We love each other, so why isn’t our relationship working?

 You have met someone new, got to know each other and moved in together.  You are in love, you laugh about the same things, have a good social life, everything is great….. and then suddenly it’s not. You are starting to argue, bicker over the small stuff, and say hurtful things.  You don’t seem to understand each other anymore.  How has this happened?  What’s going on?

When you take a new job, you have a contract, a job description, a good idea of what is expected of you in the role.  When a couple move in together, they often hope to be committed to each other, to stay together, eventually to start a family.  But it won’t surprise you to hear that I have yet to meet a couple who asked each other in advance what they expected of their partner. We assume that we want the same things and that we think the same way, that we are making a new unit, completely separate, and different, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It would be so easy if we were like a fresh piece of white paper when we start a relationship, a clean sheet on which we can write our story together.  But even in our first ‘serious’ relationship, our page has already been written on, in invisible ink, by our parents.  The way they brought us up; their values and beliefs about life, how they dealt with conflict, how they cared for us, or failed to do so, are deeply imprinted in us, and will rise to the surface and influence how we feel and react as soon as there is tension in our adult relationship.

Even if both of you had good, sensible, listening parents, I would take bets that your growing-up was entirely different.  Maybe your family shout and cry a lot whereas his are self-contained, and avoid talking about the tough stuff.  Her family endlessly need to be together, while yours gives you space or even too much distance at times.  We bring with us the habits and expectations of our birth family; we think we know what is ‘normal’ in a relationship.  And so does our partner and their idea of normality is never quite the same as ours…..

Maybe it starts with ‘snapping’ because the towels are folded wrongly or the socks are left under the bed.  It moves on to him not ringing to say he will be late,  or you failing to say you are spending Saturday with your sister.  It then escalates into being personal and unpleasant with each other, talking in a way you never would to a good friend.  The research shows that once couples start to treat each other without respect, love dies and relationships collapse remarkably quickly.  It takes four positive comments to heal the hurt of one negative one!

So if you are beginning to misunderstand each other and say things you really aren’t proud of, it’s time to sit down together, away from distractions, and talk about what you expect from your relationship, why you value each other,  how it was in your own family and how you want it to be different. You need to agree on what it is okay, and not okay, to say to each other, and how to have ‘time out’ if you do start arguing, before you destroy the respect you have for each other.  It’s the beginnings of a relationship contract, of a real understanding of what you both need and can offer.  It won’t happen all in one go, it’s a conversation that you will return to, but the merging of two family stories into your new relationship, is bound to take time.

And if you can no longer talk, or listen to each other without a damaging argument, then it’s time to look for professional support.  A trained couple-counsellor will know how to help you do just that.

‘I can’t remember the last time we had sex…..’

Relationship therapy often involves talking about sex.  Some couples talk about it in their first session,  others much later, but  it’s rare to come across a couple, or an individual, who is struggling with their relationship but having a ‘good’ sex life.  I do remember one couple, a long while ago, who continued to be sexual partners even when they couldn’t cope with living in the same house and were deeply upset with each other, but they were one in a hundred of the couples and singles  I have worked with.

Being unhappy in our relationship is not the only thing that affects our sex life; far from it.  There are lots of reasons why we start to have less sex.  Nobody can sustain the mad passion of the first few months of a relationship when coping with the everyday demands of living together.  There’s going to be a Saturday night when one wants to watch Match of the Day and the other would rather read Grazia, and that’s entirely normal.  New babies and small children get in the way of  couple time and can leave the man feeling unwanted and the woman feeling that ‘sex is just another household chore’. Same-sex couples experience the same pressures, which affect their relationships in the same way.  Long hours at work, shift patterns, children’s homework and the endless dropping off and picking up of teenagers can mean none of us have much time together.  And when we do, so many couples tell me that once the kids are in bed they sit on separate sofas and bury themselves in soaps, i pads, online games, clothes websites, the dreaded Facebook.

Illness affects our sex lives too.  Diabetes can result in impotence or make having sex more of a challenge, prostate treatment can mean that sex is only possible when planned, and with chemical help.  Depression can seriously affect sex drive and so can anxiety.  Pressure at work can start a vicious circle of tiredness, feeling down, withdrawal from sex, and so round it goes….  The menopause isn’t an illness, but it affects our hormones and how we feel about ourselves.  So does overwork and lack of sleep.   If we are not feeling well, or good about ourselves, it’s so much easier to decide it’s not the right time to have sex.  As the days turn into weeks, then into months, it becomes increasingly difficult for someone to make the first move…..

But sometimes it is just unhappiness in our relationship which stops us wanting to be physically intimate with our partner.  Some of the reasons I’ve suggested may be contributing factors, but if we are shouting at each other, avoiding talking to each other, or feeling misunderstood or not respected, it’s very unlikely we are going to want to cuddle up and be close.  If we don’t feel loved, don’t feel listened to, or feel constantly criticized, then it’s very difficult to suddenly switch off our minds and let our bodies take over*.

Finally, the most common reason couples seem to drift apart and have sex less often is that they have  forgotten how to have fun  together.  They have forgotten how to plan ‘couple time’, how to make things happen, find time to relax together, be playful, switch off all the devices, walk the dog, go for a drink or something to eat, organise a babysitter, get away from the teenagers, book a night away from it all.  Good sex may be about tumbling into bed at every opportunity when we first meet, but if we want to stay together, grow old together, sex can’t always be spontaneous, but with a bit of planning, it can still be where it belongs, at the centre of our relationship.

*There are other, deep reasons why we don’t want to have sex with our partner, but I think they need a post of their own.  I will suggest some books in ‘things to read’ in case you are struggling with these issues.

‘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 can we get close again?

I suggested last time, that when we are hurt or angry, or both, we stop listening to each other, and start defending our own corner as soon as our partner speaks.  How can we start listening to each other again?  If Step 1 to becoming intimate again is stopping all the wounding remarks we make when we are frustrated, then the next steps are looking at each other, and listening, really listening,  and feeling ‘heard’ in return.

‘Active’ listening is easier said than done; we want to interrupt, disagree, criticize, walk away. But there is a lot of research evidence which shows that couples who practise it also feel understood, less defensive, closer; become more intimate.  So because it’s so hard to ‘just listen’, I have put together Ten Steps to Getting Closer.  Give it a try, I have seen lots of couples who find it helps.  It’s probably easier to practise it the first time with a counsellor, but if you can’t see one at the moment, have a go anyway!

Step 1: Stop insulting each other – it takes 5 positive remarks to make up for 1 negative one

Step 2 : Sit together somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed for half an hour

Step 3: Turn to look at each other, hold hands (unless you really can’t),  keep eye contact

Step 4: Partner 1 (the quieter one) says how they feel about whatever is on their mind, for up to 5 minutes. It can be about anything, your relationship, family, work, whatever you need to say.  It helps to use ‘I feel’  some of the time

Step 5: Partner 2 just listens, doesn’t interrupt, just keeps eye contact going until their partner has finished

Step 6: Partner 2 says ‘I have heard you say that……….’ without giving own opinion, or adding anything, just reporting back on what you have heard.  You can ask if you have forgotten anything.

Step 7: Partner 1 says ‘thank you’

Step 8: Partner 2 talks, including how they feel about what they are saying, for up to 5 minutes.

Step 9: Partner 1 repeats back what they have heard and checks if they have forgotten anything, all the time keeping eye contact

Step 10: Partner 2 says ‘thank you’

There is no discussion afterwards. You may want to go on holding hands and looking at each other, or just sit quietly together for a few minutes.  It’s about feeling ‘heard’ as much as it is about talking.  So often, we feel no one really listens to us; it’s the greatest gift we can offer each other.


Words wound, but silence pushes us apart too….

I see a lot of couples who seem, from the outside, to have a really good life,  and their friends and family may not know that they are not okay.  But they are not okay; they can’t communicate anymore,  not anywhere, not any time, not at the breakfast table, not when they go out together, not even in bed.  One gets frustrated and says their partner doesn’t listen,  and the other feels very hurt by what is said in anger.  One blames their partner loudly, the other goes silent, which makes the noisy partner even more hurtful things, and the quiet one withdraw even further into their shell.

What’s gone wrong? I suggested in my last post that a change in the couple’s world is usually the trigger; trouble at work, death or illness of a parent, the birth of a baby; anything which puts pressure on one partner, puts pressure on the relationship.  A life-changing event affects both partners; it’s a bit like being on a seesaw, where you are nicely balancing each other, and someone else jumps on one end, throwing one up into the air, while the other crashes to the ground.

On the seesaw,  you don’t blame each other, you can see what happened.  In a relationship, the changes are more subtle, and slower, so we don’t understand what has happened, we don’t recognise what stresses have thrown us off balance.  We blame our partner for being less loving, more preoccupied, different in some way.  We get angry because we don’t understand what is wrong, and we say hurtful, damaging, personal things.   Our partner, wounded, but not knowing how to respond,  withdraws into silence.  One doesn’t know how to express their hurt without attacking, the other is too hurt to defend, and it becomes harder and harder to love each other.  Neither listens; they each put up a defensive wall –  of sound, or of silence – but both walls block the other out.

Who, or what can break the deadlock?   There are simple steps you can take to help you start listening to each other again.  It’s easier to start talking with the help of a supportive outsider; a counsellor or therapist, but if you want to try on your own first, and you are both willing to have a go, then Step 1 is that hurtful, personal remarks are not allowed, not ever. We don’t change our partner’s mind, or behaviour, by beating them over the head verbally.  Words wound, they cause deep damage to our relationship, and the repair job takes time.  Step 2 is about how the silent partner can find his or her voice.  I’ll talk about more steps next time.


Loss of intimacy – ‘we seem to have just drifted apart’

So many couples say those words almost as soon as they sit down in the counselling room.  ‘We don’t know when it started to happen, but it must have been a while ago now’.  ‘We are like two strangers in the same house’.  ‘We are more like brother and sister these days’. ‘We never seem to find time to have sex anymore’. ‘We both just sit there with our phones/ipads after tea every day’.  ‘We have forgotten how to talk to each other’.  I could go on…….and on…..

The reasons for this loss of intimacy are as varied as the couples I meet; every couple’s story is different, and private.  Sometimes it is one partner having an affair that wakes the couple up to the fact that their relationship has been ‘drifting’, but otherwise it can take a long while for it to become clear that something is wrong.  Often one partner begins to feel unhappy, but isn’t sure why; just knows their relationship isn’t like it used to be and may blame the other for not trying harder.  The couple may start to scrap, to fight, or alternatively become silent with each other.  Eventually both are aware that something is seriously not right, but it may take an affair, or one partner threatening to leave before they look for help. By the time we meet, neither has any idea when they last felt happy together; all either can remember is the multiple reasons why their partner is making them feel angry, frustrated, or alone.

There are deep reasons why some couples are unhappy; stuff left over from childhood for one or both partners, which has never been resolved, and which is now surfacing, once the excitement of being ‘in love’ has gone, and the stresses of living together on a daily basis bring vulnerabilities to light; that’s not my focus here.   I’m talking about the couples I meet who have simply let their intimacy drift away, without realising what is happening until it’s almost gone.  There has been no dramatic, sudden change, rather the increasing demands of family life, maybe both trying to hold down stressful jobs, one working long hours, or shifts, or regularly away from home, one feeling ‘taken for granted’, sometimes the development of separate social lives, have altered the relationship little by little, until, suddenly, one, or both, realise there is very little holding their relationship together.

What hope is there for couples who are feeling this way?  Lots, I believe. For me, the primary aim of  couple counselling, relationship therapy, whatever you want to call it, is to help a couple to find ways of being intimate again, of talking openly and fully, of hearing each other’s needs and feelings, of understanding where the other is coming from, and of feeling heard and understood in return.  Not every couple I see stays together; sometimes the difference is too great, occasionally it’s simply too late, and too much damage is done, but many, many couples do grow closer in therapy, do find a way forward together.

What is shame? Are we stuck with it?

I’m writing this post, because shame is an emotion I always struggle to put into words, but I see a lot of clients whose lives are being affected by it, and thought I could have a go at making sense of what shame is, and how it causes us to behave.

I don’t think babies feel shame; they wee and poo and cry when they want to, without any idea that they are making their parents tired and fraught.  But by the time they are toddlers, shame has already crept into their lives; they will put their hands over their faces if they are being told off,  they will curl up in a ball if they are caught doing something they are not supposed to do.

Shame seems to be a reaction to being judged.  It’s a feeling we learn to have, not something we are born with.  So if we tell a child not to jump in the muddy water because he will be wet all day at school,  then there is no reason for him to feel shame.   If, however, a child is told that he is a ‘filthy, useless……..’ for getting dirty, then he will start to believe that about himself, and will begin to feel nervous and ashamed, just for behaving like a normal child.  And that sense of shame stays with a child.  If as children we are told we are, ‘a waste of space’, ‘not pretty like your sister’, ‘the plodder in the family’, then we carry those feelings about ourselves into our adult lives, and we bring that shame about  ‘who we have been told we are’ into our relationships; and it causes problems!

Shaming a child out of expressing his or her emotions, can also cause us as an adult to feel ashamed to talk about our feelings and our needs.  If as a  child we have been told to ‘turn the tap off’ when we cry, or to ‘stop being a baby’ when we are upset,  we may find in an adult relationship that we are unable to express sadness,  or even to know what our feelings are.  We may feel hurt by our partner’s words, but not know why, or be able to explain it to them, or we may get angry as a defence against the shame we feel.  It may be the result of being bullied, or even just regularly teased, over-criticised, made fun of, not listened to, dismissed, as a child, but being ridiculed or treated without respect as an adult, can cause us shame too.   When we ‘freeze’ and feel unable to speak in public, can’t accept praise from our partner, worry constantly about how we look, ‘bottle it’ at the last moment, when we are about to shoot at goal, and pass the ball, I suspect it’s all about shame; about not wanting to fail, to take the risk, to ‘look a fool’.

We tend to think that’s ‘just who we are’, that we can’t change as adults, but Steve Peters, who wrote The Chimp Paradox thinks otherwise, and his book is worth reading.  His idea is that ‘we can only do our best’.  We need, in fact,  to stop measuring ourselves against other people, and focus instead on what we want to change, and the small steps we can take, one by one, to make change happen for us.  You may say ‘oh just another self-help book’, but Steve Peters is the psychologist  who guided Victoria Pendleton and the British cycling team to Olympic victory, and who is currently mentoring Liverpool FC, so the guy has quite a track record.

So no, I don’t believe we are ‘stuck’ with our shame.  I’m not saying we can get rid of it completely, but once we understand where its roots lie for us, and work out how it is preventing us from feeling free to change, then I think most of us have got a pretty good chance, slowly but surely,  of stopping shame controlling who we want to be.






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.