Better Together - Stories from relationship therapy
At the heart of any working relationship is a shared sense of communion and ease which reassures us that we are better being together. Life events and challenges often disturb this, and it is when this happens that conflict arises and we begin to look for what it is that we need to ‘fix’ – an attempt that often only increases conflict and pain.
Nicholas's book, Better Together, encourages readers to take a step back and to think about their relationship through a lens he calls ‘togethering’ which shines a light on how disturbance and struggles occur and the shifts in perception that can bring healing and harmony.
This blog post shares one of the stories from the book of fictional partners in therapy with Nicholas. For more information on this book and how to buy a copy of Better Together - the relationships book
Zara and Scott - We’ve lost the connection between us
Zara and Scott are both actors. They met eight years ago, when they both appeared in the same theatre production. Both have been married before: Zara twice, and Scott once. She has two sons and he has a daughter, all of whom have left home.
In the production where they met, Zara had a ‘leading role’ and Scott was ‘a more minor character’. When Zara asked for a day off to go to the funeral of a close friend, suggesting that her understudy might step in, the director flatly refused, and Zara became ‘deeply upset’. Scott, finding her crying in her dressing room, suggested they ‘go over her contract’. He found a clause that allowed for an absence of a day for personal reasons, which included funerals. As a result, the director allowed Zara the leave of absence. She was ‘enormously grateful’ to Scott for his support and offered, in return, to rehearse his scenes with him, which he ‘appreciated’ as he had been ‘feeling uncertain about his character’s motivation’.
A few weeks after meeting, on a walk along the Thames in London, they sat together on a bench looking at the Houses of Parliament and ‘shared a moment’ which they now laughingly speak about because, although they didn’t realise it at the time, they had had ‘exactly the same thought about each other: ‘We were soulmates’.
Both acknowledge that their styles are very different—he is ‘more practical’, while she is a ‘perfectionist and creative,’ but they felt that they were ‘a perfect balance for one another, able to provide mutual support’.
Within months of meeting they were living together in her flat in Wandsworth. Two years later, they married at Chelsea Town Hall.
Soon after their marriage, Scott was offered a major role in an ongoing year-round television drama and his contract has been renewed each year since then. Scott works ‘long hours, often six days a week, with a tight schedule and scripts to learn overnight,’ but his work has been ‘well-paid’ and so he and Zara have been able to buy a ‘larger home in north London’ closer to the TV studios where he works.
Zara’s work continues to be ‘stage-based’ and recently she ‘set up a theatre group’. She asked Scott to get involved with her group, and when he told her that he ‘simply didn’t have the time’ a row ensued. Zara accused Scott of ‘selling out’ by taking television work in a soap opera, and he accused her of ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’ because her theatre work does not provide enough income for them to live on.
After that row and several others that ensued, they came to see me. In our initial session, both said that the other had ‘changed’. Zara felt that Scott had become ‘materialistic and arrogant’ while Scott felt that Zara took his ‘hard work and income for granted’, enjoying the home and lifestyle his income afforded them while ‘looking down on’ his work.
In the next session, Scott said they had a holiday in Tuscany planned.
‘We used to love travelling together,’ he said. ‘But these days Zara drives me mad. She’s never packed until the morning we’re travelling, and she thinks it’s fine to get to the airport at the last second. It gets me so stressed; I like to be packed a day or two ahead and to leave plenty of time to relax at the airport.’
‘He’s a fusspot,‘ Zara replied. ‘I hate packing, so I leave it until I have to do it. He used to think that was charming! Now he has to have everything planned and it takes all the joy out of it. He orders a car to the airport, but I used to love us doing it all on the hop, we’d laugh about running for the train to the airport.’
‘Until you missed a train, and we missed our flight,’ Scott said. ‘I’m getting older. These days I just like to know everything is organised.’
‘Might as well book the care home now,’ Zara said crossly. ‘We’re not old, and I don’t want to behave as if we are.’
‘Have you changed your behaviours, or have you just run out of energy?’ I ask, and they tell me it has always been like that.
‘Okay, so it’s something about energy,’ I say. ‘Tell me, do you both enjoy your work?’
‘Yes’ they both say, with energy and without hesitation.
Following that exchange, I suggested that for their upcoming trip they might like to try travelling to the airport separately, to see what it would be like for them to do something different.
They agreed to this and as they were booking their next session with me, Scott said, ‘I don’t suppose you would consider coming to see us at our home, would you? I’ve got to be back on set the next day and it would be a real help.’
I told them that I would be happy to come to their home.
Two weeks later, after they had returned from their trip, I go to see them at their house, close to Hampstead Heath in north London. Scott opens the door and shows me around a large, bright, basement kitchen, an open-plan living room looking out onto a mature garden, and several bedrooms. The impression is of a glamorous and tasteful home, furnished in minimalist style, much of it white and cream. I notice that Zara does not come with us on the tour of the house.
We settle in the living room, where there are two large, cream sofas and several armchairs.
My Initial Response
I was mostly greatly impacted hearing about the moment they shared about both thinking they were soulmates. I thought about it as a moment of communion and about the context in which it had occurred, after they had been able to navigate a problem together. I suspected that this gave them faith in the potential for them to spend time together. Zara sharing her feelings at not being able to go to the funeral and Scott’s full understanding acceptance of how she felt enabled them to find a solution together. Zara’s ability to express her feelings and Scott’s ability to think about a possible practical solution captured their differing ways of being.
I noticed that I had feelings that make sense through the words heavy and turgid, and it led me to think about how they both seemed to have retreated into their own ways of being.
I also thought about their having lost trust in their ability to work together when either of them was unhappy. An image of a boxing ring came to mind, which placed me in the role of referee. My most natural style of thinking about life tends towards the analytical—looking for patterns, connections, and meanings, and yet with them I felt a need to be more practical and more interventionist, which felt both exciting and risky.
Setting a practical task was one element, but then I wondered about my agreeing to and being excited about the home visit and whether my doing so was ‘really in the service of the therapy.’ I thought about how the home visit would provide me with a great deal of information and I made a mental note to explore with them what my agreeing to the home visit might mean for them.
‘I’m wondering how it is for you both that I am here?’
‘It’s nice to be able to show you where we live,’ says Scott.
Zara is silent.
I notice a photograph of a pretty cottage on the table next to the armchair where she is sitting, and Zara catches my glance.
‘That’s our cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon,’ she says. ‘I love it there; I try to go as often as I can. It’s very small compared to this place, but I feel so free and at ease when I’m there.’
‘Are you there often?’ I ask.
‘She’s there more than here,’ Scott answers. ‘I can’t get away that often, so Zara goes, but it means we spend less time together. Sometimes I think she prefers it to this house.’
‘I like this house,’ Zara says. ‘But I never really feel comfortable here. There’s always so much to manage—cleaners, gardeners, decorators—I love the cottage because there’s none of that, it’s just easy. I can spend the afternoon painting and not notice time passing. Here, I never get time to paint.’
‘At least you get to spend time here,’ Scott says. ‘I get home from work, learn my lines, sleep, and go back to work—so that I can keep paying for the house I barely see.’
Zara frowns at him. ‘I never asked you to pay for it,’ she mutters. ‘I would be perfectly happy in the cottage.’
‘Where I can’t be, because I need to be based here for work,’ Scott says, sighing.
Tell me about your trip,’ I say. ‘Did you travel to the airport separately? How was that for each of you?’
Zara turns to me, and she smiles. ‘We did. And I really enjoyed it. I got the train and I enjoyed looking out of the window, reading my magazine, and having a coffee.’
How was it for you?’ I ask Scott.
‘It was all right,’ he says. ‘I booked a car, as usual, I slept on the way—as usual—and I got there early and had a drink until it was time to meet Zara.’
‘And what was it like for you both when you met at the airport?’ I ask.
‘I felt relieved,’ says Scott. ‘Strangely, me too,’ says Zara.
‘Strangely?’ I ask. ‘Well, I thought that Scott would not be so happy to see me,’ she laughs.
Scott looks at her. ‘Me too,’ he says.
‘How come?’ I ask.
‘Well, I thought that now he had everything his own way he wouldn’t want me anymore,’ Zara says.
‘I thought the same,’ Scott nods.
‘So you both do things differently, but when you do things in your own way you fear something?’ I say.
They look at me as though the question makes sense but neither speaks. They seem stuck.
‘I wonder if what you fear in those moments is rejection?’ I venture.
Scott suddenly straightens up, losing his deflated posture, while Zara’s posture relaxes. They look at each other and I sense that something is understood between them as they smile and there is a sense of ease.
For Zara and Scott, the moment of understanding came when I asked them about their experience of being back together after both agreeing to do something differently and separately. In that moment of connection they realised that though they are very different in many ways, it was not, ultimately, a reason why either of them would not want the other.
What Happened Next
During the following sessions, Zara and Scott talked about their London house and came to recognise that they both, in their own ways, felt oppressed by it. They took the decision to sell the house and buy somewhere smaller, reducing the cost and the time spent managing the house.
Zara had begun to feel that Scott did not need her in the way that he used to and Scott was fearing that Zara preferred being in the cottage on her own to being with him, but as they explored those fears they both came to see that it they were only able to do what they were doing because of the lives they had co-created and they were reminded of all that they used to do together and enjoy. Ultimately, they each wanted the other to be happy, and having understood that they were both actually deeply happy in their work, change was possible.
In this way, they began to offer one another the mutual support that they were both missing. In practice, this meant that they did spend less time together as they split their time between the London and country homes, with Scott spending more of the time in London and Zara in the country home. They were at ease with that because they both had renewed energy, which enabled them to do the work they loved. At the same time, they were very protective of and put great emphasis on the time that they were able to spend together, which left them feeling secure, happy, supported, connected, and relaxed.
Zara and Scott were initially united by their desire to meet a soulmate. This connection at first masked their very different ways of being. They enjoyed a degree of mutual dependency, but at the same time their felt sense of security came from being able to express their creativity. For Scott, his self-expression focused on his impact on others as an actor, while for Zara it was more about how she felt in herself.
Their togethering was disrupted by the demands of Scott’s new television role, which meant that they could not spend the time together that they’d once had. For Scott, life became one of constant pressure; the demand to work long hours and to fit everything around that. Although he was compensated financially, enabling them to buy a glamorous home, they found that neither of them fully enjoyed it. A sense of unease had crept in, and they were both holding onto a lifestyle with which neither felt fully comfortable. What was not understood between them was that they didn’t need to do everything together, or in the same way, to be happy. They had forgotten that their differing ways of being and their individual sense of ease in those differing ways was not a threat but an asset to their relationship.
To begin to shift the situation they needed to be reminded of how things used to be before they met, and their separate journeys to the airport provided the first step in that realisation. In being allowed to be themselves, and then realising that they wanted each other despite their differing ways, their faith in the relationship was restored, and with that came a sense of ease that also energised them, enabling them to work together to ensure they managed life in a way that supported what made them both happy.
For more information on this book and how to buy a copy of Better Together - the relationships book