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An open letter to toxic couples who come to me for therapy

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a clinical therapist, and the author of three books, among them, Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Complete Marriage Counsler. She gives love advice on programs including Today and HuffPost Live, conduct...

Why not even couples therapy can help most toxic relationships

It typically takes me approximately 10 minutes to suss out that although you might have fooled yourselves into thinking you have come to me to help your relationship, your actual aim is to procure 50 minutes to vent about your spouse to what you assume will be a validating ear.

My first clue that you have an unshakeable belief that your once beloved partner’s character, personality and values are execrable is that you blame him or her for every bad thing that has ever happened to you since you exited the womb. Indeed, the words you use to address one another are laced with curses and other terms of derision. I don’t allow such misbehavior during the session, pointing out how noxiousness only breeds more of the same. But it’s pretty clear that once you are sans supervision, the bullying and belittling will resume.

Part of my initial consultation involves asking each person the goal of treatment. When a couple’s dynamic is unrelentingly negative, I don’t need psychic abilities to foresee the answer will be along the lines of: “I need [insert name] to see how messed up and stupid he or she is.”

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Another part of the consultation (and ongoing therapeutic process) is to ask each person his or her role in the relationship’s difficulties. When neither can own even a microscopic element of blame, I sigh to myself sadly. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

Another huge tell that you might be better off visiting a divorce attorney is that you have zero to 2 percent trust in your partner: “I know he’s been cheating since the day we got together.” “Every time I check her phone I see another text from a guy.” “I can never believe a word out of his lying mouth.” “I’m not cheating. You are!” are typical statements proclaimed frequently and with zest.

Couples who have no real interest in repairing the turmoil that defines their relationship are in love but not with one another. The object of their ardor is drama. Your life together is a soap opera that could fill months of plotlines on Days of Our Lives with a dollop of General Hospital. You take turns telling convoluted stories that make no sense. But if you could intuit that your stories bespeak a pattern of craziness, you would be able to listen to reason. When I see that physical violence is a part of the relationship on either side, I recommend the couple stop living together and suggest anger management classes. I am thrilled when there is no child entangled in the chaos. When there is a child, I have difficult decisions to make.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when one or both partners can’t muster up enough energy to feel any emotion but indifference, the relationship is likely cooked. You have passed the point of no return, shut down and retreated to a place where you can no longer be reached by your spouse... “I don’t really care what he or she does. “We have a kid in common but that’s about it.” “There’s just nothing left to say.” “What’s the point?” Exactly.

An exercise I routinely give couples as homework is to “walk a mile in your husband's or wife’s shoes.”  This translates into writing a letter imagining what it must be like to be your spouse. Dorothy writes as if she is her husband Dan and vice versa: “Dan is frequently hurt because I say I’m going to initiate sex and then I never do it.” The idea behind this is to help each person have empathy for how the other feels. When a couple is incapable of caring or even imagining that they are not the only one whose desires and emotions count, I can’t imagine there is much hope for their relationship.

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A crucial part of couples therapy is educating my patients on what a good partnership entails: mutual respect; affection; ability to listen and empathize; willingness to learn communication and problem-solving skills; to control negative impulses; and build one another up, not tear the other down. It is not your spouse’s job to be your doormat, nor is your role to be a tyrant. You must have good self-worth versus being dependent on your partner to “make” you feel good about yourself. And, very important: You can acknowledge fault when you screw up and utter the magical words, “I’m sorry.”

When a couple comes for therapy solely to trash one another and demonstrates no discernible interest in doing any self-exploration, I tell them that I don’t believe I am the right person for them, usher them out and pity the next therapist on their list.

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