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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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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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 are you at resolving conflict in your relationship?

Why is constructive conflict resolution so important to your relationship?

 

Is the way you resolve conflict bringing you closer together or is it tearing you apart?

Of course I see a great many unhappy couples in my practice. Usually their trust in each other and in their relationship is at an all time low, and inevitably so is the goodwill that exists between them.

I often wonder what happened over the years to bring the couple to such a low point in their relationship. They usually report having felt positive and optimistic about their relationship (and their marriage) originally but over the years their dynamic changed from constructive and affirming to destructive and discounting of their partner.

How and why have things changed so radically?

Inevitably over the years partners will be faced with attributes, attitudes behaviour in their spouse that they dislike, disagree with or seriously detest. How partners deal with each situation where conflict occurs has long-term consequences for the health of their relationship. If differences are dealt with constructively, the resolution of conflict can enable couples to gain deeper understanding of each other.  However, if conflict interactions tend to turn nasty and destructive, relationships can be severely damaged over time as a result.

What are some features of destructive arguments and poor conflict resolution in relationships?

  1. Losing control of anger during an argument resulting in attempts to “wound” the other, either physically or  emotionally.
  2. Treating one’s part disrespectfully.
  3. Failing to take your partner’s views and feelings in account.
  4. Fighting to win at all costs, often to the detriment of the relationship.
  5. Believing that the above behaviour is justified because of the perceived “failings” displayed by the partner.

 

If you recognize any or all of these features in your own style of resolving conflict I would recommend that you resolve to change this pattern without delay because this is placing your relationship in serious jeopardy. 

 

In future posts I will discuss ways in which you can start to turn a destructive pattern around.

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Psychology and discriminating psychotherapy: The importance of finding an effective psychologist.

The importance of finding a solutions-focused psychologist.

One of my gurus, Michael Yapko, published a new book today called “The Discriminating Therapist” which is available as a download on Amazon.

Dr Yapko is a seasoned therapist, hypnotherapist and presenter. You can find his website and his new book at http://www.yapko.com/the-discriminating-therapist/

He came out to South Africa a few years ago and I was fortunate to be able to attend a hypnotherapy workshop that he presented in Pretoria. His approach to therapy is so practical and useful that I use his ideas and his strategies routinely in my therapy with clients, both in individual and in couple’s counselling.

Why is his approach so useful? Ironically, Dr Yapko would disagree with this question but would no doubt restate it it this way: how can the therapist be of help in enabling their clients to reach their stated goals? The client’s goals may involve achieving a desired state, such as becoming calm and content (if they suffer from depression or anxiety) or gaining mastery over some aspect of life, such as conquering procrastination or improving communication in their marriage.

Dr Yapko maintains that, in life, “how” questions are more useful that “why” questions.

Why does he say this? If you think about it, we can look for reasons for our behaviour until the cows come home! However, this doesn’t help us to identify, and change whatever behaviours (or patterns of behaviour), thinking patterns or thinking strategies that maintains our problems, such as depression or anxiety. Once the therapist has helped the client in this regard, positive change can be facilitated. 

This brings me to the topic of choosing a therapist that will be right for you. Dr Yapko would ask “How do you go about choosing an effective therapist”! 

I would ask a psychologist upfront whether or not you could have a short, free (15 minute) introductory session with him or her so that you can have an opportunity to assess whether or not his or her approach seems to be right for you in terms of how you relate to each other and also in terms of whether or not you are both on the same page regarding their focus, approach to therapy and envisaged time frame for the achievement of your desired goals for therapy.

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Personal growth and personal aspirations in a relationship: Do you have to choose?

If you are in a relationship do your personal goals and aspirations have to take second place to your marriage and to your family life?

In my psychology practice I often have clients ask me whether or not it is OK to pursue a personal interest or hobby if they are in a committed relationship. Often they are getting pressure from their partner, who is saying that family responsibilities should trump personal “projects”.

Pressure of this sort from a spouse will often cause their “other half” to feel conflicted, guilty and resentful. Their personal goals are often regarded by their partner as “selfish” and often this view is internalized by the individual concerned.

In my couple counselling I am strongly of the view that individuals in a relationship should honour each other’s aspirations and goals as a priority. They should make every effort to enable their spouse to reach for their dreams, even if it means having to make personal sacrifices such as volunteering to look after the children, allocating some funds for studies and missing out on time that would be spend together.

A committed relationship, including marriage, should ideally be a springboard where the couple and their children are able to fulfill  each of their personal potential from a secure base. I do realize that this is an ideal, but I believe that this is a worthwhile ideal to strive for!

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Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the year ahead and about the future in general?

If your thoughts are somewhat bleak when you think about the future, this can lead to depression!

Some very interesting research has recently been published on the subject of the link between how we think about the future (known as prospection) and our mood states (Roepke and Seligman, 2015). Up to now there has been a generally accepted view that a pessimistic view of the future is a pointer for someone who is depressed – that depression causes a person to have negative expectations about the future.

However, it seems that it may also be the other way around – that if we harbour overly pessimistic views and expectations of our future, this could cause us to become (more) depressed!

So why is this new finding important?

Well, the good news is that if our thoughts influence our moods (and they do, according to Cognitive-Behavioural theory and Therapy (CBT), we can change these moods by altering our thinking! The implication of this is that our emotions are under our own control (to a certain degree).

How can prospection affect our emotions and possibly lead to depression?

These researchers have identified three ways this happens:

  1. Telling ourselves different scenarios about possible futures. If you think about your future, do you foresee good or bad things occurring? Are there more positive predictions than negative ones, or vice versa?
  2. Judging your possible future life in either a positive or a negative way. You might say, for example, that you predict that you either have a number of positive options which could enable you to have a bright future or you believe that you have few options for the future and that you will inevitably have nothing much to look forward to.
  3. Harbouring either positive or negative beliefs about the future. These would include beliefs or thoughts about a personal future, but also about the future of the country and the planet as a whole).

 

In my next post I will discuss ways in which our patterns of prospective thinking can be altered to become more positive and optimistic.

 

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If you are feeling anxious, stressed or depressed for now apparent reason…..

perhaps you are “catching” these emotions from other people near to you!

A case example: Susan comes to see me in my psychology practice because she is about to write her final exams and is concerned that she is so “stressed out” that she fears that she will go blank when she is faced with her exam paper and will do badly as a result.

When I explore the factors that may be adding to her stress levels it turns out that she is in a small class at college, where her class-mates talk about themselves about how stressed they all are. They also commiserate with each other about how difficult the work is and how “impossible” it will be to do well in the exams.

In this way the stress levels of the group tend to increase as the exam date looms nearer and nearer.

Case 2: Tony is in his early twenties. He reports that he suffers from debilitating social anxiety which affects both his ability to interact socially and to find a fulfilling job. has grown up in a household where his father has always worried about everything. Tony’s father has conveyed the unconscious message to his children from the time they were small that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place and that other people are generally not to be trusted. Tony comes to see me because he wants to become less anxious and more comfortable in social settings.

Case 3: Mary comes to see me because she is feeling “down” and unmotivated – that she has lost her enthusiasm for life. She is a homemaker and has many friends and hobbies but of late she has lost enthusiasm for the things she previously enjoyed. Her husband has been retired for a year and her children have left home. She reports that her husband tends to sit around the house all day, eating, drinking and watching TV. He tends to be demanding and would talk at length about how bad “things” had become.

 

Most clients who come to see me for counselling and psychotherapy tend to believe that their unpleasant psychological states are due to something they are feeling, doing or not doing – that they are the source of their problem (this is not the case with most couples I see, who usually blame each other, initially at any rate, for the problems in their relationship). I have often found though, on closer examination, that the social environment can play a big role in the our emotions states. Psychologists and social psychology researchers put this down to our ability to empathize with others. Those of us who are high in emotional empathy tend to “pick up” the emotions of others easily and will thus be more likely to be affected by the negative of other people. This influence is especially strong when there is a close emotional bond and a close and lengthy proximity with a stressed, anxious or depressed person or group.   Psychologists call this phenomenon “transference”.

This tendency to “catch” feelings from others and from our environment isn’t always a bad thing of course. We can also be affected by joy and happiness! 

In a following post I will suggest ways of counteracting the negative effects of this unconscious “force”.

 

 

 

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Couples: Is there any point to marriage counselling….

When your spouse says that he/she is thinking seriously about divorce?

Research into relationships, marriage and couples counselling has found that couples wait too long to come for relationship counselling – on average six years after the first major problems in the relationship start to occur.

My own experience of seeing unhappy couples in my psychology practice over twenty years has born this out. The couples I see invariably report that they their relationship has been limping along for a long time. Some couples report that they tend to have intermittent explosive rows while others report that following disagreements there might be lengthy periods – sometimes lasting as long as two weeks to a month – when there is a stony silence between the couple. It is common that one partner inevitably becomes the one to initiate a resumption of communication. Their attempts, however, are often met, initially with stonewalling. In either case, when couples become chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, intimacy is an early casualty. This is a dangerous situation, of course, as partners tend to retreat into themselves and their own thoughts. Often one or both start toying with the idea of divorce and eventually the “d” word is brought up in their conversation.

Is it too late, at this stage, for a couple to benefit from couple counselling?

I would say that the answer to this question is definitely “no, it is never too late” for a number of reasons:

First, the partner who mentions divorce is often extremely ambivalent and afraid of the consequences should divorce occur. It is important for each spouse to be able to work through their often confused feelings about their marriage and their thoughts about the future in a containing and non-judgemental context. This is especially important if there are children involved.

[I have found that ambivalent couples, when faced with the choice to continue with counselling or to go ahead with terminating the relationship, usually opt of couple counselling first – for four to six months, because they want to be sure that they are making the right decision].

Secondly – often one partner is leaning towards the divorce option whilst the other one wants to keep the marriage together. Each spouse needs to have the opportunity to explore their options and be fully heard by their partner. This is often difficult to achieve at home where emotions will tend to escalate and there are often other members of the household within earshot.

Thirdly – even if a couple decide ultimately that they opt for divorce, they then need then to initiate a conversation about “what happens next?”. It is often at this stage that discussions regarding mediation or collaborative practice options versus litigation tend to take place. A couple counselling context is a good place for this to happen as the psychotherapist or counsellor they see (especially if they are FAMAC accredited) will be able to fully explore all the possible options with them.

 

So to reiterate: Yes, I believe strongly that choosing to come for couple counselling when your relationship is in serious trouble is a good idea, even at the point when you may feel that you are on the brink of divorce. By doing so you may be able to save your marriage, but even if this proves not to be possible, you will nonetheless be in a much better position to find a mutually acceptable and considerate way to make decisions about the way forward.

 

 

 

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