Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Relationship recovery tips from a Couples’ Counsellor

What advice do I give to all my couples who see me for relationship problems?

Lately I have been reviewing all my recent couples counselling sessions in an attempt to distil the main ideas I introduce to almost all couples in our first few sessions together. 

The following have come to mind:

  1. Blaming your partner for the problems in your relationship will get you nowhere! It is extremely common for unhappy couples to blame each other for the demise of their relationship. However, this dynamic only serves to deepen the rifts between the partners. It is essential to take personal responsibility for your contribution to the problems that exist. This is an essential first step to relationship improvement.
  2. Listen to your partner in order to really hear what he/she has to say. Defensiveness will only perpetuate your relationship problems.
  3. Avoid attacking your partner’s personality. Focus on behaviour not personal attributes. Treat your partner with respect at all times. 
  4. Avoid  using absolutes when arguing such as “you always” or “you never”. This will only escalate arguments and emotions.
  5. Don’t nag. Rather mention to your partner what behaviours you would like or would prefer rather than harping on and criticizing.
  6. Mention every day to your partner what you appreciate about them. Look for their strengths and not their faults. 

If you and your partner manage to start to implementing all the above points, your relationship should go from strength to strength in no time! 

Best wishes!

Maintaining Healthy Relationships Psychology in practice

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!



Maintaining Healthy Relationships

How healthy is your relationship?

In my practice I routinely see couples who are in unhappy relationships, some on the brink of separation or divorce. When I ask them how things where at the beginning, there is often a stark contract to the state of their relationship now.

How do many good relationships deteriorate over time? We are all aware that relationships need to be constantly worked on in order to continue to strengthen and grow. How do we go about this though?

An article by Jennifer Priem in “Psychology Today” (Posted 5th February 2019) gives some good pointers on maintaining a good relationship.

She talks about three aspects of communication that are essential – openness, positivity and assurances and two elements to maintaining a strong relationship referred to as routine and strategic maintenance.

How many of these five aspects do you practice routinely in your relationship?


Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Is it ever OK to swear at your partner?

The answer should go without saying, right?!

I am surprised, however, to discovery, when I hear about the experiences of my distressed couples in therapy, how many couples routinely swear at each other during arguments. In many cases this behaviour is not seen as problematic regarded as anything to be concerned about and is often rationalized and normalized.

In my opinion, though, when partners resort to swearing at each other this is an indication that they have crossed a line in their relationship – that of respect/disrespect. Relationships are unable to flourish in a climate of disrespect.

I would suggest that if you and your partner have reached the point in your relationship where swearing, and other forms of disrespect are the order of the day, that you take the initiative to get help to transform your relationship into a healthy and mutually satisfying bond.

Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Jealousy. Does it plague your relationship?

Over the years I have seen many individuals and couples where jealousy has ruined an essentially good relationship. Often no reason can be cited for the jealousy. Often jealous partner has found no evidence that their “other half” has been cheating. In fact, it is often the case that the partner is to all intents and purposes totally faithful and committed to the relationship.

So why do some individuals report extreme levels of jealousy?

Consider the following example:

Mary has been Lewis for about eighteen months. She describes her relationship as “close”. However, each time Lewis talks about a female co-worker or glances at another woman in the street Mary is overcome by feelings of anger towards both her partner and the woman in question. She reports that Lewis appears completely committed to their relationship and as far as she is aware, as never stepped out of line.

We have been exploring the underlying dynamic of her jealousy in our counselling sessions.

It has emerged that Mary had a less than ideal childhood and never really bonded with her mother and father. Her mother was warm and nurturing and her father tended to be very judgemental. She was evidently not securely attached as an infant and young child and as a result, failed to develop a strong sense of trust in her caregivers. Research on attachment theory indicates that insecure attachment as a child can lead to problems later on in intimate relationships.

It also emerged that Mary suffers from low self-esteem and has an extremely judgemental attitude towards herself. It is therefore likely that she doubts her own attractiveness and desirability and is thus anticipating that sooner or later her partner will leave her for someone she perceives to be more worthy of his affections.

Of course these two factors play out on a largely unconscious level and each person and each couple will present with their own combination of personal and relationship dynamics.

Is there hope that jealousy can be successfully treated?

Yes, I believe that, armed with a greater degree of self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-management skills, individuals can and do make strides to overcoming irrational jealousy. It is best, however, to seek help early on before a relationship gets irreparably damaged by accusations and mistrust




Life in General Maintaining Healthy Relationships

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.





Maintaining Healthy Relationships Mediation Psychology in practice

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.




Maintaining Healthy Relationships Psychology in practice

Couples: Are there problems in your relationship?

If so, be wary if your partner suggests that you go alone to individual counselling.

I have found over the last twenty years of seeing couples in my psychology and mediation practice for relationship counselling, and also seeing individuals in therapy who are having relationship problems, that in some cases the person is there in my office because their spouse has suggested that it is a good idea that their partner attend individual therapy. This scenario invariably causes alarm bells to sound in my mind.

Why is this?

Sometimes a spouse would like, either consciously or unconsciously to have their partner accept the belief that their relationship problems are as a result of their partner’s psychological problems, such as their depression or anxiety. This then lets them off the hook in terms of responsibility for their problems as a couple.

 If the “ailing” partner accepts this diagnosis from their spouse and comes alone for therapy, they become what is known as “the identified patient”.

This is potentially a bad state of affairs for a couple of reasons. First – yes, the client may in fact be suffering from depression but this may be a result and not a cause of the problems that exist within the relationship. Or it is possible that the depression may be one of a number of issues that need to be addressed within the relationship.

Secondly, if only one of the couple come for therapy the opportunity is lost to work on the couples’ problems on a relationship level. The other partner’s opinions and personal interaction cannot be observed by the therapist who has to rely on the individual’s account of their relationship. This may cause the psychologist to misjudge the nature of the relationship.

For these reasons I advise couples who are having relationship problems to first see a couple therapist for an assessment before making a decision to attend further counselling. And if your spouse suggests that you go for counselling alone, make sure that you fully understand his or her motivation and motives!

Life in General

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


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.

Maintaining Healthy Relationships Psychology in practice

Infidelity in relationships: Inevitable questions that spouses ask.

I don’t have to tell you that infidelity invariably causes havoc in any marriage or committed relationship. Usually the spouse who has been kept in the dark feels extreme emotional pain and disillusionment, it is hard to imagine that the relationship would ever be the same after the secret is discovered, should it survive.

I see many couples in my psychology practice where there has been some kind of infidelity perpetrated by one of the partners. Infidelity in a relationships takes various forms, from sexual affairs to illicit spending.

In this post I would, however,  like to focus on sexual infidelity.

Of course sexual infidelity differs in nature and degree – from close relationships with someone outside of the relationship, such as intimate “friendships” at work or a secret virtual relationship based on text messaging  to a full-on sexual affair. There is seldom a correlation between the “seriousness” of the deed and the effect that it has on the relationship because the resultant breakdown in trust between the partners is due to the perceived betrayal that is involved.

The spouse or partner who discovers the affair will inevitably want answers to the following questions:

  1. Why did this happen?
  2. What was missing in our relationship that caused you to look outside for what you needed?
  3. What was lacking in me as a person ? Why wasn’t I enough for you?
  4. If you really love(d) me, how could you do something that you know would hurt me, and our relationship, so much?

These questions are often asked in my presence, during a couple counselling session. Time and time again I have found that the partner who has “cheated” has a difficult time articulating answers to these questions and invariably the answers that are forthcoming fail to placate or satisfy the other spouse. Usually any answer that is provided is met with skepticism, disbelief or outright anger.  Often it appears as if the “guilty” partner can’t understand the cause(s) of their own behaviour in this regard, and often seems to be composing an explanation as they go along!

Partners often say to me, and to their spouse, that they are happy in their relationship and that they love their spouse very much.

The underlying dynamics associated with infidelity are invariably extremely complex and difficult to understand. However, safe to say that whatever the causes and nature of any infidelity that arises in any relationship, a couple needs to work through the process of trying to understand why the infidelity occurred and to come to terms with the fact that it did occur before they can hope to rebuild their relationship.

This usually requires a strong commitment to “hang in there” for as long as it takes, patience and open communication.  There are no short cuts!