Coping with the ‘snowball of stress’

Stress can have a distorting effect on our relationships. It can make us feel low and not wanting to talk to people. We tend to shut ourselves away and keep our emotions on the inside.

It can make us argumentative and prone to lashing out – ready to lose our temper in an instant. Or, it can cause us to oscillate between different moods at different times.

It’s hard to ‘plan’ for the effects of stress. Often, we don’t anticipate being stressed – stressful experiences often take us by surprise, and can come out of nowhere. A sudden increase in workload. An unwelcome call from your mum. An unexpected bill. One moment you’re feeling calm and happy; the next, hot, panicky and irritated.

Often, you feel that your response to stress is slightly beyond your control: you become withdrawn without quite realising you’re doing it. Or, you surprise yourself by becoming suddenly snappy, irritable and unreasonable.

How stress affects relationships

If you’re becoming withdrawn, your partner is likely to feel pushed away. And if you get snappy, they may feel hurt or become defensive. What can be really problematic, though, is that they may want to help, and feel that their efforts are being rebuffed. This can feel like a rejection and result in them becoming withdrawn or snappy themselves. The problems of stress can snowball: as one partner begins to act in a negative or unconstructive way, so might the other.

Moreover, your partner may not realise why you’re acting as you are. It may not be immediately apparent that it’s stress that’s causing you to say unkind things, or be unresponsive when spoken to. They may feel it’s something they’ve done. This can obviously be very upsetting and frustrating – both for the hurt caused and confusion about why it’s happening.

Without intervention, the gap from this situation can get wider and wider. And the more you feel your partner is a source of stress, the less likely you’ll be willing to try to close that gap.

How to communicate stress

Stress may put you in survival mode. You may feel that if you can just ride it out and deal with it by yourself, you can get back to normality. Stopping to explain yourself – letting someone else into the picture at that moment – can feel like losing control. It can feel as if you’re making yourself vulnerable at a time when you can’t be.

But, while being open can indeed make you vulnerable, it can also be empowering. It can allow you to take ownership of how you’re feeling, to recognise your emotions and to understand them in perspective. Saying how you’re doing out loud doesn’t make your problems any bigger – in fact, it can sometimes allow you to see they’re not as big as you thought.

And, of course, for all these reasons, it’s important to let your partner in so they don’t feel shut out, and so the situation doesn’t spiral into something deeper.

If you’re on the receiving end of this communication – or trying to be – it can be a bit of a tightrope. The temptation often is to try and convince your partner to say what’s on their mind – sometimes through criticism or badgering. But, as many of us will have experienced, this is just as likely to get them to clam up further.

Often, the best way is to use an approach that allows the person experiencing stress to stay in charge of how much they say. Often, the best first step is to simply say: ‘How can I help?’ This puts agency firmly with the person experiencing difficulties and is less likely to make them feel under pressure to talk.

If they still don’t want to go into it, then maybe letting them know you’re there to talk if they need you, and then giving them some space, is all you can do for the time being. No matter how much you would like to, you can’t force someone to let you in – particularly someone who is already feeling withdrawn or irritable – but you can make sure they know you’re on their side.

If your partner is open to talking, much the same applies. Again, it’s tempting to immediately begin to offer solutions, or to get them to ‘try to see the bright side’ – but, these can be stressful responses in themselves. They can feel like judgements, or as if you’re dismissing their experience as one that’s easily fixable. In some cases, this is exactly the response that the cagey person was fearing: one that demands they accede to it, rather than one that takes in how they’re feeling, and what they’re thinking.

Instead, it can be much more productive to just empathise and ask questions. Often, when we’re finding something difficult, what we want isn’t a solution, but just someone to be there with us and give emotional support. Supplying this – even if it means sitting quietly together or just hugging – may be all they need to begin to feel like the situation is under control.

We know that can sound vague, but all you’re doing is being curious and showing support. Don’t feel you have to always jump in and fill the silences. And it’s okay to admit you don’t know how to help! The main thing that matters is that your partner feels understood and cared for. The rest can follow.

 

When a new baby isn’t entirely that bundle of joy you’d expected

We’re sometimes reluctant to talk about what it’s really like to bring a new baby into a family – apart from the acceptance that we’re likely to get a lot less sleep.

Expectations run high and anything that contradicts them can be difficult to process.

As a new parent, you’re letting go of one life and discovering another. This process can take time.

It’s a period of intense change for you, your partner, and your new baby. You learn together what that new ‘normal’ looks like but, meanwhile, it’s important not to judge yourself, nor your partner, if things feel uncomfortable. Be gentle with each other.

One of the biggest changes will be how little time you now have to be a couple. It’s important that you make extra effort to find that time, even if it feels unnecessary or artificial.

The biggest challenge for couples is knowing that what they’re feeling is normal and incredibly common. Try to let go of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ – they’re not helpful. There is no how you should feel, only how you do feel.

For example:

  • A new mum might find herself feeling resentful at her partner’s comparative freedom, especially in those early days and especially if she’s breastfeeding
  • You might resent the attention the new baby is getting and, in turn, feel guilty
  • You might feel confused or fearful that you’re not taking to parenthood as well as you’d expect
  • Instead of feeling supported, you might feel judged by grandparents, other family members or friends
  • Sometimes you might feel incompetent and overwhelmed by all the things you’re expected to know.

What you’re feeling is valid and you should tell your partner. You will probably find that they understand and may even feel the same as you.

What if I think it’s more serious?

Research shows that women in particular experience some form of mental illness post childbirth – 50% of those women have no previous history of mental illness.

You may be tempted to blame yourself and feel guilty for not experiencing the euphoria everyone told you to expect. It isn’t your fault and, with support, you can process your feelings and move forward.

What are the signs we should look out for?

If you’re suffering from postnatal depression, you might relate to the following:

  • Feeling indifferent to your partner and your new baby
  • Feeling irritable or angry for no obvious reason
  • Unable to sleep, even when you have the opportunity
  • Sleeping too much and unable to leave your bed
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or unable to cope
  • Lack of interest in your partner and/or in having sex.

Some of these symptoms, like tiredness, are natural after childbirth. However, if you’re feeling a number of these things, do seek advice from your health visitor or GP.

It’s also important to recognise that if you’re feeling low, you might downplay these feelings or think you aren’t worthy of help. Try to counter this by talking about your concerns with a health professional, even if you think it’s not serious. This way you can be reassured or get the support you need. Remember, too, that people who love you may notice things that you can’t see, so do take notice of friends and family who express their worries.

Keeping a mood diary is a helpful way to track how you feel. Noting things like how much sleep you’ve had, or particular challenges you’re facing, and matching them to your own moods will help you to make sense of your emotions instead of feeling like they’re coming out of nowhere.

Being a new parent can be a wonderful experience. Part of that experience is living through challenges and learning about yourself and your partner – as well as the new life you’ve brought into the world!

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about the effects on your relationship from having a new baby, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

 

 

Loneliness affects younger people – much more than older people

Loneliness affects people at all stages of life. But young people, in their late teens and early 20s, are significantly more likely to be affected than older age groups, says a study.

Findings show one in 20 adults in England feel lonely often or all of the time – and social media may be exacerbating the problem, particularly among younger generations.

The figures were released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which was tasked with compiling data as part of a Government drive to tackle loneliness.

Five per cent of those aged 16 and over in England report feeling lonely often or all of the time, while 16% feel lonely sometimes, and 24% occasionally.

Compared with nearly all other age groups, those aged 16-24 are significantly more likely to report feeling lonely often or always.

The Mental Health Foundation says loneliness is “not necessarily down to a lack of people”. “This is particularly true of the digital world, where teens can have thousands of friends online and yet feel unsupported and isolated,” they say. “Technology, including social media, could be exacerbating social isolation.” By comparison: “The vast majority of young people we ask say that spending time face-to-face with others improves their mental health.”

Women report feeling lonely more often than men, the ONS report says, although it notes that men may be more reluctant to report undesirable feelings such as loneliness.

Renters, widowers and widows, single people, the unemployed and those in poor health are likely to feel lonely most frequently.

Analysis identifies three profiles of people at particular risk from loneliness: widowed older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions, unmarried middle-agers with long-term health conditions, and younger renters who have “little trust and sense of belonging to their area”.

The Campaign to End Loneliness says: “Loneliness is not simply the result of someone’s personality or character; it’s vital to acknowledge contributors to loneliness such as health and economic status.”

 

 

Breaking up is hard to do

You’ve decided to put an end to all the arguing, all the tension, all the indecision – and tell your partner: ‘It’s over.’

All you’ve got to do is actually do it!

It sounds straightforward enough. But it’s not always easy.

Maybe you’re worried about hurting your partner. Perhaps you know they don’t want to break up, and that doing so will leave them in a bad state.

Maybe it will be a surprise – one you can’t face springing.

Maybe you think things will be awkward at college or work. Maybe you have lots of friends in common.

Or, maybe you aren’t actually sure you want to break up – perhaps you’re caught between doing it and not doing it.

What to do?

Let’s start with the last one first. Knowing why you want to break up is often the most important thing when it comes to doing it.

If you’re not feeling satisfied with the relationship, have a think about what’s causing that. Is it because you want different things? Have you been arguing a lot and drifting apart? Maybe you feel you are different people compared with when you started out.

If you feel it’s something you might be able to figure out together, try talking about things together before making any decisions. That can be scary, and awkward, and sometimes it feels ‘staged’, but it’s also usually the best way to address things.

If you haven’t been sure about breaking up, knowing why means you’ll be able to better express yourself when you tell your partner.

Going through with it

We know it can be really tempting to send a text and get it done – and, sometimes, if you really can’t face seeing your partner, this is better than dragging it out for ages and leaving them hanging.

But it’s usually better to talk face-to-face because, that way, you can more clearly say what you have to say. That doesn’t mean being unkind, and it doesn’t mean telling them things it wouldn’t be useful for them to hear (such as: ‘I fancy your mate more’). But it does mean explaining where you’re at, and communicating that you’ve made a definite decision.

Try focussing on the relationship and on your own feelings (or lack of them) – instead of on your partner and things you may not like about them.

And, while it can be tempting to say that it’s not right for you ‘right now’, this can be a bad idea. It can leave the other person feeling that if they turn up in a year, things will all be fine, when – let’s be honest – this probably isn’t the case.

If you’d like to take a look, Relate is working with Status in its #BetterBreakups campaign. It aims to reduce the impact of breaking up on young people’s mental health. And if you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about it, do give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

Gone off sex?

It’s common for a relationship to go through phases where one or both partners lose interest in sex.

Sexual interest tends to ebb and flow over time – and partners may have different sex drives at different stages in a relationship.

Losing interest can also be related to specific issues in the relationship, or external pressures from outside it.

Why might you or your partner have gone off sex?

There are lots of reasons:

  • Feeling less connected than usual. Perhaps recently you haven’t spent as much time together. Or maybe something has happened in your relationship that’s caused a rift, such a big argument or an affair.
  • Too busy to make time for sex. You may be so busy with work, looking after children or dealing with other pressures that you don’t have time to spend on your relationship.
  • You don’t feel connected with your sexual self. Maybe there are things about your body or how you look that you don’t like and this makes it difficult for you to see yourself in a positive, sexual way.
  • You’ve had negative experiences with sex. Perhaps you’ve been criticised by a partner in the past, or grew up believing that sex is negative in some way.
  • You struggle with performance anxiety. The thought of having sex makes you worried and stressed.
  • Mental or physical health issues may be making things difficult. You may have insecurities about a physical injury or condition, be unable to have sex, or your interest in sex may have been disrupted by a mental illness.

Getting perspective on sex

Anxieties surrounding sex can also come from different expectations about how much sex you think you should be having.

It’s common for one partner to have a lower or higher libido than the other, or for one to have a more passive attitude towards initiating sex.

Likewise, many people don’t experience spontaneous sexual desire and find this only kicks in after their partner makes an advance. They may also need the setting and mood to feel right.

One of you may feel the other isn’t attracted, while the other may feel there’s nothing wrong.

Worrying about your sex life can also be triggered by feeing you’re not having as much sex as you ‘should’ be – and thinking that everyone else is at it much more than you. The truth, of course, is that the ‘right’ amount is however much works for you and your partner – no more, no less.

How to talk to your partner about not having sex

If you feel there’s an issue with your sex life, the first thing to do is figure out why. The best way to do that is to talk to your partner.

We know this can feel embarrassing and tricky, especially if you haven’t spoken about sex together in a long time – or ever before. If you aren’t sure where to start, the following tips might be useful:

  • Try to phrase what you want to change in a positive way. Using ‘I’ phrases (‘I used to like it when we…’) rather than ‘you’ phrases (‘you never want to…’) can help avoid your partner feeling they’re being attacked or criticised. It can also be useful to talk about the situation rather than what you feel like they’ve done to make things worse: ‘We haven’t had sex in a while’, rather than: ‘You haven’t wanted to have sex in a while’.
  • Listen to what your partner says. A conversation needs to go two ways, so once you’ve explained how you’re feeling, listen to what your partner thinks too. It may be difficult to hear some of what they have to say – but this is always a risk if you want to have an open, honest talk.
  • Try to understand their perspective.It’s one thing to listen, another to really take on board what your partner is saying. Try to see things from their point of view. They may be experiencing specific anxieties that are making it difficult for them to think about sex, or may feel embarrassed, guilty or inadequate about the situation. This will also help you to understand more about what sex means to them – and whether you’ve got different ideas about what a ‘good’ sex life should be.

Working back towards it

If you haven’t been intimate with your partner for a while, trying to move towards having a sexual relationship again can be a daunting prospect.

You might find it helps to take the approach we use in sex therapy. It is based around taking some of the pressure off sex, and learning to enjoy it again – slowly – from the ground up:

  • Start by taking sex off the table entirely. A lot of sexual anxieties stem from the feeling that any kind of sensual touch will have to lead eventually to full sex. This can create a strong association between sex and having to ‘perform’, which can create a negative loop for a lot of people that puts them off sex entirely. Applying a temporary ‘ban’ on sex can help to remove this anxiety, so you can focus on beginning to enjoy being intimate again without having to worry about ‘getting it right’ later.
  • From here, it can be a good idea to take small steps to reintroduce intimacy into your relationship – at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you. This doesn’t necessarily mean reintroducing sexual acts. It could mean just touching or kissing more. You might like to try giving each other massages or holding hands. That way, you can re-learn how to enjoy being sensual in a pressure-free environment.
  • From there, you might like to try introducing more intimate acts –again, at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you – such as lingering kisses.
  • You might then eventually move into sex acts such as intimate touching or oral sex – but still leave full sex off the menu, only putting it back on when you’ve both agreed you’d like to try.

Throughout this process, it’s important to keep talking and checking in with each other: telling each other what you’re enjoying, anything you might be finding difficult, and what you might like to try going forward. If one of you is finding things are progressing too fast, you could slow down.

What’s important is that you’re aware of how the other is feeling and neither of you feels under too much pressure to progress too quickly. If you think that you’ll need help, don’t be embarrassed to ask about sex therapy. Although talking to a therapist about your sex life can feel a little strange at first, many couples are surprised at how effective it is.

In fact, 94% of people who attend sex therapy with us have found that their sex lives have improved. If you’d like to try sex therapy give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

 

 

Blame can be toxic

When you’re on the receiving end of blame it can be exhausting, exasperating and painful.

It can make you feel tiny: like nothing you do is good enough or ever will be. It can break down your sense of trust in your partner and replace it with a growing sense of resentment and anger.

And, if it persists for a long time, constant blame in a relationship can be a symptom of emotional abuse.

Why do we blame each other?

We often think of blame as being something we do when we’re trying to attack someone or make them feel bad – and, in some cases, this is true.

But blame can also be defensive. It can be something we do when we feel we aren’t being noticed or cared for in the way that we would want to be.

And, even more commonly, it can also be something we do because we’re struggling to understand or deal with our own emotions – preferring instead to project them onto other people.

A woman who tells her partner: ‘You never listen to me’ may be expressing themselves critically, but, in another sense, they’re also communicating something – that they want to be heard. Likewise, a man who tells his partner ‘You don’t have any respect for me’ is perhaps exaggerating, or even choosing to ignore the times that his partner has shown their respect, but, again, is also expressing something else – a need that they feel isn’t being met.

This isn’t to excuse blame – clearly, it isn’t a productive way to express feelings and it can have negative consequences on a relationship – but rather to contextualise it, and give some indication as to why we so often turn to it.

Blame is actually one of – if not the – most common features of miscommunication in relationships, because it’s often the instinctive response when we’re struggling to face up to our feelings. So many of us do it!

How can you deal with blame?

Tell your partner how it makes you feel.

In some ways, this may sound like an uninviting prospect. If your partner has been making you feel resentful – and particularly if this has been going on for a long time – you may feel totally disinclined to open up to them about your emotions. You may feel that doing so would make you vulnerable, and risk them making you feel even worse by being unkind or blaming you further.

Sharing your feelings can indeed make you vulnerable. But it can also be empowering. The key word here is ownership. Letting your partner know how you’re feeling may make you feel exposed, but it also delivers a message: this is what I’m feeling, and this is what I don’t want to feel anymore.

As with many things in relationships, so much of this is about how you say it. Sometimes, expressing yourself simply is best. Tell your partner what you’re feeling, and stop there: ‘I’ve been feeling blamed recently, and I don’t feel good about that.’ Don’t apologise for how you feel, but equally, don’t turn it into an attack.

Beyond this, it’s about trying to have an open, honest conversation. Part of this will be letting your partner know how you feel and for them to understand the impact of what they’ve been doing. The other part – and it’s important to remember this – will be hearing what they have to say, too.

Additionally – this may sound challenging – it can be useful to think about the ways in which you’ve also contributed towards the situation. This doesn’t mean joining in with your partner and beginning to blame yourself for everything! It simply means trying to accept that, by not talking about things openly so far, you’ve allowed this situation to continue – perhaps for a long period of time.

Accepting this is an important part of recognising how things got to this point – so you don’t have to go over the same territory again. And, being able to express this will show your partner that you want the discussion to be a dialogue – not an attack.

One final thought: although these ideas will hopefully give you some context on blame, and why it features in relationships, it’s not usually a good idea to use this information as part of the dialogue itself. People don’t usually respond well to being told: ‘I think you’re blaming me because you’re not taking ownership of your own emotions’ – this tends to feel like a judgement, and, in some ways, quite a personal one. Again, it’s about expressing what you’re feeling, not telling your partner what to do.

What if I’m being blamed all the time?

If you feel your partner’s behaviour goes further than all this – that they quite literally blame you for everything, from small things to big, then this could be part of a more problematic pattern of behaviour.

You may feel that, in addition to being critical, they’re unfair – that you’re being used as an emotional ‘punch bag’, blaming you as a way of making you feel small or to work out their own frustrations.

Although you will know your circumstances better than anyone else, if a client came to one of our counsellors complaining of this, we would begin to wonder whether things have crossed into the territory of emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is behaviour that is controlling or coercive – behaviour that has the effect of making you feel you aren’t allowed to make your own decisions. And that’s not acceptable in any relationship.

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

 

‘Children learn positive lessons when parents explain how they resolve arguments’

Most parents argue. But the way these disagreements affect children varies greatly, according to research commissioned by the BBC.

It’s not only the relationship between parent and child that affects children’s long-term development.

How parents get on with each other also plays a big role in a child’s wellbeing, with the potential to affect everything from mental health to academic success and future relationships.

In most cases, arguments have little or no negative effects for children. In fact, where parents explain to their children how they have successfully resolved conflict, children can learn important lessons about emotions and relationships.

But, when parents shout and are angry with each other, when they consistently withdraw or give each other the ‘silent treatment’, problems sometimes arise, says the research originator Professor Gordon Harold, Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice at the University of Sussex.

Studies suggest that from as young as six months, children exposed to conflict may have increased heart rates and stress hormone responses. Infants, children and adolescents can show signs of disrupted early brain development, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, conduct disorder and other serious problems as a result of living with severe or chronic inter-parental conflict.

Similar effects are also seen in children who are exposed to ongoing but less intense conflict, compared with children whose parents constructively negotiate or resolve conflicts.

Nature or nurture?

However, the impact on children is not always as might be expected.

For example, divorce – and parents deciding to live apart – has often been seen as having a damaging and lasting effect on many children.

But, in some cases, it is now thought that it could be the arguments that take place between parents before, during and after a separation that do the damage, rather than the break-up itself.

Similarly, it has often been assumed that genetics play a defining role in how children respond to conflict. It’s true that ‘nature’ is central to a child’s mental health – playing a part in problems from anxiety, to depression and psychosis.

But the home environment and the ‘nurture’ they receive there can also be very significant. Increasingly, it is thought that underlying genetic risks for poor mental health can be made worse – or better – by family life.

The quality of the relationship between parents appears to be central, whether or not they are living together, or if the children are genetically related to the parents or not – for example, if they were conceived using donor eggs or sperm, or adopted.

What does all of this mean for parents?

First, says the research, it is normal for parents and carers to argue or disagree with each other. But when parents are in conflicts with each other that are frequent, intense and not resolved, children do less well – even more so if the row is about children, for example where children blame themselves or feel at fault for the arguments.

These negative effects can include sleep disturbance and disrupted early brain development for infants, anxiety and conduct problems for primary school children, and depression and academic problems and other serious issues, such as self-harm, for older children and adolescents.

“For decades, we have known that domestic abuse and violence can be particularly damaging for the children involved,” says the research. “But parents don’t even need to display volatile or aggressive behaviour towards one another for damage to be done.

“Where they become withdrawn, or express low levels of warmth for each other, children’s emotional, behavioural and social development is also put at risk.”

The problems don’t end there. Not only are children affected in their own lives, but research shows that bad relationships can pass from one generation to the next. “It is a cycle that needs to be broken if we want positive and happy lives for today’s generation of children, and the next generation of parents and families.”

‘Children are astute observers’

There are factors which can reduce the harm caused.

From the age of about two – and possibly from an even younger age – research tells us that children are astute observers of their parents’ behaviour. They often notice arguments – even when parents think their children don’t, or believe they have protected them by arguing in ‘private’.

What matters is how children interpret and understand the causes and potential consequences of conflicts. Based on their past experience, children decide whether they think conflicts are likely to escalate, potentially involve them, or could even pose a risk to family stability – a particular concern for some young children.

They may also worry about the possibility of their relationship with their parents worsening as a result.

Research suggests that boys and girls may also respond differently, with girls at greater risk of emotional problems, and boys at greater risk of behavioural problems.

Often, policies aimed at improving mental health among the young have focussed on supporting the children themselves, or in directly supporting parenting.

“But it could be that supporting the relationship between parents could also make a big difference to children in the short term, as well as better equipping them to form their own healthy relationships with others in the future,” says the research.

Where children have supportive relationships with relatives, siblings, other adults (eg teachers) and friends, these are important for children’s long-term healthy development. What happens at home can significantly influence these relationships, for good or ill.

The research offers tips for parents:

  • It is natural for parents to feel concerned about the impact their arguments may have on their children.
  • But it is normal to argue or disagree sometimes, and in fact children respond well when parents explain or resolve – in an appropriate way – what an argument was about.
  • Indeed, where parents successfully resolve arguments, children can learn important positive lessons which can help them navigate their own emotions and relationships beyond the family circle.
  • Helping parents understand how their relationships affect children’s development sets the stage for healthy children today – and healthy families in the future.

If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors about how your relationship is affecting your children, either singly or as a couple, why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.

Are you having doubts?

Doubts about getting married are fairly common.

You may be worrying that you and your partner aren’t compatible enough.

Perhaps there are parts of your relationship that don’t work so well – and you think they could become more of a problem further down the line.

Maybe you’ve got the feeling there could be someone else out there for you.

So, what are your expectations? What does marriage mean to you?

Does it mean spending your life in eternal harmony with the one person who completes you? Or is it a commitment made while appreciating all the challenges that it might bring?

Marriage often comes with all kinds of pre-conceived ideas. Many of these may put pressure on you, both individually and as a couple. But it can be useful to think of marriage as the beginning of a journey.

Every marriage comes with its challenges. Even the most well-suited couples are likely to face difficulties. Even if the way they feel about each other doesn’t change, the circumstances around them may well do so. People get new jobs. Children may be born. You may face unexpected financial pressures…

Going into marriage expecting some hardship – ok, it’s a less idealistic and romantic way of looking at marriage – can help you be more realistic about what might happen.

That doesn’t mean feeling any less excited about getting married – but it does mean thinking about how you might adapt to change when it comes along; how you and your partner might, as a team, learn to negotiate around difficulty and work towards agreed solutions.

What do you expect of your partner?

Likewise, the same mindset may help when you think about compatibility.

Getting on well with your partner is, of course, really important. But no one is perfect for someone else. Even if this doesn’t become apparent right away, it’s quite likely there will be things about your partner you’ll find challenging or confusing.

As long as you feel you can be yourself around your partner, and there’s opportunity to negotiate around these differences, they don’t have to be a big problem. It’s about learning to work together – discussing together what you both find troublesome.

Besides, a bit of difference in a relationship can be a really good thing! It can allow you to challenge each other and to help one another see things from a different viewpoint.

Learn to deal with difference. It can be much better to develop this ability early in your relationship. Developing open and empathetic communication can be a big advantage.

So… talk together about the future. Have some idea of each other’s expectations – an understanding about each other’s thoughts on children, jobs, where you’d like to live… Explore your life goals together.

And if you still feel apprehensive about marriage…

… but you’re tempted to give it a try, cohabiting may help.

Living together enables you to get to know each other more closely. It can show you what it would be like to see your partner every day – and may allow you to build a shared space together.

However, be mindful that sometimes couples have different ideas about where such an arrangement may lead. It’s not unusual for one person to have assumed that getting married would be the automatic outcome of cohabiting. It’s important to keep communication open so you remain on the same page.

Ultimately, there are limits to how certain you can be. In the end, we can only act on what we know now. We can make preparations, but we can never fully control what will happen in the future.

Sometimes, we need to make a decision based on what we already know – not on what we wish we could know.

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

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 01234 356350.

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 01234 356350.