Beyond Functional -making marriage more

Beyond Functional (part 1) 

Many years ago I organised an event for married couples called “beyond functional”. Many of the couples had been together for some time and had gotten into a rut, including my husband and myself.

Conversations became about who was cooking dinner, or taking kids to activities, who was going to be taking the rubbish out or why one of us left dirty clothes on the floor of the bedroom again. That initial spark seemed to have been smothered by responsibilities and the daily functions of life.

When Paul and I married I was so full of hope and promise. It was easy to say for better or worse because there was no way it was going to be worse. But years later it felt like we were going through the motions and I couldn’t understand why.

Our relationship wasn’t focusing on some key ingredients to keep it healthy. Here are two of the things we needed to work on.

  1. Bids for emotional connection. All of us are made for relationships and want to connect with others. We particularly want this with the special person we have made promises to. A bids for connection is when one of you will raise something hoping the other will responds with interest. We do this all the time. We can be looking out the window at a beautiful sunset and comment on it, seeking a respond, a connection where the other person sees it too and you are able to share the experience.

There are four ways a partner can respond. Firstly, they can turn toward the other person with interest and enthusiasm. “Wow, thats is a gorgeous sunset, look at the oranges and pinks”.


Secondly, they can look up and just see it. Even this is a positive response, you have heard what was said and have taken an interest in it.

Thirdly, you can choose to ignore what was said and keep doing what you are doing.

Finally, you can do the opposite. Instead of turning toward the bid for connection you can tell them off for disturbing you, “I don’t want to look at the sunset, can’t you see I have so work to do.”

The third and fourth responses lead the person trying to make the connection to feel rejected and make them less likely to keep trying to make connections over time. The relationship slowly heads into frostier waters and distance is created. The person you would naturally want to turn to first no longer takes that role and chances are you may start daydreaming about being in a different situation.

Various experts say that to keep a marriage healthy you need between five and 20 positive interactions to help mitigate one negative interaction. Bids for emotional connection is just one way to increase the balance in favour of the relationship growing.

The second thing we have decided to work on is

2) Shared fondness and admiration: Those of us with children would have heard the phrase – “catch them doing good”. The same principle applies in a romantic relationships. Catch each other doing something you appreciate and let them know. This is an issue for many people who feel they are constantly doing something for the other person and it just becomes expected. Whether it is doing another load of washing, mowing the lawn or simply putting a dish in the dishwasher.

It is so much easier to see what hasn’t been done than looking for what has been done and how to appreciate it. Many of us are wired to look for the next “threat”, the next task, rather than appreciating what has been done already. Take time in your day to stop and notice the good your partner is doing. This is an antidote to contempt and builds appreciation, fondness and respect.

So the challenge I put to you is to do two things to help your relationship from becoming “mearly functional”:
– Notice when your partner is making a bid for connection and respond positively
– Thank your partner for the little things they do. Name them and show you appreciate what they do in a day.

If you are able to keep these two things up it is a great start to having a relationship that is closer and more enjoyable for you both.

Happy older couple

The Art and Science of Love

Happy older coupleThe Art and Science of Love

It’s not often that a therapist would recommend attending someone else’s training but this is one I couldn’t go passed. The Gottman Institute has been researching and helping couples to strengthen their relationships for the past 40 years. This course is now coming to Perth through Relationship Institute Australia. If you have ever heard anyone speaking about the 4 Horsemen of the Marriage Apocolypse – criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness and contempt – this is because of John Gottman’s work.

My husband and I said that we would do a course every year to strengthen our relationship. So far in 13 years of marriage we have made it to one. This will be our second.

The course covers how to:

  • Foster respect, affection, and closeness
  • Build and share a deeper connection with each other’s inner world
  • Keep conflict discussions calm
  • Break through and resolve conflict gridlock
  • Strengthen and maintain the gains in your relationship

It is being held at the Novotel on the 9th and 10th of July. Research shows that this course is like doing six months of couple therapy in a weekend. Check it out at


How to maintain good mental health.

Maintaining good mental health is something that many of us are having to think about. The World Health organisation said in 2012 that more than 350 million people of all ages are suffer from depression. However, being mentally healthy involves more than just looking after our minds.

There are 4 different areas to consider:

1) Physical Health

2) Mental Activities

3) Relationships

4) Bigger questions in life

Firstly, our physical health: To have a healthy mind we also need to have a healthy body. Our society draws a false dichotomy between the body and the mind, but the two areas are so closely linked that one will naturally affect the other. When I am anxious I will get butterflies in my stomach. When I am hungry I am more likely to find it hard to concentrate or get snappy at people. One naturally impacts the other.

There are certain things that people will talk about to support our physical health.

a) Getting Enough Sleep

b) Eating Healthily

c) Getting Physical Exercise

d) Having Routines

These things also help our mental health.

The average adult needs between 7-10 hours of sleep per night but few of us remember what it means to be truly rested. This means turning off electronic devices, making the room dark. having the right temperature in the room, getting up at a reasonable time and going to bed at a reasonable time. It’s a good idea not to have cat naps during the day as they can make it hard to get back to sleep at a reasonable

Now I am guilty of checking my phone late at night and my husband is always telling me off about it. I recently heard a talk by a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He had this to say, “with using our mobile phones late at night, we are streaming photons into our eyes, telling ourselves, it’s time to stay awake, it’s not sleep time yet. So we’re awake at 10pm, 11pm, 12am. We are telling our brains not to secrete melatonin yet- it’s not time to sleep and we keep checking Facebook, or playing games, checking emails. 

When we get up at 6am- we haven’t gotten enough rest. The reason we need 7-10 hours is because it gives our active neurones a chance to rest, but more than that, it gives the chance for the supportive cells called Glial cells time to clean up the toxins that the neurons produced during the day. If we don’t get 7-10 hours sleep the toxins remain.

As a result our attention falters, memory becomes impaired, the ability to think through problems is challenged, your insulin even is turned upside down which controls your metabolism so you are more likely to gain weight when you eat and you are more likely to eat more. And it is toxic to the connections in your brains- so shut off your screens at 9pm!’

Next with Physical Health is Eating well. This means seeing food as fuel. What we put into our bodies effects how we concentrate, whether we get spikes of energy, whether we crash. Sweets and fatty foods can trigger the same pleasure centres in the brain as addictive drugs do. They make us feel good for a little while but in the end they do us more harm that good. In 2014 a study of more that 4,000 students in New Zealand found that a high-quality diet was associated with better mental health and a low-quality diet was associated with poor mental health.

Thirdly, the need for Exercise. Research has shown that exercise releases chemicals in your brain called endorphines that make you feel good. It can boost your self esteem by achieving new skills and goals, help concentration as well as sleep. It helps with us looking good and feeling better too. Taking part in a form of exercise is a great way to deal with frustration and anger. Some people talk about being able to tune out to the cares of the world while they exercise.cycle-race-11-647839-s

Now for those of us who struggle with anxiety, professionals often talk about relaxation techniques helping with the anxiety, but for 15% of people it works the other way and they get more anxious. Exercise is a great alternative for those people.

Finally in this area we need to look at routines. If we keep routines going it can help with muscle memory and keeps us doing some of the other things mentioned. If we have a routine for going to bed and for when we get exercise our bodies get used to expecting those things and can keep us doing them even when we don’t feel like we can.

The next area to look at is our MENTAL ACTIVITIES

There are ways that we can focus our attention and improve our mental health. One of the big areas is that of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a big field and each counsellor or therapist will pick up on different aspects of it. Part of mindfulness is slowing down the mind to think about each action it is performing. So you can be mindful entering a room and thinking about sitting somewhere before you sit down. You can imagine how you will feel sitting somewhere before you do it.

You can be mindful in your breathing. You can sit and concentrate on breathing in and out, slowly like in yoga. While you are breathing it’s not unusual for thoughts to come into your head. With mindfulness you are encouraged to notice the thought but not to pass judgement on it. To look at the thought like it’s a train coming into a station. You let it come in and let it go out again. And bring your focus back on your breathing. It’s trying to take time to slow the mind and let it relax.

Another aspect of mindfulness is staying in the moment. It’s not unusual for us, when we focus on the past, to think more about the negative things that have happened. It’s much rarer to look back at the past and think of the good things that have happened. We tend to stew or brewed on things.

For example, I’m off to a party. And I am thinking about all the past parties I have been to where I have been tongue tied, or had an awkward conversation. Instead with mindfulness I try to focus just on what is going on in front of me. What is happening right now? Is there someone I could be getting into a good conversation with? is there something going on at the party that I could join in… or am I dwelling on all the negatives and stopping myself from enjoying what is happening now.

Often when we thing about the future we think about the things that might happen and get ourselves worked up. Say I am going for a job interview. I would usually think: what if I don’t get an interview? What if I get an interview and it goes really badly? What if I don’t have an answer to the question? Again if I change my focus and think about now it stops me panicking and working myself up into a state.

Being mindful takes practice. It isn’t natural straight away and can feel quite strange at first but it is a really helpful thing to practice. Mindfulness is the opposite to multitasking. Mindfulness involves slowing down and focusing on one thing at time, multitasking is the opposite.

Secondly, Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 90’s when a team of Italian researchers found individual neurones in the brains of Macaque monkeys that fired both when the monkeys grabbed an object and also when the monkeys watched another primate grab the same object. Watching an action and performing the action can activate the same parts of the brain. Studies have since have been performed on humans and discovered similarly that the areas of the brain that watching an action and performing an action can activate similar parts of the brain. There is a theory that this is why second or third siblings pick things up faster than the oldest. They have watched and as a result have already lay pathways for that particular action.

stock-photo-12166657-concept-of-brain-with-nervous-system-and-neuronFrom this information it’s important for us to think about what and who we are watching, listening to, and reading because we may be responding to it like it happened to us. For example, I may be watching a movie with depressed characters like in “the skeleton twins”. The premise of the movie is that the two main characters are unhappy with their lives and can’t see a way out. What I am doing is laying pathways through my “mirror neurons” that lead me to think I’m in that situation. So if I am watching these movies I am more likely to think “I am not happy, and can’t see a way out”. It’s the same for the books we read.

Since finding out about mirror neurons I’m working harder to think about the types of movies I watch, the books I read, and the music I listen to. It’s a relatively new area of science but one that indicates the stimuli we put into our brains effects how we think and act.

Thirdly, there is a movement in the States called the “thankfulness movement”. Every day they find 10 things to be thankful for and I’m all for it. It’s a way of setting pathways in our brains of being grateful for what we have rather than saying ‘Why me?’ It involves setting down positive connections rather than negative ones.

thankful_journal_life_is_sweet_heroI watched a friend of mine practice thankfulness every morning for four years while we studied together. No matter what was going on for her she was always thankful for her blessings. She could always see the good in things and I would say it helped her get though some pretty difficult times. Sometimes she was thankful for the smallest things, a sunny day, getting out of bed, washing her hair. Kikki K has caught onto the idea by having a thankful book, where you write 3 things you’re thankful for each day.


Mental Illness makes it really hard to connect with other people. Anxiety and depression make us want to shut down and remove ourselves from friends or family. We either find it too hard or we think they won’t understand us, or we get caught up in what is happening to/for us.

As humans we are made for relationships. We are social creatures, made for deep connections with others. Relationships help us to stay other person centred, they help us to be more productive, they help us to feel more connected and cared for.

Hugh McKay is his book “The Good Life” asks what makes a life worth living? His answer is that a good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.

For me, I feel most grounded and connected with my Bible Study Group. With them I am honest, and real. I can pray for them and know what is going on for them as well. It makes a huge difference or me and for them. We didn’t meet for about a month for various reasons and when we met again it was such a good reminder how important those real relationships are. Meeting with friends on a regular basis, and checking in with each other as to how we are really going.


Finally I would like to mention asking the bigger questions of life. Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is it all about? Different religions have their answers. Studies have shown that having a religion is good for our mental health because it provides the answer to these questions.

Some Psychologists talk about the ’empty void’. They see people engage strategies so we don’t have to think about what is beyond the superficial in life. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to think about what lies beneath. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to feel that uncomfortable feeling of emptiness at working out why we are here? Two Psychologists, Clinton and Selby, talk about love being the answer to these questions. Both being loved and loving others are the reason we are here.

So my tips are – take care of your physical health. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Ask yourself, ‘Am I putting food in my mouth that we be good for my body and mind?’, ‘Am I getting enough exercise?’ and ‘Do I have a regular routine?’

When it comes to my mind, can I practice mindfulness techniques? Can I practice being in the moment, concentrating more on the now rather than things that upset me from the past, or things that make me nervous in the future? What am I reading, watching, doing? What messages are my mirror neurons receiving? Am I laying pathways down for love and joy or self pity and misery? Am I able to see things that I am thankful for? Can I practice finding 10 things to be thankful for each day? Am I still working at friendships and relationships, even on days when I think it’s too hard? Am I willing to be real with my friends? And finally have I considered my purpose in life? Why am I here and what is it all about? If we are able to work at doing these things they go a long way to maintaining good mental health.


Narelle works as a counsellor for Perth Counselling Service in Northbridge. The information above is for a talk given to group of women asking about maintaining good mental health. Should you be reading this article and struggling with your own mental health please see your GP or a counsellor recommended to you.

Adolescence: helpful info for parents

Adolescent reflectingAdolescence is one of the most exciting and most challenging stages of the life span. As an adolescent you are often at your peak physical health and thinking in new and creative ways, you are exploring life, deciding for yourself if you want to follow the rules.

I didn’t find adolescence easy. I don’t think there are many people who do! But certain things would have been really helpful to know and I hope I can use this information for my own children.

1) During adolescents the brain is restructuring. It’s like a second story being put on a house. Parents often don’t understand how they can say something one day and their child seems to understand, then say the same thing another day and get a completely different reaction.

The remodelling in the integrative frontal areas of the cortex is responsible for teens becoming aware of themselves and thinking about life in conceptual and abstract ways. It permits teens to reflect on how we think, feel and do what we do, and how we might do things differently. Teens can now challenge old ways of doing things, but this new awareness can be overwhelming, leading to grumpiness, moodiness and confusion.

2) Changes in dopamine levels. Research suggests that baseline dopamine levels are lower in teens. This might be part of the reason teens say they feel “bored” unless they are engaging in thrill seeking behaviours or novel activities. Not only are baseline dopamine levels lower in teens, but the peaks are higher. This means the reward for risk taking behaviours is huge – the lows are lower and the highs are higher. Teens can be more impulsive as a result, not noticing the potential risks of behaviours or the downsides but looking for the peek, that feeling of being alive.

Hyper-rationality is another side effect of this dopamine reward system. Hyper-rationality is thinking in literal concrete terms. As adolescents we don’t look at the bigger picture, missing the context of the situation. The brain places lots of weight on the positive outcomes and not much weight on the negative results. I.e. the PROS out way the CONS. This is even more prevalent when teens hang out with other teens. As the teen years unfold we move to consider the larger context and to use intuition.

3) In early adolescence we may be more prone to “flying off the handle”. Having a parent interrupt us when we are busy, or a friend not call when they say they would may be enough for the early adolescent to loose it.

4) Adolescences are faster to react emotionally to situations  the limbic or emotion area of the brain is more active at this time than in childhood or adulthood. This means emotions can arise rapidly and intensely without the calming influence of the prefrontal cortex (the integrative part of the brain that can balance emotions).

Brain scans reveal that when teens are shown a neutral face in a photograph, a major area of the limbic region becomes activated. Adults don’t have this reaction. The result is that the teen can believe that even another person’s neutral response is filled with hostility. Neutral things said to adolescents can be taken as aggressive and a bump in the hallway or blank expression can be interpreted negatively.

Vulnerability: During the remodelling of the brain, it prunes the abundance of neurons and their connecting synapses. If there is an underlying mental health issue it is more likely to present itself during adolescence. Major psychiatric disorders like depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to appear for the first time. Sometimes the appearance of severe behavioural issues is a sign of a disorder. Some of these conditions include suicidal thoughts and impulses and so seeking help can be extremely important.

The good news: normal adolescent changes in the brain allow us to move out and away from home. The brain rewards us as we seek novelty and move out into the world.

As we reach later adolescence the frontal cortex develops more fully. We are more able to assess our responses and impulsivity decreases. Positive interactions with others and self-reflection are two ways to increase prefrontal functioning and balance feelings and reactions. Naming emotions can also help as this activates the prefrontal cortex and calms the limbic system.

I wish I had known all this when I was a teenager. It’s only recently that I have discover the power and purpose of the teenage brain by reading ‘Brainstorm’ by Dr Daniel Siegel. If you would like more information I’d highly recommend you do the same or come see me at my counselling practice.


I am half way through running one “circle of security” group and planning to run another one which starts on the 13th of January.

Circle of Security parenting isn’t just about changing behaviour it is about improving relationships. I love seeing care givers grappling with new ideas and thinking about parenting in new ways. This course is one of the best on the market and any and every care giver would benefit from doing this course.

If you would like to host the course in your home or be a member of the next group, please get in contact with me. I am currently charging $100 per adult for the 8 week course. I am planning to run the course 4 times a year within school term dates.

For more information go to or check out their youtube video “circle of security–connection”.

Two ways of viewing the challenges of adolescence

M4034S-4211When you hear the word “adolescence” what goes through your mind? I recently realised as I spoke to my oldest son about his approaching teen years that I often speak negatively about this stage of life. Since then, with the help of a book called “Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain” I have been able to see the positive possibilities of the teenage years.

Below are two ways of viewing and dealing with the challenges of adolescence.

During adolescents our minds change in the what we remember, think, reason, focus attention, make decisions and relate to others. The brain changes in early teen years set up four qualities: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration. 

Novelty seeking: emerges from an increased drive for reward in the circuits of the adolescent brain that creates the inner motivation to try something new and feel life more fully, creating more engagement in life.

Negative Positive
Sensation seeking and risk taking over emphasise thrill and downplays risk resulting in dangerous behaviours and injury. Impulsivity can turn an idea into an action without a pause to reflect on the consequences. Being open to change and living passionately emerge, as the exploration of novelty is honed into a fascination for life and a drive to design new ways of doing things and living with a sense of adventure.


Social engagement: enhances peer connectedness and creates new friendship.

Negative Positive
Teens isolated from adults and surrounded only by other teens have increased-risk behaviour, and the total rejection of adults and adult knowledge and reasoning increases those risks. The drive for social connection leads to the creation of supportive relationships that are the research-proven best predictors of well-being, longevity, happiness throughout the life span.


Increased emotional intensity: gives an enhanced vitality to life.

Negative Positive
Intense emotions may rule the day, leading to impulsivity, moodiness, and extreme, sometimes unhelpful reactivity. Life lived with emotional intensity can be filled with energy and a sense of vital drive that gives an exuberance and zest for life.


Creative exploration: with an expanding sense of consciousness. An adolescent’s conceptual thinking and abstract reasoning allow questioning of the status quo, approaching problems with “out of the box” strategies, creating new ideas and the emergence of innovation.

Negative Positive
Searching for meaning of life during the teen years can lead to a crisis of identity, vulnerability to peer pressure, and a lack of direction and purpose. If the mind can hold on to thinking and imagining and perceiving the world in new ways and of creatively exploring the spectrum of experiences possible, the sense of being in a rut that can sometimes pervade adult life can be minimised and instead an experience of the “ordinary being extraordinary” can be cultivated.

Time in

Most people have heard of time out. When your child is acting in a way that you don’t think is appropriate, you send them somewhere to calm down.

Time out has been very popular as a behaviour technique for children. Parenting strategies taught in various parenting models advocate for this approach, e.g. triple P and 1,2,3 magic. The problem with ‘time out’ is that it isn’t really helping our children develop the way other options do.

More and more experts are advocating for an alternative method. “Time In”- this is where the child learns to handle their emotions with the support of someone else. It is a technique that works particularly well with traumatised children who can’t regulate their emotions but it works just as well with anxious, angry or stressed kids.

Time in means that you have your child near you when they are experiencing high emotions. Your ability to stay calm and relate to them even when they are distressed helps them to learn to express and deal with the situation that is causing the high level of emotion.

The emotion needs to be seen as them expressing something, not as a personal challenge to you. Any emotion is seen as acceptable. It’s ok to be angry. It’s not the emotion that is the problem but the actions that may come after it.

Next you help your child discuss their feeling. Just by saying “I’m angry” or  “I’m upset” enables the intensity of that emotion to be reduced. Helping them to express the emotion and why they feel it (if they are old enough to say) gives the child the support of knowing that you are there for them and wanting to help them with these feelings. It involves listening with your ears, eyes and demonstrating this with your body language. We all want to feel understood and accepted for who we are and how we feel.

When the child has been able to express what is happening for them, you can work on solutions together. It’s always good to come up with more than one solution and discuss the pros and cons of each.

You can still set limits and consequences for unacceptable behaviour but best to leave these until after you understand what is happening for your child and the child is calmer. As the child gets older you can involve them in deciding what the consequence should be. Believe me I have seen this work time and time again.