What It's Like To Be A Relationship Expert — But Terrible At Relationships

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What It's Like To Be A Relationship Expert — But Terrible At Relationships

It was a week before Bryant Gumbel announced he was retiring from morning TV. At this moment, we are mano a womano behind the anchor desk at The Early Show. The cranky media star is hounding me about a subject in which I have no expertise — the plight of weekend-golf widows. 

However, I do have expertise in something else: confidently pretending to have expertise. Lacking a psychology degree or a successful relationship hasn't deterred me from publishing two self-help books, writing an online advice column, and charging $100 an hour as a dating coach. Personally, I feel lonely, despondent, and unloved; professionally, I am the queen of psychobabble.

Gumbel reads from the segment producer's notes on my advice for golf widows: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Tossing me a look of contempt, he says, "This one should jack up the national divorce rate."

It's my national morning-show debut, and my precarious "relationship-expert" hat has been tipped askew. Realizing it is smarter to acknowledge Gumbel's "witticism" than to kick him under the desk, I laugh appreciatively, then opine in Oprah-esque fashion: "Of course, it would be a disaster for the couple to play together until she's learned the game. But not as big a disaster as if the husband tried to teach his wife golf. The only thing dumber is volunteering to teach your partner how to drive."

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"Bingo!" Gumbel says. For the first time that morning, he regards me as if I have an IQ. I find myself hoping that the shrinks I called for tips about the golf-widow phenomenon are still asleep. Seeing the glint of grudging approval in my interviewer's eyes, I think of Gary Horowitz — my elementary-school boyfriend and the first in a procession of alpha males who gave me their version of the "It's not you, it's me" spiel. Ha! If my exes are watching me now, my vindication is complete.

"Good job, Sherry," Gumbel says as we break for a commercial. 

I demonstrated the truth of the cliché that those who can't do, teach.

My career as a relationship know-it-all began shortly after my marriage did a 180, leaving me emotionally and financially bankrupt. These days, my standard response to anyone experiencing doubts about going through with a legal union is to listen to his or her gut. The night before my wedding, my gut sang arias, performed jumping jacks, and did everything but foment an appendicitis attack to get my attention.

No use. Like most of the stubbornly clueless I now counsel, I ignored my instincts and at age 20 committed myself to a lying spendthrift who snaked through our meager nest egg. Four years later, I ran for my life. Within days, the magazine company I toiled for — inappropriately named Ideal Publishing — also went belly-up.

Scrambling for a new beginning (at least I had the sense to search for a something rather than a someone), I parlayed my love of writing and telling others how to run their lives into a gig editing Woman's Own magazine. Before long, I was offering nuggets like "It's important to recognize signs a guy won't hurt you before you're sucked in, and to open your heart to the appeal of that worthy specimen known as a diamond in the rough."

Readers may have embraced these "obvious-isms," but I wasn't through with my own bad-boy run.

I loaned my newly replenished savings to a live-in lover eager to start a business managing fellow stand-up comics. That enterprise bombed; so did our relationship.

My bank account once again decimated (eight years later, I'm still waiting for repayment), I still didn't question my taste in men. After all, talk shows were calling Woman's Own to seek my input on topics such as "My Fiancé's a Flirt."

I was a natural, from the beginning. I would spend mornings distraught over a promising date that had morphed into a silent phone, yet once the TV-camera lights glowed, I'd quip, "Crying over a man who doesn't appreciate you is as wasteful as buying retail. Cut your losses and go for the true bargain." I wasn't sure what that meant, but since my host would chortle appreciatively, I came to realize it wasn't the soundness of the advice that mattered, but its entertainment value. After one Good Day New York appearance, in which I was introduced as "Sherry Amatenstein, relationship expert," a former boyfriend's mother, chancing upon the program, scoffed, "Expert? That's David's ex-girlfriend!"

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I rationalized that I wasn't doing harm because the dilemmas I "solved" were relatively lightweight. How much damage could I inflict telling well-meaning mamas on a "Mom's Pushing Me to Marry" segment to "butt out or risk creating reverse Romeo-and-Juliet scenarios for their altar-shy kids"?

But I craved integrity, and resolved never to exaggerate my credentials.

When Montel came calling, I warned his producers not to let the irrepressible host call me a shrink; I was a "relationship writer." (I never voluntarily wore the "expert" tag.) The day before the taping, I received a 15-page fax containing pre-interviews from the troubled guests. My stomach sank; this was tough stuff. (Dominica: "I don't want a boyfriend to be faithful; he'd want me to be faithful." José: "If my woman no be faithful, I sleep with her best friend.") The producers requested that I be "fun."

Borrowing from the shrink Bob Newhart played in his first TV series, I role-played with the couple: "To be more empathetic, you need to put yourself in the other's shoes. Dominica, pretend you're José, who values fidelity. Now imagine how he'd feel to discover his woman had cheated …" I was cookin' — until Montel scolded his rambunctious studio audience to "Let the doctor speak."

In the sudden hush, I winced, then thought, "Mom wanted me to marry a doctor: I hope this will satisfy her."

"Doctor" label aside, that escapade left me feeling queasy. Helping couples cope with possible infidelity could have infinitely more toxic consequences than advising women whether or not to pay on a first date—especially since Montel's "aftercare" consisted of my delivering a five-minute post-taping consult in the dressing room.

I suggested that the couple seek therapy, then went home to write a column on "The Aretha Principle: Respect Your Relationship Enough to Treat Your Partner Right." Readers responded appreciatively. (Phew.) I remained the relationship fairy, sprinkling good love advice around.

After Montel, I quit tabloid talk-TV, but did accept a Learning Annex request to host a seminar. I nixed their first idea, "How to Steal Another Woman's Man" (integrity alert!), but signed on to lead "Picking Up Girls — For Men Only."

Considering my tendency to hang in a corner at parties, too self-conscious to even smile, I was going to need balls to counsel 40 penis-owners on flirtation tactics.

Channeling Carrie Bradshaw, I strode to the front of the classroom and asked the nervously giggling, mostly fashion-challenged crew what they hoped to gain from the evening. The first answer, "Help! As soon as women look at me, they run for the hills," aroused my sympathy. The second, "I want to see what chance I have if I leave my wife," did not. I suggested to the would-be adulterer that marriage counseling might be a better option.

One of my acolytes was kinda cute, funny even. Why was he here? If only he would ask me out. But wait — that was why he was here: no guts.

Quickly, I donned my "expert" cape. "You see, gentlemen," I lectured, "it's not about putting on an act, but about being yourself." They looked at me like I'd cracked open the Holy Book.

Sherry, the false prophet. So unable to help myself, could I truly be helping others?

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Mired in self-doubt, I decided that one way to gain legitimacy was to write a book. Publisher after publisher turned down my proposal for a romance-advice tome. Where were my credentials? My new job at a women's Web site wasn't a suitable substitute for a degree. Undeterred, I wrote a proposal for The Q & A Dating Book, which had me posing questions to "real" experts and choosing the best answers. In an ironic twist, the publisher who finally made an offer (sufficient for a few Frappuccinos) demanded that instead of soliciting advice, I answer the questions myself: Otherwise, my book would seem like an anthology. The "expert" classification was proving impossible to shake.

Journalists at publications from The New York Times to the site you're reading now were now routinely calling me for quotes. The better talk shows invited me on, although the topic du jour often had nothing to do with my area of "expertise." (Football widows, anyone?) With book number two, credentials weren't an issue anymore. When I got the prepublication galleys for Love Lessons from Bad Breakups I reread my advice—and concurred! Somewhere along the way, I'd stopped needing to quiz experts and become secure in my own opinions.

Lonely singles contacted me to coach them into successful relationships.

Initially hesitant to put up my shingle, I salved my conscience by promising clients not a primer on how to meet a mate in 30 days, but a sincere attempt to cheerlead as we figured out their dating blocks. I used solid techniques (e.g., charting a love history) that clients credited with helping them change their points of view. Rather than trying the techniques myself, I bought a desk placard that read TAKE MY ADVICE, I DON'T USE IT.

While I told my friends I wanted to meet someone, it felt safer to hide behind my persona. Who needed love when I had something larger — the gratitude of those I'd helped find it? But I wasn't immune to desire: After leading a seminar on the dangers of online dating, I fell into a headlong cyber-romance with a man who was happy to commit via computer (in three weeks' time, we exchanged 300 emails), but quickly broke my heart when we met in person.

I emerged from my Kleenex box for a debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Michael Jackson's onetime spiritual adviser, on "Honesty in Relationships: How Much Is Too Much?" It soon became evident that the rabbi was casting me as an advocate of falsehoods. "No, no," I protested. "If couples can't be truthful, they can't have anything real."

"So, Sherry," Rabbi Boteach queried sweetly, "You counsel others on how to find love. Are you in love?"

I stared into the auditorium at rows of trusting faces, then back at my adversary. "Yes. I'm very happy."

Lying to a rabbi in front of witnesses: Integrity, MIA.

My choices were to dive back into the Kleenexes or begin taking stock. Truth was, I didn't suck at helping people—and I did my best never to betray their trust or to promise more than I could deliver. What I sucked at was helping myself.

It takes more guts to ask for help than to offer it. But I refuse to continue being a coward. That's why I took the twin leaps of entering therapy and enrolling at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. And I'm finally in a respectful and nurturing relationship with the person I've most neglected: me.

Sherry Amatenstein is a relationship writer and the author of Q and A Dating Book: Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and The Complete Marriage Counselor: Advice from America's Top 50 + Couples Therapists.