I’m the first to say mistakes make us stronger. I’m also the first to throw in the therapeutic towel at repeat relationship offenders.
Sound harsh? I know. It’s hard to resist the repetition of a behavior when you don’t understand why you keep doing it in the first place. It’s even harder witnessing the collateral damage to adult children years later because the lure of relationship drama was stronger than the parents’ desire to protect their kids' emotional wellbeing.
While it’s the therapist’s job to relieve misery and undo crippling conditions of the past, the gig takes a toll: “While we do more than our bit to increase the well-being of our clients, psychology-as-usual typically does not do much for the well-being of its practitioners. If anything changes in the practitioner, it is a personality shift toward depression,” Dr. Martin Seligman says.
In the interest of self-preservation and helping heartbroken clients, I have a non-psychology-as-usual method for dealing with torrid, dramatic relationships, or the aftermath of torrid, dramatic breakups (99% of which are initiated by the partner not in treatment).
Besides a rigorous screening process for new intakes, this intervention is built around asking questions designed to increase emotional clarity and relationship insight. While posing questions is decidedly psychology-as-usual, I believe in tackling the hard questions early on. Why? Rumination and reliving traumatic details leads to increased depression and anxiety (plus, people in toxic relationships already know what they're doing is unhealthy). And though building trust is essential, sometimes we clinicians are reluctant to cut to the chase for fear of causing more psychological harm.
It’s a fine line, indeed. When done correctly, however, this means less time on the stories and sexcapades and more time on understanding behaviors. After thorough information-gathering which takes place during the first two sessions, the focus shifts to the ulterior gains of choosing to remain in relationship dysfunction.
Let’s bring the dramatic elephant into the therapy room: You are not a victim of your relationship. You, and you alone are responsible for staying, and your misery is self-inflicted. Of course there’s a complicit partner more than willing to dole out half the psychological pain. But every day you stay or go back and forth is one less day to heal and salvage any vestige of self-worth.
Client caveat: You may feel that your story isn't heard if we’re not discussing the dynamics of your relationship every session. You may believe there’s something unique I really need to know. I get it. I used to try the same tactic when I was in therapy. Thankfully, The Good Doctor didn’t allow me to dodge his questions but diligently refocused me with, “Oh, c’mon, you don’t think I buy that excuse, do you?!”
Here’s a set of 11 questions I’ve found useful for getting my clients on the other side of unhealthy relationships:
1. What are your ideas as to why you’re unhappy in your relationship?
2. Why come to therapy now? (If this seems obvious in the recent break-up scenario, my experience is there were many break-ups before this one).
3. How does your partner make you feel when you’re together? How do you feel about him when you’re not together?
4. What does love mean to you? In behavioral terms, how does she show she loves you?
5. Who in your family does she remind you of? Why?
6. Why do you think you stay? (If the reason is because staying is better than being alone, why not get a pet? Sure an animal can’t talk with you or go out to dinner, but he won’t lie about leaving his wife or cheat on you. And he’ll never call you fat, or accuse you of being a bad parent or laugh while you cry).
7. What are your relationship deal breakers? Responses of infidelity or physical abuse are challenged with, “Why set the bar so low?”
8. What are healthy behaviors you can do to improve your self-esteeem? Does exercise, meditation, massage, connecting with loved ones, volunteering at a homeless shelter, reading personal development books, making amends with your mom, or joining a book/church/social club, etc., sound feasible?
9. Have you ever read Codependent No More?
10. What will happen is nothing changes? How will you know if nothing changes?
Leaving relationship dysfunction is far from easy. My heart goes out to everyone who didn’t witness healthy relationships growing up. You deserved better as a kid, and you deserve better now. But I challenge you to take responsibility for your reality and focus your energies on things you can control, like relearning relationships. The last question is this:
11. When your children are 25 years old, how do you want them to describe what they learned from you about relationships during their childhood?
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