To Stay or Not to Stay: A Protocol for Couples Considering Divorce

By Doherty, William | Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

To Stay or Not to Stay: A Protocol for Couples Considering Divorce


Doherty, William, Psychotherapy Networker


TO STAY OR NOT TO STAY

A Protocol for Couples Considering Divorce

When people considering divorce come to therapy, they're often too discouraged to make a quick and firm recommitment to the marriage. For this reason, I generally frame the commitment decision as provisional: whether or not to work hard in therapy to try to restore the marriage. I seek an agreement for six months of therapy, with the divorce decision off the table until the end of that period. Real work in therapy isn't feasible, I point out, if the threat of divorce is constantly present and can be brought forward after a bad fight or a bad day.

Whether to stay and try to save the marriage or leave and divorce is actually a decision made by each individual spouse, not by the two of them together. Each person must make a separate decision about saving the marriage, and if both people want to try, then we move forward with the therapy. If one decides to not try, then we can't proceed with couples therapy. That's why I work with each spouse separately for the down-and-dirty discussions about the future of the relationship. I've found that many people won't be fully honest with the other spouse present when weighing whether to continue trying to save a marriage, either because they fear hurting the other or being retaliated against.

In most cases when a marriage is on the brink, one partner is leaning "out" of the marriage and the other is leaning "in." In working with such couples, I recommend a protocol I adapted from a terrific presentation I heard Betty Carter give in the 1980s. The assumption here is that there's no clear and present danger to the well-being of either spouse.

-Explore all sides of the divorce decision: the needs and claims of the distressed client, the spouse, the children, relatives, and others. Don't be reluctant to ask about stakeholders if the client doesn't bring them up.

-Don't give direct recommendations about whether the client should stay or leave; it isn't your decision.

-Know that your influence won't be neutral. Take responsibility for the influence you'll inevitably have on the client's decision-making process. Pay attention to the meaning of your statements about your views on marriage and divorce.

-Don't claim to be doing marital therapy at this point. Frame this as decision-making work, with therapy starting only when both people decide to work on the relationship. Otherwise, an ambivalent spouse may bail out after a couple of sessions because the "therapy" isn't working.

-Since your own values about marital commitment and divorce will become clear during the process, consider making them transparent to the client at the beginning. …

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