Coping with relationship problems

Quick links:
Dealing with problems in your family
Dealing with problems in your personal relationships
Golden rules for arguing constructively
Sexual problems

Relationships – whether family or intimate relationships with a partner – can be a great source of love, pleasure, support and excitement.   However, relationships can also be a source of grief and anguish if they go wrong.   The issue can be made more relevant for students by the fact that most people in a University are in a period of personal change, which can then make them feel less sure or what they want or how they can expect others to react.

Research into what makes relationships work successfully – whether family relationships, friendships or partnerships – tend to come up with the same few things:

Acceptance of Difference

People in successful relationships do not try to force others to be exactly like them; they work to accept difference even when this difference is profound.

Capacity for Boundaries

People are aware that there is a point where they stop and the other person begins.   Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect others to solve all our problems or meet all our needs – even although, at times, we may hope for this.

Operate Mainly in the Present

Once relationships focus on, or repeatedly pick over past events, or else are based only on the hope that things will be better tomorrow, they tend to go off the rails.

Respect for Individual Choice

It is accepted that each person has the right to decide his or her own direction in life.   Any relationship then adapts to follow this.

Skill in Negotiating

Once each individual has decided what they want, the couple or family are able to work out a way to fulfil these different goals without anyone having to compromise completely.

Share Positive Feelings

In a couple, this may be sexual intimacy.   However, it can also just be pleasantness and kindness as it is in a family.

(These headings come from research carried out by Beaver in 1985)

It might therefore seem that a relationship requires quite a lot of individual skill and self-sufficiency which can be a bit off-putting at first.   However, it is comforting to consider the research of John Bowlby on attachment (1975).   He concluded that human beings are innately social and tend instinctively to know how to form close attachments to others.

Relationship problems often arise not because we never learned what to do, but because we have lost touch with this instinctive good sense, and we become over-anxious about our relationships.   This may be because we have lost our own self-respect and sense of our personal worth; it may be because we are in personal distress and this is putting too much pressure on our relationships; it may be because we have had unfortunate experiences in past relationships and so have temporarily lost our ability to trust.

We may have been out of touch with our ability to make successful relationships for so long that we may doubt whether we ever had the ability.   However, most people seem to be able to recover these skills if they put their mind to it.   Much work on improving a relationship can start with the individual.   If one person is clear and reasoned about what they want and more consistent about how they ask for it, the whole relationship can begin to move on to a different basis.

Dealing with Problems in your Family

Family problems can be difficult to understand, as there might be a lot of people involved.   Also most of us are not used to looking at our families objectively – we tend to think they are just our family and that is how it is.   However, a bit of reflection and analysis can take the heat out of a lot of difficult situations.

  1. Try and think objectively about what you are trying to achieve.  Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and attribute the best motives to your behaviour.   Get together all the examples you can of where the plan has worked for others etc.   Maybe get a friend to help you.   You don’t have to write it down, just think it through.   If, at this point, you realise you are doing the wrong thing, you might want to make a strategic withdrawal!   However, we will assume that you ended up convinced that you know what you are doing and you have a bit of evidence to back this up.
  2. Think about why your family is disagreeing with you.   There is probably more than one reason.   Maybe they don’t understand your plan; maybe they had a course of action decided for you; maybe they have some worries and anxieties of their own.   Make a real effort to think yourself into their shoes even although their behaviour may be very frustrating to you.   Imagine discussing the question with them – think of what they might say and how they might reply.   When you have thought of what might be worrying them, think creatively of ways of reassuring them.   If it helps, make a list of their worries and reassurances.
  3. Find some way of discussing it.  That is easy if your family are talkers but many families aren’t.   However, you can still find an opportunity to calmly mention your plans, to give a few examples of others, who have done the same, to reassure their fears and sympathise with their disappointment.   You may have to drop your points into the conversation over a time.   Don’t expect a miracle – people rarely change their opinion overnight.   Don’t feel you have to have total agreement; stop the discussion while the going is good and come back to it a few days later.   If they see you are serious and that some of their worries have been considered, they will probably be a bit more agreeable the next time.

This is obviously a very simple example but a similar approach can help in many situations.   Frequently, the conflict can be the other way round; many families find that a son or daughter leaving home to go to University is the catalyst for them to make changes.   Sometimes it can be impossible to find agreement.   If you are interested in discussing the situation further or if you find you can’t use the techniques described above – maybe the problem is too complex, or you will find it too upsetting, or someone is too entrenched – come and speak to someone in Student Services.

Dealing with Problems in your Personal Relationships

Many large books and lengthy courses have been created to explore the infinite complexity of human relationships.   Problems can arise from a great number of sources, and it can frequently call for some care to help disentangle the mixture of influences.   These problems can be intensified by the pressures from others to form or end a relationship, and the general pressures from the media, which give an idealised view of couples - which is often at odds with the reality many people experience.

Here are some simple guidelines to help you explore and resolve tensions which you may be feeling about relationships:- 

  • Do you know what you are looking for in a relationship?   There are many different reasons for entering into a relationship – for companionship; for sexual experience; to have a long-term partner; to create a family and so on.  Do you know what you are looking for?  Have you discussed this with your partner?   If not, there is a distinct possibility that you may both end up seriously at cross-purposes.
  • Are you asking too much or expecting too little from your relationship?   A good relationship can provide support, sexual expression, companionship and eventually an opportunity to build a joint life.   If you are looking to it to provide more than this (for example, to give you a sense of purpose and worth, or protect you from some deep personal fear), you may be trying to get a partner to provide things that in fact only you can achieve.   If, on the other hand, a relationship brings you continual grief and unhappiness, you may be accepting for yourself a far lower level of interaction than you have a right to expect.   In particular, no one deserves to be on the receiving end of physical or sexual violence.   Do look for the support you need to change or even end a relationship if abuse is happening to you.
  • Have you got a model for the relationship you are trying to build?   Many people find it helpful to picture a relationship that they admire and to which they wish to aspire.   It may be the relationship of someone you know or a fictional one.   Consider how the people in their relationship resolve differences and difficulties.   If it is not obvious and relationship is a real one, ask them.   If they have never been seen to have any problems, maybe that relationship is not a terribly realistic model after all!   Finding such a model can be a particularly difficult and important task for gay and lesbian couples.
  • Can you talk about problems?  In all relationships, there are going to be times of serious disagreement, where a conflict of interests has to be resolved.   This does not mean that there is something wrong with the relationship.   However, arguing the point out and reaching agreement does take a bit of skill and practice.   Many relationship counsellors suggest the best way to resolve a relationship problem is to speak for up to 15 minutes about your view of the problem.   The other person listens carefully, interrupting only to clarify and to help you express yourself clearly.   Then you swap over and the other person takes a similar time to explain their point of view.   Finally, take 30 minutes to talk together to see if you can resolve the difference.   If you don’t succeed this time, return to the problem a few days later and try again.

If you are not in the habit of talking in your relationship, it might be interesting to give it a try.   Relationships are one of the curious features of human existence and can be well worth exploring.

Golden Rules for Arguing Constructively


  • Know why you are arguing before you start
  • Devote some time to resolving the problem
  • Sit down and make eye contact
  • Speak personally about what you feel
  • Acknowledge when the other person makes a valid point
  • Agree to differ if you cannot agree
  • Stick to the matter in hand
  • Stop arguing and separate if there is any likelihood of violence

Try not to:

  • Behave aggressively or disrespectfully
  • Argue deliberately to hurt the other person’s feelings
  • Generalise
  • Bring up old unresolved disputes
  • Walk away without deciding when discussions will be resumed (unless violence threatens)
  • Bring other people’s opinions in
  • Argue about something for more than an hour
  • Argue late at night or after drinking

There is a great range of relationships and of relationship difficulties.   If you would like to talk some more about this, contact Student Services.

Sexual Problems

No one would expect a child to speak fluently without having to learn and practise.   Most people would be surprised if the Halls of Residence only gave one choice of breakfast, or if all students were expected to dress the same.   Ordinary people expect to have good days and bad days when it comes to working or performing a sport.   However, when it comes to sex, we have a tendency to completely forget that we are all human and all different, and we expect to have instant expertise, total conformity and complete predictability.

A relationship therapist once noted down what helped his clients resolve their sexual differences.   He found the largest number of clients was helped by being given permission – to talk about sex, to express their feelings and to be as they were.   Limited information helped the second group of clients – information about the range of human sexual responses and about how certain problems came and went.   Specific suggestions about different approaches, positions or techniques were the third most helpful therapeutic tool.   For the final group of clients whose problems were not helped by these techniques, he offered intensive therapy.   He referred to the approach as PLISSIT for short, and it has become the basis for much sexual therapy.   Use it to solve your own sexual difficulties:

Permission:  give yourself permission to think about sex, to fantasise about it, to talk about it and to accept that it is perfectly alright for you to have your own likes and dislikes.   Sadly, many people have grown up with the idea that it is wrong to have sexual feelings and desires.   Most people find their sexuality is enhanced when they stop making rules about what they and their partners ought to like and begin to consider what they actually do enjoy.   We have to keep our sexual activities within the bounds of what is safe and what does not threaten the freedom of others.   However, that does not mean that we have to straitjacket our thinking.  

Limited Information:  ignorance perpetuates many sexual difficulties.   Most people can expect to experience a loss of sexual desire when they are stressed.   The simultaneous orgasm invariably depicted by film-makers and novelists is not the experience of the majority of couples.   Most people’s sexual appetite and preference change as they grow older.   Lack of knowledge about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases can lead to great unhappiness when events occur which might have been avoided.    

Specific Suggestions

Many distressing sexual problems such as pain on intercourse, inability to achieve orgasm, or erectile problems, can be greatly helped by simple changes in sexual routine or position.   Books, medical advice, conversations with friends etc. may all help you find these suggestions.   You may also wish to speak to a sex therapist.

Intensive Therapy

The very thought of sex therapy raises most people’s anxiety levels pretty high!   However, this anxiety is misplaced as sex therapy is not the invasive or exposing form of treatment the tabloids might like to imply it is.   Don’t let these fears stop you finding the help you need.   Problems are normally resolved (all fully clothed) by means of discussion, the giving of appropriate information about human sexual functioning and by simple behavioural tasks which are completed by clients in the privacy of their own home between sessions.

Although inhibition and ignorance are major causes of sexual problems, some people find themselves trapped in a different way.   They have become used to unusual sexual behaviour which can begin to leave them feeling dissatisfied and possibly socially isolated.

For more help and information about this or about anything else, why not speak to Student Services?  Email:


The University of St Andrews would like to acknowledge the contribution of  Royal Holloway Student Counselling Service 2002 for the content of much of this document.

Beavers, W.R. (1985), Successful Marriages, WW Norton, New York
Bowlby, J. (1979), The Making and Breaking of Affectionate Bonds, Tavistock Publications, London