‘My first copy arrived today; I’m so happy!’ grins TV presenter and mental health advocate Anna Williamson, shaking a cerise pink hardback in front of her computer screen. Where Is The Love? (Green Tree, £12.99) is her fourth book and promises to guide people towards a better understanding of themselves and their relationships. For some, however, its publication comes a little too late, with UK divorce rates at an estimated 42 per cent and other figures pointing to a 95 per cent increase in divorce enquiries to law firms, following the pandemic.
‘Sadly, because of this extended time together, a lot of couples have realised their relationships don’t quite cut the mustard. As humans, we aren’t designed to spend all our time with one person like this,’ explains Williamson, 40. ‘Relationships can exist in all sorts of scenarios, as long as both people are happy with the set-up, but for many people – particularly millennials – that involves enjoying time outside the relationship as well as in it.’
There’s little the author and relationship expert doesn’t know about getting the best out of love. She’s married to property surveyor and former personal trainer Alex Di Pasquale, 33, father to her son, Enzo, five, and daughter, Eleanora, two. Williamson says they have emerged from the past two years ‘stronger’, but that that didn’t happen by chance – rather, they worked to identify and swiftly tackle problems as they arose. Mutual hard work and constant investment, she insists, is fundamental to the success of any relationship.
‘The worst thing you can do is get into a relationship, get married, sit back on your arse and do bugger all. That’s the kiss of death, and a relationship that is stagnant is a very unpleasant place to be,’ says Williamson, who is also back on our screens in her role as Cupid on E4’s Celebs Go Dating, guiding more unlucky-in-love celebrities towards true romance.
‘You have to keep moving forward, keeping things alive and checking in. A realistic relationship is not always going to be rosy – and that’s OK.’
At the beginning of lockdown, Williamson found her own relationship ‘typical’, with lots of bickering as the walls closed in on personal space. But, sensing unease, the couple took action. ‘We realised we couldn’t continue like that, so we reassessed. He needed to go for a walk every morning by himself, I needed to do the same, and it was important to initiate couple time together. We also had to look at our sex life because, let’s be honest, few of us were swinging from the chandeliers throughout the pandemic. Living in tracksuit bottoms hardly screamed wanton sex goddess!’
Early on in the couple’s relationship – which started in 2015, a year after Di Pasquale began training Williamson – the pair went through another learning process as they got to grips with how to argue ‘effectively’ – a process Williamson believes is vital because, she says, all relationships will feature conflict, and understanding how to resolve friction quickly stops it being a negative experience.
While her husband comes from an Italian family of ‘heart-on-sleeve, vocal arguers’ and during a row wants to ‘talk it out to the death’, Williamson has no doubt that her tendency to retreat and disengage during confrontation is rooted in her childhood, where there were never raised voices at home.
‘Our communication styles in an argument were the complete opposite so, guess what? Those arguments could get frickin’ ugly,’ recalls Williamson, who blames Hollywood movies for selling us the story of ‘fake perfection’. The key to long-lasting love, she believes, is creating a ‘realistic’ relationship where couples work through problems and don’t confuse disagreements or non-identical behaviour or ways of thinking with incompatibility.
‘In those early days, we could have said, “We’re broken. We’re going to part company”, but opposites can attract and when you start to understand each other, respect each other for being individuals then come together as an interdependent relationship, that’s a relationship that thrives,’ she explains. ‘It’s about understanding the compromises and tweaks you can make in order to fulfil and respect each other’s feelings without actually changing one another.’
So what tweaks did she and Di Pasquale make, specifically? ‘We have flags, so I’ll say, “I feel like this is going into disrespectful territory” and he can say, “I feel like I’m not being listened to”. It’s about giving each other clues while staying true to the notion of the argument, and then being big enough to accept and listen to what the other person is saying before it goes from zero to a hundred in the other direction.’
Williamson adds: ‘Relationships thrive on communication, honesty and trust, and you can only have honesty and trust when you’re communicating. Communication is everything.’ It’s no wonder Celebs Go Dating fans can’t get enough. Listening and seeing Williamson talk is captivating, and in person she is very much the way she seems on TV: funny, exuberant and brimming with enthusiasm, as she delivers her enlightening perspectives. You can’t fake this professional passion and she certainly believes she was ‘destined to be a life coach’. Even at 15, when she got her first Saturday job serving burgers in McDonald’s, she noticed she had a deep-rooted ‘fascination with everybody’ and an appreciation for how ‘the world is made up of very di¤erent people’.
An hour before catching up with Psychologies, following an early morning workout with her personal trainer, Williamson was in the shower pondering her journey to becoming one of the UK’s most successful relationship gurus: ‘I was thinking to myself “How did I get here?”,’ she says. ‘I’m not going to lie, being on the cover of Psychologies is a career high – this is the Vogue of my profession. But, here’s the thing, I’m just not clever enough for all this to have been the result of any game plan!’
That ‘all this’ – six series on Celebs Go Dating, three best-selling books plus a newly released fourth, an acclaimed podcast, LuAnna, with pal and former The Apprentice star Luisa Zissman, and a 12-year career in life coaching – happened by chance underplays Williamson’s natural knack of identifying and seizing opportunities, and a tenacity that has helped open doors along the way. At 17, with her parents’ support, Anna quit school to join a girlband and enjoyed a decent level of success, supporting pop bands such as 5IVE on tour and appearing on children’s TV shows CD:UK and Live & Kicking. By 19, with her heart set on hosting kids’ telly, Williamson went about convincing a TV producer that she was ripe for a job. Every week, she sent a photograph of herself striking a new ‘kid presenter pose’ with the same caption ‘Your next presenter?’. The tactic worked. Within a few years, she was hosting Toonattik, GMTV’s flagship children’s strand of the time.
It was at this point, however, that Williamson entered the darkest chapter of her life, after starting a relationship that became emotionally abusive.
‘I couldn’t escape,’ she says. ‘He used to look through my phone, then, anything he found would be used against me, by way of manipulation. I was terrified of him, of the threats. I was doing the thing I loved more than anything – my job – while wearing a mask.’
Williamson told no one about her ordeal and the secrecy only added to her emotional turmoil, which she describes as ‘mentally spiralling out of control’.
‘I was like a car. The petrol tank had got low. It was screaming at me to fill up and I hadn’t been listening to any of that intuition. I was suffering anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia, and I was losing weight. I had developed globus pharyngeus, which is a symptom of extreme anxiety. It stopped me from swallowing and that led to extreme weight loss. Looking at me, it was very clear I was mentally unwell.
Eventually, Williamson became so unwell, she began fantasising about crashing her car. ‘I thought, “If I go into a spin, maybe I’ll break my leg and give myself a rest for a couple of weeks”. I didn’t want to not be here, but I can empathise with people who tragically get to that point, thinking, “I can’t cope with these feelings anymore”.’
Williamson finally got the help she needed after yet another fight with her then-partner led to her unravelling at work the next day, in what she describes as ‘a spectacular emotional breakdown’, witnessed by GMTV presenters Lorraine Kelly and Fiona Phillips, who shared her dressing-room corridor
‘Lorraine was very sweet and Fiona came into the dressing room when I was in floods of tears and was like an angel. She knelt in front of me, put her arms on my shoulders and said something along the lines of “You’re going to be okay”. I definitely felt I was talking to someone who was empathic.’
Williamson considers that day ‘one of the best worst things that ever happened’ because of the introduction to therapy that ensued. At the time, her mum was working as a medical secretary at a private hospital in Hertfordshire, where a consultant psychiatrist squeezed Williamson in as an emergency case. He promptly diagnosed her with generalised anxiety disorder and initiated a course of integrative therapy – a combination of neuro linguistic programming (NLP), hypnosis and emotional freedom technique (EFT) – as well as prescribing anti-anxiety medication. The experience transformed her mental health and her life path. After a number of weeks off work, she returned to broadcasting feeling ‘strong and empowered’ and subsequently spoke about her experience in the media to raise awareness of mental health.
Going public with her story and becoming an ambassador for the MIND charity sparked an influx of messages sharing similar stories. Inspired to help, after forging a friendship with campaigner Esther Rantzen, Williamson trained as a volunteer Childline counsellor then, in 2009, achieved a diploma in counselling after studying remotely for a year.
‘I kept adding to my toolkit,’ Williamson explains, ‘and life coaching seemed to be the natural next step.’ She took on her first private clients in 2010, and adds: ‘My number-one value in life is equality, and I was an early adopter of online therapy. One of my first clients comes from a remote area in the north, and would never have been able to access therapy if it wasn’t for those virtual sessions.’
This spring, she is launching The Relationship Place – an online coaching platform for dating and relationship advice. ‘Therapy can be really bespoke, difficult to access, and quite expensive, so I wanted to bring a lot of my teachings and a lot of what I practice and preach to the masses,’ she explains.
Williamson still manages anxiety and panic disorder and says ‘lack of control’ is a trigger. She suffered perinatal anxiety during her first pregnancy, followed by birth trauma and postnatal anxiety, and ‘felt familiar signs of panic’ when Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown in March 2020.
‘When you’re not allowed to leave your house, guess what happens to anxiety sufferers? You have an anxiety attack because it feels like you’re in prison. It was pretty terrifying,’ says Williamson, who also became preoccupied by the health of her parents, Mary and Peter, both in their 70s. ‘I started to become obsessed with people’s ages when they died, particularly celebrities. I was getting anxious about not spending enough time with my parents, and keeping them well, and I began to ruminate about what life will be like when they’re not here.’
To stay emotionally on track, Williamson is fastidious about self-care. She practises meditation, ‘avoids the news’, and enjoys feelgood activities such as spending time with her children, walking in the countryside and working out in the gym. Every morning, she wakes up, flings open her window, takes three deep breaths and utters three positive affirmations. So, what did she say today? ‘That I was grateful for a really good sleep, because my kids have been waking me up over the past few nights. “I am enough” was another. Then I gave thanks for the health of my family.’ It’s a practice encouraged by the therapy she still has each month – in the shape of group supervision with other psychotherapists. ‘My God, we all romp to supervision with joy. It’s a wonderful two hours of offloading, talking, sharing and tapping into like-minded professionals.’
Chances are Williamson offloaded about her 40th as it approached last July, a milestone she has previously admitted she struggled with. But, eight months in, she’s clearly found her groove. ‘During my PT session this morning I told my trainer that I felt good being 40 and she said: “When you’re 40, you feel like a queen”. I do! I feel like a ruddy queen!’ she laughs. ‘I feel a lot more self-assured, I have a lot more boundaries and I’m no longer a people-pleaser.’
Part of the problem of entering her 40s, reports Williamson, was feeling unsure about whether or not to have a third baby, and sensing a biological pressure to decide. She now happily declares that she and Di Pasquale are ‘going where the wind takes us’.
Talk soon turns back to her other baby, Celebs Go Dating, and Williamson’s expression is equally joyous. She’s clearly at home in the CGD family and has built some lifelong friendships with ‘love doctor’ Paul Carrick Brunson, who has now relocated tothe UK from America, and show receptionist, actor Tom Read Wilson. ‘I get to go to work with two of my best mates,’ smiles Williamson. ‘I’m living the dream.’
Where is the Love?: The Honest Guide To Dating And Relationships by Anna Williamson (Green Tree, £12.99) is available to buy now.
Words: Gemma Calvert
Photographs: Ruth Rose