As a couple therapist, the question I sometimes get is, ”Is my problem serious enough to warrant a therapist?”
I like to address this question in this article.
There are 3 key reasons why you’d want to see a couples therapist/relationship coach
When you have issues in the relationship that you’ve tried to solve but you’re unable to.
When you want to do a health check for your relationship
When you’d like to enhance your relationship
Prevention is better than cure and this applies to relationship as well. If you’re in a committed relationship and not married yet, nothing should stop you from finding ways to strengthen your romantic competence.
The majority of couples that I see now in my clinic are those with troubled marriage or also known as ‘relationship recovery’. Increasingly, I have more couples who decided to seek help and they are in under category 2 and 3. It’s highly encouraging for me to see this trend as younger couples are less affected by the stigma of seeking help.
In enhancing your relationship, what you can expect is the identification of possible conflict areas, assessment of your communication and conflict management skills, emotional regulation skills as well as the strength of your relationship. The former framework of therapy is based on looking at the problems and trying to fix them. What was missing is how to focus on what is good in the relationship and magnify and fortify those strength? This is equally important and it’s also more positive.
For ‘relationship recovery process’, the types of cases that I see include infidelity, being stuck in conflicts, poor emotional regulation which leads to avoidance of conflict and rebuilding trust and commitment.
There is a certain transition in life where relationship coaching or therapy is highly recommended. This is as follows:
Pre-marital: Before you make the lifelong commitment, you want to be ensured that your chances at staying married is as high as possible. You want to know what the non-negotiables are and learn skills that make the process of integrating your life smoother.
Transitioning to parenthood: While bringing a baby into a family is a happy occasion, it brings about a lot of stresses to the marriage. 2/3 or 67% of couples who transition to parenthood suffer a decline in their satisfaction of marriage. Help and support is available foryou to learn how you can mediate this and continue to keep the spark in the marriage alive.
Couples who have suffered child lost or have unsuccessful attempts at assisted reproduction.
Couples who are planning to adopt: You will want to know what are the expectations that you have of each other and what sort of rituals of connection you can establish so that you don’t lose sight of your own relationship.
When you have a child with special needs either physical, intellectual or mental: This additional stress could make or break the marriage and often times, couples place so much focus on the child that he/she ends up neglecting the partner. What you want to cultivate is the mindset “we against the world” rather than “I am alone in this marriage”.
Empty nest: There is an increase in marital break-ups at this stage because they have waited for their young children to grow up. The many years of emotional disconnection and busyness of life in caring for the children may have caused neglect to the marriage but it is possible to breathe a new lease of life to the marriage so that you can enjoy your golden years meaningfully.
Ultimately, relationship is hard work. You will need to consistently invest in it just like how you would a plant. You will need to Create an environment that’s conducive for the relationship to thrive; learn the skills that can help you connect better with your significant other and be intentional in what you want in the relationship.
Happily-ever-after is an ideal that many believe and pursue and numerous studies have suggested that the key to happiness lies in a thriving marriage. I am also convinced that when couples come together and decide to get married, they do not have the thought of a divorce on the horizon.
To many, marriage is not a frivolous decision but one where he or she has deliberated and decided to entrust oneself to the other legally. Imagine the horror when shortly after the wedding bells, you discover that your spouse turned out to be someone that you don’t recognise and ends up hurting you so deeply that you wonder how you even got to this point: being romanced to being discarded. This is what it is like to be in a relationship with a narcissist.
Let’s explore the traits of a narcissist.
The following are the 9 official criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):
grandiose sense of self-importance
preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
believes they’re special, unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
need for excessive admiration
sense of entitlement
interpersonally exploitative behaviour
lack of empathy
envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes
In essence, a narcissist has an excessive sense of self-importance over and above the needs of others. There is a sense of grandiosity and arrogance; and a lack of ability to empathise and experience reciprocity within intimate relationships. They are typically charming and charismatic. The early stages of the relationship are almost always exhilarating, romantic, powerful and intense. Love-bombing is a tactic where NPD makes you feel so special and loved that you can’t help but fall deeper in love with him or her. Most narcissists only reveal their true colours when they are in conflict. And when you no longer serve their needs, they discard you from their lives or make it a living hell for you.
Imagine the adverse and trauma that one experiences when you wake up one day and realises that the love you’ve received is not real and permanent.
The following are the lasting psychological and emotional impact of being in a relationship with a person with NPD:
“I don’t know what is real anymore.” Survivors of persons with NPD have the inability to trust their own judgment. Because gaslighting is a key feature in this toxic relationship, they lose touch with what is the reality. Gaslighting is defined as a form of manipulation, emotional and psychological abuse that results in a slow dismantling of a victim’s self-trust and judgment.
“It is all my fault. Everything I do is wrong. I trigger him/her. I deserve his/her anger.” Because a person with NPD will never assume responsibility for anything (they believe they do no wrong), they turn it around and project their emotions on the survivor. The survivor is the one who is over-sensitive and would ask irritating questions that trigger them to react. The consequence of this is that the survivors feel powerless and start to blame themselves for not being good enough for their partner.
“I am worthless and deserve nothing From the constant criticizing and undermining from a person with NPD, the survivors begin to accept the narrative that they are the problem and suffer from low self-esteem. They may start to withdraw from their family and friends who are concerned and question the relationship. They also hide their partner’s behaviour and lie about it.
“I am going crazy” This is related to point #1. Because a person with NPD constantly lie and intentionally say things that make the survivors question their reality, they start to think that they are crazy for having those questions. They feel confused and lost all the time.
“I don’t know. I can’t decide. It will be wrong anyway.” They have great difficulty in making decisions because they start to believe that they can’t do anything right. This is the message that is drummed into them persistently and this could extend into other aspects of life, such as in their work.
One of the common frustrations that my clients, who have survived persons with NPD, have often expressed: ‘how is it possible that they missed the warning signs’. Because of the suffering that they have been through, they have asked for the warning signs to be shared so that more can be aware and watch out for them in their relationships.
Self-centeredness They believe that the world revolves around them. They are not able to empathise and therefore can only see from their point of view. When things do not go their way, they get very upset and may threaten to end the relationship. Everything is on their terms. For example, my client shared that when they were dating, the partner dictated when to meet according to his schedule. Not knowing better, she accommodated. That is a red flag. Also, when they no longer have use of the partner, they have no qualms to simply discard them by being emotionally unavailable, refusing to communicate and abandoning the partner.
Frequent threats and emotional blackmail If you feel like you are perpetually walking on eggshells not knowing when your partner will explode on you, chances are he/she has NPD. Threats and emotional blackmail are their tools to control and get you to submit to their wants. E.g., Go ahead and leave, I never needed you anyway. I’ll tell everyone what a mean person you are.”
They act entitled and rules don’t apply to them. They believe that their needs are more important than their partner’s. There will be no reciprocal gestures unless there is an ulterior motive to get what he or she wants. Because of the self-importance and arrogance, they believe that they can do as they please as long as they don’t get caught. They deserve special treatments.
Obsessive focus on the external This applies to how they dress and carry themselves. Typically they are attractive, have material possessions and are of certain social status. They appear to be an excellent “catch”. They will go all out to inflate their status and standing. Another client told me that her husband, a covert narcissist, was charming and social. His real self only surfaced when they were on their own and when he felt threatened by her. This creates problems as people may not believe her when she tells her challenges.
They are master manipulators and schemers. The key emotions that you feel when you’re with a narcissist are guilt, shame and confusion. The hallmark of a person with NPD is the inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for any action and word. Consequently, they project their emotions onto the survivors and make them feel guilty and responsible. They can also be verbally abusive and are good liars. They scheme and twist the words of the survivors to their advantage. They have no issue in making their partners the bad guy and spread rumours that paint themselves as the victim. The bottom line is this: they need to make themselves feel good at the expense of everything and everyone. When they don’t get what they want, they will withdraw either physically and /or emotionally from the partner. They may give the silent treatment, be passive-aggressive, stonewall and/or ignore the partner. At the end of it, the partner will accept the blame and promise to not upset them next time.
They are hot, then cold. When they want something, they will go all out to get it. As such, in the early stages of the relationship or when they are on a mission to keep you under their control. They will pull out all the stops to make you feel wanted, admired and loved. One moment, you could be the most important person in their lives and in the next, when you don’t agree with them on something, it could be a trivial matter, you would become a worthless person that is undeserving of his/her respect and love. The switch from hot to cold is unnerving and they will make the survivors think that the problem lies with them.
In spite of the detrimental impacts of being in a relationship with a narcissist, the good news is that it is possible to heal from it. I have supported and seen my clients live a meaningful and flourishing life following the breakup with a narcissist. Though the journey may not be easy, if one is willing to work with a professional to go deeper and understand the pattern of relationships in their lives, they can find healing and freedom.
What are the steps to heal?
Educate yourself on NPD and accept that it is a disorder. Know that you are not alone and you are not the problem. Raise awareness for it. The World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day is on 1 June. Get involved and when you are ready, share your story. You can empower and help others by sharing your experience courageously.
Get professional help as dealing with trauma can be complicated. Learn to connect the past to the present; typically, the dynamics between the person with NPD and the survivor is one that the latter is familiar with. It is not uncommon that upon the realization that the partner has NPD, the survivor can see that a family member could be one as well. Those who persist in such toxic relationships are usually accustomed to such dynamics from childhood.
Practice boundaries – physical and emotional. Have zero contact or keep it to a minimum should you share the care of the children. The survivors are usually empathic and attuned to the feelings of others. Be mindful not to take on feelings that are not yours. Have clarity on what is your responsibility and discard those that are not yours.
Build a strong foundation – focus on one’s strengths and resilience, in ending the relationship and working through the issues. Find meaning in it by rewriting the narrative.
Forgive and work on self-love. Self-compassion is a critical component in recovering. Learn to take good care of yourself – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social.
Pay attention to your body as trauma is stored in your body. Practice mindfulness to bring yourself to the present moment when you’re triggered by difficult memories. The triggers will still be there, and the healing process will be imperfect and a work-in-progress.
Focus on the good – that is in you; the work that you have put in to heal and maintain your well-being by learning new skills and maintaining good habits. Celebrate quick wins when you are able to enforce boundaries or not take on responsibility for how others are feeling.
Embrace a healthy relationship. After being in a toxic relationship for a long time, being in a healthy relationship can feel weird and scary. You aren’t sure what to make of it. The lure to get back to what is familiar albeit negative for you is high. Be aware of it and put measures in place so that you can recalibrate when you feel threatened.
Let’s remember that significant relationships in our lives will impact our mental well-being. Even as we focus on the benefits of positive relationships and promote it, we also need to provide support for those who have been through traumatic and toxic relationships. The key is to remember that relationships should enhance your lives and motivate you to be a better version of yourself. When there are disempowerment and manipulation in the relationship, it is not healthy, and you can make the decision to get out of it.
Relationship Advice from Relationship Therapist & Coach, Winifred Ling
Chelsea, a stunning flight attendant and her partner, Clayton, have been experiencing the Covid lockdown blues. Being in the early stages of their relationship, they both confessed to feeling the effects of being apart from each other – while they were somewhat used to incompatible schedules, the loss of physical intimacy that was at least within reach before amplified the tattoo of each pining heart.
They shared how they were managing to stay sane and close throughout the lockdown – by making use of technological advances, utilising Zoom to keep each other apprised of the happenings in their lives.
Winifred Ling, a Gottman Certified Relationship Therapist, featured in the Mothership vlog – gave this couple some tips on how to be “out of ‘touch’ but not out of love” and how to keep their relationships healthy. Love takes effort, and she relayed to her audience some suggestions that were remarkably common-sensical, like making sure to check in with your significant other with words of encouragement.
As we celebrate World Mental Health Day (10/10), I pause to remember the patients/clients whom I have worked with in the past 17 years. I want to recognize and honour their courage, resilience and grit in continue living even though it is so hard.
I am heartened that there are more open conversations on mental health compared to a decade ago. Earlier this year there was even the inaugural Singapore Mental Health Film Festival. More sufferers are willing to step forward courageously to share their stories to encourage and inspire fellow sufferers. All of these efforts are pointing in the right direction and we should persist.
What makes mental illness so painful is the shame that individuals feel; the fact that they are less than, inadequate, weak and worthless. Society has not arrived at a place where we can talk about it as openly as our physical health. At least, no one is hesitant to get a medical certificate from a general practitioner but one from Institute of Mental Health, no way!
How can we reduce the stigma of mental illness?
I have one suggestion that I like to propose and it is as follows:
we need to start sharing our “failure” or “screwed up” stories.
Every person undergoes challenges in life and experiences deep pain for various reasons. For someone who suffers from mental illness, the natural thought is that “I am alone in this. Everyone but I can deal with life.” He/she looks around and sees “successful” people who seem to have it all and feel demoralised.
We, the supposed “successful” people have in some way perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by keeping silent and not share our pain openly.
Recently, I shared with a client of my struggle with anxiety and she was surprised because outwardly I appear mostly calm and confident. I believe my story gave her hope that if my therapist can overcome and learn to manage her anxiety, so can I.
The challenge that I want to extend to everyone is this: share your struggles, not just your victory.
When something painful is a common experience, there isn’t a need to hide the secret any longer and we can better support one another. Truthfully, all of us has some form of dysfunction; it is only a matter of degree and how well we manage it.
I shall walk the talk and share the times when I felt like a failure.
· After getting a scholarship to come to study at a top Junior College, I did so poorly for my promo exam that I was put on probation. That was my first taste of failure as I had been an excellent student up until that point. My self-esteem took a hit and I seriously considered quitting school and return to my hometown. I persisted.
· The first year of my marriage was really tough. It caught me by surprise as we had a wonderful courtship and seemed to get along really well. We went through several challenges, including my brain surgeries and stroke. I was left confused and disillusioned. The upside of it is that I started to learn more about what makes relationship work and I ended up discovering my call and passion.
· Infertility. As we looked forward to expanding our family, we received bad news after bad news with each visit to different specialists. I seriously felt that perhaps something was wrong with me that I was not good enough to be a mother. After 4 years, we had wanted to give up when our miracle baby came along.
· The years that I was a trailing wife, I lost my sense of identity and I watched my peers moving ahead in their career and life while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life at age 32. I couldn’t let go of the narrow definition of success. I was a nobody. It took me 3 years to re-calibrate and find my voice and I started my blog- Winifred & You, Flourishing Together.
The above wasn’t easy to write; it’s not what we usually do and it feels risky and uncomfortable.
That’s the challenge; are we ready to share and reveal the pain that we too keep in our hearts?
To de-stigmatize mental illness, we need to acknowledge and embrace authenticity and vulnerability. As long as we breathe, we hurt. We fall and we rise.
Let’s share our resilient stories so that everyone else will be inspired to do the same. In so doing, we kill shame because it no longer has a hold on us.
“How do I know when my relationship is ailing, and that intervention is needed”?
Most of us know that romantic relationships are hard work. We all have some understanding that, like flowers, relationships need nourishment to flourish. Yet, we’re sometimes woefully under prepared to identify, address and correct unhealthy or unproductive aspects of our relationships.
As a Certified Gottman Educator who is trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, Winifred Ling lays out hard truths of an ailing relationship in dire need of intervention. In her blog post, she details warning signs that we would do well to take notice of, such as
Lack of physical intimacy and sex
A climate of contempt instead of kindness and respectfulness
Lack of awareness and interest in your partner
Feeling lonely in the relationship
Living parallel lives (no shared activities)
Forgetting your shared dreams and ‘love story’
Read Winifred’s full blog post on her website for more insight on these warning signs, and how you can address them. It’s a pretty great webpage, full of clever observations and sobering thoughts, with a whole lot of great content.
Everyone who owns a car knows that it needs servicing periodically. We don’t wait till the car has broken down before we send it to the workshop. We do regular tune-up for the car so that we can ensure its smooth running and lifespan.
What does it mean when we apply the analogy to a relationship?
Relationships are just like cars, and they experience wear and tear. If we ignore the little things that go wrong, we may end up dealing with a major breakdown. Whilst relationship tune-up is not therapy, per se, it is a session with a relationship coach to evaluate your relationship and the intent is preventive.
Some questions that we look at are: • How satisfied are you with your marriage? • Where are the gaps that you’ll like to close? • What’s the legacy that we are creating together? • What’s the dream within the conflicts that we have?
Many are familiar with pre-marital counseling and we are also aware of marital counseling, which is usually assumed to be for troubled marriages. Relationship tune up is the in-between where most relationship lies and yes, you can seek help to enhance your marital life.