Difficult Relationships

Have you had ever had difficulties in relationships with members of your family, your friends, or your partners?    Would you like to relate more effectively to colleagues or members of the public?   I’m a Psychologist in London experienced in helping people build better relationships.  I offer one to one therapy to individuals with relationship problems outside a partnership, and couples therapy for partners who are having relationship difficulties.

Below, I describe my Journeybuilding™ Approach to improving relationships. First, in the A to F Pathway to Difficult Relationships I describe how people can take mental “wrong turns” which lead to unhappiness in their relationships.  Knowing these wrong turns is the first step to getting back on track.  Next I summarise the Elements of Strong Relationships.  These requirements operate at each of the Stages of Relationships. You may like to think about what stages you may be at in your relationships.  And since it takes two to build a relationship, you can also see in the Interaction Cycle how two people come together in relationships.  You may be able to spot the stages in this cycle where you could gain more skills. Read on to find out what kind of therapy is useful for difficult relationships, and how I can help.

One to One therapy

One to one therapy is most effective for identifying patterns across a person’s relationships, for helping single people to find a satisfying relationship or feel more satisfied on their own, and for helping people who feel trapped within a relationship to make a space for themselves outside the relationship.  For people whose relationship difficulties span family, romance, and work, group therapy can also be very effective.  I do not offer group therapy myself, but I suggest that people who are considering group therapy should have some one-to-one therapy first to help identify their difficulties. ^Top

Couples Therapy

Couples therapy is the effective treatment for people who are having relationship difficulties with their current partner and want to repair the relationship: it takes both parties to put the relationship back together. I work with couples who are straight and gay, unmarried and married. ^Top

The A to F Pathway to Difficult Relationships TM

One of the hardest things to do in any difficult relationship is to admit that you might be part of the problem. But by admitting that you become part of the solution.  Whether the difficult relationship is at home or at work, the same process plays out inside our heads.  By looking at the A to F Pathway below, you can begin to understand how your difficulties arise in relationships and find hope of resolving them:

Antecedents and Activators…are the triggers for a pattern of difficulties in relationships.  Our background, upbringing, and temperament influence how we interact with others.  And these characteristics can also link us to a history of abuse, bullying or exclusion by others.   Negative events in our life, such as traumas, losses, and separations, can form the history we remember when we build our current relationships.

Beliefs and Biases…form in our mind as result of negative experiences.  Patterns of self-doubt, mistrust of others, and pessimism about relationships in general build obstacles to genuine intimacy in our current relationships.

Challenges and Concerns…arise out of our experiences of, and beliefs about relationships.  As well as wanting to achieve love, intimacy and friendship, we may feel the need to protect ourselves, maintain our freedom, or enhance our status.  As a result, we may struggle with feelings of anxiety, depression, dislike, shyness, desire, inferiority, jealousy, embarrassment, shame, vengefulness, or alienation.

Decisions and Defences…are the plans we make to resolve our challenges and protect ourselves from unpleasant feelings.  We may decide to cut off emotionally, avoid intimacy and maintain vigilance against attacks.  Or we may strive to please and sacrifice our own needs to maintain our relationships.

Expressions and Effects… the outward signs of our inner decisions, can be unhelpful to relationships.  We may find ourselves either actively boasting, criticising, manipulating or attacking others, or passively distancing from, resisting or deferring to others.

Follow-ons…from such negative effects can include conflict in teams and marriages, unnecessary breakups, job losses, unemployment and isolation.

In therapy, once we have identified your unique A to F Pathway to Difficult Relationships we are able to work to help you change direction at each stage along that path so that you find your way to building better relationships. ^Top

The Elements of Strong Relationships & How to Build with Them

We build relationships with family, friends, lovers, and colleagues.  Each relationship is a unique construction, but because each of us builds half the relationship, it bears the mark of our individuality, and its strengths and weaknesses are a testament to our personal skills in relationship-building.  That’s why it’s good to learn relationship skills: they can help us build better relationships across all areas of our life.

The requirements for building a relationship are the same as for building anything else:  A relationship needs two or more builders who are committed to the project. Each of us only has so much time and energy, and we choose consciously or unconsciously to apply those resources where we think they will bring us the most benefit.  A relationship needs raw materials: the things which go to make the enduring creations of the relationship, ranging from a new patio to something as airy as love or friendship.   Then relationship builders need to develop a shared vision of what they are going to build with those materials.  People want relationships for different reasons: one may want a shelter from the storm; another may want a space to work in.  They can still build something which is good for both… within limits:  some relationship structures just won’t stand up over time!  With a shared vision of the relationship come agreed roles: who does what, how the work of building the relationship is shared out, and how closely the relationship-builders work together.  Those roles have implications for how much time each is going to spend on the relationship.  And they determine the positions where people end up standing in relation to each other: how close, and who (if anyone) is on top.

Finally, how a relationship works or looks to each of its builders will depend on the perspectives they’re looking from.  From one angle the relationship could seem like a hovel, whereas from another it may seem like a palace! That’s why it’s good to be able to take the other relationship-builder’s perspective.  And why it’s good to have the perspective of an experienced third party, such as a therapist to give those in a relationship an impartial view.  I can provide that perspective, and help you to find out what you need to build better relationships with other people. ^Top

Relationship Stages

Like anything else humans make, relationships only hold together for a limited time. How long they hold together depends on how well we build and maintain them, and so in turn on how much skill and resources we have, as well as on whether the relationship remains useful.  Some relationships, like marriage, we hope will hold together until we die.  Others, like collaborations, need hold together only until a project is finished.  However, every relationship has the same stages:


When two people meet, even by chance, each has some idea of what kind of relationship they could build out of the meeting. Being in the same place for the same purpose makes it more likely that we will match, but still, first meetings are often about working out if  we can “get on” and build something we both want. So it helps to know what we want to get from a relationship and to have the skill to persuade those people whom we want to join us.   I can help you to get clarity on what you want from a relationship, and hone your skills.


A strong relationship is built on good foundations: shared activity which produces things both people value, after agreeing on what to build and how to do it.  Relationship construction also requires skills: the more complicated the relationship and the more delicate the situation, the greater the skills. Most of us have learned some relationship skills as we grew up, but many of us have also learned some bad habits which can make the relationships we construct wobble.  Therapy is a place where I can help you can refine your relationship skills and undo bad habits.


As the relationship takes shape, outlines emerge of its features, but if it is built from out of date blueprints, then the relationship may start to look unattractive to stay in. Then when the relationship starts to show cracks, the temptation can be to call off the whole thing.  Fortunately, constructive negotiation can help us change the structure of our relationship as we go along so that it ends up working for both of us.  I teach the negotiation skills which can help make that happen.  A relationship will continue to need adjustment even when it is well established, as we and our needs change: A couple who have a baby need to make space for children in their relationship. Then when their child leaves home they need to redesign the relationship to reclaim their shared space again.    I can help you negotiate those relationships adjustments in therapy.


Even the strongest relationship needs time and effort spent to maintain it.  But like any human structure, a relationship can become “part of the landscape” so that nobody bothers and it becomes drab or stops working.  One of the things which you can do in therapy with my help is to talk about what is no longer working in a relationship and problem solve what needs to be done to restore it.


Eventually, relationships often fall into disrepair, and the question arises whether it’s worth the trouble of rebuilding the relationship, or whether it would be better to say goodbye so that each can build something new either alone or with a new person.  It’s awkward to raise the possibility of a relationship ending, but if we keep silent too long, it may become too damaged to repair.  Fortunately, if people are willing to put in the work, they can often salvage a workable relationship from the years of effort that they have invested, and can even renew the relationship so that it meets the needs of today.  I can help you to undertake the work of salvaging a relationship, and to part more amicably if that is the better option. ^Top

The Interaction Cycle TM

Having looked at the overall content of a relationship and its existence from start to finish, it’s important to examine relationships at a smaller scale.  Each relationship is composed of small interactions which begin with a meeting and end with a parting. And each interaction either builds on or demolishes the previous interaction to make a stronger or weaker relationship.  Here are the stages of interaction: peoples’ difficulties in relationships can often be confined to one or two of these stages.  See if there are any stages where you would like to improve your skills:


We meet up with people because we are attracted to them or because we think they can meet our needs. Sometimes however, we find out that they can’t meet those needs, or that we don’t need what we thought we did.  We may even find that the people who can meet our needs don’t attract us.   Knowing who we need, who we’re attracted to and why there is a difference can help us to avoid repeating past mistakes.  I can help you uncover your blueprints for relationships and your vision for better relationships in future.


How do we approach someone we want to know better?  Many people don’t know, which makes dating, parties, conferences and interviews frightening for them.    Yet there are straightforward skills which can make approaching others much more rewarding.  I can help you practice those skills in therapy.


When we first meet someone we need to find common ground, and even when we get to know them better, we need to communicate clearly to avoid misunderstandings, and then make adjustments.  People who don’t communicate well or are too rigid to adjust miss out on links with others.  People who are too flexible find themselves making uncomfortable adjustments to coordinate with others.  The result in both cases is a relationship gone awry.  I teach communication skills to make relationships work more smoothly.


Relationships involve a lot of give and take in exchanges which may be pleasant or unpleasant.  Too much criticism, contempt and stonewalling undermines a relationship.  But in therapy we can learn to replace these brickbats with more constructive contributions.  And we can learn what we ourselves want from the other person in exchange. Some people like compliments; others like practical help, for example.  Once you know what you want from relationships, you’ll be better able to get it.  But exchange in a relationship is not just about what we give and take, but also about how much: the rate of exchange.  When we think we’re giving more than we get, we feel cheated.  An unfair rate of exchange can arise because one party feels entitled, or the other party feels unworthy.  Whatever the cause, rate of exchange in a relationship may need to be renegotiated.  I can help you by acting as a mediator in that negotiation.


Relationships between people are more than market transactions, of course. They are also about creating something new together, whether it’s a shared experience, a shared work project, or a shared child.  How well we work together as a team to create something, whether we can rely on the other to “do their bit”, determines not only the quality of the things we create, but also how satisfied we are in the relationship.  Teamwork requires a whole set of skills, including the ability to intuit what’s going on in someone else’s head, and communicate what’s going on in our own.  These are skills to uncover and practice in therapy.


Relationships are about more than just getting and making: they’re also about being…together.  There can be a joy in togetherness, whether it’s just sitting together on a bench or consummating a partnership in sex.  Often in our daily rush we have too little time to be together, but working with me as a therapist you can find ways to make time.  Sometimes on the other hand, people can have too much togetherness for the welfare of each person or of the relationship.  One person’s identity can become so absorbed in another’s that they lose their separate perspective and ability to act.  I can help you find the happy middle way between isolation and fusion.


Whether people come together to exchange, to make something, or just to be together, that coming together will be followed by a reaction, when one or other person starts to want to make more space between them to move independently.  Readiness to make space can be felt as irritation, restlessness or exhaustion.  However it can be difficult to communicate the wish to make space without endangering the relationship. In therapy you can practice feeling your reactions and communicating them, without endangering the relationship: I’m not going to run away if you say something unpleasant.


In order to maintain separate spaces, we need distinctions and boundaries in relationships. People who can’t set boundaries get the feeling of being overwhelmed or walked on by others.  However, much as we may want to maintain our own boundaries, it can be difficult to accept that others are so distinct from us, and that there will always be boundaries we can’t cross.  I can help you to live with your own and others’ boundaries.


The sense of closeness and distance between people in relationships ebbs and flows.  We need to listen to our own reactions and observe others’ reactions to judge how close or distant we need to be from moment to moment. Maintaining a respectful distance whilst staying ready to get closer assures the other person that you both accept their distinctness and want togetherness. Exercises in therapy can help develop that attunement.


Each parting is a separation, but some separations will be permanent.  A good separation acknowledges that separation is taking place, celebrates what was good in the interaction, and wishes the other person well.  However, when separations are not good, we can feel a “lack of closure” and a yearning to say a proper goodbye. In therapy I can help you to make good your separation either in person or in imagination, so that you feel free to continue on your journey without looking back too often.


We will all face the loss of cherished relationships.  The pain we feel after that loss is a universal reminder of the importance of enjoying good relationships whilst we can. Loss is often, but not always, followed by grief: a period in which we mourn the loss and adjust to the absence of the other person.  Usually, recovery naturally follows: people can learn to appreciate life after even the greatest losses.  However, sometimes a person’s grief is prolonged as though their previous life has ended.  If you find yourself in that position, I can help you to pick yourself up and face the future with some hope of better times.


Though each of us spends time alone, many of us don’t like it.  Meanwhile more and more people are dealing with solitude, and needing to find ways to build a life without close relationships.    The way to that life is building a good relationship with ourselves, using the same skills we use to build good relationships with others.  By showing empathy for ourselves, giving ourselves what we need, and cultivating our own lives, we also prepare to attract new people into our lives.  And so the Interaction Cycle can begin again. ^Top

Find out more about Relationships

Relationships are endlessly fascinating, and their workings don’t end with the Interaction Cycle.  Within each stage of interaction there are the individual transactions both between and within people, which I explore and heal using the tools of Transactional Analysis.

How successful are we?  Read what some of our clients say about us here.  Or if you’d like to find out more about how you operate in relationships and how to improve them, contact us using the form on the right.  We would be happy to talk to you about how we can help.