What have you been up to?

It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that one of the worst questions you can ask another person is: What have you been up to? It’s a really common thing to ask; a bit like: How are you? Except that it’s not like How are you? It often evokes a very different reaction – and not a good reaction.

It’s amazing how often this issue is brought up in my office. Most commonly, it’s a couple who discuss the arguments triggered by this simple question. Stay-at-home mums explain how the question makes them feel as if their job as the primary carer is not valuable. They struggle to justify how they have spent their day and they feel inadequate and judged by their partner. The partner is quick to point out that it’s just a greeting – not a judgment,  but it doesn’t come across that way. In fact, stay-at-home mums often hate anyone asking this question – unless it’s asked by another stay-at-home mother for exactly the same reason – they feel as if the question requires a response that justifies their existence. (Stay-at-home dads may also dislike the question, but I haven’t heard them make the same complaint.)

What have you been up to? also upsets the many people who are between jobs or who are unable to work. For those seeking employment, this question leaves them stumbling for a credible answer and again they fear being judged. The person asking the innocent question would have no idea of the angst they may have just triggered.

The teenager hates the question because it suggests disapproval for sleeping in or watching clips on YouTube even if it’s a weekend or the holidays.

Even if you are not between jobs and you’re not a stay-at-home parent or a teenager, being asked to sum up your recent experiences is not an appealing invitation. You might be at a social function or you run into someone at the shops and if you’re asked: What have you been up to? your mind can instantly go blank as you try to find something worth mentioning. So we trot out responses like: I’ve been really busy or This and that or Not much and then it’s our turn to ask – And what have you been up to? and it’s their turn to try to outline their highlights.

Finally, for those countless people who are struggling with grief or depression or an addiction, being asked: What have you been up to? could trigger more pain for those who are not in any state to take it.

If it’s being discussed so much in my little office, it must be affecting a lot of people in the general population. So maybe we can all try to make our questions easier to answer or we should just stick to: How are you?

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The intimacy equation

To have a truly intimate relationship with another person, you need two essential elements – vulnerability and empathy. In fact, a useful equation would be:

Vulnerability + empathy = connection

Too many people are suffering with the loneliness that comes from not feeling connected to other people. They may be part of a couple and have many friends, but they still feel alone because the relationships are not close.

Without vulnerability, you can’t develop intimacy. When we share our fears and our pain, we draw people in. When we hear about another person’s fears and pain, we are drawn to them. If all we share is small talk and pleasantries, there is no depth to the conversation or the relationship. But what happens next is just as important in the intimacy equation …

Once we have been open and vulnerable, if we do not feel some empathy coming back, the connection is broken and intimacy doesn’t develop. When we are talking so personally about ourselves, we desperately want to be understood. We don’t want to be judged and we don’t want to be advised. We just want the other person to imagine what it’s like to be us.

So if you’re one of the countless people who are feeling a lack of connection with the people in your life, ask yourself: Do I have the essential elements that make up the intimacy equation?


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How does empathy sound?

pop art cute retro woman in comics style with OK signJust because we care deeply about another person’s pain doesn’t mean that we are necessarily good at showing them empathy. The most common conversation I have with couples is about how to show empathy. Even the loveliest people can struggle to empathise, which can damage their relationships. Without empathy, we don’t feel supported or understood and the connection between partners is reduced.

So how does empathy sound? Maybe it’s a good idea to compare non-empathic reactions to empathic reactions…..

Eg: I’m so stressed. I’ve got too much to do. I can’t cope.

Non-empathic responses:

You’re always stressed
Am I making you stressed?
Sit down and relax
What can I do to help?

Empathic responses:

You do have a lot on your plate
You must be shattered
I can see how much you do and how overwhelmed you are


Eg: I’m so nervous about having surgery tomorrow

Non-empathic responses:

You’ll be fine
You’re in the best hands
It’s a simple procedure

Empathic responses:

I know you are
I know you hate general anesthetics
I can see how nervous you are


Eg: I haven’t slept for a week!

Non-empathic responses:

That’s a bit of an exaggeration
Either have I
You need to go to bed earlier

Empathic responses:

How hideous. Why not?
You must be exhausted.
I can see you’re at breaking point

In other words, empathy sounds like you truly care. It doesn’t sound like you’re trying to solve the problem and you’re not dismissing the issue. All you’re doing is letting the other person know that you hear them and you understand what they’re saying (even if you have countless ideas on what they should be doing or not doing).

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The danger of avoidance

Baby indoors putting hand over faceAvoidance is an excellent strategy if we’re referring to staying out of dangerous situations. But avoidance should often be avoided!

Avoiding anxiety-provoking situations increases anxiety.

Avoiding difficult conversations with your partner, friend, child or colleague can allow situations to become far more complicated.

Avoiding physical or psychological treatment exacerbates the condition.

Avoiding hard work makes the load greater.

Avoiding any type of confrontation or intimacy will significantly affect your relationships.

What are you avoiding? Instead of staying in your head and over-analysing everything, try changing your behaviour. Slowly face the things you tend to avoid. You might just find it easier than you’d imagined.

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Sitting with someone’s pain

tissuesWhen someone we love is suffering, we want to take away their pain. When they hurt, we hurt and it can feel cruel to sit there and do nothing. But what if our attempts to stop their pain actually makes things worse? What if our discomfort adds to their pain? Often our partner or friend or child just wants us to be there and do nothing except listen and care.

People cry all the time in a therapist’s office and we welcome it. We don’t rush over with a tissue or a hug. We sit with the client’s pain and allow them to feel it and express it and learn from it. A tissue or a hug can send the wrong signal. You can inadvertently be saying: Shhh, Shhh, don’t feel like that. You might actually be saying: Shhh, Shhh, don’t feel like that. Either way, you could be telling this person that you don’t want to see or hear about their pain. Your friend or partner or child might stop crying or talking about their issue – not because they feel better, but because they can sense that you’re uncomfortable. In other words, without meaning to, you can be failing to give empathy, when that’s all you’re wanting to do.

Snot needs to be running down someone’s face before I’ll reach for the tissues (unless they ask beforehand). A hug is so powerful – after someone has been able to fully download.

One of the most important gifts we can give another person is to demonstrate that we can sit with their pain. After all, it’s about them, not us.


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Get the nod

Todd 3Maybe you think you are saying all the right things to your partner to tell them that you understand how they’re feeling. But perhaps you’re not. One way to get a true sense of whether or not you are showing empathy is to see if you get the nod. When you react to your partner’s pain, do they nod in response to your words? Or do they keep trying to express how they’re feeling? Worse still, do they roll their eyes or simply shut down? When we look for this simple non-verbal cue, we can measure how well we’re doing in the empathy stakes pretty quickly.

Looking at some examples, it’s fairly easy to see which statements would get the nod.

Your partner explains that they are getting really flustered with some technological issue. You respond by saying:

a) Here, let me do it.

b) Calm down. You’re getting stressed over nothing.

c) It’s so frustrating when that happens, isn’t it?

Your partner states that they’re embarrassed by the idea of people bringing gifts to their birthday party. You respond by saying:

a) Don’t be ridiculous. They want to give you something.

b) So tell them not to.

c) I know you don’t want people to make a fuss and you just want your friends to celebrate with you.

Your partner looks exhausted but is still rushing around doing chores. You respond by saying:

a) I don’t know why you don’t just sit down and relax.

b) I said I would do that.

c) You look absolutely shattered but you obviously still want things done.

So the next time your partner, child, friend or colleague expresses any type of emotional pain, stop and think what you can say to get the nod. Once you see the sign that you’ve nailed your response, whatever you say next will be far better received and you will be more likely to avoid an argument.

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What pushes your partner’s buttons?

Meer CatsHaving trouble showing your partner empathy? Here’s a powerful exercise for the two of you to practice. Without discussing it with each other, write down a list of everything that causes your partner pain. What upsets him or her? What infuriates them? What makes them sad or distressed? When do they get anxious? If you’re in a medium to long-term relationship, you will know what pushes their buttons.

Once you’ve written your lists, show one another. How do you feel reading through the list that your partner wrote? Usually it feels fabulous to know that our partner understands us. If you can relate to what they have written about you, then they have done a wonderful job of showing empathy. That’s because they have taken themselves out of the equation and have only thought about you and your pain.

If you’re feeling up to it, why not make a second list that suggests ways in which you can minimise the times you trigger their pain. For example, if you know that your partner is easily embarrassed when you make jokes at his or her expense in public, then allow the empathy to flow and stop making the jokes. If you understand that your chronic lateness frustrates your partner,  why not make a concerted effort to be more punctual?

We don’t have to change our personalities, but knowing that we have the power to lessen the pain for the person we love can only lead to a stronger and closer relationship.

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LyingLying for some people is a deal breaker in a relationship. If you lie, I can’t trust you – full stop. For others, there are degrees of lying. Saying that you left the office at 6pm when you really left at 6.30pm is not a serious lie for many people. Saying that you didn’t have sex with a colleague when you did is a significant lie for most. Exclaiming that you love the gift you received (when you didn’t) would be forgiven by almost all but lying about how much you spent on a purchase could cause problems.

What happens when a couple is made up of one person who has a zero tolerance policy for lying and another who is a little more relaxed about the rules? Fireworks – that’s what happens.

For the person who cannot tolerate lying, saying that you got home by midnight when you really got in at 4am causes extreme distress. That’s because their imaginations can run wild. If you lie about what time you got home, what else are you lying about? The problem is, the stronger the reaction to the lie , the more the “liar” lies to avoid confrontation. In fact, that’s probably why they are lying in the first place. They didn’t want to cop a spray for their late night, so they lied about coming home by midnight.

It’s often the same for children. If the punishment for lying is extreme, they can sometimes start thinking up better ways to lie. I’ve debated with many parents who tell their children that as long as they tell the truth, they won’t be punished. What? So your child steals money from a friend’s wallet but when you asked them about it, they told the truth so end of story. Isn’t it more important to discuss why they stole the money? Wouldn’t it be important for them to return the money and face the consequences?

So back to the couple made up of a “white liar” and someone with zero tolerance for lies, what should they do to avoid the arguments? Many would say that the liar should simply stop lying in any shape or form. And yes, that would stop a lot of the arguments. But it’s also a little unrealistic unless the punishment for lying is reduced and the focus is shifted onto the “crimes”.

Asking your partner why they came in so late when they had promised to be home early is probably more important than focusing on why they lied about it. Discussing why they spent so much money on a gift when you’re on a tight budget is more relevant than fighting over why they lied about it.

And on a final note, if you don’t want your partner or child to continually lie to you, stop using the word “lie.” Instead of saying Don’t lie to me, say Please be honest with me. Instead of saying You’re lying, say I want you to tell me the truth. If all we hear is the word “lie,” our minds think of ways to lie. If we hear “honest” and “truth,” our minds focus on honesty and truthfulness.

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Joint decision-making about money

Extreme closeup of golden coins, columns and a heap

Think you and your partner are making joint decisions when it comes to the household budget? What does your partner think? Let’s look at a case study:

Michael is the main breadwinner and Sally works part-time and is the primary carer of their three children. Sally is a natural spender and Michael is a saver. They get on really well, except when they fight over money. He thinks she is totally irresponsible because she spends far more than the money they have “agreed” that she should spend each week. She feels like he is her boss and she has no say in how the money is spent. Sally avoids talking about money at all costs.

When they come in for counselling, they are both feeling frustrated and misunderstood. When Sally explains that she feels controlled by Michael over money (they have joint bank accounts), he responds by offering to “give” her more money if she justifies her expenditure. Sally starts to cry. Michael shakes his head in confusion and looks to me for validation: What else can I do? I only make so much money. There is not much more to spend. We are going backwards.

Sally jumps in and explains that she wants to be part of the decision making: Why is it that you are able to buy whatever you want but I have to check with you? Michael shoots back: I don’t spend much money, so it doesn’t affect our bank account. And I let you buy nearly everything you want. I’m happy for you to go away with the girls for the weekend and shop once a year. I was so supportive when you wanted to fly over and see your mum and I told you to go. How can I be fairer than that?

Michael is not a controlling person, but he is trying to control the household spend. In his mind, without his control, they would lose all their money. Sadly, if they continue to tackle the problem this way, their relationship will be in jeopardy. Sally obviously needs to own her habit of over-spending but the combination of a spender and a saver should balance out nicely if they work as a team.

Michael was encouraged to rethink how he tackled the issue.

Instead of saying: I’m happy for you to spend money on travelling to see your mum. It was suggested he say: What do we think? Are we happy for you to spend money on travelling to see your mum? I know I am, what about you?

Instead of saying: How much do you need for the weekly grocery spend? I’m happy to increase the amount I put in that account. He was encouraged to say: Let’s work out what’s needed for the weekly groceries.

Instead of saying: This credit card statement is outrageous. I thought I told you not to go over $2000 each month. Michael learned to say: I’m a bit worried about our credit card bill each month. Can we sit down and talk about it. It’s our money and we should jointly decide how to spend it.

When Michael started changing the way he brought up the issue of Sally’s spending and made it more about making joint decisions, Sally stopped avoiding the issue and started owning her issue of over-spending. The arguments rapidly decreased and they felt closer and I was out of a job.

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Sabotaging relationships

bombAre you a saboteur? Perhaps you don’t even realise that you are sabotaging perfectly good relationships in an effort to protect yourself. In a nutshell, sabotage is the attempt to control the uncontrollable. When we fear getting hurt by someone we love, we can consciously or unconsciously try to control the hurt by triggering a break-up. For many people, it feels better to be in charge of the end rather than wait for what feels like the inevitable.

All four main characters in Seinfeld were saboteurs. As soon as a relationship was going well, they would start searching for the faults: big hands, close talker, low talker, face-painter, and my favourite – eating peas one at a time. They would discuss these “faults” and as a group, conclude that the relationship shouldn’t continue. No wonder they all ended up alone. Now I know Seinfeld was a TV sitcom, but how many times have you contemplated ending a relationship for trivial reasons?

Confusingly, the sabotaging can be done by an individual who really does want out, but doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy (or girl). They will push their partner into finishing the relationship rather than ending it themselves. They might emotionally check out or they may have an affair and hope to be found out. Then when they are told to leave, they can seek comfort in the fact that they weren’t the one who officially ended things.

The trouble with sabotage is that it can leave behind a trail of confusion and deep hurt. The person who is left has no idea what just happened. One minute things were going well and the next it’s over. Most of us question what we did wrong and it can be hard to accept the fact that a relationship had to end when we didn’t see it coming.

Signs you may be a saboteur:

  • You have a history of relationships that start off intensely and finish quickly
  • As soon as you begin to feel close to someone, you start finding their faults
  • You have never ended a relationship, even when you weren’t happy
  • Your relationships usually last less than 2 years
  • Your friends and family warn people to stay away from you or you will end up hurting them

Why do people become saboteurs? If someone has been badly hurt in a relationship or has witnessed a parent or close friend being badly hurt, they can fear suffering the same fate. If a parent modelled sabataging behaviour, children can grow up to do the same. When children witness a toxic parental relationship, they may do anything they can to avoid a similar situation.

If you are a saboteur, it’s time to gain some insight and make come changes. Falling in love is worth the risk of being hurt. Being vulnerable with another person brings you closer and although scary, feels so special.

If you’re trying to have a relationship with a saboteur, run for the hills because if they don’t understand what they’re doing, you will become another casualty.

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