The Couple Container

During my training as a relationship therapist the constant mantra seemed to be “a successful relationship is a balance between togetherness and separateness,” meaning that a healthy, mature relationship is one where both partners can develop their own lives and pursue their own interests distinct from the couple relationship, but also come together and spend “quality time” in the couple relationship.

Too much separateness and the relationship can literally fall apart with couples fragmenting into distant units, too much togetherness and the result is often suffocation, with couples unable to grow and develop identities and personalities distinct from the relationship; a couple relationship can come to feel like a prison. Much tension in couple relationships can be created by not achieving a satisfactory balance between togetherness and separateness.

At the heart of this lies the ability for the relationship to act as a couple container.

There appears to be a drive within all of us to seek stability and security and one of the best ways we manage this is in couple relationships (see my article Attachments in Couple Relationships). Of course, couple relationships are not the only areas we find containment, we can also find containment in work, religion and family life, yet the quality of intention and intimacy that lies at the centre of couple relationships, the feeling that here what feels wrong can be put right, confers a potency to this kind of container that is seldom experienced elsewhere. In this sense couple containers are like parental relationships, where in order to be soothed the child will go to his or her parent and then run out to explore the world again. Committed relationships of this kind offer us the best container there is for emotional and psychological security and growth.

The couple container therefore can be thought of as an emotional and psychological container for each partner to have a space where they can hold and process emotional experiences that comes from within and without their relationship, something they can turn to when life gets difficult or distressing and, importantly, something from which others are excluded. The couple container needs to provide security, trust, reliability, a boundary and a sense of commitment to the couple relationship.

It’s important to note that we’re not looking for a perfect container, just a “good enough” one, one that allows for flexibility and growth; perhaps, ironically, a perfect container is an imperfect one, one where a couple accept imperfection in the relationship and each other and learn to experience their relationship in a more realistic and less anxious way.

From my experience as a couple therapist let’s review two (imaginary) cases.

Case One: Tom and Mary

Tom and Mary came to counselling after a series of distressing arguments and a feeling that the relationship was breaking down. The counsellor gently explored the couple relationship: Mary and Tom both had demanding jobs, and their weekends were spent food shopping, visiting their elderly parents separately then spending Sunday night together. Mary was beginning to feel that Tom had become distant and she had started to confide in a male workmate. Over the course of couple counselling Tom and Mary recalibrated their couple relationship, explored their couple fit (see my article The Couple Fit) and began to spend more time together, opening up to each other with renewed attention and intimacy.

Case Two: Si and Nisreen

Si and Nisreen came to couple counselling and what struck the counsellor at first was how alike they were, both wearing the same colours and at times answering for each other. They could not really say why they had come to counselling, except that they were puzzled as to why their relationship was not enjoyable any longer-they still spent all their time together, both working in the same Local Government Office and taking the same train and bus to work. The counsellor encouraged Si and Nisreen to explore what it was that they both might to do independently in the relationship, and after time both pursued their own interests bringing a new sense of zest into the relationship.

What was the function of the counselling?

The counselling itself had been able to provide a temporary container, which the couple had used to rely on while a necessary “re-fit” took place in their relationship; this is a much used function of couple or relationship counselling. Of course, sometimes the container will not grow and the task of the relationship counsellor is to contain and help the couple separate in the most amicable manner possible, helping to resolve difficulties that might turn into “baggage” in the next relationship (see my article Relationship Breakup).

How to grow and maintain the couple container: some tips

1. Remember who you are separately from the relationship, your own hopes, dreams and values

2. Communicate clearly and well; spend some time really listening to your partner and asking yourself what it is she or he
really wants, and how you can help fulfill that

3. Create your couple container out of appreciation, respect, kindness, reciprocity and attentiveness; tell your partner
that you cherish them and value having them in your life. These will be the hallmarks of a secure and adaptable container

4. Make sure you spend time together as a couple, fulfilling mutual goals and dreams; make sure you spend some time apart,
cultivate friends and interests outside the relationship

5. Bring to your relationship a sense of safety and security, be willing to be vulnerable and accept your partner’s
vulnerability

Questions to help you reflect on your couple container

1. How much time do I spend with my partner? Do I feel this is too much time or too little?

2. What do I know of my partner’s goals and dreams? How have these changed over the years?

3. When my partner and I spend time together how do we nurture each other?

4. Who do I automatically run to when I feel distressed or down?

5. How could I best help my partner if they felt distressed or down?