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Infidelity. One of the biggest challenges a relationship can face.

Why is recovery from infidelity so difficult?

 

As we all know, intimate relationships are based on a foundation of trust.

When one partner admits to their spouse that they have been unfaithful, trust disappears in an instant, causing the dynamic between the couple to change radically.

The first question that couples in this position ask me when they enter couples counselling is whether their relationship can be saved. This is impossible to answer upfront as many aspects come into play, including both individual personality factors, the history and dynamics of the relationship as well as the nature of the infidelity and the meaning and significance of the infidelity from the point of view of each partner.

My couple counselling clients often underestimate the personal strengths and commitment that will be required in order to survive as a couple. I would equate the process to climbing Everest successfully if you have only ever climbed Table Mountain beforehand!

 

Why is personal strength and resilience an essential for both partners when infidelity comes to light?

 

Inevitably there is an extended period of hurt, resentment and anger in both partners following an infidelity. Initially the “wounded” party will usually express hurt and outrage at their partner for their betrayal. This phase may last from a few weeks to months and sometimes even years. To remain in an unhappy and stressed state of mind for an extended period places a great deal of pressure on the psyche. There is a danger, therefore, that a person in this position can become seriously depressed. Anxiety can also become chronically elevated as the partner tends to worry excessively about whether or not their partner is still cheating or the cheating might resume.

The partner who has “committed” the infidelity will usually have to endure an extended period of mistrust, where every absence will often be questioned and monitored. So too, with all digital devices.

When questioned by their partner, the spouse who has cheated is in many cases unable to explain their motivation for seeking, and finding, another relationship. When I see these individuals on their own, they are sometimes not able to make sense of their own behaviour and motivations for embarking on an illicit relationship. This can cause high levels of self-criticism and self-doubt and this, coupled with long-term negativity and suspicion from the partner can also lead to feeling of hopelessness and despondency.

When faced with coping with infidelity, there are couples who make the decision not to embark on this process at all but rather to “put it behind them” and to move on with their lives. It is highly unlikely that this strategy will save the relationship in the long-term, however, as the “hot” emotions are merely shoved under the carpet, forever tainting the relationship.

Due to the above, I therefore suggest that if you are faced with infidelity in your relationship, find professional, experienced help without delay as you would do if you decided to climb Everest!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are your managing to satisfy your partner in your relationship?

And visa versa?

If not, what tends to come in the way of a happy and fulfilling relationship? What are the barriers in this regard?

I’m not referring here specifically to the intimate aspects of your relationship, though of course this is usually a crucial component in most relationships.  I’m meaning this in a more general sense.

Often because of our busy lives we take this type of issue for granted – everything seems fine at home so we tend to concentrate of urgent and pressing tasks until something serious happens, for example a huge fight in which very hurtful things are said or some type of infidelity comes to light. At that point couples often take stock of their relationships and their lives together and begin to pin-point recurring problems and issues that they are experiencing in their relationship.

I would like to suggest that couples stay mindful of their relationship health of of their own and their partners happiness on an ongoing basis in order to ensure nip potential problems in the bud before they become a real threat to relationship satisfaction.

Susan Johnson, who pioneered Emotion-focused therapy (EFT), maintains that the fundamental question underpinning relationship satisfaction is the following:

Is my partner there for me when I need him/her?

Or putting it another way: “Does my partner always have my back”, do I feel supported on an ongoing basis by my partner in all aspects of life, both on an emotional and a practical level?

Do you feel that your partner prioritizes you and your needs and do you do the same for him/her? This is invariably not the case with couples that I see in therapy who often complain that aspects like cellphones and work commitments seem to take up most of their partner’s attention. 

John Gottman talks about “bids for connection” – he numerous subtle and not-so-subtle efforts that each of us makes every day to reach out to our partner in order to get our needs met, from a quick whatsapp message to ask about how your partner’s day is going so that he/she knows you are thinking of them or even enquiring about what you are having for supper.

Do you recognize and acknowledge your partner’s signals and requests for your attention, input, co-operation and help? These can be quite subtle and easy to miss.

I believe it is extremely worthwhile for all couples to initiate regular conversations on this topic in order to keep their relationships healthy, happy and mutually satisfying.

 

 

 

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Do you consider yourself good relationship material?

And why this matters!

Perhaps you have been in a happy and fulfilling relationship for a long time! If so, to what do you attribute this success?

(Do you see this as predominantly due to mutual hard work, your partner’s positive attributes or perhaps are own? Perhaps you see it as a combination of all three)?

I find it fascinating to ask this question of happy as well as unhappy couples.

I wonder if you can predict how the answers of these two groups differ from each other?

It goes without saying really. On average happy couples are generous with their praise of their partners’ positive attributes, such as patience, respect and appreciation for their “other half” whilst troubled couples tend to play the “blame game” and often battle to recall their partner’s positive aspects. Sometimes troubled couples even fail to recall what attracted them to their partner in the first place!

Each of us could do with reflecting regularly on what we personally bring into our most significant relationship, in areas such as:

Our unique personality make-up and attitude to life:

Are you an optimist or a pessimist, for example?

Are you even- tempered or moody? If you tend to be depressed or if your emotions tend to be volatile, your partner may be at the receiving end of your unhappiness. I find that unhappy couples tend to blame their bad relationship for their unhappiness, when there is often more of a circular causal relationship at play.

How do you manage your anger?

When you have a major disagreement with your partner how do you go about finding a resolution?

Do you initiate a discussion with your partner by asking when would it be convenient to talk about the issue on your mind or do you loose your cool and insist on dealing with it immediately? Individuals who lack control over their anger run the risk of seriously damaging their relationship in the long-term should he or she say and 0r doing things that can’t ever be retracted.

Perhaps you are someone who withdraws from your partner when you feel angry or hurt? You may go quiet for hours or days and when communication resumes perhaps the issue in question is never discussed or resolved. The danger here is that partners fail to communicate adequately and constructively with one another and their intimate connection becomes lost along the way.

Are you an anxious person?

It is often difficult not to let heightened levels of anxiety affect your relationship. Anxious individuals tend to crave certainty and predictability. How does this impact on a relationship? Of course every anxious individual will be different in this regard. However, it is common for there to be a strong need for control and an aversion to taking any type of risk. 

How can you do to ensure that you are doing all that you can to prevent your “dark side” from damaging your relationships?

I would suggest that the first step could involve becoming mindful of how you feel during each day and the way in which you are interacting with others. If you believe that you may be suffering from depression, anger issues or high levels of anxiety I would suggest that you speak with someone about it as soon as possible. You owe it to yourself, your partner, family and your friends!

 

 

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How healthy is your relationship?

In my practice I routinely see couples who are in unhappy relationships, some on the brink of separation or divorce. When I ask them how things where at the beginning, there is often a stark contract to the state of their relationship now.

How do many good relationships deteriorate over time? We are all aware that relationships need to be constantly worked on in order to continue to strengthen and grow. How do we go about this though?

An article by Jennifer Priem in “Psychology Today” (Posted 5th February 2019) gives some good pointers on maintaining a good relationship.

She talks about three aspects of communication that are essential – openness, positivity and assurances and two elements to maintaining a strong relationship referred to as routine and strategic maintenance.

How many of these five aspects do you practice routinely in your relationship?

 

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Parents and spouses: What impact is your cellphone usage having on your family relationships?

Of course smartphones and all other forms of modern technology have greatly improved our ability to connect to other people. It is hard to remember how we survived in the past without cellphones.

However, lately there has been a great deal of coverage in the media on the likely negative impact that screen- time may be having on our close relationships. Most of us spend a great deal of time every day focused on a screen – my ipad alerts me to this each week when I get told how much screen-time I have indulged in every day!

Let us first consider parent-child relationships. How often do you see parents glued to their cellphone screens whilst their young children have no option but to amuse themselves. When I see this my heart goes out to these children – and to their parents, who are missing out on a huge slice of their children’s early lives.

But how damaging is this behaviour to the overall well-being and psycho-social development of children? For many years psychologists and researchers have highlighted the crucial importance of secure attachment between parents and their babies/young children on a child’s emotional development. Secure development can’t happen if and when parents are habitually physically, psychologically or emotionally absent from their children’s lives. Children learn to master and manage their own emotional reactions by growing up with parents who are emotionally available and who contain their young children’s emotional outbursts. This requires consistent attention from parents and other caregivers.

Time magazine (January 28th, 2019, pg 33, “Protecting kids”) cites research reporting that 74% of a sample of kindergarten and primary school principles have noted a marked increase in emotional problems in their learners. Of course, there are numerous other factors that might potentially affect this figure.

However, as parents we understand that many of their factors are outside our control. However, our cellphone usage is something we can control. I would recommend therefore that each of us become more mindful of our cellphone usage (and our screen-time in general) and honestly assess how this is impacting on the quality of your relationships.

In future posts I will talk about the impact of cellphone usage on our intimate relationships.

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Conflict and anger. How are these handled in your relationship?

Is your relationship happy and healthy?

If so, you are probably handling disagreements and conflict in a constructive way.

Its never easy to confront one’s partner of sensitive and painful issues that come up in our everyday lives. Doing this well requires mindfulness, empathy and respect. However, when faced with problems that evoke hot emotions, many people tend to respond and react instinctively and say and do things in the heat of the moment that they later regret.

In many cases individuals don’t blow up with each other, however one or the other withdraws themselves from their partner and goes into a “sulk” for days or weeks on end. This pattern can be equally damaging as issues don’t ever get resolved and merely get pushed under the carpet.

If this pattern continues unchecked over time, the relationship can be severely damaged, sometimes irreparably if the resultant hurt and disillusionment is so severe that one or both partners decides that they can’t see a future for their relationship.

If you are finding that you and your partner are not dealing well with conflict, it may be a good idea to seek help. Sometimes one of the couple will come for counselling to help them manage their anger and frustration, but first prize is, of course, if both partner come in for couple counselling so that the issues within the relationship can be worked on by both partners. This gives the relationship the best chance to recover and even to thrive.

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Is it ever OK to swear at your partner?

The answer should go without saying, right?!

I am surprised, however, to discovery, when I hear about the experiences of my distressed couples in therapy, how many couples routinely swear at each other during arguments. In many cases this behaviour is not seen as problematic regarded as anything to be concerned about and is often rationalized and normalized.

In my opinion, though, when partners resort to swearing at each other this is an indication that they have crossed a line in their relationship – that of respect/disrespect. Relationships are unable to flourish in a climate of disrespect.

I would suggest that if you and your partner have reached the point in your relationship where swearing, and other forms of disrespect are the order of the day, that you take the initiative to get help to transform your relationship into a healthy and mutually satisfying bond.

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Jealousy. Does it plague your relationship?

Over the years I have seen many individuals and couples where jealousy has ruined an essentially good relationship. Often no reason can be cited for the jealousy. Often jealous partner has found no evidence that their “other half” has been cheating. In fact, it is often the case that the partner is to all intents and purposes totally faithful and committed to the relationship.

So why do some individuals report extreme levels of jealousy?

Consider the following example:

Mary has been Lewis for about eighteen months. She describes her relationship as “close”. However, each time Lewis talks about a female co-worker or glances at another woman in the street Mary is overcome by feelings of anger towards both her partner and the woman in question. She reports that Lewis appears completely committed to their relationship and as far as she is aware, as never stepped out of line.

We have been exploring the underlying dynamic of her jealousy in our counselling sessions.

It has emerged that Mary had a less than ideal childhood and never really bonded with her mother and father. Her mother was warm and nurturing and her father tended to be very judgemental. She was evidently not securely attached as an infant and young child and as a result, failed to develop a strong sense of trust in her caregivers. Research on attachment theory indicates that insecure attachment as a child can lead to problems later on in intimate relationships.

It also emerged that Mary suffers from low self-esteem and has an extremely judgemental attitude towards herself. It is therefore likely that she doubts her own attractiveness and desirability and is thus anticipating that sooner or later her partner will leave her for someone she perceives to be more worthy of his affections.

Of course these two factors play out on a largely unconscious level and each person and each couple will present with their own combination of personal and relationship dynamics.

Is there hope that jealousy can be successfully treated?

Yes, I believe that, armed with a greater degree of self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-management skills, individuals can and do make strides to overcoming irrational jealousy. It is best, however, to seek help early on before a relationship gets irreparably damaged by accusations and mistrust

 

 

 

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Successful partner bids. Why these are crucial to healthy relationships.

What are partner relationship bids*?

Consider the following example:

You experience an upsetting incident at work and arrive home feeling highly emotional and stressed. You need desperately to tell your partner about it in order to offload and get some emotional support. However, when you try to bring up the topic your spouse is preoccupied with checking something on his/her phone and mumbles something about discussing the issue later and promptly forgets about it altogether.

This is an example of an unsuccessful partner bid.

We constantly make all kinds of bids in our relationships, including bids for:

attention

consideration

support

love

help and

understanding .

Successful bids cement relationships and bring couples closer. Unsuccessful bids, on the other hand, tend to reduce intimacy and cause relationship dissatisfaction and unhappiness. (Of course it is not possible for every relationship bid to be successful as we are all making numerous relationship bids in every interaction we make every day. However, what is important is our general receptiveness and openness to the needs of other people in our lives and our mindfulness regarding the importance of maintaining good relationship bonds).

Susan Johnson, who pioneered Emotion-focused Couple Therapy, maintains that the fundamental question each of us asks ourselves (often unconsciously) in respect of our intimate partner is:

“Is he/she there for me when I need him/her?”. The answer to this question will determine one’s degree of relationship satisfaction.

We should therefore not take for the granted the importance of being present and responsive in our relationships.

When psychologists talk about the importance of constantly and consistently working on relationships, this is what it is all about!

 

It might be an idea to ask yourself whether or not you are paying sufficient attention to your partner and to his/her needs.

And what role does technology play in the health of your relationship?! More on this topic in a future post!

 

  • * John Gottman’s term.

 

 

 

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Would you like to improve your relationship?

Current research can show you the way!

When it comes to relationship well-being I believe that both happy and unhappy couples could do with some pointers on how to improve their relationship.

Couple counsellors and their clients are fortunate in being able to access, and make use of  research findings with provides us with insight into what to do, and what not to do, if one want to foster a happy, fulfilling intimate relationship.

Psychologist John Gottman is the “guru” in this field and has written a number of publications which outline his findings over 40 years of work in studying couples’ interactions under rigorous scientific conditions. His findings are enormously useful and I routinely recommend his books to my clients who are having relationship problems.

So what does his research reveal?

When comparing groups of couples in long-term relationships – one group consisting of happy couples and the second who are unhappy in their relationship – the following differences were found to be especially significant:

  1. In everyday conversation happy couples expressed statements in the form of positive emotions rather than in a negative state in a ratio 5:1. Couples in trouble tended to a ratio of 1:1 or less.

(Examples of positive emotional states include: a calm frame of mind, being interested, affectionate, humorous or empathetic towards one’s partner whilst examples of negative emotional states include being dismissive, contemptuous, stonewalling, being angry or defensive, appearing hurt, belligerent or domineering).

2. When couples have arguments it is crucially important to a positive outcome that the partner initiating the conversation introduce the topic with a soft (as opposed to a hard) start up. A soft start-up involves framing a topic with care and consideration when you are calm and in control. Tacking a topic when you are upset or angry will almost guarantee an unsuccessful, and potentially damaging, outcome.

3. Another important aspect to effective conflict resolution in relationships involves successful repair when arguments get our of hand. It has been shown that the main reason unhappy couples battle to reverse the negative cycle in the relationship is due to a general failure to make successful repair attempts during arguments. This makes it especially difficult to for troubled couples to rectify their negative/positive emotion ratio.

I will discuss further aspects of this research in future posts.

Reference:

John and Julie Gottman. The Science of Togetherness. Making Couples Therapy more Effective. In Psychotherapy Networker (September/October 2017).

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