Saturday, March 8, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Self-help can be negative in a relationship
Hazel Curry

I'M not sure what it was that first attracted me to Mr S. The piercing eyes, perhaps? The ebony hair? Maybe it was the way he fondled the self-help book I'd just bought in the crystal shop where we met? Options on dual meditation sessions and tantric sex leaped into my mind. Whatever it was it worked and we launched ourselves into an intense relationship. Little did I know he'd just returned from a self-help course in California, and I was about to get intensive, non-stop one-on-one counselling, not romance. Going out with Mr S didn't involve discussing the day, but rather spending candlelit nights mulling over my mental landscape, with him up ahead holding the map.

'Now, there's where you're going wrong — you need to be heading in this direction.' He'd pick up on every 'fault', and correct it. Derogatory comments about anything or anyone, from casually mentioning that my day had been dodgy or the woman pushing past me was a cow, were met with an identical reaction: 'No, sweetheart, never be negative.' The fact that such criticism was negative itself obviously hadn't entered his head. He'd deliver precisely such emotional guidance and behavioural instruction in a tone that bordered on arrogant, because he was so very sure that he knew better than me. I felt under attack, and after suffering it for a little while, because I made the mistake of believing he did actually know better than me, I moved on.


Personal-growth seminars and self-help books are more popular than ever. Some of them have things going for them. But sometimes, it seems, using self-help information incorrectly can lead to the destruction of current and future relationships. Mr S-type difficulties, say the experts, are becoming an increasingly regular occurrence.

"There are various ways self-help can be negative in a relationship," says relationship counsellor Christine Northam. "Attack is a common one — people think they know all the answers and might have a burning zeal about something their partner does. It's easy to attack by saying: the trainer (relevant self-help guru) said this, and I think this is what you're doing wrong. Avoid attacking by putting what you've learnt into context and exploring it. Don't personalise —never say ‘That's what you do,’ but be objective and remember that self-help is about self — consider your behaviour in the relationship first. Otherwise your partner might feel threatened and undermined."

To resort briefly to a self-help cliche: you can't change anyone, they can only change themselves. Northam suggests self-helpers lead by example, as opposed to telling people what to do. Your partner should witness the things you have learnt and changes you have made having a positive impact on the relationship, and then copy you. "I see it happen a lot," she says. "Once one half does some self-help and gains insight, so they calm down and communicate better, which rubs off on their partner." If you attempt to instruct directly, you run the risk of trying to be your lover's therapist. The compulsion to spread your newly gleaned insight and life approach is a natural instinct — you're trying to help. But in reality, you're not a therapist and you will probably make a bad job of it. Counsellors spend years learning how to criticise nicely, so don't imagine you're qualified following a one-weekend self-discovery course.

When the information a person picks up from a personal growth seminar or book is good and they've used it sensibly, leading by example can work. When it's not good, or they've misinterpreted it, there's a danger of real damage.

Emma, 27, and Ian, 34, are a good example of this. While living with Ian, Emma attended a series of personal-improvement workshops, and returned full of self-help speak. "She turned into a robot," says Ian. "She'd constantly blurt out lines from the course, rather than giving her own opinion, and began speaking about things in a very odd way — instead of saying ‘I love this film’ as she'd have done in the past, she'd say, ‘I'm really connecting with this film and I feel it's going to make me express myself’, before crying. In the end I felt as if I didn't know her. She threatened to leave if I didn't go on the course." Eventually they split. Emma is now seeing someone from the course and only socialises with course-attendants. Her obsession is almost cult-like.

"You have to ask why the guru or course has become significant," suggests Northam. "What's missing that seeing the light becomes such an obsession? Passions are fine, but not if they control your life and you hide behind them." There's the chance, she says, of the person's partner feeling as if they're having a sort of affair. Makes sense — if someone's constantly referring to a course, begins attacking your every move and isn't available emotionally, you'd feel pretty rejected. "This could lead to the non-self-help partner having a real affair, or leaving,"says Northam. "The non-self-help partner can try to avoid this by telling the other how he/she feels. If that doesn't work, counselling may help. It's often the case that there was something amiss in the relationship that led to the self-help obsession and counselling could unearth it." As well as ruining your relationship through self-help obsession, you can do it by taking self-help advice too literally. One couple got divorced after attending a self-discovery weekend in Spain together. They'd been married for two years and were having minor niggles. The weekend involved various personality tests; they spent the entire time analysing their relationship and, with the guidance of a self-help guru, came to the decision (somewhat dubiously) that it wasn't really working out for them. A year later, they still meet up regularly, despite attempting to have relationships with other people, because the course leaders instructed them to do so - hardly a great way to make a new partner feel comfortable.

"This is the problem with a lot of self-help," says relationship coach Phil Flanagan. 'People take the advice too literally. They don't think about it - is this sensible advice? People often take things out of context, for example, "The guru says I need a more dominant man, so I'm going to leave you." Be logical and think about what you want.' If you think your judgment may be cloudy or your problems too big for self-help, go to a counsellor. One-to-one sessions usually prevent misunderstanding, because there's so much discussion. Otherwise, go ahead and self-help - it can be a valid way to improve communication in relationships; just be rational about it. Oh, and don't pick up men in crystal shops.

(The Guardian)