Therapy as a couple is hard and there are few guarantees. Many factors determine success or failure. Timing, willingness, the right therapist all come into play. In my experience as a therapist, some make it, some do not, some come back from the brink and some that I genuinely thought would succeed failed to take the opportunity. I have been involved with spectacular successes and some that were highly disappointing. Couples therapy often takes place at a time when the rot has set in deeply and the two sides are entrenched in their contempt of each other. Often, it is unfortunately used as a vehicle for narcissists to gaslight and further paint someone as “crazy”. I have often heard of cases where the narcissist charms the therapist so much that they end up seeing them as a victim!
Some of the hardest cases to crack are not with narcissists (a good therapist will see through their tricks) but with codependents. Making them see that their behaviour is dysfunctional is difficult and secondly, that it is not about their partner but the issue of unhealed parts of them is equally difficult. They are very often willing to believe that they are fully at fault and take responsibility that isn’t theirs. A dream situation for someone willing to take advantage of that.
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The case below was a classic one for me. The lady concerned was a true codependent. Sacrificing, enabling and controlling all in one codependent package. At first, it was difficult to see where her and her husband’s individuality began and finished. They seemed to be enmeshed to a large degree with him calling the shots on most everything in their life through his narcissistic ways. She had threatened to leave many times and had been in therapy to do just that but had never quite managed it. She had left a few times but he had always persuaded her to come back and life got back to normal fairly quickly.
BEATE AND JOHN:
Beate was a codependent, full blown. She knew it, but was reluctant to do anything about it. She confused the sacrifices and the martyrdoms that were part of her personality with love. If you are in love, you give everything and hold nothing back was her motto. She was the matriarch of the family, chief people pleaser and made it her mission to make sure everyone was happy. However, as it often is with codependents, this came with a massive expectation of return. Her codependency was essentially a control measure, protection to ensure her security in the environment around her.
John was an undiagnosed covert narcissist, somewhere towards the wrong end of a sliding scale of narcissism, self-centered, sometimes selfish, always thinking of himself, he took what he needed from Beate without giving much in return. He kept this dysfunctional cycle going by giving his wife just enough indication that she might just be able to change him, something he intended to avoid. He openly admitted in a session to manipulating Beate. While she thought she was in charge of everything, it became clear that he allowed only the control he wanted her to have. This situation had been going on for thirty-five years and the relationship ran along on this basis.
It was Beate who requested therapy for the couple. After all that had gone on between them, she found herself deeply unhappy and unfulfilled. What caused her to break the pattern was probably due to the fact her two sons had flown the nest and what was left was not enough. John found himself under pressure to do more for Beate and he responded by withdrawing further and eventually having an affair. While Beate was willing to forgive and work on the marriage, he came to the two first sessions very resistant to taking responsibility and with an air of blame towards his wife: “You made me have an affair” he often stated. When challenged, he would call Beate “a barnacle”, a clear reference to the mollusc that sticks to the bottom of a boat. I challenged him hard on this statement and said if he continued this stance towards his wife, it would greatly affect the process in a negative sense.
Needless to say, he failed to turn up for the third session, stating that he thought therapy was useless and all they needed to do was get back to how they were before. He blamed me for putting ideas in his wife’s head. Beate was devastated but I made her see that there would be value in continuing therapy alone.
Over a period of six months, we dealt intensively with codependency issues, setting boundaries, working on self-esteem issues and the guilt and shame she felt from childhood. The very factors that had left her disposed to being attracted to a man like John.
(Situation around 10 years ago) Beate divorced John eighteen months later and became a successful businesswoman. She practiced self-care and self-love and was aware of and learned tools for her codependency should it arise. At the time, I heard John was “playing the field” around town. While one can never be truly satisfied when therapy results in a divorce, I was very happy that Beate was finally giving to herself what she had so long given to others. When this happens, relationships change and toxic people leave.
UPDATE: This is a case I took over ten years ago and I recently had the chance to talk to Beate again when she messaged me out of the blue. A lot had happened in the ten years since we met. She had remarried to a man who truly appreciated her, had survived cancer and moved to another part of the country. Crucially, she had upheld the lessons she had learnt about herself as she went through the experiences with John and was maintaining her business well. She claimed she was “enjoying life” for the first time. The reason she reached out to me was that John had sadly passed away and she needed to talk through some of the feelings she had about this. She can, however, look back at all of this from a place of health.