Are your managing to satisfy your partner in your relationship?

And visa versa?

If not, what tends to come in the way of a happy and fulfilling relationship? What are the barriers in this regard?

I’m not referring here specifically to the intimate aspects of your relationship, though of course this is usually a crucial component in most relationships.  I’m meaning this in a more general sense.

Often because of our busy lives we take this type of issue for granted – everything seems fine at home so we tend to concentrate of urgent and pressing tasks until something serious happens, for example a huge fight in which very hurtful things are said or some type of infidelity comes to light. At that point couples often take stock of their relationships and their lives together and begin to pin-point recurring problems and issues that they are experiencing in their relationship.

I would like to suggest that couples stay mindful of their relationship health of of their own and their partners happiness on an ongoing basis in order to ensure nip potential problems in the bud before they become a real threat to relationship satisfaction.

Susan Johnson, who pioneered Emotion-focused therapy (EFT), maintains that the fundamental question underpinning relationship satisfaction is the following:

Is my partner there for me when I need him/her?

Or putting it another way: “Does my partner always have my back”, do I feel supported on an ongoing basis by my partner in all aspects of life, both on an emotional and a practical level?

Do you feel that your partner prioritizes you and your needs and do you do the same for him/her? This is invariably not the case with couples that I see in therapy who often complain that aspects like cellphones and work commitments seem to take up most of their partner’s attention. 

John Gottman talks about “bids for connection” – he numerous subtle and not-so-subtle efforts that each of us makes every day to reach out to our partner in order to get our needs met, from a quick whatsapp message to ask about how your partner’s day is going so that he/she knows you are thinking of them or even enquiring about what you are having for supper.

Do you recognize and acknowledge your partner’s signals and requests for your attention, input, co-operation and help? These can be quite subtle and easy to miss.

I believe it is extremely worthwhile for all couples to initiate regular conversations on this topic in order to keep their relationships healthy, happy and mutually satisfying.

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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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Couples Counselling and Relationship ambivalence: Should you stay or should you leave?

And can couple counselling help in making this call?

To stay or to leave an unhappy relationship is one of the hardest decisions many of us have to make at various times in our adult lives. There is so much at stake, especially when there are children involved.

When a marriage or a relationship has been troubled or unhappy for some time it is inevitable that one or both partners may start to harbour serious thoughts about leaving. There will often be a period of intense internal contemplation, accompanied in many cases by long conversations with a confidant or with close friends.

When a partner has been going through this process without letting you know about his/her thoughts or  feelings regarding the relationship, it can come as a huge shock when finally the topic is raised. Suddenly a person’s world in thrown into disarray and the future seems highly uncertain and threatening. There is usually a feeling of intense hurt accompanied by a sense of the anticipated loss.

This is often the moment when couples decide to come in for counselling.

The partner who has initiated the conversation about a possible breakup of the relationship is often not yet sure about what he/she wants to do – whether they would like to try to save the relationship or if they would rather call it quits. This confusion invariably adds to the hurt and anxiety being experienced by the partner, who usually tries to push their partner for some clarity and some definite answers. However, in many instances the partner cannot comply as he/she is invariably experiencing a great deal of confusion and ambivalence regarding their feelings and about the possible future of the relationship.

So what is a couple to do in this type of situation?

In my couple counselling practice I often see the partners for individual sessions interspersed with couple counselling sessions to enable the partners to each work on the issues that are raised for them as a result of their relationship’s dynamics and problems.  

I often advise the “surprised” partner to try to refrain from bombarding their spouse with questions about his/her intentions, especially if no clear and consistent answers are forthcoming. Of course, this often leads to heightened anxiety and frustration which is worked through in the individual counselling.

The “disclosing” partner’s ambivalence and confusion is worked through individually as well. Once some clarity has been reached the partner’s discuss their progress and the way forward in a couple sessions. A decision is then reached (ideally) regarding whether or not they wish to give their relationship another try. If they do they usually elect to continue with couple counselling, if not, I often recommend mediation, especially if children are involved and I provide names of suitably qualified mediators.

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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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The end of an affair: Can you save your marriage?

Example:

John and Melissa have been married for 25 years. They have a 22 year old daughter, Ella, who is studying at university and still lives at home. John and Melissa have had a checkered relationship – there are memories of both good and bad times. Their communication has not been good of late and they have somehow lost their intimate connection. John found himself drawn to someone he met at his local golf club. They became emotionally close and began to spend a great deal of time messaging one another and meeting when the opportunity arose. Melissa discovered the messages when she inadvertently looked at his cellphone. She was extremely upset and demanded that he end the “affair”. A few weeks later the couple made an appointment for marital counselling.

In the first session John stated that he wanted to save the marriage. Melissa, on the other hand, was ambivalent at best. However, she did agree to give couple counselling a try.

 

Why is recovery from an infidelity so difficult for couples?

Crucially, trust has been broken – the spouse who has been cheated on experiences hurt, rage and disillusionment. She or he invariably experiences heightened emotional sensitivity, and craves empathy and support from their partner, but because this is needed from the person who has inflicted the hurt, there is simultaneous rejection and anger. These mixed messages are difficult to interpret from the point of view of the “erring” spouse, who is often confused about how to respond.  

For the “perpetrator” on the other hand, it seems incredibly difficult to make progress in healing the relationship due to the incessant questioning, and accusations from the “wounded” spouse and the (often) perceived lack of acknowledgement for efforts made by their partner to mend the relationship. There is often a sense of being “trapped” and constrained by the suspicious spouse as there is the perception that all their movements and communications with others are monitored and controlled.

I do explain to couples at the start of counselling that the process is likely to be slow, long and harrowing and will require considerable staying power and determination to stay the course. In my experience coming back from infidelity (whether physical or simply emotional) is extremely hard for most couples. As one of my couples told me the other day – it is critical to the process to find a non-judgemental, experienced therapist to “hold” and guide the couple through this emotionally fraught process, where patience and understanding is key.

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