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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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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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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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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