couples counselling & relationship psychology


People in happy, well functoining relationships tend to have an overall positive view of their partner. These couples have genuine respect for the other in what they do and how they do it. Partners give each other the benefit of the doubt and can extinguish conflict before it spirals out of control. They are good at shaking off criticism through empathy. For example, “I know she’s had a really stressful day, I wont take it personally”. Or they can easily express hurt in a way that’s received well. They can say “I feel sad about the way that comment was made and I would love it if we can talk about what’s really going on”. These couples repair well after conflict and then they move on. They don’t get stuck in gridlock.

But by the time I see couples for therapy, their communication style has evolved to being either contemptuous and hostile or emotionally withdrawn. They are more likely than not to have an overall negative view of their partner. Little flicks of criticism and contempt can be habit forming. For couples at this point, even a neutral comment can be interpreted as an attack. And by this stage, toxic forms of communication feature frequently.

The toxic communication interplay usually unfolds like this:

- Criticism (or perceived criticism), then

- Defensiveness, then

- Contempt, and

- Stonewalling and emotional withdrawal.

The things we say to each other matter. A lot.

In couples therapy, the path to renewed trust and commitment is paved with exercises to change toxic communication styles into those that foster respect and compassion. Strategies involve learning a new dialogue. It’s always truly amazing to see the tears that well up when one partner, having felt so emotionally starved, actually hears that their partner does think they are amazing. That they do notice what a great job they’re doing raising the kids. That the do appreciate everything they do for the family. And that they’re sorry they don’t say it more often.

The words we use on a daily basis have lasting effects on the harmony of the relationship long after those words have been spoken.

In my work with mums for postnatal stress, I usually always include at least 2 or 3 sessions with the partner (if in a relationship). The statistics on relationship satisfaction after having kids is quite low. Only around 30% of couples report satisfaction in their relationship after the kids arrive.

But what we do know is what that 30% or so are doing right – And why they are happy.

They take an interest in the inner lives of each other and regularly ask each other opened questions to discover more.

They celebrate each other’s successes, no matter how small.

They empathize with each other’s stresses, no matter what they are. They side with their partner, validate their emotions and refrain from trying to ‘fix’ the problem. They just listen and validate.

They respond to and engage in idle chit chat (rather than ignoring it or responding with hostile remarks).

They have effective coping strategies for typical problems, even if they perpetually disagree. Perpetual problems are most like to be associated with

- Relations with in-laws

- Finances and how money is spent or not spent

- Sex, intimacy, affection and touch

- Housework and distribution of domestic chores

- Parenting

Interestingly, happy, functional couples regularly experience disagreement on these issues but their communication style and underlying respect for each other means they can work out a solution that fits with both of their needs.

As long as both partners hold a glimmer of hope, they will be able to return to that original place of respect that founded the relationship. Time, stress, personal change and children can send couples down the path to bitterness or emotional withdrawal. Strategies-based couples therapy is highly effective in renewing the connection and finding greater shared meaning.



I look at five key global areas with subscales for each couple while working on the specific perpetual problems or areas of gridlocked conflict for the couple.

The Conflict Scales

Assess how how harshly conflict discussions begin, if disagreements are full of criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling, how overwhelmed partners feel during disagreement, whether each partner accepts influence from the other or not, how well they compromise, how primed they are for conflict even when discussing neutral things, how well they attempt to repair negativity and whether repair attempts are accepted or rejected, family of origin patterns, emotional connection or distancing, how they handle external stressors as a couple, if there are problems relating to in-laws, jealousy issues, sexual affairs, agreement on basic values, goals and lifestyle, how well they work together in managing household tasks, financial issues, whether or not they have fun together, history of distressing events in the relationship and how gridlocked the couple are on perpetual problems.

Assessment of Friendship and Intimacy

Includes the couples' global relationship satisfaction inventory, whether or not each partner has considered ending the relationship, how well known by one another they are, how well respected or admired each partner feels by the other, how responsive the are to expressing needs, the amount of passion in the relationship, how emotionally engaged or how lonely and isolated each partner feels.

The Detour Scales

Assess if the relationship feels predictible and can provide security, order and peace in the couple's home life, trust or betrayal, and how each partner thinks about sharing emotions.

Shared Meaning

Relates to ritual of connection, feeling supported in individual roles, goals and the couple's relationship 'symbols'.

Individual areas of concern

These areas impact upon the relationship dynamic. Drug and alcohol issues, suicide potential, domestic violence, social isolation, property damage, obsessive compulsive traits, interpersonal sensitivity, depression, anxiety, anger-hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoia, sleep disturbances, overeating.

shutterstock262553708understanding defensiveness

By Elizabeth Neal, May 2016

Relationship expert Psychologists Drs John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman consider defensiveness to be one of the four great warning signs in relationships that predicts separation because without breaking the cycle, couples stay in gridlocked conflict patterns. Exercises in couples therapy involve strategies to remove defensiveness in all conversations.... Read More.

© Elizabeth Neal 2016
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