The Unfixable Relationship

Revised 12/25/19

Do you think you ‘re in an unfixable relationship?

unfixable-relationshipAt Couples Therapy Inc., we have a reputation for handling some of the toughest marital issues. Every couple has Perpetual Problems...but some problems actively threaten the relationship.

I’ve spoken to many potential clients who tell me that they fear that they’re in a fundamentally unfixable relationship. Some marriages collapse under the weight of personality differences, or cold distance.

However, some behavioral issues create a profound breach of trust.  These behaviors are often cited as the reason a hurting spouse may feel that they are in an unfixable relationship.

Often I find that these unfixable relationships which involve abuse of trust fall into 3 categories. I call them “Triple-A” problems; Affairs, Abuse, and Addiction.

What makes the spouse on the receiving end of these behaviors feel so hopeless is when these behaviors are not single events but are entrenched and continuous patterns of deceit and betrayal.

These are 3 severe, challenging problems. And to be honest, at least two of them (addiction and abuse) usually require a significant amount of individual work before couples therapy can commence.

What these Triple-A problems all have in common is that deep soul-searching and individual therapy are essential components of any science-based treatment plan.

Affairs and Sexual Acting-Out

About 40% of our work at Couples Therapy Inc. is affair recovery.

In most cases, the affair is a unique, often workplace situation. But sometimes we work with clients where a pattern of infidelity, or compulsive sexually acting-out, is a chronic issue.

What stresses these marriages is the unwillingness or inability of the involved partner to come to terms with how destructive their chronic and compulsive infidelity has become.

They reach a point where their partner is fed up with their lack of impulse control. Their long-suffering hurt partner has a firm bottom line; change now, or we’re done.

Often individual therapy, which focuses on restoring impulse control, is an essential aspect of treatment that may either precede couples therapy or be concurrent with couples therapy.


Addiction treatment has become increasingly sophisticated and effective. Many couples survive the struggle to overcome addiction and move on to have healthy and vibrant marriages.

But as with most marital stressors, the addicted spouse must face their issue and not dodge, deflect, or defend themselves against their concerned partner.

What devastates a marriage is an unwillingness, or inability, to come to terms with how thought- distorted the addicted spouse has become because of their addiction.

Both spouses must be fully engaged and be willing to make significant changes, but the heavy lifting must be done by the addicted spouse entering rehab.


Recent research shows that there are several different varieties of domestic abuse:

Intimate Terrorism is a pattern of coercive control. The domineering spouse intimidates and controls their partner, with physical violence or the threat of violence. This kind of domestic violence comprises about 10% of all domestic abuse relationships in the USA.

Situational Violence, on the other hand, usually involves both partners hitting, and it arises from poor impulse control and the inability to manage conflict.

In Situational Violence, typically, both spouses regret their violent behavior and may experience extended periods of relative calm.

Intimate terrorism, on the other hand, is virtually untreatable, according to Dr. John Gottman.

So, if you are facing intimate terrorism, most experts agree that you have little choice but to devise a safety plan and pursue divorce as safely as possible, using all the resources at your disposal.

But if your issue is situational violence, working to develop impulse control may be possible with appropriate treatment, which, by the way, is not couples therapy.

The Decision Tree of the Unfixable Relationship

unfixable relationship

If a treatable Triple-A problem impacts your marriage, your first concern should be your welfare and the welfare of your children. If your spouses’ behavior is harming you and your children, ask yourself the following question:

  • Do you want to make a “Last Shot” effort to save your marriage? If your answer is “yes,” then proceed with these next steps:
  • Make the firm decision that there must be significant changes and that you will not remain married to your spouse unless they accept the fact that from your point of view, you’re in an unfixable relationship. Ask them to respect that singular fact and take action on it. This is called your “bottom line.”
  • Before talking to your partner about the specific behavioral changes you want them to make to save the marriage, take the following actions:
  • Ask yourself this hard question. “Have I contributed to this unfixable relationship in any way?”This doesn’t mean that you’re sharing responsibility for your partners’ destructive behavior, but a frank self-assessment will prepare you for the next step.
  • Research the issue. Find qualified services and professionals to help you tackle the problem.
  • Sit your spouse down and have “The Conversation”:
  • I want to say some important things to you that might be hard for you to hear.
  • At this point, I still love you and want to stay married to you.
  • But I can’t remain invested in this marriage if you continue to do (fill in the blank).
  • I’ve considered how I contribute to our marital problems, and I’m willing to change what I need to.
    (Caution. Don’t get into any specifics here. You don’t want your spouse to get defensive by changing the subject to a discussion of your contribution to the problem. Admit you have deficits too and are willing to work on them.)
  • Tell them that you need a substantial commitment to making changes. Tell them that the time has come for outside professional help…otherwise, it’s an unfixable relationship.
  • Close with these 3 critical thoughts: I love you, I want us to stay married, and things must change for us to remain a couple.
  • Listen carefully to your spouse’s response, which may be: Defensive (“I don’t have a problem”)
  • Critical (“I don’t have a problem. You have the problem”)
  • Placating (“Sure, I’ll do whatever”)
  • Honest and Open (which might look somewhat defensive and critical at first, but eventually accepting the notion of needing help).
  • about facts, dates, or details (like how much they drink, or whether they’re “just friends” and “fooling around” with the sexting, etc.) Paraphrase the 3 ideas again. I love you. I want to continue to do so. And change is a must.
    • Ask if they will get professional help with you—this is the ultimate goal for “The Conversation.”
    • If you don’t get buy-in right away, end the conversation. Ask if he/she will carefully consider what you’ve said.
    • Bring it up again. In a few days or a week,  and in the same way. This is essential. You want your spouse to take you seriously. You’re in an unfixable relationship. And you want to fix it.
    • Don’t make demands. Don’t have an ultimatum with a specific date, but gradually increase the intensity of your confrontation with each “Conversation.” Introduce the idea that you’re not getting through. Now the “Conversation” is I love you; I want to remain married. Certain behaviors must change. And I’m not getting through to you.
    • If you have the sad realization that this habitual behavior will not change, consider telling them a final date by which you would like them to comply.
    • If they still refuse, then tell them that because your wishes have not been respected, you have made a sad and serious decision to end your marriage. Some partners at this point will relent, but don’t count on it. Action, not words, are the only redemptive behavior at this point.

    This decision tree will allow you to hold a differentiated stance from your partner. This will also help preserve your mental health at this tough time. It will also allow your partner to have as great an appreciation as possible for how grave the situation is from your side of the street. As it stands, your partner knows that you feel that you are in an unfixable relationship.

    The ball is in their court, and they know that you are ready when they are…

    Because You Want to Get Through to Them Once and For All…

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. This may seem absolutely wrong, but when I asked my now ex-wife to go to marriage counseling, I wanted her to change back to what she was before our daughter had died. I didn’t say that, but wasn’t willing to settle for the explosive and just plain weird things she was doing (she probably had had a major depression, and considering that she later abandoned and cut off both me and our surviving children, that seems likely)..

    What is the best way to save a marriage when they have faced a major crisis – we had the death of a child, followed almost immediately by a hurricane/flood – and one seems to have a severe mental health problem?

    1. You’ve faced, as a couple, two of the worst disasters that can befall a couple, Oliver. I doubt many of us could resolve that without the help of a trained science-based couples therapist. Contact us or find a Gottman or EFT certified therapist in your area…Dr. K

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