Clinical Psychologist & Family Mediator

Welmoet Bok

Wynberg - Cape Town

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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Your partner has cheated on you and you decide to stay. How do you cope?

What do you do when you find that your spouse has been having an illicit affair?

Of course one’s first impulse would be to say “I would certainly leave the relationship!” However, this is invariably not a simple or easy decision, especially when it involves potentially leaving a loved spouse and a long and committed relationship. This decision is even more difficult when a couple have children together and leaving a relationship would also  mean breaking up a family and putting the children’s psychological health in jeopardy.

Of course this choice involves a great deal of soul-searching and ambivalence. There are emotional risks and potential gains and losses attached to both options. For a partner who chooses to stay and to try to work on the marriage, the process is invariably a protracted and often lonely emotional roller-coaster ride. Often it may feel that it is all too much to handle. Concerned friends and family members often provide well-meaning advice but they are seldom able to understand fully what the individual is going though.

It is usual for a person in this situation to question their decision continually because it is so hard to hang in there. They simultaneously love and hate their “cheating” spouse and are obsessed by thoughts that their partner may still be involved in the other relationship. It often feels as if trust in the partner has been irrevocably lost and that there is no hope for reconciliation.

Partners who have been cheated on often ask themselves whether their decision to stay and work on the marriage let’s their spouse off the hook for his/her transgressions and thus makes it too easy for them to move on without any serious repercussions.

So how does someone who chooses to stay in their marriage post-infidelity cope with the emotional fall-out?

First, it is important that the person find someone they can confide in and who can allow them to explore their feelings and their ongoing internal struggles fully with no judgement or advice giving. This is often a tall order as the topic of infidelity brings out strong feelings in most people.

Talk honestly to your spouse and tell him how you feel and what you are going through every day. If  he/she shows understanding, patience and emotional support this is a good sign that there is acknowledgement of the harm that has been caused and a commitment to the long haul in healing the relationship. Explain the ambivalence you are feeling and explain what you need to enable you to cope and to stick with the process.

Focus on self-care and self-development. The shake-up of your marriage also presents an opportunity to think critically about your relationship prior to the infidelity and whether or not you permitted yourself to live totally authentically and develop your true potential. This may be a good time to make some significant changes.

Decide on what type of marriage you would like in the future and discuss this topic with your spouse. Ideally once you and your spouse have successfully worked through the aftermath of the infidelity you will be in a stronger and better place in your life as a result.

 

 

 

 

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Infidelity in relationships. Why reconciliation is so difficult.

I was interviewed on Cape Talk on 5 September: How infidelity affects marriage and families.

Read the article here

Listen to the interview here

Infidelity is one of the main reasons couples arrive at my door. In the majority of cases couples maintain that they want to reconcile and heal their relationship.

In the first session I try to clear up all misconceptions that a couple may have concerning the hard path to reconciliation and the time frame involved.

I often tell clients that recovery from infidelity can be compared in certain respects to rehabilitation from substance dependence.

Why do I say that?

First, there is often a great deal of ambivalence involved. In many cases the cheating partner has developed strong feelings for the third party and is thus seriously conflicted about the choice he has to make. The relationship with the other person often fulfills an important role in the spouses life and has become an important coping resource. However, there is often also a great deal of denial and minimizing of the relationship on the part of the person who is having the affair.

In addition, both spouses are often in two minds about whether or not they want to embark on the difficult process of reconciliation. Hard work and endless patience will be required by both partners to keep the process on track. This ambivalence has to be resolved for the most part before couple counselling can begin in ernest. Often I see the partners separately for individual sessions in an effort to help each of them resolve any ambivalence they may be experiencing.

Trust in the cheating spouse has inevitably been lost and will be highly elusive for many months and perhaps years to come. I tell couples this but inevitably the spouse who has cheated runs out of patience pretty early on in the reconciliation process because they believe they are trying to put their best foot forward in the relationship and to be transparent about their behaviour and their whereabouts. However, their partner often fails to show much appreciation and continues to be angry and suspicious. This can cause the previously unfaithful spouse to waver in their decision to work on the relationship as they lose faith that their partner will eventually be able to move past their infidelity.

Couples who are battling with this process often ask me if there are any success stories.

I tell them “yes”. There are certain couples who report years after seeing me that their marriage is strong and mutually fulfilling. These couples often tell me that they have fewer illusions about themselves and each other but that they have a mature appreciation of their partner’s qualities and their tenacity in sticking with their reconciliation process.

 

 

 

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Aging gracefully. Is it possible?

Today I am “celebrating” a landmark birthday and for a few weeks now I have been thinking a great deal about aging and mortality – and all the existential-type questions that come with the territory.

I also have a number of clients who wrestle with these issues in my therapy room. Questions that are asked include “what is the purpose and meaning of my life?” and “how do I cope with aging and my own death?” There is often a great deal of anxiety and fear associated with the thought of one’s inevitable  physical decline and possible ill-health and the suffering associated with this. Issues around dependency and vulnerability are  common.

Most of us don’t like to dwell on these issues too often or too long as they tend to evoke strong negative feelings. Often they can be successfully pushed aside when life is going along well and there is much to occupy one’s day and one’s mind. However, such questions cannot be ducked successfully forever and become especially salient when we experience turning -points in our lives. The mid-life crisis is a case in point!

Is there a good way to cope with aging?

Psychologists who are proponents of “Health Psychology” and “Positive Psychology” speak about the concept of “Successful Aging”. There is an emphasis on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and an optimistic and positive mindset.

Of course it is not possible to be happy and upbeat 24/7. However, it is possible to work on the adoption of an attitude to life based on a sense of awe, curiosity and gratitude. Mindfulness and meditation are also strongly recommended.

Strangely enough this often becomes easier to achieve the older one gets. Research has found that older adults tend tho be happier than adults in their late twenties and early thirties, possibly because there is more time to smell the daisies and there is the realization that Life is unpredictable and  finite and that we need to appreciate every day!

I would also suggest planning well ahead of time for the last and possibly most challenging period of life even though this is quite a daunting prospect!

So yes – I am happy to say that I am succeeding in having a lovely birthday!

 

 

 

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Depression and anxiety. When questioning thoughts become problematic.

Are you a deep thinker? Do you often ponder over the meaning and purpose of your life or on the impermanence of Life? And why and when can this type of thinking become a threat to your mental health?

In my practice I have found that depression and anxiety are two of the three major problems that bring individuals to see me (the third one being relationship problems).

I have found that low mood and anxiety are inevitably fueled by recursive, negative thought patterns or ruminations.

In the case of depressed thinking, clients will often ask themselves questions such as:

“Why do I feel this way?” or “How did I get to feel like this?” and/or existential questions such as “What is the purpose of my life?” and “Why is this happening to me?”.

Anxiety based questions usually begin with “what if” such as “What if I never feel any better than I feel now”. The words “always” and “never” feature prominently in ruminating thoughts.

Are these types of thoughts always a bad thing?

Of course the answer to this question is “no”. We all need to ask ourselves “deep” questions from time to time to ensure that we are living authentic and meaningful lives and that our behaviour is in line with our values and goals.

However, when we ask ourselves these questions when we are not in a good space (psychologically speaking) we run the risk of intensifying the negative emotions that are being experienced.

So the take home message is as follows: debate the big issues when you are feeling upbeat about life!

 

In a following post I will make some suggestions regarding how to stop negative thoughts and ruminations.

 

 

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Couples : How good are you at communicating with your partner?

Do you routinely practice the one essential skill that is essential to good communication?

Clients who see me for couple counselling invariably mention upfront that they lack the ability to communicate effectively. When this is the case, intimacy is an inevitable casualty.

My couples usually report either very little communication, or conversations that become heated very quickly and nothing gets resolved as a result.

So what are these couples doing or not doing to produce this sad state of affairs?

Of course each couple’s dynamic, or relationship dance, is unique to them. However, certain patterns tend to occur in troubled relationships.

When partners are unhappy with each other they are usually in a state of high defensiveness, and because of this they aren’t usually really listening to their partner in any meaningful way. In this type of situation, partners will often hear selectively as they are triggered by certain words, phrases or a tone of voice that their partner uses and they will be preparing a defensive response.  

Each partner has built up a set of negative assumptions about the other in their minds are they are thus primed to hear only supporting evidence, much like the pattern underlying stereotypes and prejudices.

So what is this important skill?

It is “active listening”.

I can hear you say that this is old news! However, how many couples habitually practice the skill of listening carefully to understand what the other person is trying to convey? If you are doing this correctly, you will habitually ask the other person for clarity if and when you are unsure as to their meaning or intent. You will know when you are getting it right because you will be aware that you are in the mode of a curious investigator and not of a judge!

This is, of course, is difficult to do when you are unhappy with your partner and takes some practice! Sometimes a “talking stick” is a good idea to start with. The person who has the floor holds the stick until their partner gets confirmation from him/her that their meaning has been totally understood before the stick is handed over to the other partner for his/her input.

It is important to also make sure that you understand your partners feelings about what they are conveying to you. If you are unsure, ask for clarity.

This approach can go a long way to restoring intimacy in your relationship!

 

 

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Couples: How healthy is your communication?

If unhealthy, what can you do about it?

In my practice I see many unhappy couples. Most report that they have problems with their communication. They often complain of a lack of meaningful interaction – either there exists a “cold war” in which couples give each other the silent treatment, or there is a full-on conflict situation, where anger levels peak and disrespect and even contempt become a dominant pattern.

When these two patterns are well-established in a relationship, it is a sure indication that the couple are in serious trouble. Couple counsellors refer to a couple’s “relationship dance” – the unconscious interactive style of a couple, which can either promote intimacy in happy couples or it can become a negative pattern when relationships go wrong.  Arguments tend to occur when one partner says or does something that represents a “trigger” to the other person, initiating a negative response, which causes the other person to react in turn in a defensive manner. Before the couple know what has happened, they are caught up in a very destructive interaction –  a so-called “toxic embrace”.

Because this process happens outside of their awareness, couples often report having frequent fights but are at a loss as to why they happen so regularly and become so heated. 

So how can this pattern be reversed?

First it is important to become mindful of what happens when you and your partner fight. Identify your and your partners “triggers” and become aware of what thoughts go through your mind in response because these thoughts will determine your emotional response.

Second – notice how you react – what you do and what you say. Unhappy couples often slip into disrespectful ways of interacting with their “loved one”. Ask yourself whether you would speak to a friend or a colleague in the same way. If not, you could resolve not to allow yourself to slip into the “bad habit” of labeling your partner as, for example, ” selfish”, “lazy” or “narcissistic’,  and not to treat him/her in a dismissive fashion. You could rather pledge to acknowledge your partner’s positive good points and his/her contribution to your lives. This is, of course, difficult to achieve when a relationship is in serious trouble as there is usually a lack of goodwill between the partners and thus a disinclination to be the one to “play nice”.

If you can’t make progress by implementing these ideals, I suggest that go for some help without delay – waiting too long will further reduce the possibility that the relationship can be turned around.

 

 

 

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Partner incompatibility – Can your relationship survive this problem?

Can you have a happy marriage despite having major differences in your values, goals or priorities?

Many unhappy couples that I see in my practice are grappling with incompatibility issues in their relationship. For example, partners may have divergent views about money, religion, parenthood or parenting approaches. In some cases couples were already aware of clashes in their worldviews prior to committing to their relationships. In other couples, however, major incompatibilities may surface or develop only at a later stage in the marriage.

However, at what stage an incompatibility arose is usually not a major issue when couples come for relationship counseling. The fundamental question usually concerns whether or not the couple are able to find a way of resolving the impasse – often the future of the relationship depends on finding a mutually acceptable approach to dealing with problem so that it does not continue to generate high levels of conflict and unhappiness.

When intimate partners enter counselling and therapy they each invariably express the view that they are in the right and that their partner is wrong in terms of his/her beliefs, goals, priorities or behaviour. The opinion is often expressed that, should the partner agree to change in this regard, that harmony in the relationship would be re-established.

Thus one of my first first priorities in couple counselling is to encourage a non-judgemental stance on the part of the couple and to shift the conversation tone from one of criticism and blame to a more co-operative, problem-solving frame of mind.

 

In a following post I will explore this issue further with reference to case examples in order to illustrate how couples go about finding solutions to the issue of incompatibility.

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Relationship infidelity. Is there any hope for a relationship after an affair?

What is the likelihood that a couple can save their relationship after an infidelity?

The discovery of an affair or another form of cheating is one of the major reasons that unhappy couples present for couple counselling. Almost all of them ask me early on in the therapy process whether or not it is possible to save their relationship.

This is, of course, a difficult and perhaps impossible question to answer!

Of course, in theory, most relationships can be saved if both parties are determined to make it happen. However, in practice, there are many factors that will determine whether or not they will be successful.

So what do I say to couples who ask me this question?

I tell them that yes, I have had a number of couples as clients who have succeeded in staying together and who have gone on to establishing a new and improved understanding of each other and a deep appreciation of value of their bond.  However, the process of recovery from an affair tends to be a long, often painful journey as trust, once broken, takes a great deal of effort, patience and commitment to re-establish.

What factors increase the odds of couples being successful in getting their relationship back on track?

In the couples I have seen who report long-term success (more than two years) in staying together in mutually satisfying relationships, have shared the following characteristics:

  1. A strong commitment to the relationship and to hanging in there with their partner for as long as it takes to succeed.  I let my couples know that the process will doubtless be long, tough and emotionally challenging. Many clients become disheartened when, after months of perseverance, there often remains high levels of mistrust and negativity from the partner.
  2. A lack of, or a resolution of ambivalence regarding staying in the relationship. In many cases the partner having the affair is torn between wishing to recover his/her  relationship and not wanting to end it with the third party whilst the partner who has been cheated on fears that it will happen again and again. It is generally accepted that any ambivalence needs to be resolved in favour of the spouse/partner and staying in the relationship before the process of reconciliation can begin in ernest.
  3. Total honesty and disclosure. I have found that if both parties are not totally honest with each other before embarking on reconciliation, the chance of success is seriously jeopardized as trust in the partner is eroded even further with each new disclosure.
  4. A high level of emotional investment in the relationship. For example, when there are children couples often realize there is a great deal at stake when coming to a decision about the future of their relationship.
  5. Sensitivity and empathy in relation to their partner’s feelings and needs.
  6. Endless patience and consideration.
  7. And of course, love and respect for their partner!

So yes, there is hope! But a great deal of perseverance and dedication will be needed!

 

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