It is quite rare, yet always delightful, when we see a couple who indicate that their relationship is going along nicely, but they would like to improve a particular aspect of their life together.


Whenever we are asked about how we deal with couples in our relationship work, we are frequently reminded that in our experience, a couple will usually put off getting help for too long. More often than not, things are usually quite desperate and critical by the time a couple takes the step of seeking counselling.


We find that factors such as these tend to heighten the urgency for change and we will often place importance therefore on assisting a couple to begin to make positive changes in their relationship right from the outset of our work. This focus means that we are unlikely to spend a lot of time analysing childhoods, guessing motives, speculating on who is at fault and the 'real underlying causes' in the early (or even latter) stages of counselling. It is probably worth mentioning that we have found most couples to have already spent a deal of their own time doing this without our assistance.



Relationship counselling


In essence, our approach to relationship work is drawn from the same ideas that guide our work with individuals. Whether the relationship is defined by a marriage, a living arrangement, a broken agreement, parent/child, co-workers, employer/ employee or a partnership of any sort, we will generally find it helpful to assist the parties clarify what they want from the counselling process and what they want from each other. We not only want to identify the triggers that interfere in the relationship, we want to clarify what happens in the relationship when things have gone well or OK. We want to get a vivid image, from each of our clients, of how the relationship would function if it were operating in a way that each party would really value, and focus our time on designing with the couple how we might bring that about. We see this as the primary domain of our work.


We see our task as assisting those in the relationship to efficiently design lasting, relevant and meaningful change that contributes in an ongoing way to the relationship they are seeking.


In most cases, the process will involve that each person obtains a deeper or clearer understanding of the other's needs, perceptions and experience. We have found that couples may often need the assistance of a skilled counsellor to achieve this effectively.


These conversations are not the conversations of conflict or blame. They are conversations designed for deepening understanding and providing opportunity for each in the relationship to feel heard and understood by the other, without necessarily agreeing with the other's position. Blame and the allocation of fault do not usually lead to change, and will rarely assist in the process of encouraging a cooperative, committed and accepting approach to the design and achievement of shared goals.


We see this as the task of therapy, as these conversations, in our experience, are usually the conversations that are missing. They are conversations can be learned. These are the conversations that tap the essence of cooperation and quality of experience in any relationship. Yet, often, these are the conversations that seem to be the most elusive to us all.


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Psychological tasks for a good marriage


Research on what makes a marriage work shows that people in a good marriage have completed these psychological 'tasks': 

  • Separate emotionally from the family you grew up in; not to the point of estrangement, but enough so that your identity is separate from that of your parents and siblings.
  • Build togetherness based on a shared intimacy and identity, while at the same time set boundaries to protect each partner's autonomy.
  • Establish a rich and pleasurable sexual relationship and protect it from the intrusions of the workplace and family obligations.
  • For couples with children, embrace the daunting roles of parenthood and absorb the impact of a baby's entrance into the marriage. Learn to continue the work of protecting the privacy of you and your spouse as a couple.
  • Confront and master the inevitable crises of life.
  • Maintain the strength of the marital bond in the face of adversity. The marriage should be a safe haven in which partners are able to express their differences, anger and conflict.
  • Use humor and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation.
  • Nurture and comfort each other, satisfying each partner's needs for dependency and offering continuing encouragement and support.
  • Keep alive the early romantic, idealised images of falling in love, while facing the sober realities of the changes wrought by time.

This information is based on research by Judith S. Wallerstein, PhD, co-author of the book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts.


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Making stepfamilies work


The so called 'blended family' is no longer an aberration in Western society. It's a norm. A marriage that brings with it children from a previous marriage presents many challenges. Such families should consider three key issues as they plan for remarriage:


1. Financial and living arrangements


Adults should agree on where they will live and how they will share their money. Most often partners embarking on a second marriage report that moving into a new home, rather than one of the partner's prior residences, is advantageous because the new environment becomes 'their home.' Couples also should decide whether they want to keep their money separate or share it. Couples who have used the 'one-pot' method generally reported higher family satisfaction than those who kept their money separate.


2. Resolving feelings and concerns about the previous marriage


Remarriage may resurrect old, unresolved anger and hurts from the previous marriage, for adults and children. For example, hearing that her parent is getting remarried, a child is forced to give up hope that the custodial parents will reconcile. Or a woman may exacerbate a stormy relationship with her ex-husband, after learning of his plans to remarry, because she feels hurt or angry.


3. Anticipating parenting changes and decisions


Couples should discuss the role the stepparent will play in raising their new spouse's children, as well as changes in household rules that may have to be made. Even if the couple lived together before marriage, the children are likely to respond to the stepparent differently after remarriage because the stepparent has now assumed an official parental role.


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Marriage quality


While newlywed couples without children usually use the first months of marriage to build on their relationship, couples with children are often more consumed with the demands of their kids.


Young children, for example, may feel a sense of abandonment or competition as their parent devotes more time and energy to the new spouse. Adolescents are at a developmental stage where they are more sensitive to expressions of affection and sexuality, and may be disturbed by an active romance in their family.


Couples should make priority time for each other, by either making regular dates or taking trips without the children.



Parenting in stepfamilies


The most difficult aspect of stepfamily life is parenting. Forming a stepfamily with young children may be easier than forming one with adolescent children due to the differing developmental stages. Adolescents, however, would rather separate from the family as they form their own identities.


Recent research suggests that younger adolescents (age 10-14) may have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. Older adolescents (age 15 and older) need less parenting and may have less investment in stepfamily life, while younger children (under age 10) are usually more accepting of a new adult in the family, particularly when the adult is a positive influence. Young adolescents who are forming their own identities tend to be a bit more difficult to deal with.


Step-parents should at first establish a relationship with the children that is more akin to a friend or 'camp counselor,' rather than a disciplinarian. Couples can also agree that the custodial parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of the children until the stepparent and children develop a solid bond.


Until stepparents can take on more parenting responsibilities, they can simply monitor the children's behaviour and activities and keep their spouses informed.


Families might want to develop a list of household rules. These may include, for example, 'We agree to respect each family member' or 'Every family member agrees to clean up after him or herself.'



Step-parent and child relations


While new stepparents may want to jump right in and to establish a close relationship with stepchildren, they should consider the child's emotional status and gender first.


Both boys and girls in stepfamilies have reported that they prefer verbal affection, such as praises or compliments, rather than physical closeness, such as hugs and kisses. Girls especially say they're uncomfortable with physical shows of affection from their stepfather. Overall, boys appear to accept a stepfather more quickly than girls.



Non-residential parent issues


After a divorce, children usually adjust better to their new lives when the parent who has moved out, visits consistently and has maintained a good relationship with them.


But once parents remarry, they often decrease or maintain low levels of contact with their children. Fathers appear to be the worst perpetrators: On average, dads drop their visits to their children by half within the first year of remarriage.


The less a parent visits, the more a child is likely to feel abandoned. Parents should reconnect by developing special activities that involve only the children and parent.


Parents shouldn't speak against their ex-spouses in front of the child because it undermines the child's self-esteem and may even put the child in a position of defending a parent.


Under the best conditions, it may take two to four years for a new stepfamily to adjust to living together. Seeing a psychologist can help the process go more smoothly.



What if ... you were able to find and choose ways of deepening and energising your relationship? Imagine that.



These ideas on 'Making Step Families Work' represent a summary of research offered by James Bray, PhD, a researcher and clinician at the department of family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and are posted on the website of the American Psychological Association.