Archive for the ‘Relationship Counseling’ Category

Communication Skill 6: Turn your questions into statements.

question mark

People often ask questions when they are really making statements.

Sometimes this is intentional, but mostly people don’t even realize they are communicating in this way. At face value a question is a request for information or clarification. A statement disguised as a question is about the dynamics between the sender and the receiver.


  • a) Do you feel like seeing a movie tonight?

May actually mean:

I want to see a movie tonight, and I want someone to go with me.


I want to do something, but I’m reluctant to ask you directly because you might reject me.

  • b) Are you leaving now?

May actually mean:

I don’t want you to leave now, but I am shy about saying so.

  • c) Don’t you have to be somewhere at 8:00?

May actually mean:

I want you to leave now so I can get back to what I was doing.

  • d) Did you take out the garbage?

May actually mean:

I want you to take out the garbage.

  • e) Are you coming to bed soon?

May actually mean:

I’m feeling randy, and I’m hoping I can entice you into making love.

  • f) Have you done your homework?

May actually mean:

If you have not done your homework, you’re going to be in trouble, because I need you to do well in school.

  • g) What are you doing?

Usually means:

I don’t like what you’re doing!

But depending on the tone, it could mean:

I really like what you are doing!

Usually the person being asked this kind of question takes it at face value, as a request for information, and answers accordingly.  This may develop into an argument that neither want to have on a topic that is not the real issue.

If a husband asks his wife “Do you have to go out tonight?” she may explain that she has made a commitment and needs to keep it. “I promised Janie I’d have coffee with her.” or “ I need to get groceries.” The conversation may escalate into an argument about whether or not she really has to go or that she is going out too much. Perhaps the husband feels neglected and perhaps she feels he’s trying to control her.

What the husband is may be saying is “We’ve both been really busy lately, and I would like to spend some time with you.”  If he had made this statement, his wife would know what is really going on with him and be able to respond to the real issue.  She could generate options. She could set up a time to be together soon.  She could come home early.  She could put off what she was going to do to another time.  Depending on the situation, she could invite him to go with her.  Now the couple is communicating clearly with each other.  Each feels cared about rather than frustrated.


All too often the person asking the questions already knows the answer.

  • a)   Did you eat a cookie? (In a harsh tone to a child with cookie crumbs on her face.)

The child, sensing the parent is angry, denies it. This sets the child up to lie. Now the issue shifts from cookie eating to lying – harmful to the relationship.

It is better to make a statement:  I see cookie crumbs on your face.  This sets children up to tell the truth and maintain good relations between adult and child.


  • b)   Were you in my workshop? (In an accusing tone knowing spouse had rearranged things.)

A question asked this way means: The workshop is my domain, and I do not want you to do anything to it.

Better to make a clear statement: You cleaned up my workshop.  I appreciate the intent, but I want you to leave that to me.  I like to organize it the way that I want.


Usually a question is just a question – a request for information. But many questions are really disguised statements with the sender’s real message hidden within them. When that happens people can feel interrogated, manipulated, attacked or put on the spot. When questions are disguised statements a person can feel set up and get defensive. These kinds of questions create resentment which leads to lots of arguments and poor communication. After awhile others become wary of any questions. Before long relationships deteriorate.

By making statements instead of asking questions communication remains clear. The real issues are more likely to get addressed in a friendly, respectful and even caring manner.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

Communication Skill 4: Make the Fuzzy Clear.


Too often in conversations and interactions people assume they know what the other person is talking about or doing. Without checking out their assumptions they act as if what they assume is true or fact. Sometimes their assumptions are indeed true and communication is clear. However, when their assumptions are incorrect communication tends to go sideways.

In relationships we know our partners well. Usually we know what they think, feel, value, expect, get upset and excited about. Sometimes though, knowing each other too well creates blind spots. Clarifying can help navigate the blind spots.


Pronouns often make communication fuzzy: I, mine, he, she, his, hers, they, them, you, yours, we, us, one, it, this, that, these, those, other(s), etc.

Example A:

Bob’s mother and her sister are coming for dinner.

  • Bob: My mom said my aunt is a little unsure that you want her to come. She wants you to give her a call.
  • Ann: (thinking the ‘her’ referred to is Bob’s aunt) I don’t feel comfortable calling her.
  • Bob: (for Bob the ‘her’ is his mother) What’s the big deal? Give her a call.
  • Ann: (feels pressured and wants to avoid) It’s your family. You do it. I bought the groceries, and I’m making the dinner. You haven’t done much at all.

THE FIGHT IS ON. Now the issue shifts away from making a phone call.

Make the fuzzy clear:

  • Bob: My mom said my aunt is a little unsure that you want her to come.  She wants you to give her a call.
  • Ann: Who, your mom or your aunt?

Example B:

Greg in conversation with a friend.

  • Greg to a friend: Yesterday I really impressed my boss with what I did. You know, when you get an opportunity to make more of an impact you should go for it.

[When people say “you” they could be referring to you,themselves, or everyone one in general.]

Make the fuzzy clear:

  • Friend to Greg: When you say “you” do you mean yourself, everyone or me?

Knowing specifically who or what is involved helps you make decisions that work out better for you:

Example C:

  • Siggie to Jane: We’re going to Joan’s for a dinner. Do you want to come?

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Jane to Siggie: (Thinking – It depends on who is going and whether she will have to do anything or not.) Who is “we”?   Is it potluck or not?

Example D:

  • Joe to John: I’m working late every night next week. The week after I’m going out of town for 3 days. It gets more and more difficult.

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • John to Joe: (What is the “it'”? Working a lot? Traveling? Keeping up? Getting enough time with family?) What is it that is gets more difficult for you?”

Fewer misunderstandings lead to easier relationships.


Words that qualify can have different meaning for different people.

Sometimes, early/late, in a little while, high/low, hard/soft, big/small, strong/weak, fast/slow, positive/negative, mostly/slightly, more/less, helpful/not helpful, harmful, safe/dangerous etc.

When people communicate they often have different ideas in mind. It is often helpful to inquire more about what someone is thinking or intending before you respond. What is difficult for one person may seem easy to another. What is slightly stressful for one person may be really stressful for another.

Example E:

  • Lindsay to Sam:  I’m going to be late tomorrow night.

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Sam to Lindsay: When you say you will be late, how late is late?

Example F: 

  • Kim to Julie: I want to earn more money.

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Julie to Kim: How much more do you have in mind?

Example G:

  • Fred to Mike: Stop doing that, it’s harmful.

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Mike to Fred: How do you see it as harmful’? (Mike thinks he knows, but perhaps it is not what he expects.)

The key here is the word YOU. The receiver may or may not see it as harmful, but to the sender it is harmful. Rather than argue about whether or not it is harmful, inquire how the sender views it, or experiences it as harmful.


People often use the same words or expressions but have different meanings for them. Often the meanings are only slightly different, but sometimes they are vastly different.

Take the word ‘drunk’ for instance. We all have a common meaning for ‘drunk’. Yet a person who had a parent who was a mean drunk when they were growing up has a different additional meaning for ‘drunk’ than a person who had a parent who occasionally got drunk and was funny when they did.

Example H (Words):

  • My Tennis Instructor: “I no longer trust Federer.” (Federer is a top tennis player)

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Me: In what way don’t you trust him? (I was inquiring about what he meant by the word ‘trust’.)

Example I (Phrases):

‘Losing it’ refers to a range of behaviours varying from almost nothing to extreme violence. For some people ‘losing it’ means saying something or doing something when usually they say or do nothing. Some people use this expression when they just mean that they lost their focus. For others ‘losing it’ means they became physical, either with only themselves (punched a hole in the wall), or with someone else (punched someone else). ‘Losing it’ could also mean becoming emotional. For some people this could mean showing a few tears while for others it means they became hysterical.

  • Jim to Rick: Boy, I lost it with my manager yesterday.

Make the Fuzzy Clear:

  • Rick to Jim: When you say you ‘lost it’ what exactly did you say and do?

Inquiring early in a conversation keeps communication clear. Clarifying leads to clearer understanding, effective communication, and less reactivity. Fewer misunderstandings lead to easier relationships.

I encourage all of you to assume less and clarify more.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

How to Handle a Breakup.

Breaking up is difficult to do even when it is mutual. Usually both partners are in emotional pain and miss the other.  Often they still love each other but in spite of trying so hard, just cannot make it work.  Both feel like fish out of water because they are not in a relationship yet not ready to be single either.  People, newly broken up, do not know how to be with family and friends, and family and friends are not sure how to handle family members who are newly broken up.  What if they reconcile?   It is a confusing time when one’s personal life goes from order into chaos.


Be respectful

Respect is important during relationships and while ending them.  Respectful behavior is less likely to provoke hurtful, inappropriate or nasty behavior.  Also, you want to know that regardless how difficult the situation is you can look in the mirror and respect yourself for how you handle the breakup.

Trust in your ex-lover’s inner resources

People are very resourceful. Believe, given time, he or she will recover and get on with their lives.  Most people are in a new relationship within two to four years.  If you believe this, even if you don’t say anything to your partner, you will convey to him or her that you believe they have resources. This will help them believe in themselves, help them believe that they can recover and move on.

Do not send mixed messages

Because there are always good parts to every relationship people usually still have some loving feelings for their ex-partner when they end a relationship.  If not loving feelings, then feelings of concern for them.  Partners who do not want the relationship to end will focus on any message that indicates a possibility of reconciliation. When you end a relationship, give your ex-lover only the message that the relationship is over.

Do not try to be friends – yet

A romantic relationship needs to fully end before a friends-only relationship can begin.  Take time apart before you attempt to re-engage as friends.  This way, you will more likely be able to salvage the friendship.

Confide in a trustworthy person

People who talk about their experiences during a breakup do better than those who do not. It helps to articulate what you are thinking and feeling, as well as get feedback.

Choose wisely who you to talk to?  It could be a best friend or family member who can be trusted to keep confidences.  However, sometimes friends and family are not able to act as confidants for various reasons.  Perhaps they cannot keep what you say confidential.  It could be that it’s too difficult to see their loved one in pain.  Perhaps it is shaking up their own relationship.  Or, it may be that they have an agenda about your breakup.  Also, if there is a possibility of reconciliation, family and friends may view you and/or your partner differently because of what you told them.

Seeing a counselor or psychologist is an option.  It allows you to explore and express yourself without concern of negative judgment or how it will impact on your other relationships.  What you disclose will not come back to bite you.

Reach out

Keep busy without burying yourself in work.  Now is the time to do things and have contact with other people even if you do not want to.  Call family and friends you’ve neglected, learn new skills, take courses, and hang out with those that care about you.

Look after yourself.

Dr. Bea

Note:  Handling breakups respectfully speaks well of you to future partners.

My Amazing Tennis Buddy

As I drive into the parking lot at the tennis club I see her car. She’s already there. Like me, she’s an early bird and likes to play in the mornings. As I walk into the foyer I see her standing at the computer booking a court for us. Her head is doing it’s Parkinson’s bob making her blond-grey ponytail on top of her head sway. I help her with the booking and then go to the locker room to get my tennis racket. When I come out I see her in the gym pumping iron. She finishes up her final set and we head to the court to meet the other players.

This group is in their 70’s and play regularly Tuesday and Friday mornings. They often invite me to spare for them when they need someone and I am happy to join them. Their hand/eye co-ordination is excellent and they strike the ball fairly hard. While they cannot run well, they consistently place the ball accurately. They are serious about their tennis and get angry at themselves when they miss a shot. They are resigned when they are unable to get to drop shots. When I play with my buddy I do as much of the running as I can for her.

There I am, as usual, the only left-hander with three right-handers. However, my buddy was not always right-handed. Many years ago her left arm was badly injured and she learned to play tennis with her right-hand! As a left-hander I am amazed she can play as well as she can.

After our set I get dressed and go to work. As I’m leaving I see my buddy playing another set. Two and a half hours of tennis – not bad when you’re in your 70’s!

Keep fit!

Dr. Bea Mackay

An Exception to the Rule: This Bride Wore Red

Recently, I went to my friends’ wedding. They had been living together for about five years. The story of their relationship is unusual and deeply romantic.

A mutual friend introduced them to each other. After only 15 days and less than a total of 24 hours of contact during those 15 days they moved in together. Everyone thought they were crazy. I thought they were foolish. It seemed like a recipe for relationship disaster.

Almost from the moment they met they have been in love with each other, one a little more quickly than the other. Whenever we saw them together we could see how they adored each other. I saw them fight once. Their fighting is passionate too yet their relationship never looked to be in jeopardy. Over the the five years their love grew and then deepened. We all watched it happening and marveled. To me, their love for each other is almost palpable.

This is not a young couple. Each has been married before and each has children from a first marriage. One is a grandparent. Their new relationship has not always been easy. One suffered a life threatening illness and they faced it together.

For me, this couple reminds me of the magic that can happen between two people. It is not so unusual to fall in love so quickly but it is unusual to move in together so soon. I would never recommend it. However, for this couple it has worked. They prove that it is possible.

This couple also remind me that deep love can happen at any age. Love is not just for the young. It reminds me that love can happen more than once in a lifetime. When I see it happen it is proof that it’s possible. It’s not just a fairy tale.

The bride was gorgeous in her long strapless red dress. She already had this fabulous red dress and did not want to spend money on a new dress. She loves red and looks stunning in it. She is a passionate woman. Her unusual choice was fitting for this couple and for the story of their romance.


Dr. Bea Mackay

Do It Yourself Relationship Help at

What Goes on During Repeated Relationship Breakups and Reconciliations?

Often when couples are in a troubled relationship they break up and get back together again many times. There are good aspects of the relationship that keep couples coming back to each other. Once they are reconciled the issues or problems of the relationship come to the foreground and the couple, still unable to resolve them, break up again. In the April 2008 issue of Psychology Today, the article On-again, Off-Again states the reason for this pattern stems from relationships that deep down are probably not right. Fundamentally, there are differences in standards and values that the couple cannot resolve such as dishonesty, irresponsibility, unfaithfulness, abuse and life-style. Or, there are differences in wants and needs such as sex, intimacy, companionship, comfort and security.

Temporary separations are not necessarily a bad thing. Many couples have separated over the course of their relationship at some time or another. Sometimes the separations are overt and other times they are disguised as holidays (sometimes as short as a couple of days), visits to extended family, or work related. A temporary separation can help a couple reorganize their relationship.

Couples develop dynamics between each other over time. When that dynamic is troubled separating can throw the dynamic into chaos. Out of the chaos partners, who still care about each other, can develop a new dynamic that works for them. This means that each partner changes permanently. For example: A couple break up because their fighting escalates to the point where an incident of physical abuse occurs. Then they reconcile with the agreed premise that physical abuse is crossing the line that neither want to ever cross again. Each changes in how they fight and resolve issues.

Most couples in troubled relationships break up and reconcile one or more times before the final break up. This stems from the emotional pain caused in breaking up. Often, each is in such pain that they reconcile to stop the pain. Then once they are back in the relationship the intolerable problems of the relationship push them to separate again. The emotional pain in ending a relationship and breaking up a family unit can be excruciating. Some couples stay together to avoid this pain.

There are couples who love each other passionately yet cannot live together. They cannot find a way to resolve their differences. There are celebrity couples who demonstrate this. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton married and divorced twice. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee also married and divorced twice.

Reconciliation often occurs because starting over is difficult and uncomfortable. Very few relationships are all bad. Partners often hang on to the good aspects of the relationship because they cannot face starting over or they cannot tolerate being alone.

Often partners confuse the emotional pain of separation for love. One or both partners may think, “If I am in so much emotional pain it must mean I still love my partner”. This can be true and a separation may make this realization possible. If it is mutual, the couple reconcile with renewed commitment to each other. However, often it is grief, not love, that is experienced when couples break up. Grief for the loss of the bond that forms when partners live together and marry as well as when they form family units. Grief for the loss of the good parts of the relationship that they may never find again with anyone else. Grief for the loss of the hopes and dreams that once were a part of the relationship.

It is healthy to grieve the losses. They are significant. It is important to grieve because individuals who grieve recover fully and are able to engage in life again.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do It Yourself Relationship Help at

How I Help Couples Improve their Intimate Relationships

When I am working with couples I find that partners hear the words each other says but they do not hear the messages sent by the words. They interrupt each other. Some talk over each other. Some feel attacked and defend their positions. Others defend themselves by attacking and accusing the other. The talker talks more and often louder. The quiet one talks less and withdraws even further. The fixer tries to fix. Neither seems to be willing to listen to the other’s point of view until they have had their point of view heard. Often each is caught up in the need to be right or the partner who hates confrontation often caves in in the face of heated emotion.

To help couples change how they interact I facilitate a dialogue between the partners by using myself as a filter. If a couple tells me about an argument or fight they had outside the therapy office I do not know what went on. I did not hear the words. I did not see the body language or the behaviors. In my office, I can see and hear what is going on. I hear the words. I see the body language. I can see what is working well in the relationship and I can build on that. I also can see what is getting in the way. I can intervene and address the problematic interactions right then.

I ask one partner to start to talk to the other about a contentious issue but to do it through me. I listen very carefully to what is said and then I take what is said and reflect it to his or her partner. Sometimes I use the same words and sometimes I say the same thing only using different words. Then I ask their partner to respond to what was said. I do the same thing; I listen carefully, then I take what was said and reflect it back to their partner.

I block interruptions. This forces them to sit and listen to their partner twice, once when their partner is talking and once while I am talking. This forces them to truly listen instead of thinking of their rebuttal while their partner is still talking. Then they get to respond and say whatever they want.

I discourage solutions at this point because the real problem has not been identified. It is counter productive to try to solve a problem when you don’t know if there is a problem or what the problem really is.

The dialogue continues back and forth. Through this process things start to shift. Partners begin to hear the messages the other is sending. They start to understand their partner’s point of view. They learn new things about their partners. Misunderstandings get clarified.

Through this process we are able to discover what the real problem is. Once identified we can explore what changes are possible.

I ask each partner to stop trying to change other. I tell them that the one person you can change is yourself. If you change, your partner will usually respond to your change with change. Of course there is no guarantee that your partner will change or even change in a positive way, but most of the time partners do respond to change with change. Change is what is needed.

I work with each partner right there and then to find changes they can make and are willing to make. I check with their spouse to see that he or she will respond positively to those changes.

Each one is to be responsible for his or her own changes. Each one is to work on their own changes regardless of whether their partner does or not. If their partner does not work on their changes they are to bring that complaint to the next session.

Now something different can happen between the couple. They are to come back next session and report what worked well and what was problematic. We build on what went well and address what is still not working.

With care and concern.

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at

A little help can go a long way.

Many years ago when I was a new counsellor, a woman came to see me. It was her first session with me and the first time ever seeing a therapist. She was stiff and anxious. It was very clear to me that she did not want to be here. She blurted out, “My 14 year old daughter from my first marriage is trying to break up my second marriage.” I wanted to put her issue with her daughter aside for the moment so I asked her to tell me about her marriage. To help her talk in depth about it I asked her to sit in a different chair and tell me only what was negative about it. She had lots of complaints. I listened and validated her feelings. To tease out the positive from the negative I asked her to switch to different chair and tell me only about the positive things in the marriage. She did not usually think much about the positive so this was not as easy for her. As she told me about the positives she became teary and sad. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something about how she was missing the good things in the relationship. She acknowledge that was true. Then I told her what I thought was going on for her – that she was very lonely in the marriage. When I said this she cried deeply. I helped her access and express her lonliness in depth.

At the end of the session I addressed her issue with her daughter that she had started the session with. I told her that I did not think her daughter was trying to break up her marriage so much as her daughter was very attuned to her unhappiness and was concerned about her. I did not give her any directions. We booked another session.

The next week she came back. Without preamble, she brusquely said to me, “I did not need to come today.” It kind of took me aback. Then she told me what had happened after last week’s session. She said when her husband came home from work she asked him to come into the living room. She said they started to talk and their discussion got loud. Her daughter came out of her bedroom to see what was going on. She told her daughter that she was taking care of this and to go back into her bedroom. Her daughter did as she was told. She said they continued to talk and that they talked with each other in a way they had never done before. They talked heart to heart about many things. They would argue, yet keep talking. She said they cleared up many incorrect assumptions that each had made about the other. Later in the week, to her surprise, her husband attended a parent/teacher’s meeting with her for the first time. She thought he did not care about her three daughters. He told her he thought she did not want him involved with them so he had just backed off.

She was pleased and relieved. In her curt manner she said she did not need to come again. I validated her efforts to make change and her courage in reaching out for professional help. I did not say so, but I also thought she enjoyed sharing her success with me and perhaps I was the only one she could share it with.

I thanked her for coming back to tell me what happened when she did not need to. I told her that if she had not come back I would have thought the session had not been helpful to her.

I never saw her again.

As a counsellor new to the work, this client taught me something I’ve never forgotten – that it is possible to facilitate significant change in a first session and in a single session. If a client does not come back, it MAY mean the session was not productive and that they did not connect with me, OR it may mean it was productive and that they do not need to come back or could not afford to come back. That has proved true over the years.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at

Doing couples counseling on your own.

Sometimes a partner is not ready to go to counselling with their partner or sometimes they have asked their partner to go with them and their partner refuses.

It is possible to do couples counseling on your own. Why? Because relationships are interactive. What one partner does impacts upon the other. Couples co-create their relationship. No one person is responsible for what is going right in a relationship and no one person is responsible for what is going wrong.
Each person is partly responsible for what is going wrong in a relationship. You can go to counselling and work on your part. You may not know how to change your part and that is what the counselling is to help you figure out – how to change in ways that are likely to enhance the relationship. When you change your part of the interaction your partner usually (not always but usually)responds to change with change. You don’t know what that change is going to be – maybe it will makes things better and maybe not – but the important thing is that there will be change. By taking responsibilty for your part and acting on it you have the power to make changes in your life.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at

To do or not do couples counseling?

I believe that couples have nothing to lose by trying to improve their relationship through counseling. If the counseling works then that is great! Couples who overcome adversity in their relationship develop stronger deeper relationships. (Because relationships are interactive it is also possible for one member of a couple to work on his or her relationship and make changes in positive ways. I have worked with many individuals and helped them turn their troubled relationships around without ever seeing their partners.)

What does it mean – if the counseling works?

My role in couples counseling is to help couples develop a good working relationship with each other. When a couple has a good working relationship they can successfully deal with their differences and more easily resolve problems. I am amazed how creatively and easily couples are able to resolve problems when they have a good working relationship!

With a good working relationship many couples are able to come together in a new way – a healthy loving way that they have never been able to achieve before. This can help them reclaim the loving way they used to be with each other earlier in their relationship and allow their love to grow into something deeper and more meaningful. Staying in a healthy marriage/relationship is emotionally enriching and financially wise.

What if counseling doesn’t work?

If the counseling does not work then each member of the couple will know that they gave it one last shot before giving up. When I work with a couple I ask each to invest in the process of counseling whether his or her partner does or not. The counseling is more likely to work then. But if it still does not work, then the partners who invested in the process know that they gave it an genuine effort before they gave up. They didn’t just go through the motions. Although going through a break up is painful and difficult they will be able to face it better knowing in their own heart that they tried their best.

Even if counseling does not work each partner will gain new awareness of self, as well as new knowledge and skills that they can use in future relationships and in their life in general. So there is a lot to gain.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at