Our close relationships with other people have a big impact on the quality of our lives and our day-to-day feelings of happiness or unhappiness. When our relationships are going well they can make us feel good about who we are, valued, confident and loved, or conversely, when they are going badly, they can make us feel the opposite: miserable, bad about ourselves, unable to cope, friendless and alone. Not surprisingly relationship issues can play a major role in our emotional wellbeing and can be a factor in many common difficulties such as anxiety, stress, problems sleeping and even depression.
It may seem like there is nothing you can do to improve your relationships, but actually most relationships can be improved and the place to start is always with yourself! Much as we’d like to, we can’t change other people but we can change ourselves. Now – this may not be easy but it is possible – with willingness and effort – to change how we handle and react to those around us. Often improving what you do: how you bring up difficulties, how you manage challenging or stressful situations, what you focus on and how you manage and express your emotions can change the whole dynamic of a relationship for the better.
Sometimes it is difficult to make the necessary changes or pinpoint what is going wrong in a relationship on your own. Sometimes things from the past are holding you back and you can’t seem to move on from certain issues or change behaviours you know are not helping.
WHY do relationships break down?
No relationship can be perfect all the time and conflict can be healthy as it can be productive in getting your needs met by your partner. It’s how you deal with conflict that can potentially be problematic. We tend to think that the arguments we have with our partner are unique to “us”. But actually research shows that the same patterns play out over and over in everyone’s relationships – and WHAT you argue about isn’t nearly as important as HOW you argue (or fight or disagree). The drama in the relationship of so many couples revolves around a powerful struggle between partners that plays out over months, years and even decades. They find themselves totally stuck.
Is there anything psychology research can tell us about what makes a really healthy relationship and what leads to the break-up of a relationship? It appears that there are some patterns of interaction in relationships that are particularly destructive. John Gottman, renowned expert in couples counselling, discovered four markers of relationship failure with an astonishing 93 percent accuracy in predicting divorce. He named them dramatically as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stone-walling. Research shows that even good relationships sometimes involve the first three patterns, but only deeply troubled relationships use contempt. Click here and here for more information.
Most relationships are pretty healthy most of the time but sometimes people find themselves drained and feeling trapped and start to recognise that their relationship is actually doing them a lot more harm than good. Signs of a toxic relationship are sometimes easy to spot – infidelity or physical violence, for example. But there can often be more subtle signs that something’s just not right between you and your partner. (t’s not just romantic relationships that can become toxic – no matter what form a relationship takes, it’s important to pay attention to how it really makes you feel and keeping a finger on your own emotions can help you develop insight about the people in your life, so you can choose healthier situations.) It an often help to chat to a trained counsellor on your own, in a way that will give you some clarity on how you are feeling in this relationship and whether you need to consider it’s future.
What does relationship counselling involve?
It very much depends on the individual couple and their situation – sometimes it works well to see each half of the couple separately, sometimes it can be helpful to see both together. The sessions are NEVER about apportioning blame or who is right or wrong. but to look at where there are areas of agreement and where there are disagreements. Often it is possible to see particular patterns of behaviours that are contributing to conflict and then examining any possible alternatives. This often involves looking at communication styles. The focus is always on “how can we move forward together in our relationship”, wherever possible.
See also my Relationship counselling page for information on wider relationship and family issues.