Couples on the Brink: Stopping the Marriage-Go-Round

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COUPLES ON THE BRINK

Stopping the Marriage-Go-Round

by William Doherty

Let's face it: psychotherapy isn't dramatic, and most therapists don't rate high on a "need for thrills" scale. Someone unfamiliar with our craft might even say that not much happens in therapy sessions: people talk about their problems; we listen, ask questions, and drop in observations and comments. At the end of the hour, clients thank us, pay their bill, and go home. Next session, we repeat the process. No wonder screenwriters feel they must put gangsters on the couch or show psychiatrists like Barbra Streisand, who fall in love with clients like Nick Nolte. Ours is low-key work that's a big yawn to the uninitiated, and to tell the truth, sometimes even to us.

No apologies here for being mundane. Dr. Phil aside, we know that good therapy chips away at problems, building trust and helping people rewire their brains and their relationships, synapse by synapse and conversation by conversation. In most kinds of therapy, we don't often deal with decisions of immediate consequence. Our clients don't noticeably recast their lives after leaving our office on any given week. They get better the way the old joke says a tourist can get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

But it's different when clients talk about their marriage problems. A life-changing decision is frequently on the table--whether to stay in the marriage or leave it. People make this decision during or right after a therapy session, and their lives are forever altered, along with the life trajectories of their partners, their children and parents, and often many others. Even when a divorce is necessary and constructive, it ends a dream and, in the words of the social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, marks the death of a small civilization.

In the crucible of psychotherapy with people on the brink of divorce, what we say has a real impact on people's lives. But most of us have been taught the fiction that we aren't influencing these decisions, or, in any event, shouldn't be influencing them, even though we do so with every word we utter, every time we're silent, every expression on our face. The result is that the most life-altering matter we deal with in therapy, short of suicide, is one we don't talk about much as therapists, don't get training in, and pretend we don't need to develop skills for.

Marriage and divorce are hard issues to talk about in our field right now. The marriage culture wars are in full swing, and everyone is expected to take a side. The Right gets upset if you're pro gay marriage (as I am), believing that you couldn't really be for marriage in that case. The Left gets upset if you "privilege" long-term commitment in that patriarchal institution--heterosexual marriage--believing you must be the dupe of the Religious Right. As a longtime liberal, I feel a bit of whiplash when I talk to both sides. Why can't a nice, NRP-listening, Planned Parenthood-contributing, Unitarian Universalist liberal like me be a fan of committed, lifelong marriage, straight or gay, knowing that not everyone will choose marriage and that some marriages, unfortunately, can't stay the course? The truth is, it took me a long time to come to this "both/and" stance, and it sometimes leaves me without a tribe.

The Objectivity Myth

I don't know about you, but as a young therapist, I learned to treat the divorce decision with pseudo-objectivity. I remember working with Mary Ann, a 35-year-old woman in an unhappy marriage who wanted individual help to decide whether to keep working to change her marriage or end it. She and her husband had two small children. This was the height of the divorce boom in the 1970s, and a number of her friends had recently left their husbands.

Mary Ann felt stifled in a bland relationship with a man who didn't connect with her emotionally in the way she wanted, and who expected her to do the lion's share of the parenting and housework, along with her part-time job. …