Infidelity in relationships: Inevitable questions that spouses ask.

I don’t have to tell you that infidelity invariably causes havoc in any marriage or committed relationship. Usually the spouse who has been kept in the dark feels extreme emotional pain and disillusionment, it is hard to imagine that the relationship would ever be the same after the secret is discovered, should it survive.

I see many couples in my psychology practice where there has been some kind of infidelity perpetrated by one of the partners. Infidelity in a relationships takes various forms, from sexual affairs to illicit spending.

In this post I would, however,  like to focus on sexual infidelity.

Of course sexual infidelity differs in nature and degree – from close relationships with someone outside of the relationship, such as intimate “friendships” at work or a secret virtual relationship based on text messaging  to a full-on sexual affair. There is seldom a correlation between the “seriousness” of the deed and the effect that it has on the relationship because the resultant breakdown in trust between the partners is due to the perceived betrayal that is involved.

The spouse or partner who discovers the affair will inevitably want answers to the following questions:

  1. Why did this happen?
  2. What was missing in our relationship that caused you to look outside for what you needed?
  3. What was lacking in me as a person ? Why wasn’t I enough for you?
  4. If you really love(d) me, how could you do something that you know would hurt me, and our relationship, so much?

These questions are often asked in my presence, during a couple counselling session. Time and time again I have found that the partner who has “cheated” has a difficult time articulating answers to these questions and invariably the answers that are forthcoming fail to placate or satisfy the other spouse. Usually any answer that is provided is met with skepticism, disbelief or outright anger.  Often it appears as if the “guilty” partner can’t understand the cause(s) of their own behaviour in this regard, and often seems to be composing an explanation as they go along!

Partners often say to me, and to their spouse, that they are happy in their relationship and that they love their spouse very much.

The underlying dynamics associated with infidelity are invariably extremely complex and difficult to understand. However, safe to say that whatever the causes and nature of any infidelity that arises in any relationship, a couple needs to work through the process of trying to understand why the infidelity occurred and to come to terms with the fact that it did occur before they can hope to rebuild their relationship.

This usually requires a strong commitment to “hang in there” for as long as it takes, patience and open communication.  There are no short cuts!

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Giving advice – do so at at your own risk!

Giving advice to friends, partners and family is invariably a bad idea! Why do I say this?

As a psychologist I see many clients who have been burned badly emotionally with the repercussions of advice giving even though the advice is often given with the best will in the world, with love and empathy, often in response to a heartfelt request from somewhat close to you who is in a real jam.

Advice giving is a bad idea because:

In order to feel a sense of personal empowerment,  individuals need to come up with their own solutions to problems. Everyone is unique in terms of their worldview, personality, skills and attitudes. We can’t expect that our answers will suit anyone else. Providing answers for significant others will invariably not solve their problem(s) but will only provide a band-aid at best.

There is a risk that you, as the advice-giver,  will become invested in the other person’s  outcome as you have, in all likelihood, spent considerable time and emotional energy on enabling a solution to their problem. Should they not follow your advice it is possible that you will become frustrated and even angry with the person because you have set yourself up with a set of unconscious and even conscious expectations regarding your friend’s intention to follow your advice to the letter. You have consequently become psychologically invested in a favourable outcome based on your advice. 

This type of situation has the potential to seriously damage your relationship!

Giving advice also puts the advice-given in a one-up position (even if this is only temporary) in relation to the person asking for advice. This can cause resentment and even a dip in self-esteem on the part of the friend seeking the advice.

So what is the answer? Should you never give advice to anyone?

(Well, here I am giving you advice about not giving advice!)

I would suggest spending some time with the person, exploring all the various facets of the problem and the pros and cons of all possible solutions as well as the potential barriers to implementing all possible courses of action. This will require good listening skills on your part as well as a great deal of (rational) empathy (emotional empathy may cause you to become too emotionally involved in the problem which may limit your ability to remain objective and impartial).

This will put your friend in the position of choosing a solution of him or herself and taking responsibility for it’s implementation. You are merely the facilitator of the process, therefore, and the coach along the way (should your friend feel that your input this regard could be useful). But here again it would be a matter of sounding out the person as to what they would like in terms of your role.

I would appreciate your comments!

 

 

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Anger and anger management: What anger can tell you about yourself and your relationship…

And why this is important.

 

What tends to make you really angry?

How do you behave when you get angry?

What happens between you and your partner when one of you gets really angry about something the other one did or didn’t do? How does the argument tend to proceed? Does anger escalate or can you both usually get to some agreement or resolution of the issue without there being an unpleasant scene?

 

Anger is, of course, a universal and necessary emotion. However, anger is also a unique experience as each of us will differ on what we get angry about and the way in which we express our anger.

We reveal a great deal about ourselves through our expression of anger and we invariably see another “side’ of our partner (and our friends and family) when we get the opportunity to witness the way in which they handle anger and conflict situations. I notice this time and again in my couple counselling sessions when partners are in unhappy and troubled relationships. Often a partner will report to me that they have been “turned off” by their spouse after witnessing how he/she behaves in a high conflict situation.  

Your anger will reveal to you (and to others) what issues you feel intensely passionate about. Anger tends to be triggered within an individual when there is an (often unconsciously) perception that their integrity has been challenged and/or deeply held convictions and values have been disrespected or undermined in some way.

In addition, the way in which a person handles their angry feelings has a significant impact on their relationships and also on their health. Individuals tend to fall into two groups: those who like to confront and deal with issues as they arise and the other group who tend to “bottle up” their anger and to avoid potential conflict situations.  I have found that individuals who are experiencing problems in their relationships usually often become more extreme in the way in which they habitually handle conflict.

Both approaches can thus be problematic, especially when goodwill, mutual understanding and respect have been eroded. Couples in this situation usually report that communication has become a serious problem in their relationship. 

What is the “take home message” here? I believe that we could all benefit by paying more attention to the role that anger plays in our lives – what makes us angry, how we express that anger, what impact our anger has on our relationships and whether or not work needs to be done (on either an individual or relationship level) to improve on anger management for the sake of  personal well-being and the important relationships in our lives.

 

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Couples: Who calls the shots in your relationship? How the power balance can affect communication in a relationship.

How do power imbalances happen and what effect can these have on relationship satisfaction?

In my couple counselling psychology practice, I have found that power imbalances are pretty common in relationships that are in trouble.

In my couples sessions I  invariably explore the history of each relationship in order to track how  the couple started out and when problems began to develop. Sometimes imbalances existed from the start, for example in a case where  one of the partners had an addiction problem. From the outset the non-addicted partner would be cast in the role of rescuer – the “together” individual who assigned themselves the role of keeping the relationship and their partner in check and on course. This is an example of the co-dependent relationship characterized by the enabler/dependent victim dynamic.

In some relationships, though, a power imbalance does not exist at the start of the relationship but develops at a later stage. Why does this occur? There are many reasons, of course, and each couples’ situation is different. However, in my practice I have noticed that two scenarios are reasonable common. In couples where one partner has cheated either by being unfaithful or by committing some other form of sexual or financial infidelity, the “guilty” partner will invariably be placed in a “one down” position when it comes to determining the future of the relationship.

The other scenario comes about when one of the partners decides to “better themselves” by studying, qualifying and obtaining a better job whilst the other partner, who tends to be less ambitious and/or less motivated, does little to further themselves or improve their prospects. Over time a couple in this type of situation may find it increasingly difficult to stay on the same page in terms of their goals and priorities in life, setting the stage for dissatisfaction and relationship problems.

Sometimes power imbalances can be really subtle. One partner may feel that he or she is trying hard to please the other whilst the other person is doing little to reciprocate and/or one of the couple may believe that they are always having to apologize after and argument whilst their partner never has to admit that they may be at fault.

In couples where major power imbalances have developed, open communication is often compromised, as there is often a great deal of frustration and resentment present in the relationship. This can lead one (or both) of the partners tend to feel unheard and unappreciated. Often one partner will clam up completely when an argument is likely to occur, and as a result contentious issues in the relationship tend to remain unresolved and will in all likelihood continue to fester and to progressively undermine the relationship.

What can couples do if they find themselves in this situation? Power imbalances, once they are firmly established in relationships, are difficult to change. This will be the topic of a future post.

 

 

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“Dear future husband…” Beware of relationship myths and your unconscious expectations…!

In your relationship and in your marriage!

Whenever I hear Meghan Trainor’s new single “Dear Future Husband” I get reminded of think about the myths, beliefs and expectations individuals bring into their intimate relationships, usually unconsciously. These often get revealed in the course of  couple counselling sessions.

I do realise, of course, that the lyrics of the song are “tongue in cheek”! However, often I am surprised by the unquestioning beliefs individuals and couples hold about the nature of relationships in general, and about what they need to do in order to maintain a happy relationship and/or marriage.

You may ask why this matters? Well, unrealistic myths and beliefs about how relationships should be conducted inform  our expectations of our partner and of ourselves and when these are not realized a great deal of frustration and unhappiness is inevitable, usually leading to relationship problems.

For example, if you are your partner believes that “relationships that are meant to be should be effortless” (as stated by one of my clients during individual counselling – their partner refused to attend couple counselling for this reason!) then they will also believe (I would expect, though of course unconscious beliefs are not necessarily logically related) that if a relationship is not going well at any point that it is not meant to be!

Consider a verse from Ms Trainor’s song: “After every fight, just apologize, and maybe then I’ll try to rock your body right, Even if I was wrong, You know I;m never wrong, Why disagree? Why, why disagree?”

Of course, we will all probably chuckle at these lyrics! However, in my psychology practice, it would see many couples where one partner always calls the shots in the relationship. The reasons for this dynamic will differ for every couple. However, in my experience, it is very rarely the case that a relationship can happily survive such an unbalanced power balance in the long term (maybe this was possible in the “old days” but not anymore).

In my experience, if partners don’t routinely feel heard, acknowledged and respected in their relationship, this will violate their expectations of how a worthwhile relationship should operate, and the writing will be on the wall for the couple unless they wake up to the danger and take steps to change the dynamic without delay.

Have you explored your own unconscious beliefs and expectations regarding your own relationship?! This exercise could be an eye-opener!

 

 

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Couples: Does your partner sometimes drive you crazy?

With some behaviour that you can’t stand?

How likely is it that he/she will change?

 

Unhappy couples who see me for relationship counselling usually complain at length about their partner’s problematic behaviour.

Often, though, their partner is not convinced that their behaviour is a problem and hence they are unwilling to do the work required to bring about behaviour change.

How can we assess our partner’s readiness for change?

Ellen Bader, an international trainer of therapists in the specialist field  of couple counselling, has come up with an interesting way to determine a partner’s motivation for change. See the video at http://www.couplesinstitute.com/clutter-battle/

As Ellen discusses in her video, motivation is a complex issue and involves a number of components namely desire for change, evaluation of the likelihood of success divided by the degree of unwanted effort required as well as the degree of emotional risk.

It is important for the partner who is initiating the request for change to occur in their spouse to be open to their own emotional underpinnings for wanting the change to occur. The partner should also be encouraging and provide positive reinforcement in the form of acknowledgement and praise for signs of positive change.

I would welcome your comments on this model once you have given it a try!

 

 

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Couples take note! If you want to tie the knot…

There are certain things that predict a long and happy marriage.

Recent research cited in a blog post in Psyblog has identified four factors that are associated with long and happy marriages.

These are:

1. Fewer sexual partners before marriage, especially for women. Why? It is suggested that the more sexual experience one has, the greater one’s awareness of potentially greener pastures out there!

2. Committing to marriage before moving in together. This prevents “sliding” through relationship transitions without conscious decision and without ritual. Sliding can be dangerous to relationships as it tends to erode commitment.

3. Invite more than 150 guests to your wedding. This may prove expensive, but research findings indicate that big weddings tend to be associated with happier marriages on the long-term!

4. Waiting until after marriage to have children.

The research cited in this article states that only 3% of college educated couples who had children before marriage went on to have a good marriage!

 

I don’t know about you, but I found these findings to be thought-provoking and potentially really important for prospective spouses!

Reference:http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/08/new-study-affirms-4-very-old-fashioned-guidelines-for-a-good-marriage.php

 

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Couples and Relationships: Continually sniping at your partner?

Couples – recognize the danger signs in your relationships!

When unhappy couples arrive at my couples counselling and mediation psychology practice, they are often in the danger zone where things have become pretty bad between them so they have finally resorted to getting some help.

When I ask them about the history of their relationship, couples often mention that they have been sniping at each other regularly for quite some time, both when they are on their own and also in the company of friends and family. They usually report that that they didn’t regard their sarcastic comments and other types of put-downs as a serious problem at the time.

If this is happening in your relationship, take serious note! This behaviour pattern is an indication that there are deeper issues between you and your partner which are causing feelings of resentment and discontent, which if left unchallenged and unresolved can undermine the trust and commitment that you have towards one another and may ultimately lead to the demise of your relationship.

Therefore I advise that if sniping is an everyday occurence in your relationship that you address this effectively without delay!

 

 

 

 

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Couples: Beware of Self-diagnosis in your Relationship!

When individuals and couples come to see me for counselling, they often already have a come up with a label to explain their problem. Sometimes it’s a diagnosis in respect of their partner, for example “I think our problems in our relationship are the result of his/her narcissistic personality disorder”.

Diagnosing one’s own ailments with the aid of the internet is always a risky undertaking, especially when it comes to mental health. However, in the realm of relationships it is even more problematic for a number of reasons.

A diagnosis inevitably relates to an individual only. You or your partner are regarded as “The Problem” because one of you is judged to has a “Disorder”. This puts the “blame” for the couple’s problems squarely in the lap of one of the spouses. The other one often feels that they are not implicated to any degree and are thus completely off the hook in terms of their responsibility to try to work at improving their relationship.

In this type of scenario, often the spouse who is given the disorder “label” comes to therapy alone, stating that if they were to be able to “fix” themselves, that the relationship problems would be solved.  Often, however, the main problem resides in the relationship itself, in the dynamics between the couple – their “relationship dance”, communication patterns and the way in which conflict is resolved.

 

In my opinion, a great opportunity is lost if an unhappy couple do not opt for couple counselling as a starting point, especially if their individual problems arise principally in their relationship with their significant other.

 

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Couples and Relationships: The “Big Four” Relationship Problems.

And how to go about dealing with them!

In my experiece as a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples counselling and relationship problems, the main issues that bring couples into counselling and therapy are:

1. Poor communication

2. Money issues

3. Children and parenting problems

4. Conflict with in-laws and extended family

 

Poor communication is the number one problem for most of the couples that I see. Partners tend to complain that they can’t seem to “connect” with each other any longer and their communication is no longer an easy, comfortable aspect of their lives but seems fraught with misunderstandings, anomosity and disrespect. Intimacy tends, of course to go out the window when this type of pattern becomes the norm in a relationship.

 

So what can be done when a relationship reaches this stage?

 

In my experience when communication breaks down between a couple this is often not the cause of their problems but tends to be the result of an often insiduous relationship breakdown.

First a couple needs to acknowledge that their relationship is in trouble and to arrange to get some help. It is estimated that couples who are having problems tend to wait for six years on average before going for couples counselling (John Gottman’s research).

Couples should also prioritise their work to get their relationship back on track. This entails scheduling regular time to spend quality time together enjoying each other’s company – go out on dates!  When you are out together vow to NOT discuss serious and contentious issues – leave these for a weekly meeting where you sit down and have a more formal discussion. 

Don’t let arguments get out of hand. Agree with your partner that when either of you start to notice that emotions are running high that you stop the interaction, have a “time-out” and agree to resume the discussion when you are both calm. It is important, though, to always get back to an issue until it is resolved rather than “shoving it under the mat”.

Resolve, too, to always speak to each other in a respectful way and to never resort to being rude and hurtful.

 

After all, you profess to love this person!

 

In the next post I will talk about money issues in relationships.

 

 

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