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 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:  

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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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Couples and Singles: How high is your Couples’ EQ?

When it comes to relationships, are you any good at intimacy and emotional connection?

Valentine's Day again! Perhaps this is a good moment to refect on how you are doing relationship-wise! Not only in your intimate relationship(s) but also in your relationships with all the other people in your life.

According to an article in the most recent edition of "Psychotherapy Networker", there are two essential skill sets involved in keeping our relationships on track. These are distress tolerance and the ability to self-soothe in times of conflict, and emotional accessibility.

In my couple counselling practice I have found that being caught in a negative cycle of negativity and escalating conflict is one of the main characteristic of unhappy relationships. Couples who are at this stage of their relationship usually find it impossible to get out of this cycle without some type of professional help. John Gottmann calls this the "Roach Motel" phenomenon.

So what is involved in these two essential skills sets?

Distress tolerance and the ability to self-soothe concerns how well we are able to stay calm "under fire" – not to get angry and defensive in the face of anger and criticism from one's partner, but to stay in a receptive and empathic state. Of couse is is very difficult and requires a great deal of practise for most of us! 

Emotional Accessibility is about being able to stay emotionally engaged with one's partner, even when one is in the middle of an arguement. It is not easy to stay emotionally present in a conflict situation as we all know! (individuals characeristically either go into anger or withdrawal mode. Both styles only serve to intensify the conflict and will cause a relationship to deteriorate if the pattern continues over time).


According to research findings in neuroscience, once new, healthy relationship styles have been developed these have to be practised consistently over time in order to make the new pattern your "default" by rewiring the brain. 


The good news, though, is that effective relationship skills can be learned!


Happy Valentine's Day!


References: The Great Deception. Brent Atkinson in Psychotherapy Networker, January/February 2014.

John Gottmann and Nan Silver (2012). What Makes Love Last? How to build trust and avoid betrayal.





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Is you relationship in trouble? Opt for couple, not individual, counselling!

If you are having serious problems in your relationship, like infidelity, but want to save it, maybe because you still love each other and/or have children together, individual counselling at this precarious stage may actually do more harm than good!

Why do I say that?

1. Individual counselling or psychotherapy usually focuses on the interests and well-being of the client in the room. When things are looking bad in a relationship, it may seem that to struggle on will take a huge toll on the individual. The therapy may therefore be biased against maintaining the relationship.

2. The counsellor or therapist only hears one side of the story and it is therefore difficult to assess how viable the relationship actually is and how much the other person wants to work on things.

3. Major relationship problems like infidelity are unique to relationships. It is important that each partner understand the particular relationship dynamic underlying the problem and also how their partner experiences the problem from his/her perspective. This is essential to restore communication and to re-establish trust. This process can't be kick-started in an individual counselling context. I fimly believe that couple counselling in this type of situation is the only way to go!


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Couples and relationships: How best to cope with a mother (daughter) – in law – from hell?

In my psychology practice I have many clients and couples where in-laws play a big role in the relationship – often in a very bad way! In many cases the in-laws, and usually predominantly the mother-in-law, is a major source of relationship conflict and numerous fights between the couple that recur time after time because nothing in the dynamic ever changes!

In fact I have seen a number of couples for couples counselling who tell me that their relationship is on the rocks, largely due to issues and differences of opinion about one or both sets of parents. And of course, in many cases, the in-laws appear to be far from blameless in the whole saga!

Sometimes it is a case of a mom-in-law not wanting to let go of her number one place in her child's (usually her son's) life, and then there are clients who are in their own marriage or intimate relationship yet still seem to be so enmeshed in the lives of their parents, and vice versa, to the degree that they seem unable to put their spouse's needs, and the needs of their own relationship, first.

With other clients who are in couple counselling with me, one partner might complain that he/she feels caught in the middle in the war between their spouse andhis/her parents and doesn't know which way to jump to avoid the fallout!

All in all, this type of dynamic can, and usually does, play havoc on any relationship!

So the question is – what can be done?

I will explore this question further in my next post…


Your comments and suggestions would be welcome!


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A Week in my Psychologist’s Chair

Reflections on all things Psychological in my Cape Town Psychology and Mediation Practice


I thought readers may be interested in getting  glimpse each week on the issues/problems that have been the focus of my attention in my psychology practice over the last week or so and my insight/suggestions/advice in this regard.


I will group these under various headings.




Most clients who come to see me are doing so because of relationship difficulties. They either come along alone (either because they elect to do so because they want to discuss their issues privately, or more commonly, their partner is resistant to coming for therapy).


The themes that have come out strongly this last week are:

  • To make a success of a marriage both your hearts should be fully on board.  Make sure you are committing to your relationship for the right reasons. For example, clients report that they decided to get married because a lease ran out on one of the partner's accommodation and another one agreed to tie the knot because his/her partner was about to leave the country. These reasons might be regarded as practical at the time, but are ultimately poor reasons for getting together. If both partners aren't equally psychologically and emotionally ready to enter into a permanent relationship, problems are likely to occur down the line.
  • Mutual trust is the glue that keeps healthy relationships strong. If trust breaks down, poor communication, conflict and a loss of intimacy are often the inevitable result. 
  • To improve your relationship you will need to spend mutually enjoyable one-on-one time together. During these times it is important to leave your problems behind and talk about "fun" topics, as if you are going out on "real"  date.


Stress and Burnout


I have become very aware this week of the "silent"  load that many individuals carry on a daily basis:  having too much on their plates at any one time –  feeling  overwhelmed by pressure to perform  both at home and at work. Often this can lead to extreme stress, causing insomnia, headaches and the like. When this situation goes on for quite some time, individuals often start to feel helpless to bring about any positive change and this can lead to high levels of anxiety and depression.

What can be done about this?

It is important to analyse the situation in terms of what and where changes can be made. Some things can't be changed and the challenge with these it to find ways to adapt by choosing to view the situation in a different way. However, sometimes we give up too soon when positive change is actually possible. It pays, therefore, to have someone who can provide objective guidance and support should you wish to change your life in a positive direction.


I would appreciate your comments!







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What do our teeth and our relationships have in common?

Without regular care it is possible to lose both, and also one is likely to undergo a great deal of pain if maintenance is left too late!

The other day I found myself watching an episode of "Embarrassing Bodies" or equivalent, where some poor individual had allowed his teeth to get to such a sorry state that they were all loose and bleeding and his gums were swollen and inflamed – it was painful to watch! I wondered to myself how anyone could  let things get to such a bad state before he took some action – did he not look in the mirror every day and see the seriousness of the situation? Did he not panic on a regular basis and was that not sufficient to make him take some action and visit the dentist, as scary as that prospect may be?


In my psychology practice I often get a similar feeling when couple s come to see me as a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship. Often things have got to such a bad state that they are on the verge of separating or getting a divorce. I also wonder why the couple did not get some help sooner, when there would have been a much better prognosis for saving the relationship.


The moral of the story is: relationship health is similar to dental hygiene. If you keep vigilant and deal with problems when they first appear, the changes of remaining intact and fully functional in the long-term is greatly enhanced!


In my next post I will give my suggestions for maintaining, and even improving, your key relationships.


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