Couples Skill Building with Alain De Botton

Here is a nice read . For 200 Hong Kong Dollar I bought Alain De Botton’s latest Novel and found it entertaining, therapeutic and insightful. Well worth a read for anyone in a committed relationship with many references to marital counselling, relationship skill building and couples therapy.

De Botton describes a marriage over the course of 16 years with typical ups and downs and how the individuals who form the couple are dealing with the challenges of married life. Developmentally speaking we are following the couple through symbiosis, differentiation of self and other, practicing and (maybe) rapprochement. At the end of the book Rabih has solidified his being ready for marriage and thereby able to move closer to Kirsten without losing his ability to move apart, to give even when it is inconvenient and to deepen their bond with emotional sustenance.

We don’t have to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane. De Botton

The author explores possibilities of mindsets and behaviours when the couple faces a crisis of infidelity. “…, she might have revealed the vulnerability that has lain all the while behind her annoyed demeanour: ‘I wish I could be everything to you. I wish you did not have those needs outside of me. I don’t really think your fantasies about Antonella are repulsive; I just wish there didn’t have to be – always – that imagined someone else. I know it’s madness, but what I want most is to be able to satisfy you all by myself’.”

Every couple in a long-term relationship will pursue one of three possible pathways. Two lovers can intensify and prolong their symbiosis, they can move forward into differentiation and beyond or facing a separation of some shape or form.

Learning how to be more curious, open minded and able to identify and deal with one’s own emotional reactions – not independent from the partner, but separate from the other – is the only skilful way forward. When Kirsten is labeled “materialistic” she could have reacted with a sense of ease and the willingness to find out more about what drove Rabih to such statement. She did not – for reasons that lie in between attachment figures.

“(Rabih”s) chosen technique is distinctive: to call Kirsten materialistic, shout at her and then, later, to slam two doors. … Had Rabih picked up some better teaching habits, his lesson might have unfolded very differently. For a start, he would have made sure both of them went straight to bed and were well rested before anything was tackled. The next morning, he might have suggested a walk, perhaps King George V Park after they’d picked up a coffee and a pastry to have on a bench. …

… Then, rather than accuse her, he would have implicated himself in the behaviour he wished to focus on. ‘Teckle, I find myself jealous of some of those types we know”, he would have started. “If I hadn’t gone into architecture, we could have had a summer villa, and I would have loved it in a lot of ways. I am the first one to adore the sun and the Mediterranean. I’m so sorry for letting us both down.” … “What I also want to say, though, and it is probably a lesson for both of us, is that we’re very lucky in a host of other ways that we should at least try not to forget. … and that we know how to have a lot of fun on our rain-sodden summer holidays in the Outer Hebrides in a crofter’s cottage that smells a little of sheep dung’.”

The challenges arise between the partners when they communicate and produce infinity loops of unhelpful and unfortunate mutual triggering of disappointments and trauma:

“… Throughout their relationship the two of them fail comprehensively at both tasks, teaching and learning. At the first sign that either one of them is adopting a pedagogical tone, the other assumes that they are under attack, which in turn causes them to close their ears to instruction and to react with sarcasm and aggression to suggestions, thereby generating further irritation and weariness in the mind of the fragile ‘instructing’ party.”

Quotes from De Botton, Alain. The Course of Love (2016). Penguin Random House. UK.

COUPLEMENTARY episode three

COUPLEMENTARY episode three

Previously on couplementary: HE wanted to bring up his dissatisfaction with her and expected some sort of an acknowledgement. HE yielded HER anger and the situation escalated.

Usually when we achieve the opposite of what we intended, we get annoyed. Very annoyed. From the outside and with a little distance these are often situations that comedies are based on. You attempt one thing and what you get is exactly the opposite. Only worse.

My client can’t see the funny side to this emotional episode of his married life. They both have now reached a point where their brains and bodies fill with anger, hurt and annoyance. Amygdalae gone wild. It is clear to HIM that she is now about to throw a tantrum. HE has been at this point many times. It leads down a path of escalation and damage – verbal destruction at least. What are HIS options right now? Two strategical streams open up: calming things down or engaging in an argument. From which several tactical versions of action arise in his mind (here in order of escalation and potential for disaster):

  1. He can apologise immediately and hope to calm her down (caution! can backfire badly)
  2. He can freeze and – try to – sit it out until she calms down (alright, worth a trial)
  3. He can tell her that he does not want to talk this through at this heated stage (and hope her rational brain can still process – good luck amateur!)
  4. He can leave or at least be quiet until both have calmed down
  5. He can engage in a full blown fight in order to make clear that he is right and she is wrong

He “decides” for option E). He tells her with an angry face that he will not continue with this argument right there right then. This now prompts her to storm off, which helps both to settle for option D) as a joint effort. They now have time to calm down and he feels much calmer already after a few minutes. HIS rumination about what just happened however only just started. He thinks “I feel more stuck than before. Why can we not just say sorry and acknowledge what we do to each other? Why is it so difficult …”. 

They will both reconcile a few hours later. They will hug and kiss and maybe hold each other. Without words. He will not bring the subject up ever again. He tried that before – for many years – and the only outcome it ever had, was going back to square one, restarting the fight, leading to more hurt and more escalation. Very destructive. It was never possible to just talk about one issue separately. Every attempt to do so always lead to a tornado of emotion on his partner’s side that sucked in all kinds of issues and brought up bad things from the past.

Their arguments got never resolved, the underlying triggers never discussed. Until the next big fight.

Other questions you might ask just for your own amusement: 
Why does it seem that he is always ordering and then gets the blame when something goes wrong? If the roles were reversed, would he do the same? Hypothetically: Would it be a big deal if he had made a mistake and ordered coffee instead of tea or white rice instead of red? Or maybe ask the question the other way around, what is going on for her to have some sort of a heightened reaction?

This is the story of two people who turn into foxes and what happens after that …

In this video we can observe developmental stages of a relationship – symbiosis, differentiation and practicing.

Two people who like each other enter into a prolonged state of symbiosis – here artfully outlined and animated as the transformation of both partners into foxes. Their different likes, character traits and pastimes are highlighted shortly only to be blurred by their merging. Symbiosis characterised as melting into one, mutual promises for an indefinite future and inseparableness. Disturbance, anxiety and dispute surface at the point when one partner realises that he does not want to be a fox anymore and that his “true nature” is not a fox nature. His decision to let go from disguising as a fox – probably goes hand in hand with his differentiation of the self. He becomes aware of and expresses his thoughts, feelings and desires. She does not take her partner’s change lightly and becomes furious, anxious and then hyper-active. Turbulence is triggered through their being agitated and confused. While he is practicing, she struggles with development. LOOK OUT FOR HER WAY OF DEALING WITH ANXIETY!

He likes her and she likes him, She likes him and he likes her He likes her and she likes him, They like each other

He likes her she likes him, They met on a canopy He is quiet and she is bold, He likes birds, she likes bees.

He wants to rhyme, she wants to glow, They both make a plan to flee. They build a railway with rails, to trek through the forest together with it. 

He likes hunting, she likes collecting. He likes thinking, she likes acting. He likes walnut, she likes almonds. They start to transmute into foxes. 

They start to live in the forest. Feed on pigeons, bark and beans. They swear each other, never to save themselves and get the best out of each other. 

They invent their own country, bear names the other invented. Everyone learns what the other knows, the one lost what the other found.

They set each other on fire. They hunt each other through the ground. Everyone encourages the other, to mutually realign.

But eventually one of them started to realise that they only disguise as foxes. He wanted to hide it and didn’t want to show his sorrow, but that’s how the friction started:

He said: ‘I don’t want to be a fox anymore!’

She said: ‘Why? A fox is fine after all’

He said: ‘But I don’t want to be a fox anymore’

She said: ‘You’re a traitor’

He said: ‘And you’re not a fox!’

She said: ‘”Yes, I am a fox!’

He said: ‘Nope, you’re not a fox’

She said: ‘Yes, I am a fox and you are too. And what’s the point of this after all with you don’t want to be a fox anymore? You were a fox just now. What happened in the meantime? Being a fox is awesome!’

And he’s like: ‘Yeah, being a fox is awesome, but my true nature just is not a fox nature.’

She: ‘Your real nature isn’t the nature of a fox? What utter nonsense! What’s the point of this? If you aren’t a fox, then what are you?’

He was shaking and looked her in the eyes for a long moment and said:  ‘I am an Albatros!’

She became terribly sad and cried, because suddenly everything seemed to fall apart. ‘An Albatros? It lives at the sea. That means, we aren’t a fox couple anymore! Do you fly away now and build yourself a nest, like an Albatros? That’s so silly! You are crazy, I bite you now, because foxes eat birds, that’s a law’

He: ‘AAUHG!!!  You almost teared of my leg! I didn’t judge you like that’

She said ‘If doubts are plaguing you a long time you idiot, why didn’t you tell me right away?’

He said: ‘I wasn’t aware of it!’

She: ‘Yes, yes, very crafty. You were just using me’

He said ‘Nonsense. You think I’ll backstab you, just because I’m growing wings? How should I know before what I’m going to be. Maybe we’re transforming into a herd of horses soon.’

She said ‘But we didn’t agree to this.’

He: ‘I didn’t come up with the transmutation. But didn’t we swear never to save ourselves and get the best out of each other? And right now I am drawn into the air. I’m longing for wind and fish. I have to learn to fly, Albatros style! I’ll surely come around here again soon. I love you and I always will. It breaks my heart, but I have to fly now.’

And so he flew and flew and flew. He slipped in the wind and it pulled him up. Meanwhile she ran through the forest alone. She was hungry and the wind was cold. She stopped and started to cry. Alone she didn’t want to be a fox anymore. She concentrated, she knew, she had to act, wanted to covert as well: He turns into an Albatros, then I’ll turn into a Pelican. Because I can’t live in this forest alone anymore. That’s going to be fun. I am not kidding, this night I’m made into a pelican.

And she took a breath and started the pelican mutation chant. Pelican-Peli-Peli-Pelican – Pelican-Peli-Peli-Pelican – Pelican-Peli-Peli-Pelican – Pelican-Peli-Peli-Pelican – Pelican-Peli-Peli-Pelican – Peli-di-peli-di-peli-peli-peli-peli …

But eventually she broke down, didn’t turn into a pelican even with singing. She screamed and didn’t want to live anymore, stopped to breath, stopped to move. And plop! It happened! Suddenly there was no fox anymore! 

She felt herself and perceived that she was a brilliant spade from now on.

‘Hurray! I transformed. Too bad, it’s a garden tool. It would be better if I…’ Plop! And she turned into a willow stick. 

From stick to tree. From tree to grass. From grass to deer, to hose to glass. 

and to shirt to fence and from fence to salamander.  She turned completely and she freaked out.

She turned big, little, thick, thin, heavy and light. ‘I need a base, please, it’s enough!’ She reared up. 

She was cold and hot. She lost her shape and turned into a circle.

Meanwhile he was longing. Had enough of fish and of salt-breeze. He flew to the forest, wanted to know where she was, when he discovered a circle in a clearing.

‘Holy shit! What a circle. What is it doing here and what is its name? Did it travel or did it derail? If I circle him quietly, then I will be in the know.

But suddenly *plop!* she raised from the circle. Was shaking, here face was white.

‘Oh my God! What happened to me? I don’t understand, I was an animal just now!

Then I was nothing shortly and then everything at once! I’m scared, the world is a delivery room. 

All full of births and all full of deaths. Mutating into animals is prohibited by law.

But we just relieved from the laws, moved the boundaries, we’ve all been lied to! 

that you truly raised into the air and all my atoms were bent into circles.

It’s too much, I’m freaking out, I give up, I don’t understand.

Try to grasp it, but fail miserably. So she fainted and he caught her. 

He clasped her in his arms and looked up. The night was brigs. He saw a thousand stars.

Didn’t understand it himself, didn’t matter how much he wanted to know how it works, the last proof:

Seen from above the Earth draws an elliptical circle



Previously on couplementary: In episode one we started to follow HIM into a scene in which HE feels repeatedly falsely accused by HER within a short time span.

What now unfolds is the signature version of their infinity loop of unhelpful emotional interaction. It is really unfortunate for the two that HIS coffee arrived first – minutes before HER tea is brought – because here is where their unhelpful emotional dance begins …

Noticing the waiter bringing coffee instead of tea, she reacts in an uneasy way. In this moment she seemingly does not believe him to have ordered HER favourite tea and apparently accuses HIM of having ordered coffee instead. HER tone of voice, facial expression and posture signal that SHE is upset and angry with him. HE has it that she accuses HIM to have either screwed up or bluntly manipulated the order to HER disadvantage and to HIS advantage. It confuses him at first. Then it starts to annoy him, because HE must take this personal.

He strongly wants to talk to her about what just happened and how he feels about it. So he says to her “I feel hurt and annoyed by the way you just addressed me. You did a similar thing just yesterday asking me repeatedly if I really had ordered brown rice and I wonder why you keep doing this.”. She says: “You do the same thing to me all the time. You never listen!”

HE says “I want to talk to you about what just happened. Just stay with this situation right here.” He is aiming for an apology from her, since he finds himself to be in the right. Deep down he feels that she does not trust him to have ordered correctly and on her behalf. That hurts strongly, because it would mean that he can’t be the man for her, which he very much wants to be. The meaning thing goes deeper even: If she does not trust, that he carries out simple tasks with her best interest in mind and heart, then she might not rely on him in more important topics and tasks. Ultimately this would mean that she can’t surrender to him, with him and in him.

SHE says “That’s typical you only want to talk about this one thing. You never want to talk about all the other things that you do to me.” He is now puzzled and wants to know what other things. He says “What other things?” She says “Of course you don’t remember.” At other times she would say “You always want details, this is not about details.” Or she would say “What you do wrong does not count, you only want to bring up my faults. Everything is always my fault.”

At any of these points he realises – time and again – that he will not be able to discuss the one thing he wanted to bring up. He also realises that she will not acknowledge having hurt him with her way of questioning him repeatedly, her pitched voice and her angry face. Instead, it seems like he has now opened a can of worms and that her emotion now spirals out of control. This was not his intend. He did not want her to feel bad. What he actually wanted was any version of “You are right. Of course you acted in my best interest. I am your wife, we love each other and I can fully rely on you. You are my man. That is the reason why I am with you, because you know what makes me happy.”

He gets none of that. At all. By bringing up his dissatisfaction with her – it gets worse.

The Complacency Catch

Did you do better than last year? Does that mean you rock? Does that mean you master what you do?

This is a story about complacency. Here is how I painfully found out about having become complacent twice during the course of a few years – and this only with regard to my swim training. Complacency is the loss of self-awareness and critical judgement in exchange for convenience and grandiosity. The pitfall we are all facing is to stop aspiring the wisdom of knowing what we can change in ourselves and in our environment. With this blog I want to bring you up to Speedo about my findings in the Arena of swimming, which you might as well apply to life in general.


It was a long and hard training for me to become the brilliant well-built fast eel-like and humble swimmer that I am now. It’s only due to the gift of great selflessness that I don’t earn money with my swimming but leave this to other younger talents who are – of course – more in need than I am.

My knees gave the signal for a necessary change with increased pain due to my ambitious frog-legs movement. I swam only breast stroke for most of my life. Which constitutes for the first complacency. Two years ago I surprised myself with switching to freestyle quasi over night. This was faster, more elegant and put no strain on my knees. In hindsight I regret a bit not having had realised much earlier how smooth and beautiful the freestyle really is. 

I literally flip turned the script of my swimming in the public pools of Hong Kong. I had a good feel for the water since I was young and always felt in my element – never afraid of going under. I was not concerned about the strokes and the kicking. The biggest challenge for me was to get the sideways breathing right. Breathing unilaterally on the right hand side only I swallowed some of Kowloon’s finest while trying to catch air every second stroke.


Online videos helped me to understand movement and timing. I learned flip turn and soon was also able to breath on both sides. I forced myself to learn left and right hand breathing, because I understood that an unbalanced strain on neck and spine increased the risk of injury and neck deformation. Then my lungs developed and I switched to bilateral breathing, which greatly improved my speed and steadiness.

Since I became faster and fitter I swam longer distances and enjoyed variations of intervals which increased my confidence and stabilised my performance. I became the fastest swimmer in Lai Chi Cock during the afternoon sessions (amongst other swimmers often 20+ years older than me). Now it was time for a video analysis over and under water. I longed to see my metamorphosis into a dolphin and was convinced that the world – including my wife – deserved to witness the athletic resurrection of a 43y old caucasian male.


I found Dominic of Fastlane Swimming – a certified Swim Smooth trainer – who was prepared to capture my waterborn glory on a memory stick. Little did I anticipate how sobering my performance would be. I ticked all of the common mistakes and bad habits a freestyle swimmer can produce.

Hands diving in with thumbs first (bad for the shoulder), crossing over with my hands (inefficient style leading to a wiggly line), tilted body line with a turtle neck (slowing down and ugly), wide scissor legs to compensate for over-rotation, which in turn over-compensated for shock breathing (as opposed to continuously breathing out under water), straight arms in catch and pull (again,horror for the shoulders) and no sign of body-roll. The list was endless and painful. Endlessly painful. A quantum of solace was Dominic’s genuine confusion about how I could still swim so fast in spite of all of the above.

I was devastated. Instead of reassuring my grandiosity, the video revealed an underwhelming performance and an abundance of room for improvement. However, a few days later I was surprised with how much humour I could actually talk about my experience with the freestyle footage. After all, there was relief. I had not yet developed shoulder pain, my wife praised my butt cheeks and upper body on many occasions and I did enjoy swimming more than ever before. There was no reason to resign.

I now had something to work on. Myself.


It has been four month now since the video analysis and I introduced many changes to my swimming and to my life. At first my performance became lousy and I sometimes thought about reverting to my old but fast style of swimming. I didn’t. Now I am already faster than before with much stronger underarms due to an improved catch and pull from the elbows – amongst others.

The whole experience made me think ‘How often do we become pleased with ourselves based on improved performance or based on just feeling good about ourselves?’ In other words: Are you complacent right now, right there where you are? And in which area of your life are you complacent right now? Because you are. We all are.

Do you feel good about your sport or physical exercise? Your spiritual development and your social circles? Do you feel confident in your job, your profession your calling? Do you think you perform well in your other roles as a member of your society, partner, lover, colleague, friend or parent?

It is easy to become complacent when you measure efficiency as increased performance. You are faster, have more money, shuffle more emails and slapped out more of the same. As seen in my swimming, this is not sustainable and there is no increase in quality. My view was narrowed to efficiency and discounted effectiveness. I did not do the right things. I became complacent. In addition, for a long time I was not prepared to ask for help.



My target as an emotion-focused therapist for couples is to find out and define the signature “dance” of each couple I am working with. With regard to relationship issues it does not matter if I am working with both partners or if I am seeing an individual. The approach in Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) remains the same.

In this and some of my following blogs I want to highlight some of the typical dynamics seen from the perspective of one of my individual male clients. He has been married for a few years and since the beginning felt strongly affected by their quarrels. Each time they fight he suffers greatly from an overwhelming sense of being stuck and trapped. He realised that they seldom moved forward from these fights. They reconcile as a couple in their daily lives, but the underlying triggers remain unresolved and unspoken about.

Most men in committed long-term relationships really only have one mission: to make their spouses happy. It hurts to feel accused to have done something that the other would not approve of or without consent.

This client of mine had a recent couple experience in a restaurant that went like this: Coming back from the ladies’ she asks him if he had ordered while she was away. She wanted him to order her favourite beverage – let’s say a certain kind of tea that she admires. He smiles at her and tells her in a loving way that he did exactly that. A few minutes pass and she asks again. He looks at her and re-assures her that he did order exactly what she likes. They have been to the same restaurant many times and the chances of him getting the order wrong are very slim. Frail actually.When the waiter arrives with a pot of coffee, she turns to him in an uneasy way and asks in a harsh tone if he really ordered her favourite tea. He clarifies that he ordered coffee for himself plus her usual pot of tea. Internally however, he registers that he feels annoyed and a bit accused and mistrusted. His wife’s questioning and her tone of voice seem unfair to him.

In a very similar situation the day before, she questioned him several times if he had actually ordered brown rice to their dishes, because one dish is being delivered with white rice. They always order brown rice when there is a possibility. In this restaurant patrons have to write down their orders on small pieces of paper. This is how he can later proof to her, that he had written “BROWN RICE” to each dish. Unmistakably.

Showing her evidence of his right-doing is of utmost importance to him, when he feels wrongly accused. And that is exactly how he feels right now. His previous attempts to reassure her that he DID order on her behalf and in her best interest went unheard. It is so hurtful for my client because deep down he feels not trusted and part of him feels trapped in a relationship with a partner who at times loses her sense of ease – at times so suddenly that he then feels helpless and soon after hopeless.