without fear of judgement.

Not only did I lack empathy with his position, I was impatient

As my course progressed I felt stricken. I’d spent such a long time feeling frustrated with Ben, largely blaming him for our faults and the distance that had grown between us. Now I had to accept responsibility for my actions. Not only did I lack empathy with his position, I was impatient and ruined our attempts to talk reasonably about issues by slapping him with my 'and-another-thing' list of woes.
I’d been unable to listen to him properly because I was so focused on telling him how hard done by I felt. Getting some perspective on this felt overwhelming. By understanding myself more, I felt more able to unpick our relationship.
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The further I got into my counselling course, the more clearly I could see how Ben and I might be able to work out our problems. And I knew I had to at least try.
I dreaded getting back in contact with Ben. No one likes making themselves vulnerable to rejection, and for all I knew he'd already moved on with a Gigi Hadid-lookalike.
But with nothing to lose, in November I messaged and he agreed to meet up in a ‘neutral ground’ east London pub. That night we spoke more honestly than ever, nothing was off limits and no grievance too small. It wasn’t easy, and I had to check myself to stop reacting with that familiar raised tone. But at the end of the exhausting summit, I felt like I’d never understood him better.
After lots of more careful talking, Ben and I decided to give things another go. As my course progresses, I feel our relationship getting stronger and stronger. I feel better equipped to speak about issues when they come up, more able to respond effectively, and much less bewildered when we encounter problems.
Of course Ben and I still get frustrated, but the difference is how we deal with it. Everyone will always face relationship problems – it’s how you deal with them that decides whether you stay together or fall apart. And you'd be surprised at how effective a simple "Do you want to talk about that?" can be.
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