“… a morass of treachery, theft, broken promises, lies, evasions, bluff, trickiness, bullying, deliberate misunderstanding and shabby attempts to get an opponent into a false position.”
– A. A. Milne
No, the famous creator of Pooh Bear was not describing a marriage gone south, but rather his take on the shoddy business of international politics. But “as above, so below” – truth holds good on different levels.
The underlying issues in a relationship may not be quite as sinister as the above quote would suggest, but certainly it is worth digging a bit deeper to see what kind of behaviours or attitudes may be perpetuating a sense of malcontent in a relationship.
Here I want to give you a set of questions that can act as a kind of checklist to help judge what might be going wrong if your client’s relationship is suffering.
And boy, do people suffer.
The light of life
Good intimate relationships are deeply healthy to the extent that they may even help us live longer.1 Deep loving, intimate, trusting, fun and fruitful unions light life up. We tend to be happier if we have someone who we love and who, in turn, we feel loves us deeply.2
So when relationships go wrong, it can sometimes feel overwhelmingly threatening. As the song has it, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”
Of course, we only get one side of a relationship when we listen to our clients (unless we venture into couples therapy). But we can still gather a great deal of useful information about what might not be working and why.
These 12 questions can be particularly useful when trying to get a sense of what may be going wrong in your client’s primary relationship. I hasten to say that this list of questions doesn’t have to be used as part of some overwhelming interrogation. No therapist should sit down and read out these questions exactly as they’re written here! This is meant simply as a guide to the kinds of issues you should be considering. And often we can “read between the lines” to get a sense of what might not be working, even if we don’t ask the following questions directly.
So if your client reports currently having relationship difficulties in the current relationship or tends to have similar problems in concurrent ones, here is a guide as to the most important information to establish.
1. Has your client’s emotional problem caused a relationship rift?
If your client’s reason for coming to see you is depression, obsession, anxiety, or any number of other mental health issues, it’s important to bear in mind that these conditions can damage relationships in the short or long term.3
After all, if your client is chronically depressed, or anxious, or obsessively compulsive, they have less spare capacity to focus on the needs of their partner. And if your client is aware of this, it may cause them some guilt.
Then again, it may be that your client’s partner’s issues are causing problems for them.
As you (hopefully!) help your client to a happier, healthier place, their relationships should improve as a byproduct.
Trust, love, and intimacy – a feeling of deep merging with a person – are also integral.
2. Does your client feel connected to their partner?
If your client has come to you primarily because of their worries about their relationship, then of course we need to ascertain how close they feel to their partner. Do they and their partner love one another? Specifically:
- Do they feel they can talk about most things without fear of causing offence or being dismissed?
- Do they feel their partner is interested in them?
- Do they feel lonely within their relationship?
- Do they feel close, loved, and loving towards their partner?
- Can they relax with their partner and feel safe and calm?
- Are there satisfying levels of nonsexual touch and affection, such as hugging, as well as sex?
- Do they laugh with their partner? Shared laughter has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of relationship longevity.4
Of course, levels of conflict, the type of conflict, and conflict resolution are also hugely important.
3. What about arguments?
Never arguing might signal that a couple have simply disengaged from one another. If people stop ‘hearing’ one another, if they are no longer interested or invested in each other’s points of view, then passionate arguments may stop altogether simply because communication has stopped. Boredom and lack of challenge can also corrode relationships.
Some couples argue more than others, and that’s not always a bad thing if it works for them. Of course, the nature of the argument is key here. Arguments can be scary and vicious… or they can be calm and logical. When done right, they can often help ‘clear the air’ and prevent prolonged, agonizing ‘atmospheres’ between couples.
So the presence of arguing isn’t necessarily an indicator of a relationship gone bad, and its absence is certainly not always a good thing. The questions to consider are: Have arguments increased in frequency and severity? Are they vicious and unkind? How are they resolved?
Couples who can say sorry sincerely are much more likely to stay together. If one or more partners can never say sorry, it’s a big predictor of relationship crash and burn. For example, one survey found that people who stay happily married are twice as likely to be able and willing to apologize to their partners as divorced or single people.5Couples who can say sorry sincerely are much more likely to stay together. One survey found that people who stay happily married are twice as likely to be able and willing to apologize to their partners as divorced or single people.Click To Tweet
Important questions to ask your relationship troubled clients are:
- What do you and your partner argue about the most? We need to know what is important to clients and their partners, whether it’s lost intimacy, money, feeling misunderstood or disrespected, or some affair from the past. What is the fuel that maintains this malcontent?
- How, if at all, do you and your partner make up? Through humour, conciliation, or simply calming down?
- How do you feel about these arguments? Are you terrified, bored, angry? Or has arguing just become the default position through which you and your partner habitually communicate?
Certainly there are ways to help clients argue better – which brings us to the dangers of constant criticism.
4. Does your client feel constantly put down (or do they do that)?
“I feel like such a disappointment to him!” Annabel told me. I asked my client whether her husband ever said anything nice to her.
“Well, I don’t think he thinks there is anything nice to say to me!” she told me forlornly.
Research has found that constant criticism (as opposed to complaint) and expressions of contempt are big predictors of divorce.6 A criticism is general and not time limited. It attacks who the person is – for example, “You are such an idiot!” A complaint, on the other hand, is time limited and specific. It refers to someone’s behaviour rather than their core identity – for example, “I’m disappointed you forgot to buy the milk today like I asked you!”
5. Has the 5/1 rule fallen apart?
For a relationship to be stable and successful, according to relationship research, there need to be five ‘good interactions’ – laughter, pleasant conversation, enjoyable walk together in nature, great sex, a favour offered, and so on – for every one ‘not so good interaction’, such as an argument.7
Of course, we don’t need to ask our clients arithmetic questions about their relationships! But getting a sense of how often there are good times versus bad times can help us sense the overall health of the relationship. You could even explain the 5/1 rule to your client.
This next question is about a particularly important type of good interaction.
6. Do your client and their partner celebrate one another’s achievements?
A partner isn’t just a lover but a friend. Spouses who feel their partner is their best friend have been found to be twice as happy in their relationship as those who don’t.8
A good or real friend will be genuinely upset when things go badly for you and genuinely pleased for you when things go well. They’ll want to celebrate your achievements and celebrate you.
Being there for your partner when things go right (as well as when they go wrong, of course!) is a sign of relationship health.9 Conversely, being indifferent or, worse, envious when your partner earns that degree or completes that novel is a sign of rising relationship rot.
One client told me how his wife sneered at him when he got promoted at work, telling him it was because his employers didn’t really know him properly! He’d come for help with his self-esteem issues, and I could see his marriage just might be one of them.
And talking of self-esteem…
7. Is emotional insecurity damaging the relationship?
Is your client extremely insecure in their relationship? Is their partner? Certainly emotional insecurity can drive intimacy from any relationship as one partner starts to feel mistrusted or overmonitored. It’s hard to feel close to someone we feel fundamentally mistrusts us, is chronically jealous, or monitors our every move to the point of being a control freak.
You may have to work with your client on their insecurity. Letting one another have privacy and space is also vital.
8. Do your client and their partner have space and privacy in their relationship?
Sometimes relationships go sour because of lack of space. One couple I knew (who eventually parted ways) felt their relationship never had a chance to ‘breathe’. Both sets of parents lived with them, and one of the mothers was particularly controlling. She never seemed to let them have any alone time together. On top of this they both worked shifts, which meant that, quite often, when one was at home the other was working and vice versa.
Do your client and their partner have regular time alone together (and if so, do they enjoy those times)? But do they also give one another space?
Relationship problems can sometimes be more fundamental though.
9. Is your client with the wrong person?
I never suggest a client separate from their partner. After all, I’m just there to help them see wider context and possibilities. But sometimes clients come to their own conclusion that they have little in common with their partner.
Complementing interests can be fine. People do and should have their own interests, and no couple needs to do everything together. But if there are fundamental worldview differences, little overlap in humour, or your client constantly wonders what they ever saw in their partner, they may be with the wrong person. Or they may have simply ‘grown apart’ and become very different people…
… which fits with the next question.
10. Do your client and their partner want different things?
Susan wanted to have children, live in the country, and start a small business. Her partner Rob wanted to wait 10 years (by which time Susan would be 50!) before having children. He hated the countryside and was happy to continue in his undemanding 9-to-5 job. Nothing wrong with either set of aspirations, but they were not the same aspirations.
What aspirations, dreams, and goals do your client and their partner have? Is there good alignment between them, or are they really heading in different directions?
Or, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, are there more sinister problems to consider?
11. Is your client with a toxic person?
Some clients describe abusive behaviours in their partners, whether that be psychological manipulation or actual physical threats or harm.
Does it sound as though your client lives with or is dating a narcissist or even a psychopath? Or do you suspect your client’s own narcissistic behaviour may be causing problems in their relationship?
Your client may have gotten into the habit of blaming themselves if their partner has been guilt tripping them or otherwise manipulating them. If you hear words like: “My partner tells me I’m to blame for everything that’s wrong”, it might be that they are being excessively blamed. And when that happens, it’s easy to tip over into excessive self-blame. Once we are ‘infected’ by a toxic person, we treat ourselves as badly as they do.
If your client is being guilt tripped by their partner, they may feel that they themselves are the problem, when in fact they may not be.
Ascertain whether your client may be in an abusive relationship. If your client is in physical danger, you need to strongly advise that they seek safety, and help them to do so.
Ultimately, relationships should be self-sustaining and mutually supportive. But what does this mean?
12. To what extent do your client and their partner meet one another’s needs?
We all, of course, have an array of physical and emotional needs imbued by nature to help us survive and thrive.
Now, while it’s wise to meet our needs from different sources so that we don’t risk feeling we’ve lost all emotional sustenance if, say, a relationship breaks down, it’s also true that for a relationship to be mutually satisfying it does need to meet at least some of our needs.
You might even want to ask your client directly: “What is it that you and your partner give to one another emotionally, do you think?”
Information gathering is an essential start, but it’s just a start
Information gathering isn’t treatment in itself. It’s seldom enough just to know why there might be problems. But information and observation does give us a good sense of what might improve a relationship. To start properly, we need to know where we need to go and why.
A great relationship is, perhaps, one in which partners can both be themselves and also become, through what they share together, more than the sum of their parts. This – creating something together, more than you could achieve separately – is perhaps what it means to grow together through life. Relationships in which we feel we grow as a person can be the most satisfying and valuable of all.
One thing’s for sure, your client’s relationship will never improve unless they keep working at it. A spark, after all, can only be lit in the inbetweenness of flint and stone. For a fire to keep burning, it needs continual care.
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