Just the two of us

Annabel Harrison speaks to the founder of new mental health clinic
The Soke, Maryam Meddin, and to one of her practitioners Daniel Burbidge, about relationships, intimacy and when to turn to the pros

Even though it’s a mental health and wellness centre, you won’t catch any of The Soke’s staff talking about ‘patients’. ‘We make a big point of not referring to anyone as a patient; we always refer to clients,’ says founder Maryam Meddin. ‘The person sitting opposite can feel as if the practitioner is on a pedestal, or passing judgement on their feelings and who they are as a person. We wanted to address that in every way possible.’

‘Every way possible’ led Meddin to founding The Soke. A varied career path – she previously ran a communications and branding agency and, in her youth, worked in a restaurant – brought her to the realisation that mental healthcare lacked a focus on service, and there was an imbalance in the relationship dynamic. ‘The minute people put their foot in a clinic, they’re made to feel like a patient, not a client. The Soke is a mental health service that brings the focus back to the client.’

As such, the Soke rips up the rule book about how such a clinic should look.

‘We wanted to create a space that was soft but not feminine; luxurious and comfortable,’ Meddin explains. ‘We are happy for people to bring their dogs. We don’t have a reception desk; we know exactly who’ll arrive at a certain time so they are greeted at the door by name.’ There’s a Client Services Director whose job is to keep clients happy and informed, and to answer their questions. ‘We are thinking from their perspective; when they leave the therapy room, they have questions beyond that conversation.’

When it comes to treatment, ‘There are no rules,’ says Meddin. ‘There’s nothing worse than saying, “You should meditate or go for a run,” because that might not be what works for you. Instead, we say: don’t feel you have to explain yourself, and find what works for you.’

We meet one of The Soke’s experts, Daniel Burbidge, to discuss
common relationship challenges…

As a psychodynamic psychotherapist, what is it that you do?

We are interested in what’s going on right now in relationships, but our focus is trying to make a link between your earlier upbringing, and how those two things might be causing problems. I am only interested in the past insofar as it has a bearing on what’s going on right now. Our earlier relationships form how we view our relationship in the present.

Is there always something that can be done to help a relationship that’s in difficulty?

We sometimes deal with people who have come to the decision they will have to separate but most relationships you can certainly think about and work together to try to make things better; to understand what’s feeding into a particular problem. It’s very common that one person is more resistant to the process; it’s almost inevitable. It’s often a wife who is bringing her partner to therapy – but not always the case. Identifying who is resistant and why can often be a very important part of the process.

What recurring issues do you see among couples?

One of the things most couples struggle with is listening to each other; actually listening to what someone is saying is very difficult. Relationships are really difficult, and tricky, and I think there’s an expectation somehow that we should find them easy. They are not. I want to emphasise the fact that if someone is struggling or feeling disappointed, this is a very common experience. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something inherently wrong in a relationship; it might mean there’s something wrong with how you’re communicating. Making the time and space to be able to think about that together is really crucial.

The complexity of relationships is very hard to convey and we don’t often see the monotonous, boring aspects of life [portrayed in popular culture]. There are other issues around maintaining a healthy sex life, whatever that may be for you. It takes real courage to talk about sex. Very often couples haven’t ever really had conversations about sex. It can often be a huge relief for couples to talk about it in therapy. It can feel frightening but I think it’s worth pursuing.

Is one person often clearly less ‘in the wrong’?

I sometimes do find myself thinking that, but actually it takes two people in a relationship to create a problem. There may be part of it that has not been expressed. What’s that about? I like that question because it’s an obvious part of what happens but it’s not the full picture. People often come to therapy thinking their partner is the problem but we are trying to understand something about the dynamic between two people.

How have you seen the pandemic impact marriages and relationships?

It’s been a massive problem. Couples have been forced to rely on each other in a different way. There has been a lot of anxiety about money, which has put pressure on relationships. It’s made it harder for some couples to have sex because they feel too on top of each other already. There has been an increase in mental health conditions – anxiety, depression – which have placed additional strain on relationships.

For couples already experiencing low level problems, it’s been a tinderbox for problems that could have been resolved with the support of friends and family. The structure they had in place prior to the pandemic to help manage with difficulties – doing sport, chatting with friends – has evaporated and the compulsion to rely entirely on their partner has placed relationships under tremendous strain.

Another source of tension – and tremendous frustration – has been the sharing of domestic tasks, particularly when people have young kids. I have observed that even when both members of the couple are working full-time, domestic tasks have often fallen predominantly to women. Working out how to share these things takes time and effort.

How can grief impact a relationship?

The grieving process can be so painfully lonely. Providing enough space for somebody going through that, but also enough support, is crucial. It’s a delicate balancing exercise, and finding that balance can be very difficult. Many people have had to face, if not the reality, the prospect during the pandemic.

What advice would you give couples who are having issues?

Come to us when you first start seeing problems. Too often, couples wait too long and the resentment can be so corrosive. I’m not saying it can’t be worked with, but it’s better to come earlier to work out your communication style rather than building up years of resentment. Technology offers a means of people not being together with each other. Try to preserve some time for connection, no technology at all; just being able to talk to each other is absolutely crucial for good communication in relationships.