Do’s and don’ts for a successful relationship – with MAFS expert Stephanie Dowse

Relationships are like a car – they need ongoing attention to keep running smoothly.

What’s a nice lady like you doing in a place like this?

For more than 20 years, Wellington-based therapist Stephanie Dowse has been working in the trenches of mental health care, covering the full range of human experience from couples counselling and family therapy to working with survivors of sexual assault, trauma and addiction.

So what brings her to be the latest professional expert to help matchmake 12 willing strangers in the second series of Married at First Sight New Zealand?

“It was something entirely different to what I had been doing,” she laughs. “I’d been working in that dark side of life for a really long time, so this was an opportunity to pull the best bits of what I do and put them into a really intriguing, fun environment.”

The stakes are a lot lower for the MAFS contestants compared to those Steph has long been working with.

“The people who have done [Married at First Sight] have volunteered to be in this experiment, and they can make choices all along the way about what they want to do,” she says.

“In a counselling environment, you have people come in who have had terrible things happen to them and it’s been outside of their control – that’s the hard part. Generally in relationships, however, we create our own problems.”

How she became an expert on a reality matchmaking show

It’s been a long and winding road for the 58-year-old to get here. As a child, Steph wanted to be a vet, and then a journalist, but it was via both a Classics degree and working as a music publicist – driving Elton John the wrong way down a one-way street in Wellington is a standout memory – that she got closer towards what she’s doing now.

In her 20s, Steph and her then boyfriend, Pete, moved to Western Australia, where she immediately came up against the sexist attitude of those doing the hiring in Perth.

“It was the late 1980s, and they would ask things like, ‘Why should we hire you when you might have a baby soon?'”

With closed doors at every corner, she decided to go back to university and “picked the quickest degree”. It was a Bachelor of Social Work. She fell in love with the field, and eventually got into counselling. It was a great industry to be in, Steph says, because in Western Australia it receives so much funding and resources. The money was excellent, the training plentiful and the work challenging.

One of the lighter roles she took on was working as a manager for the prostitutes’ collective, where she was initially worried they wouldn’t take her seriously, as she was the only one there who didn’t have experience as a sex worker.

But she proved herself up to the challenges of helping support workers in that industry, even learning how to put a condom on a blow-up sex doll with her mouth. Not strictly a tool she needed for the job but, “I was right in there going, ‘I want to have a go! I’ve never done this before.'”

But light-hearted moments were hard to come by in the other fields she worked in: mental health, adoption, addiction and sexual assault.

“I got so absorbed in what I was doing and so committed to wanting to do it well that I think I lost a sense of myself and my own sense of ‘the world’s actually a safe and happy place, there are good things that happen here,'” Steph recalls. “I think anyone in that line of work needs to have a break every few years, to prevent burn-out.”

Stephanie and her soulmate Peter

On returning to New Zealand, where funding for mental health services was notably lower than in Australia, Steph decided to go private, and opened up her own practice. A further qualification in psychology helped her make that transition.

She started getting into couples counselling, an area that is not, interestingly, a favourite amongst her peers.

“A lot of counsellors and psychologists would say, ‘Oh, I can’t work with couples. It’s too hard, I don’t know how you do it.'”

So what’s the biggest change having two people on the therapist’s couch, rather than one?

“The difference is that your client is not the two people, your client is the relationship,” she says. “So you constantly have to bear that in mind. How are this person’s actions bearing on that relationship? Is this person’s response improving or disadvantaging the relationship?”

Successful relationships take constant maintenance

Whether we’re watching two strangers fall in – or out of – love on reality television, or thinking about our own heart’s status, relationships are endlessly fascinating to us.

So fascinating, that Steph has to be careful when she tells people what she does for a living.

“If I go to a new hairdresser or something, I’ll just say, ‘Oh, I’m re-studying something really boring like economics,'” she laughs. Interestingly, people rarely ask if Steph herself is in a relationship; she jokes that is probably an indication of how self-absorbed we all are.

“They always just want to talk about what’s happening in their own relationship.”

Steph has been happily married to Pete for almost 29 years and they have one son, but in her work she has seen how damaging a negative relationship can be. It’s often a slow, steady demise, she says.

“People tolerate a lot of bad stuff. They’re kind of like frogs in water: the temperature turns up and they slowly cook to death.”

It’s one of the reasons why she set up the counselling and mediation practice The Marriage Garage, which revolves around her analogy that relationships are like a car. When a couple comes in, she’ll often ask them if they have a car and if so, do they warrant it? Do they put petrol in it? Do they take it to a mechanic?

“Then I’ll ask, ‘What do you do to tune up your relationship?’ People don’t do anything. If you don’t look after after your car, it’s going to splutter to the side of the road and not work. Why would you prioritise your car over your relationship?”

What are the relationship warning signs?

So, without a dashboard light to indicate when something’s off, what are the warning signs in a long-term relationship?

First up, there’s a drop-off in communication.

“Generally, there’s always a pursuer and a withdrawer; so one wants to address something as soon as there’s a conflict and one wants to avoid it. I’d say give yourself some space to de-escalate and calm down and then talk again to resolve it. But if the pursuer gets burned out, and powers down, and the other person has already powered down, then there’s nothing. It’s scary; if you shut down on your partner, it’s really anxiety-inducing for him or her.”

Then there’s time. “Spending less and less time together; being disinterested in each other’s lives. Being distracted by things – TV, texting, gaming, hanging out with the mates. The trouble sign is when your partner isn’t doing anything that indicates he or she is thinking of you.”

In the relationship breakdowns Steph sees, she’s often told, “I’m not in love with him any more, but I still love him!” This irks her, she says, because what is “in love” versus “love”?

“‘In love’ is passion, that romantic bubble. In long-term relationships, yes, you can be in love but it’s a far subtler, mellow love. Love is the little things, like getting up in the morning and going down to the kitchen and your favourite teabag has been put in your mug. The little things that make you think this person cares about me and knows what I want and need.”

Finally, it appears sex really is the canary in the mine. “It’s the first thing to fall away, and the last thing to come back on board,” Steph says. “It’s about trust. The person who doesn’t want sex is saying, ‘I don’t trust you with my feelings and my heart.'”

Stephanie worked with couples on Marries At First Site to build healthy relationships

How do you know when it’s time to seperate?

When an individual person is your client, there is always work that can be done. But when a relationship is your client, there are times, Steph admits, when there is only so much she can do.

Asking a couple if they’ve considered separating is a tool she uses very carefully – and it’s always framed as a question – but it does flush the truth out.

“Either they’ll both sigh with relief, because they’re so happy someone’s named it. Or it might be, ‘We fight a lot, but I still love him.’ It can be quite a helpful strategy early on, if I think it’s going to have therapeutic value.”

On a fundamental level, Steph believes that men and women want the same thing out of a relationship: “Someone to love us and someone to love. We want to be attached.”

But in heterosexual relationships, there is a major point of difference when it comes to sex. “Often – and this is a generalisation – men need to have sex to feel emotionally close to someone. And women need to feel emotionally close to have sex. So we’re shockingly matched, in that way.”

Being in a relationship is good for your health

Being in a healthy relationship is literally good for our health, Steph says.

All the longevity studies show that people who go into old age with a mate generally last longer; it doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, just a close one.

But on the flip side, being in a bad relationship can be detrimental to our health.

“You’re better off being on your own than being in a bad relationship. Don’t stick around if it’s not working – especially if you’ve tried everything.”

Helping adults separate well is another key part of Steph’s work.

“A therapist, psychologist or counsellor can help you keep the overall temperature down and keep the bigger picture in mind if there are children involved. When you’ve got kids, it’s obviously far more convoluted. It’s about respecting that you may not love or even like this person any more, but he or she is the other biological parent of your children. For that reason alone, you have to show some respect.”

It takes two to make or break a relationship

Taking responsibility for your share of the relationship – either in its success or its demise – is also key.

“It takes two for a relationship to work and two for it to fall apart.”

Even though it’s far easier – and more pleasant for the ego – to concentrate on the faults of your partner rather than your own, Steph believes accepting your own role in proceedings is the key to not becoming bitter.

“Bitterness is closely associated with feeling like a victim, and feeling powerless. When people feel powerless, they get close to feeling like a martyr and that’s a bad position – for example, ‘Someone has done this to me.’ In order to not get bitter, you have to think, ‘Well, actually, I could have done this and this better.’ Then you can decide how things can be different in the future, and that gives you hope and optimism.

“If you feel like everything is out of your control and this is done to you, whatever it is, then you’re going to feel angry at the person and angry at the world. By blaming someone else, you’re immediately giving that person power. That’s not a good thing.”

For women who have recently split from a long-term partner and are looking to start dating again in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Steph cautions against trying to move on too quickly.

“Go out and discover who you are again; put that time into yourself, don’t rush into another relationship. Give yourself at least a year and then be really open-minded going forward. Don’t panic and think, ‘I’m getting older and nobody is going to want me,’ because that’s just going to push your chances further and further away. It’s like trying to chase a feather that keeps moving: let it settle, give it time, and then pick it up.”

With all the relationships she’s seen over the years, Steph believes the key to a happy partnership starts with looking at yourself first.

“You can’t rely on someone else to make you happy. Someone can contribute to your unhappiness, or add to your happiness, but at the end of the day, you are the one who decides if you’re happy or unhappy in your life.

“You’ve got to realise that your relationship with yourself is the primary thing. You listen to yourself, you respect yourself, you love yourself – as corny as it sounds – and you make good decisions for yourself. If you do that, then a good relationship with someone else will just fall into your lap.”

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