01.11.2012 Relationships

Start with Self Awareness

Counsellor Dr Charmaine Saunders identifies the steps towards stronger relationships

Relationships are challenging, there's no doubt about that. They require commitment, patience and tolerance to name just three key requirements. After 25 years of counselling couples, I've found these to be the key difficulties:

not accepting each other's differencespoor communication
coming from different family styles
in-law conflicts
not spending quality time together
poor sexual relations
holding grudges
poor boundaries
continual arguing and fighting

None of these is insurmountable but there has to be willingness to put in the effort. First comes individual self awareness, then the teamwork. The more information one has, the smoother the process will be. Relationship skills are just as necessary as any others and really, they should be taught in schools. As it is, we are thrown into our adult lives armed with a lot of misinformation, romantic illusion and lack of knowledge about what true love actually is. Whether we marry or not, we will all engage in relationships of one kind or another - family, workmates, friends, neighbours, business associates and so on. So, practising skills in this area of life is essential.

People come to counselling for a variety of reasons; some with a specific issue to resolve but many who simply want to enjoy life more, have fewer conflicts and reduce stress, anxiety or depression. I always tell them we're not going to work on any problem but only on themselves because everything in psychology has to start with self knowledge. Once that has been achieved, clarity is gained and all else becomes possible to resolve. So, we have to begin at the beginning, just as when I was a secondary English teacher, I insisted my students learn the mechanics of language before getting onto more exciting pursuits like reading novels.

I'm a great believer in balance in all things but my cousin, Michelle, believes balance is overrated, that life is messy and we should just adapt as we go along. I agree to a point but I feel we should try to address the balance of life's vagaries, minimise the chaos and then, when life does get challenging, we have reserves to call on and the ability to deal with it all.

Life is a journey - we're told this often enough. I often liken it to a train ride as it can be long or short; sometimes we get derailed, sometimes we are stuck at a station for a maddeningly long time and, most of the time, we just chug along with varying scenery flashing by. The secret is to enjoy all these bits of the trip without comparison or judgement. It's all good. There are gifts in each stage, at each destination - that much I do know and I remind myself during the tense and difficult times that I'm gaining lessons or growth or some other benefit. Things never seem as black for me these days as they would have in the past because I know the external journey is only part of my story and that all the failures, disappointments, hurts, rejections and so on can never truly damage my spirit unless I choose to let it. Hindsight reveals a lot but, even moment to moment, we can watch ourselves take our daily journey; look at the great days and the not-so-great ones; celebrate them all.

Here are some of the letters I receive in a continuous stream seeking guidance:

Q: I've been in a relationship for four years but it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. The feelings have deepened but my partner seems no closer to wanting us to move in together or perhaps get married one day. We've talked around it endlessly but I'm left with the sure knowledge that he likes things as they are and doesn't want to change. Am I being unreasonable?

~ Jessica

A: You may benefit from some couples counselling as it's often easier to sort out apparent stalemates when there's an impartial third party.

Other than that, you've basically got to decide if you are satisfied with this relationship as it is. If he's perfectly happy and you're not, there may be no simple solution. You've probably talked enough for now and it's really crunch time. Tell your partner how you feel and make it clear you can't settle for the current situation. If there's still no movement, only you can decide whether to stay or leave.

Q: My friend and I have been close for many years and our friendship has been based on fun, good times and simple companionship. We never have any disagreements or conflicts. Imagine my amazement when, last week, after a very casual remark on my part, she flew into an absolute rage and said all kinds of hurtful, personal things towards me. I don't know where this came from. We haven't spoken since and I'm totally confused. What are your thoughts?


A: If you've given me an accurate description, it sounds as if your friend is going through a personal crisis. She lashed out at you but you weren't responsible for her anger. I can understand how hurt you must be feeling when you were the subject of a largely unprovoked attack. You could be the bigger person and get in touch with her but I don't recommend that you just sweep this incident under the carpet. If you speak, ask her what made her so very angry that day and did she mean those things she said to you. Perhaps she's been harbouring unspoken hostility towards you over time. It sounds as if your friendship has been a little superficial up to now - maybe it's time for some straight talking and honesty.

Q: I'm in a responsible position at work and have a young family. I've always done the 'right thing' all my life and people think I'm very 'together' and a happy person. Recently, my world has been unravelling and it's really scaring me. I cracked up at work and now am on sick leave for a few weeks. I'm on anti-depressants and am seeing a counsellor but any thoughts from you? I'm 42.


A: My first thought was possibly mid-life crisis. You're at the right age for it. It's hitting you extra hard because you have led a conventional life and perhaps hidden a lot of your true feelings. Now all of a sudden, it feels as if you can't suppress insecurities, doubts, fears etc any longer. I see this as very healthy because by crying, screaming, writing, even throwing things at the wall, you can release pent up emotions and become a freer, more 'real' person. It won't be very comfortable for a while but you need to go through it, quite obviously. With your counsellor, explore childhood and other past influences so as to better understand yourself and where you're at right now. Then you'll be able to be more powerful in the future.

Dr Charmaine Saunders

Dr Charmaine Saunders was a much loved relationships counsellor and speaker who wrote for NOVA for many years. She died in July 2013.