The Couples Stroke Bank in the Therapy Room

Since calling and creating my custom-made Couples Stroke Bank – picture above – it has become a regular part of my practice for some years now with my couples.

It’s designed for you when considering your relationship, especially when asking how happy you both are. Are you looking toward making changes, to reach the loving relationship you want – to love and be loved?

It’s a creative activity that you may choose to use as a visual aid, as the opening point in your couple counselling journey, to find a clearer sense of direction – giving you both confidence and hope.

I will place it on the therapy room table, to offer you a simple and brief explanation of the transactional analysis (TA) concept of positive interactions – “strokes” – that you give one another. I invite you, of your own choosing, when the mood takes you, to approach the Couples Stroke Bank, pick up a heart of your choosing and place it into the Couples Stroke Bank: thus symbolically funding your relationship with each other’s experiences and memories of each other’s positive interactions – or, “strokes” – as received and accepted from one other; the small golden, silver and red hearts are meant to be representing your memories of those small moments – of positive interactions.

Just as you can make deposits and withdrawals from your traditional bank account, you can make deposits and withdrawals from your Couples Stroke Bank. And, just as the balance in your traditional bank account affects how financially safe or insecure you feel, the balance in your Couples Stroke Bank affects how safe or insecure you feel emotionally in your relationship.

Using this tool illustrates how you can build up savings that, like money in your bank account, can serve as a cushion when times get tough.

This activity is an opportunity for you both to express and show to the other your playfulness, creativity and spontaneity, assessing and touching the different coloured and crafted hearts.

Of course you can go on, as clients have, to create your own Couples Stroke Bank for use in your everyday life – suited to both your needs and lifestyles.

In a future Blog, I offer you another creative activity – Loving Cards – that have become a regular part of my couple counselling practice. Again, in couple counselling with me this may provide you with a simple and effective tool to use to recognise the particular ways of relating that you both want from one another.

Loving Cards in the Therapy Room

Are you having fewer arguments? More ready to discuss what it is you want from one other? Wanting to let each other know what it is that is most important to you?

If so, maybe you are looking for a simple and effective tool you can use to recognise what you both want from one another – to reach the relationship you want – to love and be loved.

It was the work of relationship counsellor, Gary Chapman, and his Loving Languages series of books that gave me the idea for my Loving Cards; because of his notion that each of us has our own preferences about how we want to be loved.

Reading several of Chapman’s publications, I understood in greater depth that his five ‘love languages’ were the different ways in we each want to love and be loved. Whether that be receiving from our partners, or giving to them:

Physical touch
Words of affirmation
Quality Time
Gift Giving
Acts of Service

I understood too that the ‘love languages’ that you feel are the most important to you might not necessarily be of equal importance to your partner. One of you, for example, might like to be appreciated, whilst the other likes to go out on social occasions.

So, based on my insights into Chapman’s ‘loving languages’, I created a very practical tool for couples to learn about the ways how them themselves, and their partners, experience feeling loved; this tool I call “Loving Cards”. I quickly grasped, from those who choose to use them, that the Cards helped them to explore, clarify and agree their understanding of each other’s loving languages. In effect, helping them to get to what it is that they want to change in their relationship; to get the positive interactions they most wanted – to get more of what we in transactional analysis (TA) call “positive strokes”.

In practice, I will hand you the Loving Cards as a deck. I ask you to sift through the Cards and select which particular descriptions out of all five love languages most closely match your preferred ways of being loved. Then, I ask you both to sift through the Cards again – bearing in mind the choices you’ve already made – this time, in order to look at and agree on those love languages that you already share and enjoy together and those which you may want to build on together some more.

Being loved in the way you appreciate is going to be important to your relationship, so it may be in your interests to learn how to speak each other’s love languages.

Through counselling with me, or with another counselling professional, you may find that it takes a few discussions to fully understand each other’s love languages, and it will take practice and patience to put those expressions of love into action, but the end result – feeling more loved in your relationship – sure will be worth the effort?

Below, I share my Loving Cards for free for your reflection. You may simply read them or print them off and sort through your own pile.

I wish you good luck on your explorative journey together. Don’t forget I’m here for you if you feel a ‘neutral’ person would help in the process.

Loving Cards

Gentle: Embrace the Risk of Loving Relationships?

Are you curious about this art installation called Beyond Time by the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota (see video clip above)? Wondering how it would help you having a safe and empowering place offered to you? Wondering how this might relate to your loving relationships?

With my therapist hat on, I myself was surprised when answers to these questions and more came to mind whilst walking around this art installation entitled Beyond Time.

I visited the chapel where Beyond Time is housed only last week; it is located in the 18th- century grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. And, having viewed the entire structure for quite some time, my memories are still very vivid now; I humbly left the chapel and walked back into the grounds; contemplating what I’d just experienced.

Looking back now, I realize the power I’d felt there was because of the gentleness that this contemporary installation had afforded me. That it had quietly nudged me to appreciate the value of my own counselling practice; creating effective working alliances with my clients – for them to feel safe enough – to find their own ways to their own inner, wordless experiences; sensing release – and knowing gratitude for the connections already there in their lives with their loved ones.

While it was through viewing Beyond Time, and spending quite some time doing so, that I understood Chiharu’s intention for it to emerge as a seemingly ethereal, floating composition (or ‘painting in mid-air) from the steel structure which was designed to reference a musical instrument – honouring the chapel’s musical past; a place where bells once rang out and countless hymns were sung. With its thousands of strands of white woollen thread connecting the entire installation – white representing mourning in Japan – coming from the steel piano; resonating with the religious function and heritage of the chapel, which dates back to 1744. And, hundreds of music symbols written onto pieces of paper woven within the threads of white wool.

It had been when stepping inside the chapel and catching first sight of Beyond Time, that the theme of trust in Chiharu Shiota’s work, as well as in my own, had captured my attention. This happened even before Beyond Time softly whispered to me “you’ve embraced the risks of loving”; even before Beyond Time had evoked memories of those moments with my clients when they had spoken about finding their ways to connect to the painful feelings of their child within which needed care and attention. A time when they had known of their childhood ‘primal wounds’ – as we call them in transactional analysis (TA). A time, too, when they had known that they were healing sufficiently enough from those ‘wounds’ to become who they truly were – to embrace the risks of loving relationships.

Chiharu Shiota: Beyond Time
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
30 March – 2 September 2018
Free entry

If Ivan Locke had become my client.

Despite playing a range of characters throughout his 17 -year career, it seems like Tom Hardy’s more complex performances are the ones we keep coming back to. In Locke (2014), Hardy plays a man who drives his BMW – with hands-free phone capability – from Birmingham to Croydon, and even further from the life he once knew. It is a journey that changes his life, for reasons that gradually become clear as he makes phone call after phone call, the details spilling out in increasingly painful conversations.

The man’s name is Ivan Locke. The title character in a real-time story; a one man show about a man on the road to his destiny. Locke is a married construction engineer, with a thick beard and dependable jumper. It’s clear from the start that he is a capable, responsible and practical man, but with a lot on his mind. He is preparing a site for the largest concrete pour in Europe’s history the next morning – only he won’t be there. Nor will he see his wife and kids that evening although they are eagerly awaiting his arrival home to watch an important football match.

Why is Ivan about to lose everything – his family, his income, his good name? When he hits the motorway, as he fields phone calls from his wife and kids, and his boss, he knows he is going to let them all down. Though he requires great control in his life, he knows he is gradually losing it, bit by bit, call by call – after he informs them that he won’t be able to fulfil his obligations.

Why? “I have no choice”, he says.

Instead making the decision that he has to make, he informs them of his secret that he has been bearing for 9 months – hoping to keep his life intact. He explains to his wife that he has never forgiven his father for abandoning him as a child, and he is determined not to make the same mistake. He tells her of his journey to the hospital where Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman), a 43-year-old woman with whom he had a one-night fling, is about to give birth to his baby.

Hardy’s performance made me want to know more about Ivan, follow him into his life after the final credits had rolled.

In particular, I was struck by how calm Ivan appeared making the calls – approaching each in the exact same manner, presenting the problem, the solution and a plan to move forward. I was struck too, that at such times Ivan showed no signs of remorse, but rather demonstrated, what we in transactional analysis (TA) call, his ‘Tough Kid’. I hadn’t failed to notice either Ivan’s swagger and inflated physicality – coming across as being bigger than he really was.

However as the journey wore on there were glimpses of a more dependent side to Ivan. No longer gently furrowing his brow or putting his hand to his mouth – as if tampering down his inner tension. Between calls breaking down: letting rip; screaming out obscenities, and making accusations against his father – sat on the rear seat as if he were really there – angrily blaming him for having to reveal his hand to his loved ones. I suspected, in his everyday life, such behavours were guarded against by his Tough Kid.

Later, I wondered whether he had thought of himself as freeing up, by his decisive action, his fears about being shamed by his father; being caught out perhaps – staging his own ‘farewell performance’? I wondered too, if Ivan had become my client, whether his ‘father issues’ would have become the core thread that would have ran through his counselling journey with me?

Seeing Hardy’s performance again, which you can see for yourself in the video clip below, brought to mind the quote that opens Robert Andersons play I Never Sang for My Father: “Death may end a life but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivors mind toward some resolution which it may never find”.

Wallander – A Mythical Hero?

Often in my work I ask my clients what their favourite hero or heroine is – a film star, religious figure, celebrity. The character they choose from the past or from the present day, we would call in transactional analysis (TA) their Mythical Hero. Through asking what significance there is for them about their hero or heroine we may open up discussions about what is important in their life. Leading us to go on and explore further any themes that may emerge as we recognise similarities in their hero’s or heroine’s life and their own – the challenges faced, endured, overcome.

I imagine if I myself were seeing my personal therapist, then our conversation would inevitably turn to what it is that is so interesting and enjoyable for me about Wallander. A British television series adapted from the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels and starring Kenneth Branagh as the police inspector. Taken that I have just brought the complete box set, and even considered booking a holiday in Ystad, Sweden where much of the series is shot. I imagine too that she might want to find out what my view of Wallander’s characater is. Then consider perhaps if I view myself to be like him or not. For example, have I too been too focused on my career at the expense of other aspects of my life? Is there a part of me that would prefer not to be a counsellor but rather a detective in Sweden investigating crimes and murders?

After watching several episodes this week, as well as the theme tune of the show it is the big blue skies and eerily flat and unpopulated landscapes of Sweden’s Skåne region that leaves an indelible impression on me. Both feature in the video clip below.

I’m Okay – You’re Okay

The image above is taken from the front cover of I’m OK – You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris – a pretty old book. This book has a personal significance for me because it was the first book I ever read about transactional analysis (TA) which continued to resonate when many years later I chose TA as my preferred therapeutic approach and decided to qualify as a TA counsellor and to continue advanced Clinical training.

In my early adulthood I had originally come across this book in my father’s library. Even when reading it all those years ago, I had recognised its use of rather out-dated language and examples (feminist friends, be warned!) from the 1970s. And yet, despite these limitations, I still today refer to chapters in this book for the accessible way in which he introduces the concepts of transactional analysis.

Even on first reading I found that this book offered a comprehensible guide to transactional analysis; its sensible non- technical language was a revelation for a young man seeking to understand his patterns of behaviour, hoping that there were real possibilities for change in himself and in others, – namely changing the dynamics contained in our interactions (or transactions).

When I was asked recently about my stance on clients who come to see me with their various histories, problems and behaviours, I replied: “Using TA, my ways of working – no matter what the client brings – are to be as close as I can to an ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ attitude”.

A TA colleague has defined this as meaning:

When things go wrong:

• I don’t blame anyone
• I hold on to my power
• I actively wish for you to hold on to your power
• I seek relationship with you
• I respect you and me equally
• I seek to problem solve
• I stay off the Drama Triangle
• I use emotionally literacy to resolve our issues
• I agree to disagree, respectfully for all of us
• I say no when I mean no

Even for those not in therapy, these are useful pointers on how to improve one’s relationships with others, and are worth bringing to mind.

Do Therapists Dream of their Clients?


We often dream about what we’ve been doing and who we’ve been with, so it should come as little surprise to discover many therapists dream about their clients.

What published research there is indicates that not all therapists have such dreams, and that those who do, may be reluctant to discuss their dreams of their clients.

Given the apparent insights derived from client dreams, my experience had been to incorporate them into my work. However disturbing and directly related to the therapy process those dreams may be, they are depictions of the struggles involved. In my experience I find that dreams which – by the way – are few and far between, can function as a means to process difficulties experienced in the therapy with my clients.

Through reflecting on my dreams, then, I have learnt, though clearly distressing, nevertheless they yield helpful insights about myself, my clients, and the therapy; and, for me to go on and apply those insights in my continued clinical work with the client.

In sum, dreams about clients can be used by their therapists to understand themselves, their clients, and the dynamics of the therapy relationship.

Is Your Relationship a Power Game?

It was a treat to attend the Leeds Food Festival on a weekend this Summer, with live music – an acoustic performance by Fran Minney. After her set we talked about her song ‘Power Game’. I was interested about this couple she had sung of, where one partner knew herself well enough to sense that she might become ruled by hate.

It was specifically the following chorus that led me to imagine what might have been going on between them before their break:

You played the power game
Only said yes when I said no
You never really felt the same
You won the game
I never thought you’d play

I wondered whether each partner had noticed subtle signs that the other had manipulated them out of the things they each wanted. And, – that based on those interactions – whether they had become immersed in an unhappy series of skirmishes, minor battles – gradually losing sight of any real intimacy.

In listening to the lyrics again at home, it was clear that she had finally stepped out of this relationship – to say her last goodbye, hoping her partner had not meant to break her heart.

In transactional analysis, ‘power plays’ is the term used for a series of transactions where a person obtains from another something he wants against the other person’s will.

In my work, with my clients, hearing of such ‘power plays’, I know, as they escalate, there is always the possibility of one party losing out, starting to question their own mind, their own version of reality.

Grieving- a terribly potent spiritual experience?

I’ve heard and read about Palma Cathedral before and today, this Sunday morning, there was time to visit it – not as a paying tourist, but attending Mass (from a seat way at the back); all the while being only too aware of my own religion’s emphasis on respecting other religions and their teachings; of opening oneself to teachings about life and death from a wide range of sources; of the fact that here I was continuing to reflect on events that had occurred over two days past.

On Friday afternoon I had seen my mother and said my final goodbyes to her on this earth. This had been a terribly potent spiritual experience. I had yearned to be able to go and finally see her in the flesh, to offer and share our goodbyes. Strange to find ourselves at this poignant moment such a long way from home. I had spoken to her and said “Thank You” out loud. I had bowed in gratitude, palms together in front of me, as I left her. I now recognised how much she had fought for her sanity, her life and her liberation as a professional and educated woman. Indeed, talking with the Nurse and Holiday Rep earlier they had conveyed their views candidly that she had let down her guard in her final days, “showing her vulnerability” they said.

As I left her, closing the door gently behind me and walking up the corridor to meet with the Municipal officials again to finally complete documentation for repatriation I was mindful of the significance of what had just happened. I felt a huge weight had been lifted from me. Knowing that now we had both moved to become what we were called to become – each as a separate, unique individual.

On the way back to my mother’s hotel, I wrote in my notebook of this new-found sense of individuality. I jotted down on the side of the notebook page the transactional analysis concept ‘symbiosis’ – to signify and mark this significant moment when the psychological dependence we had shared, had – as Buddhists say – ‘burnt up’. I had become my own self. And, – with a degree of healing perhaps – , we both had consciously moved towards this moment over these past few months.