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5 Marriage Counselors on What Therapy Can’t Fix

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

For those who can afford the price tag, marriage counseling can bring even the most contentious couples back from the brink of separation. According to the Gottman Institute, therapy can create lasting, positive change for roughly 70 percent of couples who seek treatment. But what’s it like counseling those who may be better off splitting up? The Cut spoke with five marriage and couples counselors in New York to find out what it’s like shepherding doomed couples through the therapy process.

“You can feel when there’s just nothing.”

I never tell couples they’re not going to make it — the only way I would was if there was a physical threat — because who knows? People are unpredictable. So I never say that, but when do I think that? When one person doesn’t want to be there, when there’s an active affair going on, or if there’s no love or attraction. You can feel when there’s just nothing.

I’m seeing a new couple. They could still make it, but things don’t look good. They’re both successful and have been together for over 20 years and have two young kids; their oldest is 2. Kids often present major stress to relationships, but I’ve never seen it to this extent before. The woman feels erased; her husband doesn’t seem to see what she does for the family and argues about it. The other day I told him he was invalidating her; he said, “I’m not, this is just the way it is,” and she jumped up and walked out. For couples that are sort of workable, if I made an intervention like, “You just did that right now, what she’s talking about. I just saw it,” one of them would kind of stop dead in their tracks and say, “Oh, okay, I didn’t realize it.” But the man in this couple doesn’t accept what’s going on.

The next time they come in, they want to talk about separating. It’s a disaster, and they’ve said unbelievably hurtful things to one another out of anger. It’s difficult to take it back. There’s a lack of respect and care and they won’t divorce quickly — they can’t agree on custody — so it’s going to be years of horror.

Did some couples make it who I thought wouldn’t? It depends. Staying together doesn’t mean making it. — Irina Firstein, licensed individual and couples therapist at NYC Couples Therapists

“I have to end treatment with about a quarter of couples.”

As a therapist, there’s moments of real clarity when you realize a couple doesn’t have the conditions of a safe and healthy relationship, and at that point it’s your ethical obligation to ensure you’re not colluding with their unhealthiness by keeping them in sessions. I saw a passive-aggressive married couple who would get in each other’s faces; we worked together for a while and finally I said, “Guys, there’s a problem with aggression in your relationship. Do you want to do something about it?” One partner hemmed and hawed and the other said, “No, the way I fight isn’t the problem here.” I said, “You guys, this doesn’t work.” It was a hard conversation. The couple had become attached to me and didn’t want to end treatment.

I’d say I have to end treatment with about a quarter of couples. I’m honest with patients. Therapists keeping things to themselves is a detriment to treatment. I leave it all on the field. Or on the couch. Kelly Scott, licensed mental-health counselor at Tribeca Therapy

“We can’t stop the train wreck.”

You know things aren’t working when there’s intense contempt or a couple reproduces the home environment in the office with their fighting. Some therapists think allowing couples to fight is part of couples therapy, but you’re becoming a participant in the dynamic.

In one of the most unpleasant cases I’ve seen, there were instances of mutual physical abuse and the man couldn’t stop raising his tone. I had to remind him of the ground rules and to keep our voices down; even my colleagues could hear. But he wouldn’t stop, so I asked him to leave. I continued the session with his partner. How much was she willing to take? What if he didn’t change? It was my invitation for her to consider a form of separation. That was the last time I saw them. You might have the best intentions for the vulnerable partner, but a couple’s attachment can be stronger than what a good adviser can provide. When they go home, they reaffirm their alliance and the therapist becomes almost an enemy. They’ll hold onto their dysfunctional pattern. Unfortunately, we can’t stop the train wreck. Dr. Claudia Diez, clinical and consulting psychologist

“I never say a couple is doomed, even if they’ve filed for divorce.”

There’s really only one reason people are unhappy in their relationships — they don’t feel loved. Every call I get is about communication problems, and you know things are improving when both parties are sincere and playing well with each other. When things aren’t working, the assumption is always that it’s the couple’s fault. The truth is it could be the therapist’s fault; in most cases, I think it is, but they won’t tell you that because we’re trained that if couples don’t follow what you’re saying, they’re being “resistant.”

I never say a couple is doomed, even if they’ve filed for divorce, because you never know. I met a couple with seemingly everything going for them, but the husband said he wanted a divorce and it hit the wife like a bolt out of the blue. I asked him why he said that; he said he didn’t mean it, he just wanted it to stop. They were hurting each other and he saw no way out. But he loved his wife and family and didn’t want to leave. They had that fight two years ago and hadn’t shared a bedroom since; the fight cost them precious years. They had a happy ending.

I gauge my success with a couple by how quickly they can fire me. It’s easy for couples to develop a dependence on someone they feel has more power than them, but couples only find their way out when they begin to believe in themselves. I only work with couples if they’re doing their part, and it’s definitely a minority of couples who don’t make it. I’ve had couples who had signed the divorce papers but then realized they really loved each other; there are couples I think are a total disaster and I see them again and they’re anything but. — Saul J. Stern, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified Gottman therapist Best Couples Workshops 

“I don’t know if a couple’s going to make it or not, but I know if I want to be in that relationship or not.”

I’ve sat with couples where I can see their pain and they don’t know any differently; that’s what love felt like growing up, so they might stay in relationships when I might think they shouldn’t or I wouldn’t. I can tell when it’s unhealthy: Are people able to share their feelings freely, or are they inhibited? Is one party trying to please the other all the time and ignore their own feelings? The micro-stuff builds up over time. Over the years, I learned that I don’t know if a couple’s going to make it or not, but I know if I want to be in that relationship or not.

I’ve told two couples to break up. One was a couple who came to me wanting therapy, but I realized they were both married to other people and were having an affair — they wanted couples therapy for their affair. They worked together, and they wanted help because their relationship was coming into the workplace. He was jealous of other men, and she wanted him to either leave his wife or stop the affair. I was like, “You’re both lying to other people. We can’t build trust here, and trust is the foundation of a relationship, so I don’t think we can do anything.” The other couple, the man was convinced everything was his wife’s fault. I kept trying to check in with him about the role he played in things; he could only say it was her fault. I finally told him, “If that’s what you really believe, you should leave her.” He was just pointing the finger and not willing to look at himself. There are times that some of the unhealthy couple dynamics are so powerful that they’re even stronger than the therapy you can do with them. Neither of these couples took my advice. They’re both still together. — Gary Katz, LCSW and founder of the Center for Intimacy Recovery

5 Marriage Counselors on What Therapy Can’t Fix