Couples: What does “working on your relationship” actually mean?

Very few of us (who have not been totally cut off from civilisation and Dr Phil) who are in relationships have not taken on board that in order for us to live  “happily ever after”, a certain amount of ongoing work needs to be done on the relationship.

However, it is often far from clear what this actually entails!

I have seen many unhappy and disenchanted couples who arrive on my doorstep when their relationship is already on life support. How did they get to be this way, I wonder? What happened over the years to totally change the way they now see each other – as adversaries rather than lovers?

So what can couples do to prevent this decline?

Looking after our relationships is quite similar, it seems, to taking care of our finances.

I will use the analogy of the monthly budget. Some individuals, as soon as they get their monthly pay cheque, will spend it as soon as it hits their bank account, while other more mindful and careful spenders, will make sure that they have sufficient money for the month, being constantly aware of how long it will be before the coffers are replenished, and they will never allow themselves to reach the point where their account is bone dry! They will also regularly invest a certain proportion for a rainy day and for their retirement.

How does this relate to couples? Emotional goodwill in relationships is similar to currency. When partners consistently demonstrate to each other that they have their spouses’ back – that they are there for each other emotionally in times of need.  John Gottman speaks of the “emotional bank account” in a relationship.

Therefore, from this perspective, to “work on your relationship”, couples need to take the time to really understand what makes their partner “tick” as accurate empathy for your partner is only really possible if you truely know, and “get” your partner.

When you consistently show this support and caring, the goodwill balance in your relationship account will remain in significantly

in the black.

And when inevitable problems and arguements arise between you both, you will be in a much better position to weather the storm ( and economic recessions) with your relationship intact!

Continue Reading No Comments

Couples – revitalise your relationship this spring by coming for some relationship coaching!

Now that spring has arrived, we all tend to think about getting our bodies into shape and some of us even get motivated to do

a bit of spring cleaning!

At this time of year we often start to feel a personal sense of renewed optimism and purpose  – however, it is important not to overlook your relationship when doing your general overhaul – does it need a breathe of fresh air too?!

How can you accurately judge the current health of your relationship? (unfortunately we can often be in denial about this important issue).

Ask yourself (and your partner) the following questions:

* How good is your communication currently – can you talk openly and from the heart about yourself and your feelings to your partner?

* Are you caring, supportive and non-judgemental with each other?

* Can you have constructive arguements without resorting to criticism, avoidance and name-calling?

* Are you on the same wave-length emotionally?

* Do you enjoy each other’s company and do you regularly have fun together?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, it is probably a good time to get a relationship tune-up!


During September we are offering a special 4  ninety minute session package for couples in Wynberg, Cape Town

Feel free to Contact us for more information!

Continue Reading No Comments

Relationship Counselling. Couples: Do you understand the owner’s manual on your partner?

I bought a new printer the other day. The owner’s manual that accompanied it was so thick and dense that there was not a chance that I would even try to understand it. Luckily I had a more techno-savy friend who managed to set it up for me and now I only have to press various buttons and wondrous things happen, like scanning and faxing.

But if understanding a new appliance is hard, getting to know the inner workings of your intimate partner is in a different league altogether! However, if you don’t work on it, your relationship will probably deteriorate very quickly.

It is all about empathy and emotional attunement! John Gottman talks about understanding your partner’s love-maps, whilst the authors of “Love and War in Intimate Relationships”, Marion Solomon and Stan Tatkin refer to the idea of an owner’s manual for your partner.  In this book, they mention some important questions you need to ask yourself in order to test your understanding of your spouse – for example:

* What three things can you say or do to make your spouse feel good?

* What three vulnerable areas does your partner have (that have probably been present since childhood)?

When your partner is challenged on one of this issues or is inadvertently triggered during an arguement, he/she will probably react extremely negatively.

* What is the most effective way to calm your partner down when he/she is upset?

* What are guaranteed ways of making him/her happy or excited?

* What can you do to bring a smile to his/her face?

If you are unsure about the answers to some of these questions, perhaps it would be a good idea to schedule some quality time alone with your partner (away from the kids and the other responsibilities of life) to get onto the same emotional wavelength and to begin to fill in the gaps in your Owner’s Manual!

Continue Reading No Comments

Couple Counselling: Pointers for Improving your Relationship: What happy couples can teach us about successful relationships

What are the secrets to a happy long-term relationship?

Because couples counselling is a special area of interest for me, I was especially

excited and intrigued to read  John Gottman’s new book “The Science of Trust”.

His research into the ingredients that make successful relationships has spanned over 40 years and makes fascinating reading.

He has found that happy couples tend to continually spend time and effort getting to know each other (they build “love maps” in which they get to know the inner workings of their partners mind, what matters to him/her, and knowledge about their loved one’s dreams and aspirations.

Happy couples tend to show fondness, respect and admiration for their partner,

they tend to habitually focus on their partners good points and strengths rather than on their weak points or perceived personality flaws).

In successful relationships, couples also tend to acknowledge the efforts made by their spouse to be helpful and emotionally available. This is termed “turning towards” the other by Dr Gottman. He states that

these three aspects create the first tiers of a “Sound Relationship House” for a happy and fulfilling relationship.

In a future post I will talk about Dr Gottman’s exploration of  the crucial role that trust plays in

intimate relationships.

Continue Reading No Comments

Relationships gone bad – will couple counselling help?

Last week I wrote about possible reasons why some individuals stay in relationhips that have become toxic.

What do I mean by toxic relationships?

Signs to look out for:

If you, as a couple, are emotionally enmeshed with each other (you feel that you cannot imagine your life without the other person) but simultaneously you are both making each other totally miserable? Do you yourselves caught up in recurring negative and hurtful patterns of interaction? Is there a lack of respect and a sense that you are being taken for granted?

You may find there are periods when things between you seem to be going well, but then your relationship goes back into a recurrent, negative cycle.

Dysfunctional relationships are also characterised by criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling (John Gottman’s “The Four Horseman of the Apocolypse”*).

You find yourself preoccupied by angry, resentful thoughts and a sense of frustration when you think about your partner. You feel helpless to change the dynamic of the relationship. These thoughts start to interfere with your life and your ability to cope and be happy.

Reference: Gottman, J. M. (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide…New York: Three Rivers’ Press

Can couple counselling be of help when relationships have become toxic?

The short answer is “yes” – provided that both partners are motivated to work on changing their relationship for the better. Not all relationships can, or should be, saved of course, but at a minimum, couple counselling will provide the opportunity for each member of the couple to re-evaluate their relationship in order to decide whether or not there is some potential for improvement.


Next time I will write about how individuals can begin to constructively address problems in their relationships.

Continue Reading No Comments

Assertiveness and psychology: What do you need to be able to practise strategic assertiveness?

What do I mean by strategic assertiveness?

I will explain it with an example.

An eighteen year old client arrived at my practice in an extremely distressed state. She told me that she had spoken up in class against unfair treatment on the part of the teacher.She said that she had worked till late the night before completing a homework assignment only to find that some of her class-mates had failed to complete their assignment but had not been punished in any way.

When she spoke up, her classmates who had not completed their work turned on her and said some hurtful things, whilst those who had done their work failed to support her. My client lamented that this was one of the few times she had managed to be assertive and it had turned into a disaster. She vowed to never speak up again!

I commiserated with her experience but suggested that it she might have predicted this outcome as it was to be expected that her outburst would not have been popular with the girls who were at fault. (Of course she was angry and frustrated at the time and was therefore not not thinking rationally). If she had managed to be more in control she would have probably realised that her outburst would have negative consequences in terms of her popularity with her peers!

The take home message from this example is:

Being assertive, and yet not antagonising or alienating others in the process, is a complex skill and is not easy to achieve. It requires a clear, rational mind, good anger-management and high frustration tolerance – all these are aspects of emotional intellengence (EQ).

Continue Reading No Comments

Relationships and Couple Counselling: How do you deal with a “difficult” partner?

In my psychology practice I often have clients who tell me that they are in relationships with “difficult” people and they tell me that they want to develop the skills to cope with their highly problematic other half! (This request usually only happens once they accept that it is unlikely that their partner will change to any significant degree!).

One client I have paints a picture of her partner as irrational, jealous and passive aggressive. When he succeeds in pushing her buttons (which he manages to do pretty often), she in turns becomes frustrated and angry, leading to a major blow-up which throws the family into turmoil for days.

She asks me what can she do to contain these types of situations.

My approach is to suggest that she look at her expectations of her partner. Her high frustration levels are a sign that she is comparing his behaviour with some idealised image of how she considers he should be and she is angry and disappointed when he falls short. I often say to clients that we should base our expectations on how the person has behaved in the past en though we may hope that they might surprise us in a positive way!

I also believe that it is important for each of us to gain control of our emotions, in particular our anger. Mindfulness is an extremely effective means of gaining the necessary self-awareness and focus to track one’s thoughts and emotions in the present (as they are occuring), in order to stay calm and in an adult mode. If one partner succeeds in doing this, the “relationship dance” is altered and negative patterns such as repetitive arguements can be eliminated.

I tell my individual clients and the couples who come to see me that, even when you strongly disagree with our partner, it is important to try to maintain empathy for their point of view (this is often a very difficult thing to do, especially when emotions are running high). You can then acknowledge how they feel and then give your point of view, using the word “and” rather than “but” to contrast your own point of view. In this way your partner will feel heard and acknowledged.

So when you are about to have a disagreement with someone, always ask yourself what is your goal is in every case and also how realistic your goal is.  (Often people merely want to let off steam and although this may relieve frustration in the short term it may seriously damage your relationship!).

It is also a good idea afterwards to evaluate whether or not you think you managed to achieve this goal!

Continue Reading No Comments

How to have a successful long-term relationship – don’t ignore red flags when choosing a potential partner

Most of us are aware that all committed relationships, including marriage, require hard work to keep them vibrant and fulfilling.

However, as the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – you need to choose your prospestive long-term partner wisely and with care!

In the book “Everybody marries the wrong person”, psychologist Dr. Christine Meinecke talks about two types of scenarios – the first involving a choice of a partner who does not gel with you on all levels but with whom you can still have a good, happy life and the second, more devastating situation, where a partner turns out to be a complete disaster.

She identifies six “red flags”  – if any of these characteristics are present in a your potential partner, you would be wise to nip the relationship in the bud to avoid long-term heartache and misery! 

1. Substance abuse/dependence

Many partners of substance abusers are themselves in denial about the seriousness of the problem. Unless your partner has been “clean” for at least a year, you can’t rely on them to be suffciently emotionally mature to pull their weight in the relationship.   

2. Mental cruelty

If someone is mean, critical and tends to humiliate you he/she is not the partner for you!

3. Abuse

Of course this goes without saying – any type of physical, sexual, mental or financial abuse should be a deal-breaker in a relationship. If any of these are present in your relationship, it is imperative that you get some help – either from a trusted friend, a counsellor or a psychotherapist

4. Inappropriate venting of anger.

Don’t make any excuses for a partner who cannot control his/her temper. This situation will not improve in the future unless the person with the anger problem acknowledges it,d takes responsibility for changing the pattern of behaviour and agreed to attend anger management counselling or psychotherapy.

5. Controlling behaviour/jealousy/paranoia

This type of behaviour is a sign of a seriously dysfunctional individual who has the capacity to cause psychological harm to their partner and to their children.  This pattern that is usually hard-wired into the psyche and is incredibly difficult to change So, if the signs are there it is a good idea to end the relationship before more harm is done to your self-esteem. 

6. Under functioning/under-responsibility

Does your partner pull his/her weight when it comes to finances, tasks, roles and other responsibilities?  You need to ask yourself whether you want to spend your life with someone who tends to be thoughtless, careless and even reckless. The partners of these type of people often find themselves in a “parent” rather than a “partner” role.

So if your partner exhibits any of the above to any great degree, perhaps it might be prudent to do some serious thinking about what you really want and deserve from a prospective life partner!     

Continue Reading No Comments

Communication problems in relationships

Recently there has been quite a bit written about how men often feel at a disadvantage when it comes to communication in intimate relationships. This can often lead to frustration and unhappiness in both partners, causing conflict and eventually can lead to erosion of relationship satisfaction.

In future posts I will discuss ways to address problems of miscommunication in relationships.

Continue Reading No Comments