Los Angeles Chapter — California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT
How We Can Help Clients in Toxic Relationships
As a therapist specializing in anxiety and relationships, I often have clients who are in relationships that are emotionally abusive. Initially they seek to improve these relationships. Their question often is, “What can I do to have the healthy relationship I want to have?”
My first goal is to help my client understand that the treatment they are getting from their partner is not about them, that there is nothing they are doing to deserve this, and nothing they can do to change the way the other person behaves.
Research has shown that one of the defining characteristics of women who leave physically abusive relationships is that they understand that they cannot control their partner’s behavior. This is also true for emotionally abusive relationships.
First, we explore their family of origin stories. Nearly always there is a history of a primary attachment figure giving them the message that they aren’t good enough. They aren’t lovable just as they are; they need to earn love.
This early message is a setup for future toxic relationships.
I once had a client I’ll call Jane, who I initially suspected had Borderline Personality Disorder. Soon I learned of her upbringing in a family that consistently, but intermittently, gave her messages that she was a terrible person. Her mother would mostly berate her and call her names, but occasionally she would try to connect to Jane in a more loving way—and Jane was always hoping for another of these moments.
Research shows that intermittent rewards are the most compelling, and when the intermittent reward is the love of your primary attachment figure, it can be one of the most compelling rewards of all. My client had fully absorbed the lesson that she didn’t deserve to be treated with love and kindness, but that sometimes, if she was really “good,” she could feel loved.
It is no surprise, then, that most of Jane’s relationships reflected these beliefs about herself. She came to me to help her with a particularly toxic relationship with a guy who would act as if they were in a relationship, and then would send her long text messages telling her that all he really wanted from her was sex—and that he actually wanted a relationship with someone else. This happened repeatedly over a period of years.
The thing is, Jane just couldn’t get herself to just walk away from this man, and she couldn’t understand why she needed so badly for him to tell her he cared about her.
Why couldn’t she leave?
His degrading text messages had caused her to lash out in hurt and anger. He told her that it was her angry messages that showed she was “crazy”, and that was why he could never be in a real relationship with her; it was her fault. He would be with her if she weren’t crazy. She was hooked.
Her history with her mom made his hurtful messages seem credible. Isn’t this what love feels like? This message was painful, but it was familiar.
Reid Wilson, PhD, Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, can help us understand how we can use this dynamic to heal our clients. Dr. Wilson helps his clients learn to welcome anxiety into their lives, and then “work to give their amygdala a different message.” He tells them, “You want to step into a safe but reasonable facsimile of the trauma, and let your amygdala hang out.”
In this same way, we can help our clients heal their early attachment trauma by using these toxic relationships. We can help them have the same experience— being told they are unlovable—and have a different outcome. We can help them train their brains to know that this message is not the truth—they are lovable, and they deserve to be around others who believe this also.
So how do we do this?
Dan Siegel, M.D., tells us that “The power to direct our attention has the power to shape the brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.”
By building awareness and challenging the thoughts, we can change the automaticity of these thoughts, and that can make all the difference.
I have seen many clients extricate themselves from toxic relationships. It’s a process, and along the way they learn to love themselves for who they are. Most of these clients make significant changes in their relationship with their attachment figures as well. After practicing experiencing the feelings they want to have in a loving and supportive relationship, many go on to create that healthy experience in their next serious relationship.
Amy McManus, LMFT, helps anxious young adults build healthy new relationships with themselves and others after a breakup. Amy’s blog, “Life Hacks,” offers practical tips for thriving in today’s crazy plugged-in world. Learn more about Amy from her website www.thrivetherapyla.com.
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California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists
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