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!

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