Be kind to yourself

We all have a relationship with ourselves, just as we have relationships with the other people around us.

We all tend to think of ourselves in a certain way, and might have patterns of behaviour when ‘interacting’ with ourselves.

When someone says they ‘don’t like’ themselves, what they’re often describing is having a poor relationship with themselves – that they’ve come to think of themselves in negative terms, or regard themselves as not having much worth.

However, just like our relationships with other people, it’s important to be able to look after our relationship with ourself and make sure that we’re able to deal with negative thoughts and emotions so they don’t build up over time.

What influences our relationship with ourself?

One way is by adopting a pattern of thinking similar to what we use in our relationships with others – a role we tend to cast ourselves in that can become ingrained over time.

When we’re young, we tend to learn patterns of behaviour from the people looking after us. For instance, a child who didn’t receive much support from their parents when they were little – who was never comforted when they hurt themselves, or ignored when they were upset – might learn to regard themselves as undeserving of support.

Our experiences later in life can also define these patterns. For instance, someone who always found themselves in the role of ‘peacekeeper’ in a relationship might take that forward into other relationships later on. Or someone who was cheated on might struggle to trust future partners.

Our relationship with ourselves can also be affected by how satisfied we feel with our place in the world. If we feel things aren’t going well – perhaps if we feel we haven’t enjoyed the professional success we’ve always wanted, or don’t feel respected by our friends or colleagues – we may end up blaming ourselves, deciding that there must be something wrong with us for things to be this way.

Social influences can also have a powerful part to play. Again, we ‘compare ourselves to what might be’. The media sometimes depicts an idea of the ‘perfect’ life – successful, fun, packed full of adventure – and it can be very discouraging if you feel that your own life falls short.

How does having a negative relationship with yourself affect you?

One common consequence is the development of a highly negative dialogue with yourself.

You may begin to think of yourself in negative terms, or take on an aggressive or critical tone when thinking.

We often use words to describe ourselves (‘I’m such an idiot’) that we would never use to describe other people. And when you think poorly of yourself, this can be even worse – you may find yourself habitually using this language in a way that is damaging to your self-esteem.

Over time, having a negative perception of yourself can cause you to become distant from your emotions. You may want to avoid interacting with the ‘self’ that you feel is such a let-down. You may start to feel less, to try less; to feel more and more pessimistic about your future.

This is similar to a couple not getting on who avoid talking to each other – warm feelings are replaced by resentment and negative thoughts.

How do I start liking myself?

How you communicate with yourself is key to how you think about yourself.

You might start by simply trying to listen to the voice in your head and noticing times when it’s phrasing things negatively. Many people find it useful to keep a diary of what they’ve been thinking each day. Once you become more aware of what your mind is doing, you may be more able to address these patterns.

Once you’ve started doing this, try replacing the negative language with more positive. Instead of thinking: ‘I’m an idiot’, try thinking: ‘I’m not perfect, but nobody is’. Instead of thinking: ‘I’m a failure’, try: ‘I’m doing my best’. This is easier said than done, of course – but if you stick at it, you may find it becomes a positive habit over time.

Also crucial is that you learn to forgive yourself for the imperfections that make you human. Nobody is perfect. The vast majority of people feel that they aren’t reaching their absolute full potential. We all make mistakes – including big ones. We often hear the phrase ‘treat other people as you would treat yourself’ – well, it also works the other way around. Try to be kind to yourself in the way that you would be kind to others.

Again, this is a positive habit and it may take time to form, but once you get into the swing of it, you may find it gives you the freedom to reject the preconceptions of perfection – to just be you. Be gentle on yourself.

Our final tip would be to focus on your relationships with other people.

The better you feel about other people around you, the better you’re likely to feel about yourself.

If you feel supported, loved and able to talk with other people, you’re far more likely to feel optimistic about the future.

Positive relationships are key to self-worth: they’re like a safety net against isolation. Having a support network around you often means you’ve got a better chance of talking about anything bothering you or causing you to feel less happy.

If you would like to talk with one of our counsellors about what you feel about yourself, do contact our friendly appointments team on 01604 634400.

9 characteristics of successful couples

Christmas is fast approaching – a time of family, fun and laughter.

Or it should be.

Christmas can also be a time of intense pressure and stress, leading to arguments and upsets between couples – the exact opposite of what everyone is looking forward to! So how do some couples manage to not only survive but thrive through the festive season?

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the top 9 characteristics of successful couples. These were chosen by Relate counsellors based on their experience of helping couples improve their relationships. Follow along to spot your strengths – and discover your weaknesses and what to do about them!

 

#1 Communication

We all know how important communication is in a relationship, whether we’re married or in a long-term partnership. Yet with increasingly busy lives, it’s very easy to communicate badly, or not at all. And when we don’t communicate, we find our expectations, diaries and finances don’t align. We hurt one another and then find no time to communicate our pain. Disappointment, resentment and anger can fester until it all blows up and we have no idea where it all started!

Thankfully, there are some very simple things we can do to improve our communication.

Here are 3 ideas

  • Make time for it. Have a couple of times a week where you sit down with each other and chat, about nothing and everything! It doesn’t have to be planning or tasks or writing that dreaded Christmas list. Focus instead on asking questions and listening. Find out what’s happening for your partner, even in the small events of the day.
  • Set aside time for specific conversations. If you need to discuss something together, agree a specific time to do it. Rather than trying to squeeze it in around the washing up, you will come together ready for that conversation, paying full attention.
  • Don’t let anger fester. It’s easy to try and squash hurt or pain or frustration because we don’t want a confrontation. But when we do, we quickly begin to feel negative towards our partner. So often, upsets in relationships are down to miscommunication, thoughtlessness or mismatched expectations – whether that’s who does the housework, how you’re spending the weekend, or simply not listening to one another. When you feel hurt by something your partner has said or done, it helps if you talk about your feelings not their fault – instead of ‘you did x’ say ‘I feel upset because…’. This gives your partner time to apologise but also explain their own viewpoint: ‘I’m sorry – I had no idea that meant so much to you.’ And if you’re the one who upset your partner? Say sorry – an apology goes a long way! Follow up your apology by discussing together how you can communicate better in the future.

Communication breakdown is the biggest issue our clients experience in their relationships. Years of poor communication can take a long time to untangle. Our expert counsellors are trained to help you untangle where it all went wrong and rebuild your relationship the way you want it to be.

#2 Trust

Trust is an absolute essential in any healthy relationship. I trust that you’re not seeing anyone else. I trust that you mean it when you say you love me. I trust that you value and respect me. I trust that you and I are on the same page. I trust that you’re not faking it!

But it’s not as simple as it looks. If we’ve been hurt in other relationships, whether romantic or family or friendships, trust may not come that easily. And it certainly doesn’t come easily if our partner is the one who has hurt us. Though we may have forgiven them, trust has to be rebuilt. It takes time and patience to grow.

The problem is, any relationship without trust will lack the intimacy and unity that marks out successful couples. If we don’t trust our partner to remain faithful to us, we will always be on guard against usurpers – and our jealousy may corrupt our relationship. If we think our partner will ridicule our thoughts or emotions, we won’t share them – and they will never truly know us. If we don’t trust that our partner loves us, we become reluctant to be sexually intimate and constantly seek verbal affirmation of their affection – and our relationship is stifled.

So how do we build trust?

  • Start with acknowledging a lack of trust. Without being judgemental or accusatory, talk about where it might come from. It may be from past experience, or from recent events. Allow space to express the struggle to trust as well as how it feels to not be trusted.
  • Trust is a choice which becomes a habit with practice. If your lack of trust is mostly about previous hurt, practice trust! Where you catch yourself acting on a lack of trust, stop and reconsider your actions.
  • As well as building trust, work on building trustworthiness. By acknowledging our own past failures to be trustworthy, we can seek to change habits of behaviour, language and action that damage or undermine trust.

It is important that trust and trustworthiness are developed in both partners – as a journey you are on together to strengthen your relationship.

But these issues can be very complex and emotional to unpack, particularly if there has been a pattern of broken trust for either or both partners. This is where our expert counsellors at Relate can help. We can assist you in exploring together how to build trust and trustworthiness. And by investing in this foundation, you can strengthen your relationship for the long term. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can work for you.

#3 Commitment

Commitment: it’s the butt of all the jokes at stag do’s. “The ball and chain” that drags you away from fun, laughter and youth. And among the millennials and beyond, commitment is carefully avoided in many relationships. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) means they say ‘maybe’ rather than ‘yes’ to an invitation – or even delay responding at all. What if something better comes up?!

So does commitment deserve the bad reputation it has?

The thing about commitment is that it is counter-cultural to our western society. It is counter-consumerist: no more shopping around for something better. It is counter-individualistic: ‘you’ has become ‘we’. And it’s counter-emotive: it’s a choice that remains true regardless of how you feel.

Is it worth it?

Committed relationships, whether they are marriages, civil partnerships or less formally formed, are not immune to difficulty. They have to survive difficult circumstances for one or both partners, such as unemployment or illness. They have to navigate life stage changes, such as becoming parents or retirement. They have to navigate relational difficulties too, for a whole range of reasons.

But what committed relationships have is a firm foundation. By committing to one another, you have agreed together that your first priority is maintaining and growing the relationship you have.

Because of that certainty, your relationship is deeper, more intimate and more fulfilling. The challenges of walking through bad times together multiply the joy of walking through good times.

What does it mean to commit to someone?

  • Commitment is demonstrated in all areas of life. How you set up your finances. Your approach to decision making. How you view your body – and your partner’s body. How you speak about one another. How you spend your free time. Try this: over the next week, actively consider how your actions and words in all areas of life demonstrate your commitment to your partner.
  • Commitment means preferring the other. Instead of thinking about your own desires and preferences and then considering the impact on those around you, it means thinking as a unit – what do we need? This doesn’t mean doing nothing for yourself. Our individual hobbies, interests and social lives recharge us, making us better at living well together. But if we spend 6 out of 7 nights meeting our own needs, we leave very little time for our partner to do the same – let alone time to spend together as a couple. Preferring the other includes recharging ourselves, but also enabling our partner that same privilege – and giving one another time too.
  • Commitment means being in for the long haul. It may sound obvious but it matters that both partners agree on this. If we’re in for the long haul, it changes how we react to the ups and downs of a relationship. Perhaps the fire has gone out – the feelings and excitement are no longer there. If we’re not committed, we walk away and look somewhere else. But if we are, we find a way to rekindle our emotions. Perhaps our partner is going through a difficult health challenge. If we’re not committed, I choose to get out when it all gets too much for me. But if we are committed, we stick it out – it’s ‘we’, not ‘me’.

Commitment is hard. But like most difficult things, its rewards are huge. If you’re going through a difficult time in your relationship and struggling to maintain your commitment to one another, our expert counsellors can help guide your conversation and keep your relationship intact. Contact us today if you need expert help.

#4 Shared Values

Personal values influence everything we do. They are the foundation for our behaviour, our emotional response to circumstances, even the way we think. They shape our priorities and define our perspective. However, we tend not to be very aware of exactly what our values are. And it isn’t always obvious what is motivating us to behave or think in a certain way.

So why is it important that we share values with our partner?

A clash of values can cause significant arguments in our relationships. For example, Sam values success very highly, and Toni values family. Toni feels frustrated that Sam works long hours, and Sam is fed up of being pestered to come home.

Or, perhaps both partners value money but in different ways. Claire values money for comfort: nice clothes, good food, holidays. But Andy values money relationally: buying gifts for family and friends, giving to charity, throwing parties.

Sharing values does not mean our values have to be exactly the same. However, we do need to understand and respect one another’s values. What we do as couple can then come from a shared value basis.

Understanding how much Sam values his work may means that Toni enables Sam to spend quality time with the children at the weekend. And Sam, free to work long hours in the week, is willing to protect the weekends for quality family time.

Claire and Andy plan more deliberately how they’re going to spend their money together, in a way that respects both their values.

How do we work out what our values are?

Our personal values are often innate – we haven’t formed them purposefully. However, we can be purposeful in discovering what they are. In discussing them with our partner, we can find the reason why some parts of our relationship function very well and other parts cause disagreements.

Here’s a few ideas on how to work out your values:

  • Reflect on your day. What felt good? What didn’t feel good? What went well? What went badly? What situations arose and how did you respond? Why did you respond that way? Over the course of a week or two, you may see the same themes and words arising. These will begin to indicate your values.
  • Talk to your partner about the values you are discovering. You will find shared values between you. Take some time to consider how those shared values might shape your future together.
  • Step back from an argument and consider the root cause. Next time you have a disagreement with your partner, examine it together. What topic were you arguing about? What caused each of you to respond the way you did? Where do those emotions come from? When you discover your differences, talk about what’s good within both of those different values. Think together about how you can accommodate both value sets in your relationship.

Of course, it’s not easy to untangle the complexities of our values and how they influence us. In relationships that are struggling, these issues are often very emotive. This makes it hard to helpfully discuss what is happening personally and as a couple. Our expert counsellors can provide you and your partner a safe place to explore these issues. Discover how we can help you today.

#5 Sex

Sex. Our culture views sex as the ultimate expression of human relationship – the height of romantic love. And yet we also use it to sell deodorant, sing about it in most pop songs and expect it to form part of our favourite TV dramas (even Downton Abbey).

How significant is sex?

Sex is a key part of any intimate relationship – our counsellors consider a good sex life as vital for successful couples. But sex can also be had without intimacy. It can be abused and abusive; it can be one-off pleasure with a stranger. A couple having lots of sex doesn’t equal a successful relationship.

In a successful relationship, what is sex like?

Good sex happens within the other characteristics we have talked about already. Trust is vital: trusting your partner means you can give your body over to them without fear and be truly vulnerable both physically and emotionally during sex. Communication really matters: listening to what your partner likes and doesn’t like helps make sex a far more satisfying experience. And being committed to each other frees you to build an intimate, fulfilling sex life over time, knowing that your relationship is stable.

For successful couples, sex is less about the physical act and more about the connection it communicates. Great sex is not necessarily the longest, the most creative or the best orgasm. It’s the moments of the most connection – emotionally and physically.

 How sex changes over time

Life stages and challenges have a huge influence over sex. For example:

  • Having young children means time and energy is taken up in family life. Making time for any sex is difficult – this is the season of the quickie! Energy for creativity is hard find, but good sex is possible.
  • Conversely, once children start sleeping through the night, it can become again a season of greater creativity. It is also a time where both partners will need to adjust to the changes to a woman’s body brought about by pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
  • Stress, anxiety and depression can make sex very difficult. Working through seasons of mental ill health as a couple includes discovering ways to maintain sexual intimacy.
  • Aging bodies change our sex life. What was once possible at 20 is no longer possible at 40!
  • Menopause has huge implications for sex, once again changing a woman’s body, hormones and responses. It presents challenges but can also be a journey of discovery for a couple.

When couples value sex for the connection it brings, it is possible to overcome each of these life challenges. The concern is not for my pleasure, but connection with my partner. A partner’s changing body and emotions, whatever the reasons, is an opportunity to discover a new way of connecting sexually rather than a barrier to good sex.

What do I do if my partner and I are struggling with sex?

There are many reasons why you might be struggling with sex. It may be physical dysfunction, self-esteem issues or it may be because other areas of your relationship are struggling, such as trust or communication. It can be very difficult to talk about these challenges, even with your partner!

The good news is that, at Relate Northamptonshire, we have a qualified sex therapist who can help you overcome any sexual difficulties you and your partner are having. Find out more about our sex therapy service or get in touch straight away.

#6 Attraction

We all know that attraction is far more than the physical. It’s the person who makes you laugh; the person who gets you; the person who makes you feel visible and heard; the person who feels like home. It’s someone you want to spend as much time as possible with.

Most relationships start with this natural attraction. But not all relationships end in long-term commitment to one another. So what is it that sustains this initial attraction for years of life?

Growing attraction

We all start by being attracted to who someone is. But people change – we are all works in progress. Entering into a commitment to someone will fail if we expect that they will stay the same forever, or if we think that we can change them to who we want them to be.

Successful couples have that initial attraction to one another but don’t stop there. They grow in attraction to one another. There’s an expectation of change and an enjoyment of the discovery of who that person is becoming. For a successful couple, they will look back on a relationship, and marvel at how far they each have come.

How do we become couples who remain attracted to each other?

Here are three things we can do:

Prioritise uninterrupted time

Life quickly becomes busy. It might be busy and exciting careers. It might be children and family. It might be sport and hobbies. It might be a fulfilling social life.

These things are all good things for individuals and for a couple. But if we’re not careful, they can crowd out time one on one, enjoying each other’s company. Without time, we easily forget what it was that attracted us to the other person. We forget to grow together. Then, when retirement comes, or the children move out or the social life slows down, we no longer know who we are in a relationship with.

Compared to the early intensity of a relationship where you seek out time together, it can feel a bit stale to diarise it! But a different life stage calls for a different approach. Diarise the time to do enjoyable things together. Sometimes, this might mean a couple of nights a week where you go to bed together early to just talk about everything and nothing. Sometimes it means a meal out or a drink at the pub. Sometimes it’s a takeaway and a board game.

Take the time to enjoy each other – to remind yourself why you are attracted to this person you committed to.

Enjoy change

We’ve all heard the old adage, “don’t marry someone thinking you can change them.” The flip side of the coin is “don’t marry someone thinking they won’t change!”

People change in every way over time: physically, mentally, emotionally; even personalities mature over time. We don’t get to determine the direction of that change, even in our partner. Nor can we stop change happening.

However, successful couples notice and enjoy the changes that take place in one another. Challenges at work build strong character, honing qualities in our partner. A desire to get fit produces muscles that we never knew they had! Bearing children changes a woman’s shape – she may not view it for the better, but her partner can choose to delight in these marks of her motherhood.

You see, successful couples can’t change each other in a particular direction, but they can shape one another’s response to change.

Share your growth together

It’s easy to keep private some of the ways we assess ourselves and the changes we are going through or want to prompt. But, to grow together, we need to share our journeys with one another – and be actively interested in each other’s development.

How does this help attraction? Well, it prevents that blockbuster moment: ‘you’re not the person I married’. If we’re doing the journey of life and personal growth together, we will always know our partner. We don’t expect them to be who they were 10 or 20 years ago. And we appreciate and love all the ways they are changing. It doesn’t take us by surprise!

And if you don’t know where to start?

For you, this might feel too late. Perhaps you and your partner have drifted apart and can no longer work out where that initial attraction has gone. Relate counsellors can help you rediscover one another and rekindle the desire to spend time together, enjoying one another’s company. Contact us today to begin a journey of renewing your relationship.

#7 Fidelity

Our culture isn’t quite sure what to do about fidelity. On one hand, we celebrate sexual licence – we call it “playing the field” or “sowing wild oats”. On the other hand, we romanticise the idea of one soulmate for life and delight in lifelong love.

So how does this actually work for a successful couple?

Firstly, we need to do away with the myth that love is something we fall in and out of. Love is emotional and does surprise us, but we choose to help it grow and develop. Our thoughts, words and actions either contribute to or undermine our love for our partner.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that a relationship is not just a contract between people based on concrete, external facts. It is a heart-led commitment with the whole of yourself. In other words, infidelity isn’t limited to whether or not you have sex with someone outside your marriage – that’s just the end result. Fidelity has as much to do with how you think about people you’re attracted to: do you dwell on that person and fantasise about them? Or do you lay aside any attractions and focus instead on your partner? (Here’s a great article that talks more about micro-cheating.)

Thirdly, successful relationships are about far more than sex – and fidelity is about far more than sex too. How do we talk about our partner with others? Do we talk about them in love, or do we dwell on all the things they get wrong? What we talk about with others shapes what we think of them. How do we act? Do we act as if they are the only person for us, or do we enjoy attracting others, even if we intend to reject any advances?

Reframing fidelity

If we’ve always thought of fidelity as only a sexual act outside of a committed relationship, it is a big shift to think about it as widely as the above suggests.

  • For example, consider and talk about your consumption of sexualised images and pornography – understanding how it impacts on your relationship. For some people, their partner’s consumption of pornography amounts to a betrayal. How do you as a couple need to reshape your sex life to accommodate different levels of desire while respecting the need for fidelity?
  • Be honest with yourselves about your thoughts and how they might betray your partner. This requires tremendous courage and a decision to prioritise the health of our relationship over other friendships.
  • Listen to the way you talk about your partner, and think about how your portrayal of them expresses fidelity to them – or otherwise. This means not airing your dirty laundry in public! Instead, view your partner’s reputation amongst your family, friends and colleagues as being just as important as your own. Speak of them in ways that build them up, not undermine them.

Overcoming infidelity

Infidelity in any form can deeply damage a committed relationship. It destroys trust, breaks that heart-led commitment to one another and undermines a healthy sexual relationship.

However, it does not have to signal the end of a committed relationship. If both partners are willing, there is a journey back to a healthy, happy, life-long relationship with one another. It starts with communication and honesty, and involves a lot of forgiveness.

You don’t have to navigate the journey alone, either! Our expert counsellors at Relate are able to help you find a way through all the emotions and conflict that infidelity causes. Just get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.

#8 Shared Interests

Some relationships seem totally incongruous, like living proof that opposites attract. You can find yourself wondering what on earth a couple has in common!

In fact, it is healthy for a couple to have different interests. It gives freedom and capacity to maintain your own sense of self. It gives room for conversation and learning from each other – moving in different spheres for some of the week, and not just work, feeds our conversations and therefore our relationship.

But having no shared interests whatsoever can put a dampener on a relationship. A shared interest gives opportunities to spend quality time together. It helps you grow in intimacy and knowledge of one another. It means that conversations aren’t only about tasks, business, work and the kids, but have another dimension that is fun and enjoyable for both of you.

It’s all about the time

Couples who have shared interests are successful because of the time investment their interest brings. Quality time builds a quality relationship.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to have a shared interest at the beginning for your relationship to succeed. Shared interests can and should be cultivated – developing and growing over time.

How to find and grow a shared interest

Here are our top tips for discovering and growing a shared interest.

  • Get to know your partner’s interests – you never know, there might also be one that suits you! Even if not, it gives you a starting point for finding something you could share.
  • Be willing to give lots of things a go. Try that dance class, buy the board game, begin that hobby together. It’s a journey you’re both on! Allow one another the veto on things not enjoyed, but give every idea a go.
  • Interests don’t have to be expensive or elaborate. It might be regularly hosting people for dinner, walks in the countryside, favourite TV show or any other myriad of things. You’re going to want to sustain it, so make sure it’s budget-friendly.
  • Remember it’s supposed to be fun! Hold it lightly and enjoy it.
  • When you find something you both enjoy, commit to giving it time like you would every other hobby. This is the point of the shared interest: enjoying time together.

What happens if we don’t have any shared interests?

The risk of not having any shared interests is that you may become only connected by circumstance. The fact that you live in the same house, are raising children together, or have a joint bank account. As you go through life transitions such as the kids growing up, changes to jobs and careers or retirement, you might reach a point where what holds you together seems weaker than what separates you.

If that seems to describe your relationship, don’t despair! At Relate, our counsellors can help you find again the strength of connection that brought you together – and cultivate the intimacy of time together that a shared interest brings. We’re here to help you! Just get in touch.

Virtual reality app puts you in the shoes of someone living with dementia

If you’re caring for someone with dementia in your relationship – or you just want to understand more about what it’s like to live with dementia – an innovative virtual reality app is about to be launched.

A Walk Through Dementia will be premiered at a three-day public installation at Lonson’s St Pancras International Station from June 2.

The free app, available from the Google Play Store, has been developed by Alzheimer’s Research UK and virtual reality specialists VISYON. It uses a widely-available Google Cardboard headset to put you in the shoes of someone with dementia. The experience will also be viewable headset-free on the app, or online at: www.awalkthroughdementia.org. (more…)

When talking is tough

Talking things over together in a relationship can be tricky – particularly if you haven’t been talking properly for a while, or you feel hurt or angry with your partner.

However, if you do feel able to give it a go, these tips may be useful:

  • Keep things relaxed. Hearing the words ‘we need to talk’ can make even the most laid-back person feel defensive! Framing things more positively can get things off to a better start. You might like to try something like: ‘I’d really like to talk about our relationship together when you have a chance’.
  • Pick the right moment. Try to talk when things are going well, not badly. Bringing things up in the middle of an argument is only likely to create more conflict. If you introduce the topic when you’re both feeling good about the relationship, you’re more likely to move in a positive direction.
  • Say how you feel, not how you think they make you feel.If you’re both simply trading blows and blaming each other for everything, you’re not likely to get anywhere. To keep things under control, it can be useful to use ‘I’ phrases (‘I sometimes feel worried that’) rather than ‘you’ phrases (‘you always make me feel worried because’).
  • A conversation has to go both ways for it to work. If what your partner has to say is difficult to hear, try to stick with it.  Try to start by acknowledging their perspective may be different to yours.
  • You could even plan. It might sound a little clinical, but it can be useful to think beforehand about what you want to say. That doesn’t mean preparing a shopping list of grievances, but just gathering your thoughts on what you want to talk about.
  • Come back to it.These things are rarely solved in one chat. It takes time and effort to work on relationship issues, so you may need to revisit things in a month to see how you’re each getting on. After a while, this kind of conversation will seem much less scary!

If you’d like to chat with one of our counsellors about your relationship why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01604 634400.

 

Should we break up now? Or risk further heartache down the line?

Relate frequently responds to letters from people about their relationships – and a few are published on our national website to help others who may be going through similar experiences. We ensure letter-writers cannot be identified. Here’s one such letter from someone whose partner has asked him: ‘Should we remain in our relationship?’ He writes:

My partner and I have been together for over two years. We love and respect each other hugely. We have shared values, enjoy each other’s company, look forward to spending time together, listen to and support each other, and feel completely comfortable being ourselves around one another. Despite a 16-year age gap, and the occasional disagreement, which we usually resolve with laughter, we feel like a good fit. Our friends and family are happy we’ve found each other, and we’re often told we look great together.

Yet the fear of the future, and of potentially wanting different things in a relationship, is causing so much anxiety for both of us that we’re wondering whether it’s healthier to break up now, rather than risk further heartache down the line. Are we being sensible or over-thinking things?

My partner is 23, whilst I’m 39. We’ve always been open about our age gap and the implications around parenthood. I’ve always hoped to have children one day, although I feel the pressure of having them sooner rather than later, mainly for external reasons. Many of my friends are already on their second child, and my father, who would love grandchildren, is slowly deteriorating from Parkinson’s disease. So, we’ve previously discussed having children by my mid-forties.

However, my partner is now no longer sure she wants to have children at all, at least not for the foreseeable future. Consequently, we’re worried that if we manage to stay together for the long-term, without having children, then the loss I might feel and the guilt my partner might feel, would overwhelm our relationship. We’re also worried that if we stay together, and my partner does eventually become ready for children, then I may feel too old, or my partner will feel I’m too old. The alternative seems to be to break up now, whilst still in love, to see if we’re able to meet someone else equally as wonderful, who better fits our life stages. 

We find this terrifying. We feel so lucky to have met. Although we’ve dated many people before, we found it very difficult to find someone we clicked with and related to so well – despite our age gap. This is probably due in part to our backgrounds. We both grew up in dysfunctional families with absent and unwell parents, and experienced some emotional trauma and neglect as a consequence. We’re also both from mixed-ethnic families, which has given us a shared sense of ‘otherness’. We feel a huge pressure on making sure we’re each doing the right thing for the other. 

My partner has been torturing herself about why she no longer wants to have children, and whether it’s a permanent or temporary feeling. She wonders if it’s linked to her current emotional state in relation to her father. Three months ago, he was diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer. He’s in his mid-fifties, with two much younger children, and only recently reconnected with my partner after years of not speaking. This has made my partner (and to some extent myself) feel very depressed and emotionally flat in general. My partner has experienced clinical depression in the past, and her current mental state is reinforcing her suspicion that she’s not strong enough a person, and too much in need of attention, to have children. The situation has also highlighted the risk to her of having a family with someone, who, due to ill health or old age, might not be there for the children as they grow up.

At the same time, I wonder whether it’s my emotional response to all this that’s affecting my partner. Although I love her deeply, the more anxious and stressed I become, the less physical attraction I feel toward her, which in turn, makes me feel guilty and grumpy. My partner says this doesn’t change how much she loves me, but even so, I wonder whether it’s having an unconscious effect, and whether I’m unintentionally trying to push her away as a defence mechanism. I also wonder whether my partner was only interested in having children initially, out of excitement for our fledgling relationship.

My partner has asked me to reflect on our current situation, and decide whether I want to remain in a relationship where the future is so uncertain. She says she loves me and wants us to stay together, but at the same time is afraid she won’t be able to make me happy. So, she wants me to choose what will work for me, regardless of how it might affect her.

Our response:

Here you are, at a stage of your life when you may have thought that true love had eluded you and then all of a sudden, there she is. Right there, loving you back with dreams and wishes, that are similar to yours. But then, just when everything seemed perfect, so many worries have come crowding in that now, breaking away from someone who’s brought so much joy into your life seems like the only option to keep everyone from heartache and regrets. So, what’s happened?

The bottom line here is that actually, you’re only asking perfectly reasonable questions of each other and doing your best to make sure that come what may, you could look back and say we didn’t rush headlong into who we are as a couple. We thought about the things that are likely to arise. For example, your partner is 23. She’s questioning if she wants children, her father is dying and she has some mental health issues. Is it any wonder that things seem confusing and painful? What’s more, your dad is ill and your own anxieties are causing you to question if you find her attractive. Now, to be honest with you, I would say that none of this is out the ordinary. Getting together with someone whom you feel could be a ‘life’ partner requires a certain amount of speculation and reflection. In addition, to varying degrees, most of us worry about the future. What will happen and what will become of the people we love. Yet I sense from what you tell me that this runs a lot deeper for the two of you.

As I read your letter, I started wondering whether you might both have a sneaking suspicion that neither of you deserves to be happy. There can be lots of reasons for this; earlier disappointing adult relationships, and occasionally specific events. Sometimes, feelings like this start in childhood. Maybe, even though your parents might have done their very best, within the circumstances to which you allude, they still couldn’t give you that essential reassurance that all kids need, which is that you’re OK and a worthwhile human being. Taking doubts and sometimes shame like this into adult relationships often makes it very tricky to believe that someone actually loves us for who we really are, even though a partner might keep telling us we’re loved and cherished.

What we sometimes do, when we really can’t quite get our heads round it, is to find as many reasons as possible to make sure it can’t work. Of course, the decision to have children or not is a huge one but just taking this issue alone, even if you were both in full agreement on the way forward on this, one of you could change your mind. The point I’m trying to make here is that I think you’re looking for safe certainty that everything is done and dusted – but if you think about it, relationships are living things. They evolve, have ups and downs and hopefully mature, but at any of these stages, someone might start to feel differently about something that was previously agreed as a consequence of an issue that wasn’t even on the horizon at the outset. That’s life and in a way, one of the things that makes us most human. So even if you and she had got all this sorted – it could still evolve and change.

But let me be clear – it’s a real positive that the two of you are looking at your relationship in quite a bit of detail. There’s a lot going on and the questions you’ve been posing are both important and normal. But here’s the tricky bit. You have to learn when to stop asking the questions and take the risk that what you have is what you most want to cherish.

Relationships come in all shapes and sizes and with all sorts of problems. At the moment, it sounds like each of you is trying to figure out whether this particular relationship is going to be the guaranteed success that, perhaps, you both feel may have been missing as you were growing up. None of us knows this. Not me, not you nor anyone else. But by way of encouragement, I strongly suggest that you and your partner read and digest the first paragraph of your letter to me, because I think the answer you’re looking may well be staring you in the face.

The response is from Ammanda Major, a relationship counsellor and sex therapist, who is head of clinical practice at Relate. If you have a relationship worry you would like some help with, and prefer to write, please send your letter to askammanda@relate.org.uk If you’d prefer to talk with one of our counsellors in confidence face-to-face, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

 

Anyone for sex every day for a year?

The media frequently contact Relate for comments and advice. Sometimes the stories they impart are a touch sensational and the advice is added on as an afterthought.

So, when you’re asked to comment on a piece headed ‘Sex every day for a year’ you start to question whether you should get involved.

But when one news channel reported on US author Brittany Gibbons having sex every day for a year, it raised some pertinent points about our self-esteem.

Brittany said that, as a result of her self-afflicted task, she not only felt better about her body, but learned how to communicate better with her partner.

Clearly, body confidence is a big issue. Surveys from commercial product companies (advocating use of the type of products they produce, of course) found that only 20% of women in the UK like the way they look and 48% of UK men desperately want to lose weight.

Whether having sex every day to fix it is a solution – or just an eye-catching headline – is open to debate.

Hence, the media outlet approached a couple of ‘experts’, including Relate’s relationship counsellor, Denise Knowles, who offered some ‘balance’ to the story.

Not surprisingly… having sex every day is not for everyone, she said.

She pointed out that the US author had something that not everyone does – the option to have sex every day with a supportive husband who wanted to help her develop body confidence.

She was in a safe relationship, where she could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, state her needs, and be vulnerable. In this unique circumstance, then ‘yes’, said Denise, ‘perhaps sex could lead to body confidence.’

But we certainly could not take this experience and then state ‘sex every day builds body confidence’.

(You could sense the journalist’s hopes had been dashed.)

Pushing yourself to have sex every day for a year, regardless of what your body and mind really wants, could, in fact, have some dangerous consequences.

Sex every day with, for example, various partners and strangers, especially if you have a traumatic past involving some sort of sexual abuse, could lead to shame, feelings of worthlessness, dissociation from the body, and depression.

(No, come on now, you’re killing a good story here.)

It could mean we push ourselves to have sex just to ‘keep the record going’, instead of listening to ourselves and recognising our needs in each moment, which is so essential if we at all suffer from low self-esteem.

It all comes down to the individual. If you are with a loving partner or partners, and it’s something you’d decided to do for fun, it might lead to better connection, and improved sexual confidence, but you’d both have to be wanting sex at the same time, and prioritising each other’s needs – rather than just ‘ticking off a day on the calendar’.

Sex with random people is more likely to cause issues with confidence than increased confidence.

Any big declaration you intend to have sex every day for a year with many different people is far less likely to be about body confidence and more likely to be a sign of deep-rooted issues, such as trauma, sex addiction, or histrionic personality disorder.

Focusing on just sex is probably not the answer, said Denise. Obsessively fixating on sex as the solution to your body confidence issues isn’t going to work. Often, self-esteem runs far deeper and is more complex.

(Not quite what we had in mind.)

“People might be focusing on their body when there are other areas of life that might be problematic,” she says. “Rather than focus on the negative, think about what you do have.

“If there are parts of your body you’re not happy with, take a good look and think about the parts of your body you do like. Maybe you have nice skin or nice legs.

“If you don’t like parts of your body, don’t focus on them every day – the negative – because it’ll bring you down…

“It’s not all about your body. It’s about who you are as a person.”

(Wished we hadn’t asked her now.)

Be careful what you wish for, says Denise. If you become dependent on having sex every day to feel better, then how are you going to react if the sex starts to wane?

Instead, she recommends improving your lifestyle, diet and exercise routine.

“The issue here is making the decision to do something different – recognising that ‘I want to do something good about this problem’ and seeing it through.”

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about self-esteem, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

 

 

Coping with the highs and lows of a rollercoaster relationship

When your relationship is an ‘emotional rollercoaster’, it tends to have lots of highs and lows – often in rapid succession.

One day you’re arguing intensely, the next you’re feeling really happy and close.

You may find it hard to predict what things are going to be like on any given day, or when they might swing from one state to another. People sometimes describe relationships like this as being full of ‘drama’ or characterised by lots of ‘passion’.

How does this kind of relationship develop?

The most common reason for this kind of relationship developing is one or both partners finding it difficult to manage their emotions and how they express them to their partner. They may get easily upset, or veer rapidly between different emotional states.

The reasons behind this can be complex, but sometimes have their roots in how the person learned to relate to other people when growing up.

They may, for instance, have had an unstable relationship with their parents and, as a result, find themselves attempting to recreate this environment as an adult because it’s what they’re most used to. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, familiarity is a significant principle in emotional relationships – even in situations where the familiarity isn’t necessarily productive or easy to bear. In fact, research has shown that often we are attracted to what is familiar to us, and being exposed to certain types of people can even increase our attraction to them. This is essentially subconscious and, as such, we’re unlikely to be aware it.

How will the rollercoaster affect you?

It requires significant levels of energy to maintain this type of relationship – to the extent where it can be difficult to concentrate on other areas of your life properly. Dealing with negative emotions is challenging, and switching between highs and lows in rapid succession can be exhausting. It can produce a sense of uncertainty derived from not knowing where you stand on any given day. People in this kind of relationship often describe themselves as ‘consumed’ by it – saying that it becomes the centre of their life.

Sometimes, one of the most problematic characteristics of rollercoaster relationships is that they can be habitual. While they are extremely tiring and sometimes traumatic, they can also be highly exciting, fun and engaging. The word ‘passion’ tends to crop up a lot when we work with couples in this kind of relationship. Although partners may feel there are many positives in their relationship, the sense of constant drama can also feel overwhelming and confusing.

How to deal with it

An ideal outcome for someone in a rollercoaster relationship may be for them to retain a lot of the ‘passion’ while finding a way to regulate the characteristic highs and the lows.

Better understanding is usually the first step towards meaningful change. Finding out how you fit together emotionally, what your respective needs are, and what changes you would like to make are key to ensuring that each partner can be heard within the relationship.

This often means asking yourself, and each other, really honest and occasionally challenging questions. Listening to each other, perhaps with the help of a counsellor, can often mean that each partner gets a fuller understanding of how their patterns of communication may be affecting their partner.

By becoming more aware of these relationships patterns, you can understand how the attraction between you really works. Developing more awareness about things like this will, in turn, help to develop new patterns that are helpful to both partners.

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about all this, either individually or as a couple, give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

 

‘My partner isn’t committed to our relationship’

Feeling our partner has commitment issues can be stressful and isolating – and can make us doubt the future of our relationship.

We may hope our partner will come round to the idea of a long-term relationship. We may believe, sometimes justifiably, that our partner wants to be committed to our relationship. But it never quite works out that way.

How do commitment issues develop? (more…)

When sex isn’t working out ok

Feeling like you aren’t getting what you want in bed and being unable to ask for it can be frustrating and upsetting.

Sex can be a really a tricky topic. We may feel we don’t know how to express ourselves to our partner. Or we may feel confused or embarrassed about why things aren’t ‘working’.

And, while it’s important to remember that sex won’t always be perfect – after all, we can all have ‘off days’ – being able to talk about sex is important in any relationship. Sex can be a really important way of reconnecting – of being intimate, close and just enjoying one another.

Why am I faking orgasm? (more…)

‘Feeling sad’ in a relationship may verge on ‘giving up’

When we start out in a relationship, we might have lots of ideas about what it will be like and how it will make us feel.

We might imagine it will give us a sense of fulfilment and make us feel happy and safe. We might imagine it taking an important place at the centre of our life. The promise of a relationship can be a big part of what makes it such a joyful thing. (more…)