The D-O-R Model

This from Michael Neill’s newsletter received today. I couldn’t get the diagram to copy here, but I think it’s clear without it:

One of the main questions I’ve been exploring and wrestling with over the past 20 years or so is how we create more of what we want in the world.

Some related questions include:

  • What makes the difference between success and failure in any endeavor?
  • What are the key skills people need to develop to create more of what they want?
  • What can I do today to move forward in the direction of what I’m wanting?

Recently, I’ve created a model that I’ve been teaching on courses and with my one on one coaching clients that seems to address most of what I’ve learned in a fairly practical way. 

In order to make sense of it and put it to work in your own life, let’s go through each of the steps in turn…

1. D is for Desire

It would seem somewhat obvious that in order to create more of what you want in your life, the first step would be to know what it is that you want.  Yet the most common answer I hear when I ask people what they want is “I don’t know”.  My question in return is most often “why not?”

Here are some of the most common responses: 

  • I’ve never really thought about it. 

  • If I start focusing on what I want, then I’m going to feel bad when/if I don’t get it. 

  • If I say what I want, then I’ll have to do stuff I don’t want to do in order to get it. 

  • If I admitted what I really wanted, everyone would think I’m a. selfish, b. shallow, c. foolish, d. grandiose, or e. all of the above.  And even if they didn’t think that, I would!

And here’s the problem with all of these responses – you want what you want, whether or not you think you should want it and whether or not you think you can have it. Authentic desire is, well, authentic – it comes from somewhere deep inside us.  

You can no more make yourself not want what you want than you can make yourself invisible (not that people don’t try).  The freedom comes in realizing that you don’t have to do anything about it.  Wanting what you want is natural; doing something about it is always a choice.

The wonderful thing about desire is that when you begin to respect it, listen to it, and even experiment with following it, it will take you in the direction of the most wonderful life you can imagine.  This is the principle of effortless success, and as I wrote in the introduction to You Can Have What You Want:

When you get really clear and honest about what you want, 
everything in the universe conspires to help you get it.

Which leads us on to the next part of our model…

2. O is for Opportunity

When I was an actor, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon – whenever I actively reconnected to my authentic desire to get acting work, opportunities to do or audition for that work started showing up.  In fact, I can recall three separate occasions where I was sitting in my car reading a trade newspaper looking for auditions when my agent rang to tell me about an audition that had come in for me.

Coincidence?  Maybe – but just because two things coincide doesn’t mean they’re not also related.  And in the years since then, I’ve noticed again and again that when I’m in touch with my authentic desire, opportunities to fulfill that desire begin showing up.

Here are the two main theories I’ve heard to explain that phenomenon:

a. The Perceptual Snowplow

There is a part of our brain called the RAS, or reticular activating system, which essentially filters information in such a way that we notice more of what we’re looking for and less of what we aren’t.  This is why when you first get a new car (or shirt or dress or pretty much anything) you begin to see it everywhere.

The “perceptual snowplow” theory says that the reason opportunities follow on from desire is simply that acknowledging the desire sets up our perceptual filters in a way so that otherwise random data appears to us as meaningful and otherwise random events get recoded in our brains as “opportunities to fulfill our desire”.  By this theory, the auditions I got when I was sitting in my car would have come anyways – but because my perceptual snowplow was clearing the way to notice “auditions”, those phone calls showed up for me as significant.

b. Harmonic Resonance

In fields as varied as quantum physics, neuroscience, music theory and metaphysics, the theory of harmonic resonance suggests that all objects have a frequency or set of frequency with which they naturally resonate.  

This is the science behind the “law of attraction” that has come into vogue through “The Secret” and the work of Abraham-Hicks. Since thoughts are a form of energy, when we think about something happening and resonate with the frequency of that thought (i.e. think it clearly enough to generate the corresponding feeling state in our body), it sends an actual vibratory frequency out into the universe and literally attracts anything with a similar frequency into the time and space of the person thinking those thoughts.

So by this theory, the auditions I got when I was reading the trade papers weren’t coincidental at all, but rather the natural fruits of the seed of my desire.  Desire is the cause; opportunity is the effect.

So which theory is correct?

I don’t have a clue.  And fortunately it doesn’t seem to matter – people who believe in the perceptual snowplow seem to have as many opportunities turn up as those who believe in harmonic resonance – and neither belief system appears to be a prerequisite for creating more of what you want in your life.

What does seem to matter is two things:

The first is clarifying your desire – getting really clear and honest with yourself about what it is that you’d most love to happen, even if you don’t think that it can or will happen and even if you think you’re a terrible, silly person for wanting it.

The second is spotting opportunities as they arise and stepping into them by taking action. (See my recent tip on “Event-Action” for more on this.) The best thing about opportunity is that it is not, contrary to popular mythology, a one-off event.  In fact, when you get really clear about what you want, opportunity knocks so hard and so often it has bloody knuckles.

But if desire and opportunity are so readily available, why doesn’t everyone have everything they want?  Is it just laziness, or lack of discipline, or lack of clarity?

The answer to this question comes in the third element of our model…

3. R is for Readiness

I was having a conversation with my mentor George Pransky, when he pointed out to me that perhaps the reason a project I had taken on hadn’t worked out was that “it wasn’t in the cards”.

Slightly horrified at the inference that I didn’t completely control the universe and that occasionally even with all the will and cleverness in the world there was still an element of fate that played a part in how things turn out, I asked him to clarify what he meant.

He told me the story of a 19th century Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis who had discovered that if he and his nurses washed their hands before handling babies, it reduced infant mortality rates from as high as 35% to below 1%. And yet, this ran so contrary to state of the art medical knowledge at the time that his “radical” theories were rejected and he was fired from his job, committed to a mental institution, and died as a societal outcast.

In other words, while what he had to say has long since been proven and accepted as “common sense”, at the time he was saying it there was no readiness for its acceptance. And therein lies the key to understanding why some great ideas don’t catch on, great projects don’t come off, and great actors don’t get jobs 🙂 – sometimes, even when everything else seems to be in place, the world just isn’t ready for whatever it is you want to happen.  

And if you know this, it needn’t be a problem. Very few trees seek out therapy or life-coaching in the fall or winter, even though to an outsider it might appear that their “strategies for successful blossoming” aren’t working out.  And I’ve yet to have an acorn call me to complain that despite it’s positive attitude and repeated use of affirmations (“I  want to be an oak tree, I will be an oak tree, I am an oak tree!”), it’s just not growing as fast as its fellow acorns.

The fact is, some stuff just seems not to be in the cards – for now. But if you get clear about what you want and continue to step into each opportunity as it arises, you’ll maximize your chances for success and minimize the stress, guilt, and striving that thinking it’s all up and down to you tend to bring.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may all your success be fun!

With love,



PS – Do you want to reduce your financial stress by 75% or more?

OK, OK, I know – it’s a stupid question.  Of course you do.  Which is why Steve Chandler and I have created a Financially Fearless mastermind group to assist a small group of committed people in mastering the 4 aspects of money and making fear irrelevant in their lives.If you book by the end of the week (April 10th), we’ll also include additional one on one coaching between now and the start of the event in July!

To take advantage of this offer and begin to transform your experience of money for the better today, click here.

Get your daily inspiration (and some random musings) on Twitter – click here!

Chat about this tip and more with fellow geniuses on the Genius Catalyst Discussion Forum!

 Copyright © 2010 Michael Neill. All Rights Reserved  

Hypnotherapy ‘can help’ IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)

This was posted on the BBC News ( on 17th March. It suggests that research is backing up the claim that hypnotherapy can be very effective in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

woman with abdominal pain
Irritable bowel syndrome causes abdominal pain and bloating


Greater use of hypnotherapy to ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome would help sufferers and might save money, says a gastroenterologist.

Dr Roland Valori, editor of Frontline Gastroenterology, said of the first 100 of his patients treated, symptoms improved significantly for nine in 10.

He said that although previous research has shown hypnotherapy is effective for IBS sufferers, it is not widely used.

This may be because doctors simply do not believe it works.

Widely ignored

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gut problem which can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and sometimes diarrhoea or constipation.

Dr Valori, of Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, said the research evidence which shows that hypnotherapy could help sufferers of IBS was first published in the 1980s.

He thinks it has been widely ignored because many doctors find it hard to believe that it does work, or to comprehend how it could work.

It is pretty clear to me that it has an amazing effect
Dr Roland Valori, editor of Frontline Gastroenterology

He began referring IBS patients for hypnotherapy in the early 1990s and has found it to be highly effective.

“To be frank, I have never looked back,” he said.

He audited the first 100 cases he referred for hypnotherapy and found that the symptoms stopped completely in four in ten cases with typical IBS.

He says in a further five in 10 cases patients reported feeling more in control of their symptoms and were therefore much less troubled by them.

“It is pretty clear to me that it has an amazing effect,” he said.

“It seems to work particularly well on younger female patients with typical symptoms, and those who have only had IBS for a relatively short time.”

Powerful effect

He believes that it could work partly by helping to relax patients.

“Of the relaxation therapies available, hypnotherapy is the most powerful,” he said.

He also says that IBS patients often face difficult situations in their lives, and hypnotherapy can help them respond to these stresses in a less harmful way.

NHS guidelines allow doctors to refer IBS patients for hypnotherapy or other psychological therapies if medication is unsuccessful and the problem persists.

Dr Valori thinks that if hypnotherapy were used more widely it could possibly save the NHS money while improving patient care.

Dr Charlie Murray, Secretary of the British Gastroenterology Society, said: “There is no doubt that hypnotherapy is helpful for some patients, but it depends on the skill and experience of those practising it.

“But the degree to which it is effective is not well defined.

“I would support using it as one therapy, but it is no panacea.”

Mindfulness… Just for today

This poem, call Just for Today, was shared with me, and it made me stop and think, so I thought I’d share it with you too. It really is about Mindfulness, and being in the moment, which is something many of us struggle with. I might be able to help with that if you’re one of those people.

by Che von Lindbergh, 2006

Today I will delete from my diary
two days: yesterday and tomorrow
Yesterday was to learn
and tomorrow will be the consequence
of what I can do today.

Today I will face life
with the conviction that this day
will not ever return.

Today is the last opportunity
I have to live intensely,
as no one can assure me
that I will see tomorrow’s sunrise.

Today I will be brave enough
not to let any opportunity pass me by,
my only alternative is to succeed

Today I will invest
my most valuable resource: my time,
in the most trascendental work:
my life;

I will spend each minute
passionately to make
of today a different
and unique day in my life.

Today I will defy every obstacle
that appears on my way trusting
I will succeed.

Today I will resist
pessimism and will conquer
the world with a smile,
with the positive attitude
of expecting always the best.

Today I will make of every ordinary task a sublime expression,

Today I will have my feet on the ground
understanding reality
and the stars’ gaze
to invent my future.

Today I will take the time to be happy
and will leave my footprints and my presence
in the hearts of others.

Today, I invite you to begin a new season
where we can dream
that everything we undertake is possible
and we fulfil it,
with joy and dignity.


What did you read when you saw the sentence above?

Depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist you may have read it one way, or another.

Opportunity is now here.

Opportunity is nowhere

We tend to notice whatever it is that are mind is primed to see, either the positives in life, or the negatives.

Have you ever been thinking about buying a particular model of car, and noticed that you see that type of car on the streets more and more? It’s not that there are any more of that model of car on the streets, just that your mind is primed to notice them, and so you do.

It may have happened with other things. When I was expecting my first child, I seemed to see pregnant ladies, or young babies everywhere!

If you believe that you might be a little bit of a pessemist, here’s an exercise that you might enjoy doing at the end of the day:

Look back over your day, and note three things that you have seen or have happened in your day that you would consider good things. It could be seeing something of natural beauty; how someone did something for you that was unexpected; it may even just be getting a phone call – you choose what you would consider those 3 good things – your three gifts for the day.

The only rules are that there must be three gifts that you have to note, and that if you can think of more than three, you have to narrow it down to the three best, for that day!

Do this every evening for at least a week, and notice how much easier you find it to start noticing the positive things that are going on around you everyday, if only we take the time to notice them!

Tapping therapy: curing physical and mental problems

This article was published on the Telegraph website ( about Emotional Freedom Technique (also known as ‘tapping’). It’s something that I teach to many of my clients, as it’s such an amazing tooland has so many possible applications. Have a read and see what you think…

Beverley Turner tries out ‘tapping’, a technique designed to cure physical and mental problems by tapping on the body’s invisible energy pathways.

By Beverley Turner
Published: 7:00AM GMT 15 Feb 2010

Singer Michael Ball was seen doing it on a daytime TV chat show. He learnt it from the late singer, Stephen Gately, who used it to calm his own performance nerves. Lily Allen’s weight loss was attributed to its efficacy. American PGA players have been spotted doing it around the golf course. And Norwegian pole-vaulter Rens Blom credited his unexpected 2005 World Championship Gold to its powers. The internet reveals millions of anecdotal accounts of its success on phobias, addictions and anxiety. So nearing the end of my own two-year psychotherapy training, I wanted to discover what this mysterious “tapping” business is all about.

So I signed up for a day course at the EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Academy in London’s Regent’s College, with Richard Mark, an advanced EFT practitioner and certified trainer, who has worked as a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist for 12 years. My fellow students are a mixed bunch of mental health professionals, lawyers, physiotherapists, trainee counsellors and full-time parents. Unafraid to challenge, the students are surprisingly curious and sceptical rather than gullibile. There isn’t a sandal or kaftan among them.

Although it doesn’t rigidly follow his teachings, Mark’s course is based on the EFT therapy developed by American, Gary Craig in 1997. Craig had studied Dr. Callaghan’s Thought Field Therapy in the 1980s, an evolution of John Diamond’s Kinesiology, both of which were rooted in ancient Eastern “meridian energy” theories of acupuncture and Shiatsu, codified since at least 1000BC.

These therapies claimed that our bodies contain invisible energy pathways – meridians – and identified hundreds of acupoints at junctions along these interconnecting highways. They can be disrupted by life’s vicissitudes; in extreme cases, resulting in not only mental but also physical problems.

EFT works by a person tapping on just nine of these acupoints, while speaking aloud. And this is where it becomes a little weird. Working in pairs we identify a minor physical ailment and repeat the phrase, “Even though I have this sore knee / headache / lack of energy, I deeply and completely accept myself,” while tapping on the meridian points: the soft part of the hand beneath the little finger, crown of the head, around the eyes, beneath the nose, the chin, near the clavicle and beneath the armpit. I just about resist the urge to “ooh ooh” like a monkey.

A key part of the therapy is calibrating the intensity of either physical or emotional pain, which allows both therapist and patient a tangible scale by which to measure success. Mark explains that EFT is “especially effective in clearing traumatic memories: accidents, abuse, violence, childhood memories; or even clearing persistent negative messages from family or key people in our lives.”

We move onto emotional problems, selecting a memory that is difficult, but manageable in the limited time available, and within a classroom environment. Using the “Movie Technique,” we must make a mental movie of a specific event, giving it a title and running it in our mind’s eye, marking its intensity between 1 – 10, before tapping with the mantra, “Even though I have this playground bullying / car accident / illness diagnosis movie, I deeply and completely accept myself.” In extreme cases of trauma, the patient can merely imagine the units of distress without running the movie in their head, gradually moving towards the scene at a safe pace.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the adrenaline from feeling like a bit of a wally, when using the “Movie Technique” myself my own memory of witnessing a violent assault twenty years ago, does indeed fade in its intensity. But I’m not a prime candidate. EFT has impressive results on a whole spectrum of emotional issues but is arguably making its biggest impact on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Treating such patients, Marta Krol, a Polish clinical psychologist who trained under Mark and has returned to Poland, has found EFT’s effects “amazing”. She recounts a 12-year-old Chechnyan girl suffering speech and anxiety problems as a result of witnessing, aged six, her uncle’s dismembered body brought into the family home and laid on the kitchen table by hysterical relatives. The child did not speak at all for the following 12 months.

“We had worked together for six months with little progress,” says Krol, “Then I tried EFT. She pictured herself watching the terrible scene on TV but through another TV and so on until she was five levels removed and even then she saw herself watching from behind the curtains. But after six weeks she was talking fluently and could recount the event with no anxiety. I honestly believe I could not have helped her do that without EFT.”

Emma-Leigh Johnson, a London-based drugs counsellor is unequivocal about its benefits, “By the time clients come to me they have had lots of therapy. They know what to say, the games to play and boxes to tick. EFT is so unusual, they don’t know what you want to hear.”

Few therapies allow a patient to say aloud that they accept themselves despite their rape / abuse / addiction, while dealing with the emotions that arise simultaneously. Johnson explains, “lots of therapy separates the issue and the human being. With this you can change how you feel about something, but accept that you can’t change what happened – that’s the emotional freedom. I see bigger shifts using EFT than any other therapy.”

Some clients prefer to be ‘tapped upon’ by the therapist; others will mirror their actions; but perhaps more than any other therapy, EFT equips the individual to take away the skill to use at any time.

EFT is still ripe for ridicule. Having explained it in broad terms to my husband, he can now be heard muttering, “I may not have unstacked the dishwasher but I deeply and completely accept myself.” But I have no doubt that the sound of tapping is here to stay. And it’s only going to get louder.

Richard Mark 020 8993 3803;;

Are you resolute?

So, here we are six weeks into the new year (and your resolutions?).  How amazing is that. Is it me, or is time going by more quickly these days? Perhaps that’s just what happens as we get older!

Many people start their new year making all sorts of resolutions or promises to themselves. You might have even set yourself some goals to achieve for the coming year.

Is that something that you do every year? Quite often by about this time into the new year, for many people, if they stop and take stock of exactly how they are doing with regard to these resolutions, promises and goals, quite frankly to coin a common teacher’s phrase they ‘could do better’.

We have all these great plans and ideas for how we want things to be different or better at the beginning of the year, but sure isn’t it strange how sometimes there’s a dirty great spanner thrown in the works?

That’ll be your unconscious thinking that whatever you have in mind is  not as good idea as your conscious might have thought. Until you get your unconscious on board, we can say all the things we like, consciously, but in the end, the unconscious is always victorious. Afterall, it is in charge around 90% of the time, you know.

So what do you need to be successful this time; motivation, determination, confidence in your own ability? Maybe you’re not completely sure exactly what you need to do this time, to do things differently.

The good news is that with the right help, you can get your unconscious onboard; find the resources you need; access those strengths, easier than you might have once thought possible. And it just so happens that I have the tools and techniques available to help you make it happen. Click here to go to my NLP information page.

So if you are having a problem keeping to those resolutions, promises and goals, remember that you don’t have to forget about them until next New Year’s Eve. Get in contact and let’s have a chat about how we can get you back on track.

Reflections on what we control and what we don’t

Once again my this blog comes from Michael Neill’s weekly email, and is all about control and our perception of it. It is reproduced here with his permission.His emails can be really inspiring and you can sign up to receive them too by using the link at the bottom of the page. I hope you enjoy it … Did you know that “worry” is a verb? That is, “to worry something” is to shake it about – it is an activity, not a thing.

The kind of worrying that most of us do is with our thoughts. We take a particular thought and “worry it about” in our minds, shaking it back and forth and flipping it around until we become absolute experts on everything that could possibly go wrong.  


I myself am an expert “worrier” – I seem to have been granted the ability to pick out the worst-case scenario at a puppy farm, or to imagine all the things that could go wrong at an OSHA convention.  
Which is why I’ve always found it a bit curious that when I’m actually IN a difficult situation, I tend to handle it with remarkable ease and grace. Being stuck in traffic doesn’t upset me, even if I’m running late. If the recording equipment stops working at an event where I’m teaching, as it did recently, I can generally incorporate it into the proceedings without batting an eyelash, even if I had previously been worrying about the possibility.  

The difference, or so it seems to me, is this:  

Once something has actually happened, whether or not it happens is clearly no longer within my control. And if I know that something is not within my control, I see no point in worrying about it, or more accurately, in worrying it about.
Which is why when I woke up a couple of days ago without control over the left side of my face, I was oddly calm. In fact, the only real thought my worrying mind gave me to play with was how it might affect the television pilot we’re working on, and whether or not they will be able to film me exclusively from the right side until whatever it was cleared up.  


When others kindly pointed out to me all the other things I could be worrying about that might be a wee bit more important than how I looked on TV, like a brain tumor or a stroke, it did occur to me to go to the hospital, and they quickly diagnosed it as a mild case of Bell’s Palsy, a strange form of facial paralysis the explanation for which sounded completely made up, even to the doctor who diagnosed me with it.  
The good thing about Bell’s Palsy is that a. Most people recover within 2 – 3 weeks and b. With the exception of a cocktail of drugs that may or may not speed recovery and that I am faithfully taking each day, there’s nothing much which can be done.  

And I find that sort of behavioral helplessness incredibly comforting. Oh sure, I get that if I maintain a relatively positive mind and a relatively relaxed body, that will create an internal environment which promotes healing. And even after only a few days, I’ve discovered that ordering soup for lunch is just a bad idea. But when there’s nothing to be done about something, there’s nothing to be done about it – and that leaves our energy free to enjoy whatever it is we can do.  

Twenty years ago, I remember seeing the quadriplegic motivational speaker W. Mitchell give a talk from his wheelchair. The line which burned into my memory was this:

“Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I’ve lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left.”  

What we control, in my experience, is not what happens to us and not even which thoughts, positive or negative, come into our head. What we control is what we do and which thoughts we dwell on. And funnily enough, that’s more than enough control to create a magical life, regardless of whatever circumstances you happen to find yourself in.  

Recently, I was watching a video of the spiritual philosopher Syd Banks and he shared an old Irish philosophy: 


There are only two things to worry about – are you sick or are you well?If you’re well, there’s nothing to worry about. And if you’re sick, there are only two things to worry about – will you live or will you die? If you live, there’s nothing to worry about. And if you die, there are only two things to worry about – will you go to heaven or will you go to hell?  If you go to heaven, there’s nothing to worry about. And if you go to hell, you’ll be so busy shaking hands with all your friends that there’s nothing to worry about.   


With love,



Copyright © 2010 Michael Neill. All Rights Reserved
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Cog Hyp rocks at the diet show

Getting the message out there that losing and maintaining weight isn’t all about being on a diet… this from the blog of Trevor Silvester.


by Trevor Silvester.

diet show

Cognitive Hypnotherapy had a high profile at the Olympia Diet show. SlimQuest had a stand, manned and womanned by Questies eager to educate the public in how easy it is to to lose weight when your mind is working for you. On the Saturday Rebecca Silvester gave a presentation on how to use simple techniques to keep the mind in control of your weightloss. This was followed on Sunday by Questies Katie Abbott, who gave a talk on Cognitive Hypnotherapy and NLP, and Cathy Simmons who presented on using EFT. Cathy is a member of SlimQuest, which runs group weight loss courses for the public using Cog Hyp techniques. All course leaders are graduates of our Diploma course.

Sculptor’s Attitude

This was posted on a forum I am a member of, and I thought it worth sharing. Because we have a choice.

Author Unknown

I woke up early today, excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight. I have responsibilities to fulfill today. I am important. My job is to choose what kind of day I am going to have.

Today I can complain because the weather is rainy or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free.

Today I can feel sad that I don’t have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste.

Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive.

Today I can lament over all that my parents didn’t give me when I was growing up or I can feel grateful that they allowed me to be born.

Today I can cry because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses.

Today I can mourn my lack of friend or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships.

Today I can whine because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do.

Today I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new tidbits of knowledge.

Today I can murmur dejectedly because I have to do housework or I can feel honored because the Lord has provide shelter for my mind, body and soul.

Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping. What today will be like is up to me. I get to choose what kind of day I will have! Have a GREAT DAY……unless you have other plans.

Family under the microscope

This peice by Oliver James in The Guardian, Saturday 2 January 2010 gives an interesting perspective on relationship councilling, and is one that as a cognitive hypnotherapist, has long been the way that we might approach ‘couples work’.

Psychotherapy, not counselling, might be the answer if your relationship’s in trouble

When things get nasty between partners, we usually accuse the other of being either mad or bad. While the badness factor has not been much studied, the evidence shows that emotional distress in one or both partners is a major cause of divorce. There are vital implications.

In my book Britain on the Couch, I present eight studies that tested the mental health and personalities of couples before they married and then followed them up. In all of these, premarital “neuroticism” in either partner (including mild or severe depression) and “lack of impulse control” in the male partner predicted divorce, compared with couples without these traits.

For example, one study examined 300 couples in 1940 before they were married and followed them up in 1980. Divorce was significantly more likely in couples where one or both had had pre-marital emotional problems: divorce was more common in those of both sexes who, 40 years before, had been high in neuroticism and in men with a lack of impulse control.

The authors’ conclusion repays quotation: “In marital relationships, neuroticism acts to bring about distress, and the other traits of the husband help to determine whether the distress is brought to a head (in divorce) or suffered passively (in a stable but unsatisfactory marriage).”

That the problems predate the couple meeting is suggested by a study that examined a large sample of 16-year-old girls, before they had even met their husbands. High neuroticism at that age predicted subsequent increased risk of divorce.

Unfortunately, this evidence tends to be completely ignored by relationship counsellors. They have been trained to focus on the ways in which incompatibility is causing the problem. The trouble is that one partner may be depressed, or anxious, or abusing substances, or markedly unstable because of a personality disorder (such as “me, me, me” narcissism). These kinds of disturbance can be by far the most significant cause of the problems in the couple, yet counsellors will always seek to find ways in which both partners are contributing and then tinker with how they communicate.

A recent study showed how incorrect this “bit of both” thinking often is. The individuals in 3,230 American couples had their mental health measured and were tracked for three years, by which point, 10% had separated. If one partner had a mental-health problem at the start, the couple were twice as likely to have separated than couples in which neither did. If both had a problem, they were nearly five times more likely to separate.

Clearly, if one or both partners are having emotional problems, separation is more likely. But the study also showed that it was the independent effect of the individual’s problems that was most critical, rather than the impact of them on the relationship.

These are strong grounds for a rethink about what is going wrong in your relationship and what kind of help is required: if you are unhappy, be very wary indeed of blaming it on the relationship. Incompatibility does exist, but bear in mind that the sort of people who separate are also liable to have suffered childhood maltreatment and be distressed. Individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy is what that person needs, not counselling.

In Britain on the Couch, I used the term “gender rancour” to describe the current battle of the sexes, claiming that there may never have been a time when we got on worse. Mostly, the solution lies in individual treatment.

New study: Butterworth, P et al, 2008, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43, 758-63. More Oliver James at