‘My partner criticizes me all the time’

It’s difficult to feel happy if your partner is constantly critical.  We all complain sometimes about how our partner behaves, but if the list of things you do wrong is endless, if you feel you can’t do anything right for your husband or wife, if you have to ‘walk on eggshells’ around your boyfriend or girlfriend, then it’s time to talk to your partner about how you are feeling, or if they won’t listen, to get professional help.

It’s better to seek relationship counselling sooner rather than later.  You may well think that it’s in my interest to say that, but I meet couples where one partner has been unhappy for several years but has kept hoping ‘things will get better’, has tried to keep their partner happy rather than saying how they feel.  Finally, they have begun to distance themselves emotionally, to fall out of love, maybe to look elsewhere for comfort, and by the time the couple come for counselling, the ‘critical’ partner is bewildered that he or she is no longer loved, and the one who has felt unable to do anything right finds it hard to know how to begin caring again.

When one partner becomes critical of the other, it is often because he or she is unsettled by change; it may be stress at work, being alone with small children, family illness, any number of ‘life-stage’ events.  The ‘critical’ partner frequently remains unaware of what is making them unhappy, and projects their feelings onto their partner, blaming them for doing things wrong, criticizing them instead.  The one who is ‘walking on eggshells’ thinks it’s unfair, feels badly treated, and begins to withdraw from the relationship in order to survive.

It’s not easy to see what is going on when you are part of a couple, when you are inside; it can be like trying to find your way through a maze, blindfold.  But a trained counsellor can look at the intricacies of your relationship with fresh eyes, can give you an overview from outside, can help you see what is happening and why.  There is no instant fix, it takes time for one partner to understand why they have been so critical and to begin to change.  It can take much longer for the other to trust, and to love again.  So if you are beginning to feel ‘distanced’ by your partner’s behaviour, ask for help soon.  Don’t leave it until it’s too late.



How do I know if I have a healthy relationship with my partner?

Here are a few  suggestions about what it feels like to have good personal boundaries with a partner.  I’m sure you will be able to think of lots of other ideas, but these may start you thinking about your own relationship.

  • I am aware that my actions, attitudes, thoughts and feelings are my own, not those of my partner
  • I realise I can change myself, but not my partner
  • I notice that when I respond (take thinking time), rather than react, my relationship to my partner changes
  • I recognise that I can decide what I will and won’t tolerate in our relationship
  • I see that when my boundaries are too rigid, there is little communication or intimacy between us
  • I discover that if I push too hard into my partner’s personal space, they pull away, and put their boundaries higher
  • I find that if I say ‘I feel and I need’, rather than telling my partner off, they are more likely to listen.  I can show empathy and make it clear I have heard them too.
  • I stop offering solutions and excuses and ask my partner what they would like to be different
  • I understand that my partner is not an extension of me; is not there exclusively to meet my needs
  • I accept that we both have needs which cannot be fulfilled in our relationship;  that we need other interests,  friends and family too
  • I feel that to have good personal boundaries is to be strong but flexible; close but separate.

I’m not suggesting that any of us have perfect boundaries all, or even some of the time, but it’s good to reflect from time to time on whether our closest relationship is making us feel good about life or is making us unhappy.  Looking at how we negotiate intimacy and independence with our partner, so that we feel close, but neither ‘engulfed’ or pushed away, is a good way of deciding whether we need to renegotiate our relationship.  Sometimes talking about our boundaries with a couple counsellor can support us to get the balance right.
















do you feel that you constantly need to please?

Almost every client I see is finding it hard to get a good balance between independence and intimacy in their relationships.  Some feel that they are a ‘walk-over ‘ with their partner, their mother or their teenage children, others find it hard to get close, and push others away, usually for fear of getting hurt.

Personal boundaries are the limits we set in our relations with others.  They may be too low, in which case, anyone can step over them,  or too high,  which prevents anyone getting near us. We may have entirely forgotten how to say ‘No’, and feel at the mercy of what everyone, husband or wife, friends, parents, in-laws, thinks we should do.  If you feel that you have to please everybody, then it’s probably time to think about your personal boundaries and whether by constantly worrying about what your nearest and dearest want, you are forgetting to look after your own needs.

Good personal boundaries are limits that you set so that you can relate to those you love, and to others, without feeling engulfed by their needs.  You make those around you aware that you need to have personal time and thinking space; that you have values and beliefs that are different from theirs;  your separateness reflects who you are, it includes all the things about you which make you lovable, and it makes you able to love others in return.

Good  boundaries mean not always agreeing to do things immediately, recognising that when you say ‘no’ you won’t always please your friend or partner, but that feeling able to disagree, to not ‘join in’, to change your mind, is essential for your sense of self and is part of what being a healthy adult means.  Those who are close to us may react with surprise and displeasure the first time we behave in an ‘out of character’ way, but they will soon get used to you being different and will learn to respect your boundaries.  If they don’t, then you can quietly suggest that it’s time they did!

Weak personal boundaries are often the result of needing to please a difficult parent as a child; we learn our habits and our reactions when we are young, but once we understand the roots of our behaviour, we can begin to respond to demands on us like an adult rather than as a dependent, powerless child.  Boundaries which are too strong, and push others away, also often begin in childhood and develop to protect us from getting hurt yet again.  We also sometimes build a big, high wall around ourselves when we get hurt in an adult relationship, and it can take time to rebuild trust in those we want to love.

A good counsellor can help you look at why you have difficulty setting personal limits, or why you distance yourself from those you love. Understanding where your need to keep everybody happy, or alternatively your fear of intimacy comes from, is the first step in developing a healthy, comfortable adult self, able to love and be close, but also to make independent decisions which protect your mental and physical health.  It’s much easier to have good boundaries with a friend, of course, than it is with a partner, and I’ll look at how to negotiate comfortable boundaries with a partner next time.








‘I’m starting to feel anxious all the time, but I’m too embarrassed to do anything about it….’

There are lots of reasons why we get anxious; sometimes it’s short-term, like nerves before taking an exam, or feeling anxious before having an operation.  Other times something triggers anxiety and it doesn’t go away, in fact it gets worse, and seems to take over our life.  An unexpected, deeply personal event, or ‘trauma’ such as the death of a friend or close family member,  losing your job, a miscarriage, the end of a relationship,  can make us feel we have no control over what is happening to us and plunge us without warning into anxiety.

Once our certainties about life have been shaken up, quite often any other difficulties which come along seem to reinforce our anxious state, and make everyday tasks which we used to cope with, without thought or worry, seem like impossible mountains to climb now.  We can move from a relaxed, happy attitude to life, to feeling like a nervous wreck, in a matter of weeks, and it’s really difficult to ‘pull yourself together’ without good advice and support.

Feeling anxious also puts pressure on our relationships, so it is unfortunate, but true, that at the time we most need our loved ones, our anxious behaviour, and the way we show it, through being stressed, or ‘unreasonable’, or simply retreating from our social life, also pushes away those who love us, and we can find ourselves also coping with the loss, or distress of a partner,  just when we need support the most. Young men, in particular, find it difficult to admit that they can’t cope, and frequently drown their anxiety in alcohol,  get into fights with their friends, fall out with girlfriends, and generally behave in a way which nobody, apart from their mum and dad, could guess is the result of acute anxiety and fear of not coping with their feelings.

We show our anxiety in three main ways.  First,  our physical reactions: muscle tension, racing heart, light-headedness, inability to sleep, or concentrate.  Second, in our negative thoughts and feelings: overestimating risk, ‘catastrophising’, worrying about the most simple tasks. Third, in how we behave: avoiding situations which make us anxious, trying to do everything perfectly, getting upset about small things, procrastinating, using alcohol to ‘damp down’ our worries, and then when we can’t sleep, having too much caffeine to stay awake……

Everyone suffers with anxiety differently, and tries to survive it the best they can,  but there is research evidence on what helps us get better most effectively.  Going to see your GP and talking about how you feel is definitely the first step.  Your GP is the expert about what medication may help, and initially at least, a combination of medication and ‘talking therapy’, ie counselling, is now thought to be the best combination to get you feeling better.  There is evidence that CBT; cognitive behavioural therapy, is an effective form of counselling for anxiety, and I use some of its techniques with my own clients, but I think there is more to relieving anxiety than just trying to change thoughts and behaviours.  How we feel about ourselves, how much we value ourselves, is also key, I think to getting better. Those of us who have strong personal boundaries seem to be more resilient, and to cope better with anxiety.  I will write about how we can ‘work on our boundaries’ in my next post.


What is CBT and how does it work?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT for short, is a short-term therapy, usually lasting for between 6 and 12 sessions,  which aims to help you overcome a specific problem.  Anxiety, depression, social phobias and eating disorders are all issues which can be worked on.  CBT encourages you to notice your ‘automatic thoughts’ which limit your freedom to feel relaxed, happy, and to do what you want in everyday life.  Your therapist will help you to challenge negative beliefs about yourself, and to risk making small changes, on a daily basis, which will put you, rather than that negative running commentary in your head, back in control.  The counsellor is not going to ‘dig deep’ into your past, but will instead look at how your issues are spoiling your enjoyment of life and help you to feel better in the here and now.  Any issue which is causing you to have negative thoughts about yourself, your life and your relationships can improve during CBT.  You and your therapist will agree on what you want to change and then draw up a plan for each week of the therapy.  Your goals will be small, measurable, realistic and form your ‘homework’ each week.  For example, if you are a client who has anxiety and has lost your confidence to look for work, you might look at ways of reducing your anxiety by cutting down on the time you have to think about it.  Your homework might be:

week 1 – find out  phone numbers of  voluntary organisations in your town

week 2 – ring or email them asking if they have opportunities for volunteers

week 3 – list the experience and skills you can offer

week 4 – practise mock interviews with a friend

week 5 – go for an interview

week 6 – work for half a day in a charity shop

Your therapist would encourage you to keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings and to notice if your worst fears actually ever happened- almost certainly they didn’t!

I hope I haven’t made CBT sound like ‘just a lot of goal-setting’; it’s not at all like that with a good therapist.  It is very organised, and you will look at how you behave as a result of your problems in a lot of detail, and work out different ways of behaving and thinking, but your relationship with the counsellor or therapist is still the key to your feeling better.  A warm, understanding, non-judgmental relationship is really important if CBT is going to help.

So, over the weeks,  you will together set  small, measurable goals, and then discuss how things went for you.  You will talk a lot about your fears and your feelings as well as how you coped.

CBT circle

I believe that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions are circular, and we can begin to change at any point on the circle.  Sometimes, behaving differently helps us to see that our negative thoughts are untrue.  Other times, noticing ourselves being negative and deliberately changing the thought, repeating a positive statement instead, can help us change how we feel, and how we behave. As the therapist, I know that my role is to help you, the client, to make a commitment to change, by working out a detailed plan which I support you to follow, while listening and understanding your thoughts and fears. Just because it’s called cognitive-behavioural therapy, doesn’t mean that your feelings are any less important; in fact expressing them fully is vital for change.  An American study found that simply asking a group of unemployed workers to write down every week how they felt about being out of work, resulted in their getting jobs more quickly that those who didn’t put their feelings on paper.  Recognising how we feel about our situation, accepting that it’s not about our failings as a person, but rather the result of the situation we find ourselves in, somehow gives us permission to forgive ourselves, realise we are just another normal human being, who has ‘got a bit stuck’, and find the strength to move on, back to a happier place!




Will couple therapy help if I’m depressed?

The short answer is; it depends.  I often meet couples for the first time,  and one, or occasionally both partners are taking medication for the symptoms of depression.   It’s a difficult condition to define.  It can mean anything from ‘feeling a bit down’, to not being able to get out of bed in the morning,  to not feeling that life is worth living anymore. Some depression is better defined as grief, and is the natural consequence of loss or bereavement.  Being at home with a small baby who doesn’t sleep, losing your job, money worries, retirement, ill-health, can all make us depressed, and a relationship that is not working can have the same effect.

As a couple therapist,  I am happy to work with a couple on how the depression is affecting their relationship, but I need to check first of all that they have been to see their GP recently and that they feel well enough to look at their relationship issues.  If a client is already having individual therapy for depression, for example seeing a CBT therapist to work on their symptoms,  then I would suggest that couple counselling needs to wait awhile.   It may be that the couple relationship is contributing to the depression; it may even be the main cause of it, but a basic rule of thumb is that it’s better not to have two lots of therapy at once.  Couple therapy is always about how we negotiate the boundaries between our individual needs and the needs of the couple relationship, so if we are feeling better about ourselves, then we are better able to negotiate effectively with our partner.  It works the other way too; if we are starting to communicate better in relationship, then we mostly start to feel better inside, so sometimes clients say, half-way through their couple counselling, that they are no longer taking medication, because they are feeling better.  You can start with the couple work or with the individual work; the important thing is to ask for the help you need.

Have a look at the Links page for some suggestions.


How do I know we have built a good counselling relationship?

I’ve worked with them for months, watched them argue, defend, then start to listen and understand each other.  I’ve seen them slowly turn more towards each other, to talk together, rather than just  angrily through me.  They have told each other what they really need, begun to negotiate different ways of talking and communicating… and suddenly the work is done, they are ready to take over, to ‘go it alone’.  I have got to know them and to like them.   I have thought about their problems, looked for different ways of working with them, been a mediator, a listener, a curious friend, a reflector of all that they have told me and each other; and now it’s time to let them go.

I always have mixed emotions when clients move on.  It’s a great feeling if a couple want to stay together and look as if they will make it happen now.  It’s a  privilege to help a couple separate in a way which causes the least hurt and misunderstanding for them and their family, but it’s also important to acknowledge the sadness that both are feeling, even if they know they can’t go on living together.  If we have built a good counselling relationship, I am bound to feel attached to a couple, to hope things go okay, to feel curious about ‘what happens next’.  But the counselling relationship is a professional one;  I am often a container for a couple’s emotions, I can support them to  to deal with them better, but I know the work is done when they are able to understand and contain feelings for each other, or, sadly, when they recognise their partner can’t do that for them, and their future is not together.

So if we have built a good counselling relationship, I will feel sad to see a couple move on, but hopeful that it is an ending which holds the seeds of new beginnings for them both.