Winning at Life and Love

Busy lives, workplace pressures, money problems,constant change in every aspect of our lives and maybe,most of all, strains in our relationships with othersand even ourselves all add up to an all too familiarpattern of stress. In the last few years, and the lastfew months in particular, stress has become a talkingpoint in every social group - among students, thosewho work too hard or can't get any work at all, coupleswith children and those without, those happily partneredor spiralling into breakup, the young and the ageing.whoever and wherever we are in our society, stress isa fact of our daily lives. But as psychotherapist andauthor Dr Charmaine Saunders suggests in a new book,we can turn it all around by working at winning in ourrelationships. She spoke to Margaret Evans.

As a counsellor in Perth with many years of experienceadvising clients, conducting personal development classesand contributing her ideas on radio and in print, Charmaineknows only too well the pain of relationship stress.

"Relationships in general and especially our closerrelationships, can cause stress in our lives, regardlessof whether it's good or bad stress. And stress causesrelationship problems in turn. There's a definite linkbetween the two," says Charmaine who freely draws onher own personal experiences to strike a chord withher readers. Her latest book Winning Relationships,her fifth, arose from her awareness of widespread concernsand from a strong desire to express her own journey."because I had been very codependent as most peopleare until they find out that they are".

"I had a couple of crisis years in the mid '90s soI decided to do some work on myself, some more workon myself," she smiles at the emphasis. "My life hassince changed for the better and now I deal with relationshipsvery differently. And if you're a caring person andif your life has improved you want to share those secretswith people who are coming to you for help."

A good starting point for a calmer, smoother passagethrough life, says Charmaine, is to work at your relationshipwith yourself. "Each of us is relating all day withall kinds of people and those interactions are not allgoing to be pleasant. I talk in my book about havingan altercation with another driver in a car park asone common example of that."

The beliefs we carry about ourselves, she explains,dictate our self-image and the unconscious signals wegive out through our energy vibrations. A deeply negativeself-image will reflect back at us through every personwe meet, with the hostile motorist just one example.

While she counsels that it's important for each ofus to know and love who we are "in the true sense withoutvanity", the reality is that it's always going to behard work "because of all the things that make us human- the pettiness, intolerance, lack of acceptance, pride,not wanting to be vulnerable, all those things".

"But everything comes from your awareness that youare responsible for yourself and you have to make yourselfhappy. In a perfectly enlightened state of consciousness,we wouldn't have to think about any of this and we wouldn'tneed books, courses and counsellors. We would just simplygenerate love and the more love you generate, the morelove comes back to you."

Charmaine says one of her most important motivationsfor the book was to debunk the all-pervading romanticmyth fuelled by Hollywood and Bollywood, popular novelsand songs that we each need someone else to make ushappy.

Her short answer to the question 'Aren't people supposedto need each other?' is no. "Love and share, yes. Need,no.

"Codependent relationships are only the norm becausethe idea of them feeds our romantic illusions and oursociety promotes them. We've bought the myth and unhappilycontinue having codependent relationships until we realisethere's an alternative," Charmaine writes in her book.

Another destructive spinoff, she says, is that toomany people base their whole life's journey on the assumptionthey are incomplete without a partner. "If we don'tfind that person we begin to believe we're not attractiveto others and that colours everything else we do ina negative light."

At the same time, she devotes endless hours and energyto helping her clients, listeners and readers to improvetheir relationships - and here she sees better communicationas absolutely crucial. " While you don't need one lifepartner, your life will be less fulfilling if you don'thave a range of positive relations, maybe a number ofthem.

"You're not going to be without - you'll always haveyou. But you can even work on the relationship withyourself and that, in turn, won't only lead to betterrelationships but also success, money, work, and betterhealth."

While her daily work confronts her with the sufferingand distress of relationships soured or at the veryleast under strain, Charmaine can see some positivesigns for the future. She ticks off the years since1998 - "I call it the year of the breakup because itwas so noticeable in so many relationships that year"- through more positive "cruisy" months until the immenselystressful finale of 2001 where the world has been forcedto confront anger and fear. Now, though, she believes,younger people are better equipped to handle relationshipstresses than their parents before them.

"They're much more realistic than their baby boomerparents with access to a lot more education and informationabout relationships and they talk about it a lot more.Although it's one of my hobbyhorses that I still wantto see a lot more teaching of relationships and otherlife skills in school from year 10 on."

Charmaine believes the new millenium demand of theworkplace for more accountability and creativity hasalso spilled over into relationships. "It's a lot moreconditional now with more equality and, at the sametime, hope. Young men, for example, now expect to participatein their marriages in a way that a guy in his 40s or50s would not have thought to do when he was gettingmarried years ago."

To back her point, she gives an example of a youngexecutive coming home late in the evening and sharingin "the nuts and bolts of parenting" - helping withthe baby, pulling his weight with the meal, changingnappies as well as entering the age-old male preserveof reading the bedtime story.

Paradoxically, perhaps, she believes the new relationshipparadigm with its demand for equality and mutual respect,could have a beneficial effect on our national divorcerate, currently running at an appalling 60 per cent.

"People will always want marriage because they likethe ritual and the formalisation of a relationship,"Charmaine says. But she sees long term marriages givingway to shorter term contracts with couples committingto each other as long as they are happy and as longas the relationship is working. She's only half jokingwhen she suggests the "five to 10 year marriage contract"as the way of the future in the next few years.

She remains strongly in favour of marriage and believescouples should always try to work through their difficultiesbefore taking the easy option of throwing in the towel.In fact, says Charmaine, the spirit of more opennesswill remove some of the pressure to seek divorce. "They'regoing in now with their eyes wide open, not lookingat marriage through rose coloured glasses. There's recognitionthat it's work, a legal contract, not something youdo in the first flush of romance."

Also working in favour of more successful relationshipsis the current trend for couples to live together beforemarriage. "Now couples date for longer, have longerengagements or courtship to use that lovely old fashionedword. They wait longer for children. There's more awarenessof the need to have time together before they have children,"says Charmaine.

Her long experience as a counsellor suggests to herthat at least 80 per cent of relationships are basicallyunhappy. and again, she sees better times ahead forour young people.

"I don't think relationships in the past really workedand the high divorce rate masked many other coupleswho stayed together for all sorts of reasons - kids,financial arrangements, it's easier, laziness, fear- there are lots of reasons for not leaving.

"But a spiritual friend has described us in the late20th century as the pathfinders in relationships becausethere is so much change - so many of the old tabooslike single motherhood and gay marriages no longer apply."

While the uncertain ground of relationships can bevery stressful in the short term and shake our senseof security, Charmaine believes in the longer term itwill make us stronger, more adaptable, more spiritual.

"At least no one can say now after September 11 thatthere is no such thing as stress and it's just somethingthat counsellors and therapists have made up. But weshouldn't think about it all the time and we shouldwork at nurturing ourselves. If you give too much ofyourself in a relationship, you ultimately deplete yourselfand end up with nothing. But if you replenish yourself,you end up always nurtured and always full. and youhave more to give others."

Charmaine's book Winning Relationships,published by Milner Health Series, is available in bookshopsnow.