• Bill Petrie

What is Conscious Relationship?

Couples see me for many reasons.

There may be issues around intimacy. There may be conflict around finances, parenting, socialising, or values. There may be disappointment.

They may have grown apart and feeling that they are no longer ‘in

love.’ There may have been a betrayal of trust.

Often, they are desperate.

But, very often, much can be done!

Now, although each couple is unique, there are also often

commonalities. In over thirty years of working with couples, I

have noticed some kinds of problems that tend to come up time

and time again and I’ll be exploring some of those here - together

with insights and solutions that may help you on your way.

The approach I’ll be taking is what I call ‘Conscious Relationship’ -

a relatively modern development.

Traditionally, the focus of relationships has been on the roles

that each person has to play and these roles have been very

carefully prescribed. And, that suited most people because each

person knew exactly what was expected of him or her and that

created a solid sense of security.

In the 1950’s in the USA, for example, there was a clear

expectation that the husband provide financially for the family

and that the wife looked after the kids and the home. That may

have worked then but most couples today have a much more

complex and varied set of expectations!

And - whether it be via our parenting or from society at large -

there are many other social influences too.

We tend to dress according to social trends, to wear our hair according to fashion, to marry in way that is supported by our society and to be promiscuous to the degree that is tolerated by our culture.

Social influence is enormously powerful!

And, so is our biology!

In fact, if we look at things through the lens of evolutionary

psychology, many of of our expectations are still largely

determined by our biology. Like all other apes, we seek mates. We

strive for security. We desire sex. We raise and protect our

families. And, we raise our children by cooperating with others in

communities and we protect those communities from ‘others.’

We are naturally driven to these things and very often we don’t

realise that it’s largely our biology at play.

So, much of our lives - including our relationships - are very

significantly determined by our biology and by culture.

Now, I’m sure that this is not news to you! But the thing that is

really interesting in all of this is that both the biological drives

and the social conditioning - are very largely unconsciously driven.

In most cases, couples allow their biology and their culture to

determine much of their lives without even knowing that this is


And, that is fine for many but some people long for something


They want to become more conscious.

They want to know who they are and they want to know their partners deeply. They want to be true to their hearts. And, they want to become most fully who they really are.

For such couples, Conscious Relationship is the way to go.

Now, Conscious Relationship is not everyone’s cup of tea. I respect

that and I work happily with many couples for whom this is not a

priority at all.

But, here I’m talking about Conscious Relationship and some of

the common problems that are dealt with along the way. And, I

hope that will see just how helpful this insightful approach can


So, what are common problems that I see in my practice?

Well, we could start with two of the more obvious - sex and

money. And, we will mention these. But, I want to start with ‘falling out of love‘ because so many couple come to couples work feeling bereft because they just don’t feel the same about each other any more. What they don’t realise is that this happens to us all!

Most of us in the modern world get married when we are ‘in love.’

And, of course, it’s wonderful. We feel complete, happy, joyful, and

alive. We would give everything to our love and we discover so

much commonality and have so much fun.

Who wouldn’t want that?

But, there is a huge downside because being in love is a deeply

unconscious state.

In fact, it is so unconscious that the great Psychologist - Carl Jung - called it a “socially-condoned psychosis.”

All of us who have been in love know that we eventually fall out of

the enchantment and find ourselves wondering what went wrong.

Things were wonderful but now the passion of the first bloom has

wilted and we are left feeling disappointed and confused.

Despite all the ‘happy-ever-after’ messages that we have received

from popular music, from Hollywood films and from thousands of

romantic novels, we will eventually fall out of love.

It’s just what happens!

And, it’s painful, worrying even deeply disillusioning. But there is

a silver lining!

The spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, once asked the participants in a

group that he was running what they thought love really is. Most

members of the group had strong ideas. But, one man - an elderly

Japanese gentleman - remained silent. In the end, he couldn't keep

quiet and he began to talk about how, when he had gotten

married in Japan, his hope was that - by the time he died - he

would have learned something of what love really is.

This is a profound view and a life-time learning of what it means

to really love someone is central to the practice of Conscious


After the joy of being ‘in love’ comes the chance to learn about love that endures. And, a part of the road to becoming more conscious involves learning to open our hearts to this love - this kindness and compassion - not only towards our partner and our children but also towards ourselves. In a relationship, it comes across as a deep caring for the wellbeing and happiness of our partner - a caring and love that can last a lifetime!

And, we need this love because it’s hard for us to accept life as it

is - to accept that there are no perfect relationships, no perfect

partners, no perfect life - not for anyone.

In fact, life often does not live up to our fantasies and desires. We want things and we can’t afford them. We’re desperate for ‘me’ time but we have to go to work. We’re feeling depleted but our children

need us to take care of them. We wish were slimmer, fitter, better

looking, smarter, wealthier than we are. It is the nature of the

human condition to be at odds with things as they are - at least,

for much of the time.

And that applies to our relationship too!

You might want your man to be strong at a time when he is

struggling. You may want to make love more often than your

partner does. You might wish that your partner was more

romantic, that he or she earned more, that he or she was more

affectionate, or one of a thousand other things.

The reality is that – at this moment – your partner is exactly as he or she is. And, that can be hard to accept. But it is very important to do so because it’s the only reality there is!

It can also be hard for most couples to admit to themselves that

they have a problem and that they really could do with some


Resistance to reality runs deep and I find that, very often, people

choose to ignore their intuitive felt-sense - the background

discomfort - that is telling them that something is not quite right.

Take financial difficulties as an example. Most couples who have

gotten themselves into these difficulties, knew – somewhere deep

in themselves – long before they chose to do anything about it -

that something was wrong. And, they ignored it only to their later

deep regret.

The truth is that - even though it’s hard to face some parts of

reality - the sooner you do, the sooner you will be able to deal

with any of the problems that you might have.

Relationship counselling really helps with this.

Accepting challenges and learning to deal with these brings peace to your life.

Unfortunately, many relationships experience anything

but peace. A complaint that I hear from men over and over again

is: ’she’s always going on at me!’

These men feel that the women in their lives criticise them

relentlessly and they get very angry and tend to close down

emotionally or counter-attack.

So, let’s illustrate this with an everyday example in the life of Sue

and John.

They are in the middle of a fight:

Sue: ‘You can’t be serious! You want to go and cycle with your

mates again! You’re just so damned selfish. Look at all I do for

you and for our family and you want to leave me looking

after the kids again!’ It’s just not on!

John: ‘Listen, I work hard for us. I bring in most of the money for

this family. It’s important that I stay fit! Besides which, I

deserve some fun time with my mates.’

Sue: ‘Oh God! You're just a child! Who do you think looks

after the kids when you’re out playing on your bike! Why

don’t you put your big boy pants on for a change and take

your responsibilities as a father seriously?’

John: ‘Listen! I do my bit and maybe I’d be keener to stick around

if you weren’t criticising me all the time. You never recognise anything positive that I do!’

And so it goes on and on - each defending his or her position

with no resolution in sight.

Unfortunately, the problem is not going to be solved unless John

and Sue find out what’s really going on for them. And, they won’t

know what’s really going on unless they listen to each other very

carefully indeed.

Imagine that Sue and John did listen to each other - really listen -

they might well find something like the following:

• Both feel unappreciated and unloved.

• John feels that Sue doesn’t appreciate just how hard he works

to provide for the family.

• Sue feels that John doesn’t appreciate all the hard work that

she does for the family in addition to the fact that she also


• Sue is beginning to believe that John would rather spend time

with his mates than with her and this hurts her and makes her

feel unwanted and unappreciated as a woman.

• John feels shamed by Sue and he also feels that Sue doesn’t

appreciate just how important some ‘boys time’ really is.

• And, there may also be numerous other issues lying under the

surface – financial concerns, boundary issues, sexual issues,

and much else besides.

So, there is likely to be - a whole range of problems but the

problem that I want to focus on right now is John’s perception

that Sue is criticising him ‘all the time.’

Interestingly, scientific research on relationships sheds some light on why this is such a common complaint.

One of the most consistent findings of this research is that

women are far more likely to flag up problems in a relationship

than are men.

How often have I heard - in couples work - an interchange like the


Sue: ‘There’s something going on. I know there is!’

John: ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Sue. There is nothing going on. Please

just let it go!’

Sue: ‘No, I know that there’s something going on. What’s going


And, over the years, I have learned that when a woman says that

there is something going on, there usually is.

It might not be what she fears. In other words, it might not be


• He’s having an affair.

• Or that he doesn’t love her any more.

• Or that he doesn’t find her attractive any more.

• Or that he’s spent money they can’t afford.

• Or that he didn’t do something that they had agreed that he

would do.

Of course, any or all of these may or may not be true…

But, there is usually something going on.

Women (as a gross generalisation) tend to pick these things up because – as a general rule - women are hard-wired to be more sensitive to issues in - and protective of - relationships than are men.

The research supports this notion and it’s been my general experience as a therapist with couples all over the world.

Let’s explore this a little further by taking a relatively neutral

example - Sue and John arranging a barbecue.

Sue says:

• “Let’s have a barbecue and invite our friends”

John thinks:

• Great! I’ll get the beers and the wine, the charcoal and the

meat and we’ll have a great time.

Sue thinks:

• Who do we owe a dinner to? Well there’s Margaret and Peter,

Jane and Leon, Sandy and Michael, Ann and Jeremy, Michelle

and Roy … but Ann is pissed off with Margaret at the

moment so I can’t invite both of them. So, who should I

invite? Perhaps we shouldn’t invite either of them. No, to hell

with it. They must grow up and deal with their stuff. I’ll

invite both of them.

• But, what about Michelle. I’m so tired of her ‘Look at me.

Look at how wonderful I am!’ attitude. Maybe I’ll give her a

miss, too. But then when the girls get together it’s going to

cause a lot of tension. So, I’d better ask her along, too.

• Should we invite the kids? Let me see, there are 12 kids in

all. No, that’s too many people. We’ll just invite the adults.

• And, what about Leon. Last time he got drunk and

aggressive and I just don’t feel like that again. But, I can’t

not ask Jane. She’ll be very hurt.

• Oh God, the house is looking a mess. I’ll have to tidy the

whole thing up and I need to get new wine glasses. The old

one’s have been ruined by the dishwasher.

• And, what am I going to wear? I feel so fat at the moment

and Ann’s going to be breezing in with her tanned skinny

body. Bugger!

And that’s only the beginning! We haven’t got to all the other

interpersonal dynamics or to the salads, deserts, snacks, lighting,

or the music.

And, this is where yet another gender difference comes in. Sue

will tend to want to talk all of this through.

There are exceptions of course - but, as a general rule - women

tend to process issues by talking them through to

a greater degree than men do. The research literature

certainly supports this too.

So, as a tendency, women are more sensitive to issues in a

relationship, tend to raise issues more readily and tend to have

greater desire to talk these issues through.

And, many men experience this as a bit of a pain!

But, what I have found in couples work is that it is helpful for

men to see these traits as a great blessing - because they are!

If your woman is raising an issue, she has picked up a problem

and she wants the relationship work!

And it may be laborious for many men but shared conversation

and problem-solving – if entered into willingly – creates an

experience of the two of you working together in a way that

strengthens the bond between you, making the relationship far

safer and much stronger.

So, far from being a ‘critical cow’ an insightful man may well

discover that he is in a relationship with a protectress of the

relationship - a very valuable thing indeed!

Now, let’s explore Sue and John’s situation a bit further - from

Sue’s point of view.

What would she say in response to John’s allegation that she’s

‘always going on’ at him?’

Well, one of the things that Sue may well complain about is that

she can’t rely on John. And, this unreliability may have many

different forms but let’s take a simple example – the task of

watering the pot plants in the home.

Sue and John agreed that John would take care of the pot plants.

He started off well but, after a few weeks, she noticed that he

was neglecting them. So, she raised it gently with him:

“Honey, the pot plants are looking a little thirsty!”

And, nothing changed.

Then she raise it again – several other times - and nothing much


And so, caught by growing frustration, Sue took a much more

aggressive stance:

“Look, you’ve agreed to look after the pot plants and this one is

just about dead. I’ve asked you how many times? Please just

water the damned pot plants. I do so much around here! I shop for

us. I cook the food. I load and unload the dishwasher, I wash the

clothes, I look after the kids. I do just about everything. Can’t you

grow up just a little and water the blooming plants? Honestly,

you’re just a damned child!”

Now, John reacts. All he has heard is the criticism and the

shaming. So, he counter-attacks:

“There you go again! I’m never good enough, am I! Well, maybe

you should take a good look at yourself! You’re not so damned

perfect either.”

He storms off and there is no resolution. The pot plants remain

unwatered and the couple are not in a good way.

This would never have happened, of course, if John had just stuck

to the agreement. But, many men don’t and you may well wonder

why this happens.

Part of the dynamic is that many men feel that, by agreeing to do

something, they are behaving like ‘good boys’ for their ‘mommy’

wives. In other words, they feel like a ‘child’ obeying a ‘parent’

and that makes them want to rebel - just like a teenager might.

But, this can only happen if men don’t approach the whole issue

as an adult.

If John had made the decision - as an adult - he would have felt

that he had fully bought into the decision and would have taken

ownership of his role. This would have enabled him to respond to

Sue’s remarks as an adult – in a non-defensive way - and things

would have gone a great deal better:

“Oh, I’m sorry, Sue. I did agree to watering the pot plants, didn’t

I? I’ll make sure that I do.”

So, John needs to learn to make and stick to his agreements as an

adult - and not as an adolescent or as a child.

But, is their anything Sue could have done to encourage this

maturity? Well, yes! Even though she’d gotten very frustrated, she

could have continued to treat him as an adult (rather than as a

bad child - which only made the scolding parent / bad child

dynamic worse):

“John, I don’t want to continually come across as a nag. I love you

and appreciate the many things that you do but it’s very

frustrating for me if you agree to do something and then don’t do

it. So please won’t you water the pot plants?”

This will work a whole lot better. Sue is talking about how John’s

inaction is affecting her without shaming him. And, she is

showing love and appreciation and a desire to work together with

her man.

Now, even if you know all of this, you may still struggle because -

as we all know - when feelings are running high, it’s very hard

not to be critical or defensive!

So, what do we do? Well, it helps a great deal if we have a way of

calming ourselves down before we deal with difficult issues. Now

it may only take a few deep breaths, a short talking to yourself or

a quick walk around the block to calm down but it may take a

great deal more – a run, a yoga session, a walk, meditation or

even a work-out at the gym.

You need to do whatever works for you, so that you can come

back to the discussion in a much more constructive way.

And, you need to have an agreement with your partner that, if

either of you needs to calm down, that you are given the space to

do that provided that you come back to that discussion.

But, even given all of this, many couples still find that they

struggle and this is where couples work really comes into its

own. A third person - a professional - helps to moderate conflict

enabling you to deal with difficulties in a much more constructive


Now, having calmed down, the next step is to engage in careful

and respectful listening. Any good professional will tell you that

careful and respectful listening is an essential skill.


Well, without careful listening, we can’t really know what is

going on for our partner. And, without our partner being able to

listen very carefully to us, they can’t know what is going on for

us. And, without knowing what is going on for each other, how

can we possibly deal with any problems that might arise?

So, careful listening is very important but most of us are not very

good at it!

Instead of listening, most people find themselves reacting while

the other person is talking. So, they find themselves thinking

things like: ’No, that’s not true!’ or ‘How can you say that!’ or ‘Oh

my God, is that what you really think?’ or some other response

that turns into a conversation in their head.

And, when this happens, they’re not really listening!

When we are listening - really listening - we are putting all of our

attention on the other person and we are listening with

everything we have got.

In relationship counselling we learn this skill and it makes a huge difference. It not only helps you to understand the problem at hand, it enables both of you to develop a much deeper understanding of each other and, in the process, you will also develop a much deeper understanding of yourself.

So now the two of you have calmed yourselves down. You have

listened very carefully to each other and now the problem is a

good deal clearer.

Now it’s very helpful to ask this question:

Given this problem - and given the people that we are - how are

we going to best deal with this together?’

Notice that I say together because this is critical. A relationship is

a joint effort.

In a good relationship, you are not only living your own lives, you

are also supporting the life of your partner and both of you are

responsible for keeping the relationship alive. A relationship

needs care and attention every bit as much as each of you do.

So, a good relationship is not only about each of you as

individuals, it’s also about you as a couple.

So, you talk the problem through together - explore solutions and

find the best possible way of dealing with it. And, most couples

will be able to do this if, and only if, the relationship is held

within a safe container.

A safe container is hard to define but you know you have it when

both of you feel safe enough to be vulnerable in the relationship.

Now, many different elements make up a safe container but they

all nurture a sense of trust.

The foundational element is that your partner needs to know that

you are deeply committed to making the relationship work.

Keeping one foot out of the relationship works as well as a leaky

bucket. It undermines trust. Firm commitment, on the other hand,

breeds trust and it’s an essential element in the container.

Another vital element of the container is the knowledge that you

and your partner have each other’s backs - that you will stand by

each other in difficult times - that you will not undermine them

behind their back, that you are loyal.

Perhaps a surprisingly important element in the business of

creating trust is reliability. You also need to know that your

partner will stick to your agreements. Remembering to water the

plants is a small example. There are far more serious issues.

Most married couples, for example, agree to be monogamous and

make vows to this effect and having an affair is a profound

betrayal of this trust.

And, this is where good boundaries come in. Boundaries are

essentially the limits that enable you to feel safe and they are

essential elements of a safe container.

If flirting with others makes one of you feel unsafe, for example, then the boundary might be that there be no flirting with others. If not sticking to agreements makes one of you feel unsafe, then sticking to agreements would certainly be a boundary.

Then there are critical boundaries that we call deal-breakers.

Deal-breakers are boundaries which, if crossed, would end the

relationship. Common examples would be:

• If you continue to drink excessively…

• If you sleep with someone else…

• If you don’t deal with your gambling addiction…

• If you don’t get yourself out of debt…

• If you don’t deal with your temper…

• If you don’t stop abusing me…

…then, I won’t stay in the relationship.

Deal-breakers are clear statements of the limits of acceptability

for you or your partner.

So, commitment does not mean that you have to tolerate

crippling addictions, infidelity or abuse. Not at all! Deal-breakers

protect us from these situations and you need to be very clear

with your partner (and with yourself) what your deal-breakers


A fifth element of a safe container is openness and honesty.

In general, we are only going to be open and honest with our

partner if we feel safe enough and most of us are only going to

feel safe enough if our partner is open and honest with us. So, it

works both ways.

If we know that our partner is open and honest with us, it invites

a strong sense of security. And, that sense of security, in turn,

allows us to be open and honest with our partner.

Now, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. All of us struggle at

times in a long-term relationships. All relationships are complex

and all have their challenges and we may even get to the point of

considering leaving.