My Networker Login   |   

2002 November/December (2)

Friday, 02 January 2009 11:12

The Untold Story

Written by



The Untold Story

Carol Gilligan on Recapturing the Lost Voice of Pleasure

by Mary Sykes Wylie

In the early 1980s, soon after the publication of psychologist Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice , Lauren Slater, later to become the author of such daringly autobiographical works as Prozac Diary and Lying , was an unfocused psychology graduate student at Harvard, struggling (and failing) to write fiction. She decided to take Gilligan's lecture course in developmental psychology, a decision that changed her life. "Even in this large lecture hall, she created this sense of connection and intimate discovery," recalls Slater. "Listening to her, I could suddenly see that my difficulty wasn't that I had writer's block or no talent or a lack of motivation, but that I was disconnected from myself and my own particular voice. Fiction, for me, was all about artifice, wearing masks, putting words into made-up characters' mouths, and making up 'pretend' voices. I had spent much of my life talking in a 'pretend' voice, and I needed to say things straight, in a voice that was my very own."

This dawning revelation of a long-suppressed private self simmering below the surface is exactly what legions of women felt while reading In a Different Voice by Gilligan, which today remains among the most influential feminist works ever written, as Zeitgiest-altering in its way as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique . Gilligan's In a Different Voice has sold more than 750,000 copies (an astonishing feat for an academic book), and has been translated into 17 languages. After 20 years, it's still a staple of virtually every gender-studies reading list in America.

Now, Gilligan, after coauthoring and coediting five books with her students, has written The Birth of Pleasure, which is, she says, the "culmination of a trajectory" begun with In a Different Voice. Where Gilligan previously called for a different voice, now she's writing in a different voice. She draws on her research with adolescent girls and also her work with young boys and adult couples in therapy to highlight a path of resistance to the losses of voice and relationship that she documented in her previous work. With the Psyche and Cupid myth, which she uses to frame her discussion, and a range of plays and novels, poems and diaries, she places evidence drawn from contemporary research in a broad cultural and historical context to explore the psychology of love and the relationship of tragic love stories to patriarchal cultures. Again, she's working in the tradition of clinical analysis and narrative research, rather than statistical analysis of numerical data. In joining research evidence and literary examples, The Birth of Pleasure is cut from the same cloth as In a Different Voice, even if the weave is more intricate, the structure more complex, the design more sweeping.

So, why is it that critics seem either to love or hate this book? There's been virtually no neutral response. University of Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter in the Times Literary Supplement describes the book as a "thrilling new paradigm." Robert Coles chose to run a long excerpt from the book in Doubletake under the title "A Radical Geography of Love." In the Boston Globe, columnist Ellen Goodman calls it a "bold and boundary-breaking book." Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues , says that "Gilligan's book does no less than reconfigure what it might mean to love and be loved, a revolutionary act in itself."


And yet, other reviewers seem to be taking part in a public stoning, attacking her book with the ferocious glee of the Taliban cornering a heretic. " The Birth of Pleasure fails on nearly every level . . . a sticky paste of unproven assertion, anecdote-as-data and swaths of memoir," writes journalist Emily Nussbaum in The New York Times. Reviewer Judith Warner of The Washington Post found the book "horribly dated. . . . It rambles . . . it meanders. . . . It is solipsistic . . . . I couldn't make heads or tails of it." "Smudgy thinking . . . poetic obscurantism . . . psychology gives way to mystagogy," writes Margaret Talbot in The New Republic.

Controversy is one thing, and by no means a bad thing, for a writer with a history of challenging received opinion. But, the reaction to The Birth of Pleasure seems extreme, often veering from criticism to outright contempt. Catharine Stimpson, dean of graduate students at New York University, wonders in a recent article for the New York Observer (titled "Who's Afraid of Carol Gilligan?") why reviewers of The Birth of Pleasure, itself a "hopeful vision of happiness and love," appear to be taking part in a "cultural blood sport," whipping up "some of the most disparaging reviews I've ever seen." What's this orgy of journalistic abuse all about? Is the book really so terrible? Or is there something about the message in The Birth of Pleasure that makes it even more disturbing than In a Different Voice or Meeting at the Crossroads --both of which were also attacked, although not with the same venom. Or are we living in a different era in which the kind of feminism that Gilligan represents now seems out of synch with what today's tough-minded, presumably long-since-liberated women want to read?

IN A DIFFERENT VOICE challenged theories of psychological development--based on studies of men and boys only--that, since the time of Aristotle, had assumed women were inferior to men in their capacity for moral reasoning and lacked a clear sense of self. Gilligan showed how women's voices, once heard in their own right and with their own integrity, change the conversation by drawing attention to aspects of human experience that previously were dismissed or silenced. The different voice was a relational voice. In contrast to an ethic of justice linked to ideals of autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency, Gilligan described an ethic of care linked to realities of relationship and enjoining responsiveness, responsibility, and carefulness rather than carelessness toward oneself and others. It was an ethic based on a more psychological understanding of the human world.

After the social explosiveness of '70s feminism, Gilligan's book didn't initially seem all that radical. Low-key and nonpolemical, In a Different Voice didn't catalog outrages against women or attack men or male supremacy. Yet it effectively challenged the supremacy of an intellectual tradition built on the idea that, literally, psychology is the study of man . The book struck an emotionally-resonant chord in a whole generation of women, who recognized themselves in its pages--their own vague and undefined sense of not being heard, of learning to put on their own "pretend" voices. "Gilligan's book changed my view of feminism," says Carol Hekman, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, who had already written her own book about feminism. "She challenged the idea that there is one, singular and absolute path to either philosophical or moral truth. In fact, her view of feminism challenges the entire Western tradition--you can't get more revolutionary than that."


The claim doesn't seem entirely exaggerated. Gilligan's work inspired a flood tide of research and scholarship in fields ranging from psychology to ethics, literature to law. Gilligan's research with girls following the publication of In a Different Voice similarly led to a wide range of educational, artistic, and cultural projects designed to encourage girls' voices and build on their psychological strengths. Primary and secondary schools throughout the country responded to Gilligan's call to help girls resist conventions of femininity that were psychologically and intellectually costly (conventions that required girls to be nice, to silence an honest voice, and suppress vital parts of themselves) by developing more girl-friendly curricula and teaching methods. She's often credited with being the spirit behind the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, which banned sex-role stereotyping and gender discrimination in the classroom. Her work also gave a big boost to the study of differences in the way men and women communicate, resulting in both serious scholarship and pop-psychology sensations like Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand and John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Not surprisingly, as one of the few academics who also has become a popular superstar, Gilligan has come in for numerous honors. The first Graham Professor of Gender Studies at Harvard and a recipient of the prestigious Heinz award for her contributions to understanding the human condition, she also was named "Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine in 1984, and one of "America's most influential people" by Time Magazine in 1996. In fact, Hollywood superstar Jane Fonda was so taken by Gilligan's work that she donated $12.5 million to Harvard in Gilligan's honor to create the Harvard Center for Gender and Education. The coauthor and editor of a series of books on gender and development over the past two decades, Gilligan initiated the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, a program called Strengthening Healthy Resistance and Courage in Girls, and retreats for women educators and therapists called "Women Teaching Girls/Girls Teaching Women." She also became artistic codirector of an all-woman theater company, The Company of Women, and founded the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development and the Culture of Manhood. Recently, after nearly 35 years at Harvard, Gilligan moved to New York to become University Professor at New York University, where she's affiliated with the law school, the graduate school of arts and sciences, and the school of education.

In The Birth of Pleasure, her first solo-authored book since In a Different Voice, Gilligan shows how the tragic love story reflects a process of cultural initiation and is tied to an ancient agenda (think Abraham and Isaac, Agamemnon and Iphigenia) that even now is played out in the fears of connection that shadow the lives of men and women. Why, Gilligan asks--and sets out to answer--do we keep reliving this old story, generation after generation; why do we reinstate the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy that dates back to 5th-century Athens? Why are so many couples afraid to truly open themselves to each other? Why are there such walls of silence between men and women? Why do boys, at 4 or 5, begin to hide their vulnerability and cover up their feelings in order to become "real" boys? Why do girls, at 12 or 13, begin to conceal what they're really thinking, stop "seeing what they see, knowing what they know," and begin second-guessing themselves?

The short answer is that emotional truths and the ability to "say what we see, know what we know" go underground in the interests of the long-standing patriarchal order we call civilization. Gilligan defines feminism as the movement to end the age-old contradiction between democracy and patriarchy. Patriarchy, in her view, isn't a battle between the sexes but a system that constrains both men and women; literally, it means a rule of fathers, separating some men from other men, fathers from sons, men from women, thus "introducing hierarchy in the midst of our most intimate relationships, between parents and children, between lovers." The stifling constraints of patriarchy are passed on, generation to generation, and compromise our psychological development from early childhood, hobbling love, making pleasure dangerous, and enforcing taboos against truth-telling.


The Birth of Pleasure is reminiscent of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents --but with one striking difference. Where Freud sees tragedy as inescapable (symbolized for him by the Oedipus myth), Gilligan sees a history of psychologically driven resistance, as manifested in the myth of Psyche and Cupid---a myth that ends with the birth of a daughter named Pleasure. She observes that as patriarchy forces a break in intimate relationships, thus inhibiting love, so love holds the power to uproot patriarchy. People can, and do, resist society's iron framework; they can find a true voice within themselves and heed what they know through experience.

The Birth of Pleasure isn't an easy read. It's a complex, idiosyncratic, many-chambered labyrinth of a book. The style is often elliptical, with sections linked together more by association than logical sequence. In fact, it may be that the book's critical reception--both positive and negative--stems as much from its medium as its message. Catharine Stimpson suggests that Gilligan is bucking a literary trend; these days, people have grown suspicious of bold, intellectual leaps, preferring straightforward, linear argument, written in plain, muscular prose, and backed up with scads of numbers. The Birth of Pleasure is clearly not that kind of book.

Despite the initial hailstorm of attack, The Birth of Pleasure may well be considered, as the positive response suggests, as much a classic in the realm of psychology and social commentary as In a Different Voice. Though it's too soon to have hard sales data, the book appears to be selling well--perhaps as well, or better, than In a Different Voice, when it first came out, and Vintage Press will soon publish a paperback version. Networker readers will have an opportunity to gauge their own response to Gilligan's message when she delivers a keynote address based on The Birth of Pleasure at our annual Symposium next March in Washington, D.C.

In a recent conversation, Gilligan, no stranger to public controversy, seemed cheerfully philosophical about the polarized response to her new book. Looking elegant and youthful--with her long skirt slit up the side and silver bracelets--she seems to have more affinity with the world of art and theater than social science. She laughs often as she speaks and has a way of drawing out the people around her, inviting confidences that makes it only too easy for the interviewer to want to tell her about his own life story. In the following interview with Networker editor Richard Simon, she talks about some of the connections between her life and work that she hasn't discussed in print before and offers her view of the historical transformation she believes we're now undergoing. Throughout. she projects a calm certainty, seeing her work as part of "a quiet revolution in the human sciences" that holds the potential of changing our view of ourselves and our lives.

-- Mary Sykes Wylie


Psychotherapy Networker: Here I'm sitting with the Tiger Woods of interviewing. Can you give me some pointers. How do you approach the people you interview in your own research?

Carol Gilligan: I approach them with a desire to learn from them or to discover with them what they know. Research is very different from therapy, in that therapy starts when someone arrives with a problem, a desire for help, a wish to sort out something. Research begins with the researcher's question. So I begin by asking a question and then I listen--and the way of listening is key. How do you listen when you want to discover another person's inner world, as opposed to figuring out where someone falls on your map of the world? In the research leading to In a Different Voice, I wanted to discover how people speak to themselves about themselves and about morality at a time when they're facing an actual choice, meaning one in which they'll have to live with the consequences of their decision. I was going to interview Harvard students--men facing the Vietnam draft--but then the draft ended and the Supreme Court legalized abortion, so I interviewed a diverse group of pregnant women who were considering abortion.

In the kind of discovery research I do, the relationship is critical. A woman once said to me: "Do you want to know what I think, or do you want to know what I really think?" How do you approach someone when you want to know what they really think? I think I have a good ear for the rehearsed story, and then I listen for the story under that story. I find that when I tell someone, "Here's my question, this is why I'm here, this is what I'm interested in learning from this conversation," and then listen as best I can to what they're saying, I can ask almost anything in pursuing my question because the lines of the relationship are clear. The more I speak for myself, I think, the more they're likely to do the same.

Here's a good example. At the end of a five-year research project, I met with the girls who had participated to ask them how they wanted to be involved, publically, now that we were presenting our findings at conferences and preparing to publish a book. I was meeting with the girls in 9th grade, who had first been interviewed when they were 9. Their first response was, "We want you to tell them everything we said and we want our names in the book." But then Tracey, imagining encountering her 9-year-old self in a book, says, "When we were 9, we were stupid."

There are many things I could have said at that point; I could have paraphrased what she said, or repeated it back, or tried to reassure her by saying, "No, you weren't stupid." Instead, I said what I was thinking: "You know, it would never have occurred to me to use the word 'stupid' because what struck me most about you when you were 9 was how much you knew." At which point, Tracey said: "I mean, when we were 9, we were honest."

I've found that if I say what I'm really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation.


PN: Isn't trusting your own reactions in that way tricky for a researcher? How do you make sure that your own biases and assumptions don't color the answers you get?

CG: That's a good question, and it goes to the heart of how I think about research. I think of research as a relationship. If you stick to your list of questions no matter what the response, if you cover your own thoughts and reactions, then how will this kind of nonresponsive relationship color the answers you get? I don't think there's a psychologically or culturally neutral situation. If you say nothing, you leave prevailing cultural biases and assumptions in force, and the people you're studying will have their own biases and assumptions about what you're after. You could try to fool them by deceiving them, but I think people are pretty savvy in reading the human world. So I try to negotiate my relationship with people and for myself; I strive for a kind of Zenlike innocence, where I work from a genuine position of not knowing.

In The Birth of Pleasure, I write about a couple in which the husband is obsessed with whether his wife has had an affair. He says that his "ultimate nightmare" is "her in the arms of another man." Now, I know the culture of male honor, and in this sense, I understand what he's saying, but I also can think of worse nightmares. So I say: "Why is this the ultimate nightmare?" And he says, "I guess the ultimate nightmare, really, for me, was to never have the opportunity to show her how I really feel and to be a family man, to open my heart, and to love her." I was taken completely by surprise. I never imagined this response, but it's the moment that interests me most, when a gap opens between the "I" and the culture. The moment when a voice that has been held in silence suddenly speaks. What's key here is that my question was a genuine question.

PN: What do you mean by a genuine question?

CG: Something I'm genuinely curious about, so in that sense it's a real question, something I don't know the answer to or even the range of possible responses--because I never would have anticipated the husband's response. Sometimes, one question builds on another. Once I discovered how astutely girls can read the human world, I wondered can't boys do this, too?

PN: Reading the hostile reviews of The Birth of Pleasure, you'd think that feminism isn't only dead but has become almost a dirty word. One critic dismissed the kind of feminism you represent as "horribly dated," and others have taken you to task for laying all our social ills at the feet of patriarchy.


CG: To me, it's ironic to pronounce feminism dead at the point in history when women's votes are determining the outcome of elections, when most American families no longer resemble the Dick-and-Jane patriarchal family, when more women are gaining an economic foothold, when feminism has opened a new conversation about domestic violence and sexual abuse, and when so many women worldwide have no effective voice and are living in poverty. I define feminism as the movement to end the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy, and I see us now as being in the midst of this struggle. Patriarchy means a hierarchy, a rule of priests in which the priest or hieros is father. It separates some men from other men, fathers from sons, and all men from women. Patriarchy isn't dead--look at who runs the Fortune 500 companies and Congress--but it's in trouble. Look at Enron and WorldCom, and the scandal in the Catholic Church and the FBI and CIA.

I say in my book that the most volatile moment in therapy is when people begin to envision the new. Then it's very tempting to turn back, because at least the old is familiar, "I love my neurosis, I know the whole script." So, given all the remarkable changes that began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and have led to social and cultural shifts that are on the scale of the Protestant Reformation, it doesn't surprise me that we're now seeing something akin to the Counter-Reformation, and even the Inquisition.

PN: Let's go back 20 years to the publication of  In a Different Voice, which was for many people a landmark book that brought a feminist voice into the social sciences. How did it occur to you to write that book?

CG: At the time, I was in my thirties, had finished my Ph.D., and had no intention of going on in psychology. I was the mother of three small children, a member of a modern-dance troupe, an activist in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements. My husband was a psychiatric resident and I taught part-time to make some money so I could have some help in the house. I had the opportunity to teach with Erik Erikson at Harvard in his course on the life cycle and then with Lawrence Kohlberg in his course on moral and political choice. In the course of teaching, I became interested in how people respond to actual situations of conflict and choice, and I started doing some research with a few graduate students, focusing on turning points in people's lives, times when the "I" surfaces around the question of "What do I want to do?" and morality comes into play around the question "What should I do?" I interviewed people and I listened for a first-person voice and also for moral language, words like should and ought and good and bad and right and wrong.

In 1975, we moved from Newton to Brookline, and I stayed home that year to help my three young sons settle into a new school and neighborhood. I was interviewing pregnant women who were considering abortion, and I remember sitting at my kitchen table reading over the interview transcripts and suddenly hearing a difference between the terms of the public abortion debate (right to life vs. right to choice) and the women's concerns about acting responsibly in relationships, because for many women, the abortion dilemma was a dilemma of relationship. Listening to these women, I heard a conception of self and of morality that differed from Erikson's and Kohlberg's theories.


I remember my friend Dora came in and I said to her, "I can see why these women don't fit into Erikson's or Kohlberg's stages--they're starting from connectedness rather than separateness. And Dora said, "That's really interesting. Why don't you write about it?" So I did. It was the first time I wrote something that wasn't for school. The essay, "In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and of Morality" was published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1977. In a Different Voice came out in 1982.

PN: When did it first dawn on you that this book was going to have the sort of impact that it's had?

CG: On the day I went to pick up the retyped manuscript from a woman who lived in a working-class neighborhood in Somerville. Harvard press had sent it to her, and when I arrived, she said that she hoped I didn't mind, but she'd given it to her cousin upstairs to read and her cousin wanted to meet me. It was at that moment that it occurred to me that the audience for the book might be much wider than I had ever imagined.

What many people don't know is that when the book first came out, it got very mixed reviews. Kirkus Reviews said, in effect, "Nothing new here." The  Times reviewed it, which was great, but the review was mostly lukewarm, except for one very strong, positive sentence, which then was widely quoted. Arthur Rosenthal, the director of Harvard University Press, made a brilliant publishing decision to bring it out very quickly in paperback and price it low so it could be a second course adoption. An editor at the press told me that what I wanted was slow, steady sales, which is what happened.

And then people I didn't know began talking to me about the book. A woman working in a local store asked me, "Are you the woman who wrote that book?" and then said that I had explained her marriage; a Globe reporter stopped me on the street and said that I had explained his divorce. Many women have told me they remember where they were when they read the book, and how they felt suddenly that what they really thought or felt about things made sense. The book spoke to and also about a voice inside them that told them they were wrong or stupid or crazy; it challenged the legitimacy of that voice. So many women felt heard and able to speak in a new way. And the book also legitimized for men a voice that had been associated with what were seen as women's weaknesses, but which I identified with human strengths.


PN: So what was it like to become revered suddenly as this feminist icon?

CG: I don't see myself as an icon. I was very moved by the response to my book; it brought me into relationship with many people whom I otherwise would not have met. I also discovered that in becoming a public figure, I became a focus for all kinds of projections that had little to do with me. And then I became a focus of political attack, because In a Different Voice was seen as encouraging women to listen to their own voices--like the Soccer Moms in the 1996 election who didn't vote with their Republican husbands.

What many people don't know is that at each step along the way, my work has been both celebrated and contested. After In a Different Voice came out, a symposium was held at the next meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Three leading women psychologists were on a panel organized to criticize my work. There was no voice of support, and I was to respond to my critics. The symposium was held in the ballroom. I felt I was being invited to the Star Chamber. After Meeting at the Crossroads, the book I wrote with Lyn Mikel Brown about our research with girls, I was attacked in cover stories in The Nation, The New Republic, and The Atlantic, two of which were entitled "Gilligan's Island," as if in working with girls, I had separated myself from reality.

PN: What were the main criticisms and how did you answer them?

CG: They had to do with my use of the word "different" and also with questions of method. I had said very clearly in In a Different Voice, that the "different voice I describe is identified not by gender but by theme." My point was that including women changed the voice of the conversation, leading both women and men to hear themselves and one another differently. Including women shifted the paradigm--this was what I demonstrated in my book. Just as the girls' research revealed girls' resistance to an initiation into ways of seeing and speaking that made it hard for them to say what they saw or know what they knew through experience.

I think the response to my work was due to the fact that so much of what I said rang true. I remember Catherine McKinnon saying to me, "What I hate most about your work is that it's true," meaning women often do speak in the way I describe, which she saw as the result of women's oppression. Psychologists criticized my research because I didn't do statistical analysis, but my questions weren't statistical questions--how much, how often, how many. As a colleague who studies language pointed out, to illustrate a difference, all you really need is one example.


My question was, given that the major theories of psychological development had been written on the assumption that man=human, what difference does it make to include women? What can be learned by listening to women and girls? And my writing offered an answer to those questions. But it was a little crazy-making for me to hear people describing the differences I heard and then arguing that there were no differences. Eleanor Maccoby subsequently apologized to me for this, but I remember her introducing the panel at SCRD by saying "A colleague, male of course, stopped me on the way to the ballroom and said 'I'll see you at the shoot-out at the OK Corral,'" which got a big laugh, and then she proceeded to read her paper, which basically said there were no sex differences.

PN: So that was the intellectual side of the controversy. But emotionally, how did you handle all this hubbub?

CG: You have to remember, I had been active in Civil Rights, in the anti-war protests, and in the women's movement. I was a Swarthmore College graduate with a deep appreciation of the Quaker tradition of simplicity and a suspicion of conventional markers of success. I saw the controversy over my research in political terms, as a fight about a paradigm shift that had widespread implications. I also was embedded in relationships that sheltered me from the controversies of the academic world. I spent a lot of time with my children, my husband, and my parents, who were still alive at the time. It was a very different time. In June, when school got out, I'd take my kids and go to Martha's Vineyard for the summer. I never worked in the summers. My identity didn't center on my position at Harvard, which was very part-time for many years. I wasn't invested in becoming a member of the Profession of Psychology. But psychology, small p, fascinates me--understanding the human world and how it works.

PN: In a Different Voice was a direct challenge to two extremely distinguished academics with whom you had worked very closely, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg. How did they respond to having their work called into question.

CG: You want to know how the "fathers" responded? I had taught with each of them after finishing my PH.D. I respected their work enormously and learned from them--about the importance of placing life-history in history, about the necessity of talking about questions of value. I didn't see myself as challenging them but challenging the paradigm or theoretical frame. This is where they didn't agree with me. Larry and I taught together after In a Different Voice, and taught explicitly around our disagreement as to whether the differences introduced by women's voices could be accommodated within his theoretical framework, or whether they implied a paradigm shift.


I used to tell women graduate students, half-seriously, that the role of slightly rebellious daughter was one of the better roles for women living in patriarchy. And as I loved my father, I felt very warmly toward both Erik and Larry. Larry wrote a blurb for my book. But if I had to paraphrase what they thought, I'd say: "I like her, she's bright, she writes well, she's fun to be with, and it's important for women to study women. But change my theory--you've got to be kidding."

And then, because my work implied a change in theory, there was a concerted effort to discount or refute that challenge, which Larry Kohlberg and his supporters were involved in. I remember hearing after the meeting of my tenure committee that Larry had represented the psychologists' response to my work as entirely negative, which wasn't true. He ignored the strongly positive review of In a Different Voice in Contemporary Psychology and the journal articles supporting my findings. To get tenure, you had to do work that changed the field and, clearly, I had done that. So I confronted Larry and, using his language, said it wasn't fair--that I had done as much as he had done when he was tenured. He asked me what I wanted him to do (by this point, the dean had taken him off the review committee) and I said I wanted him to write a letter saying this and supporting my tenure, which he did. I think he had become too identified with his theory.

PN: In The Birth of Pleasure, you describe discovering your memories of pleasure with your mother and also some of the difficulties in your relationship at the time of your own adolescence. She seemed to be the primary bearer of cultural messages about femininity.

CG: My discovery that Anne Frank, when she edited her diary, omitted her descriptions of pleasure with her mother led me to ask myself how I had edited my memories of my relationship with my mother. What surprised me was how accessible my memories of pleasure with her were, once I found the key. It was a Proustian experience.

For Proust, the lost time that he recovered was a time in early childhood. For me, it was early adolescence. These are times of heightened risk in boys' and girls' development, and through my research, I came to connect this risk with the initiation into patriarchal gender codes that occurs earlier for boys than for girls. Proust saw his mother as carrying the burden for this initiation, and I saw my mother as doing the same.


Once I recalled my memories of pleasure with my mother, I could understand better the confusion I experienced when she'd shift from being in relationship with me to teaching me what I needed to do in order to have "relationships" in the world at large. There was one incident around In a Different Voice, when she spent an entire day reading galley proofs with me, which was so meaningful to me, especially given the substance of that book. We sat on the red sofa in my living room together, and then after we finished, she picked up one of the pillows and said, "You have to remember to fluff up these down pillows," which I heard as a criticism of my housekeeping. So there it was, both sides of our relationship.

PN. So much of your work has been about voice and the psychological costs of feeling silenced. You've just described people taking issue with your voice. What was it like to have your own voice challenged in that way?

CG: The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard. When people talk about me or my work in ways that have little or nothing to do with me or with what I've written, or when they speak about me as though I don't know the first thing about research, I wonder what's going on. For example, In a Different Voice isn't a book about how all men differ from all women--I give examples of men using the "different voice" and of women speaking about rights and justice, and say clearly that I'm contrasting two ways of imagining self and relationship that leads to different ways of speaking about moral problems. My title is In a Different Voice, not "In a Woman's Voice"--the question is different from what, and I contrasted women's voices with what was then the voice of psychological theories. The danger, for me, lies in starting to doubt my own writing. Virginia Woolf writes about this danger for women writers, when the infection enters the sentence and you begin within your sentences to double-think yourself in anticipation of not being heard.

PN: Critics have either loved or hated The Birth of Pleasure. How do you understand the intensity of the reaction?

CG: Well, I'm writing about pleasure and also about leaving patriarchy, which are two fraught subjects. I link tragic love stories with the initiation into patriarchy and then show how the findings of contemporary research provide us with a map showing points of resistance and ways leading out of destructive cycles. It isn't surprising to me that people might disagree with me or argue that the evidence I present doesn't support my interpretation. What surprised me was the vehemence and the personal nature of the attacks, which had little to do with the argument of the book, but more with my past work or with the structure of the book, which was incomprehensible to some readers. But I was writing about dissociation, how to break through a wall that separates you from what you know, and I followed an associative method, because you can't argue your way out of dissociation. The structure of the book is orchestral, or like a tapestry with different threads woven together to show a pattern. I wanted to recreate for the reader the journey I had taken in coming to see what I saw. My title, The Birth of Pleasure, reflects the importance of the research I did with girls in leading me to these insights (the Psyche myth that frames the book ends with the birth of a daughter named Pleasure) and also announces a paradigm shift--from a paradigm grounded in experiences of loss ( The Birth of Tragedy ) to one grounded in experiences of pleasure. One colleague speaking of her own experience in reading the book, said: "This book unsettles an adaptation," which is what I intended.


PN: Over the past 20 years, lots of thinkers and practitioners have been trying to bring a feminist perspective to bear on therapy. What are you saying in The Birth of Pleasure that hasn't been said before?

CG: What I can add to this very important conversation about therapy are findings from developmental research. What I think is especially relevant is the discovery that voices that can be clearly heard among young boys and preadolescent girls then become covered by other voices, so it's difficult to remember accurately without actually hearing the voice that's become dissociated from oneself or that's being held in silence. The remembered voice is very different from the actual voice of times before dissociation sets in. A second contribution has to do with realizing the extent to which psychologists have read culture as nature, so that adaptations to patriarchal structures are taken as inevitable facts of human existence. Here my research is instructive because it highlights a resistance that isn't ideologically driven but is like the immune system, a force for psychological health.

PN: You end The Birth of Pleasure by saying: "We have a map. We know the way." What does that way look like?

CG: It's a way of staying in relationship with the different parts of oneself, with others, and with the world. It means not giving up relationship, which is part of our birthright, for the sake of having "relationships."And the key here is pleasure. It's hard to fake pleasure, although perhaps for this reason, pleasure has gotten something of a bad name, becoming associated with license or irresponsibility rather than with joy and with freedom. Pursuit of happiness. It's part of the Declaration of Independence. The loss of a voice grounded in experience, including experiences of pleasure, compromises love, but it also compromises democracy.

PN: I know that The Birth of Pleasure isn't a clinical book, but is there any advice you'd offer therapists that might be helpful to their work with clients?

CG: I'd encourage them to listen for the untold story, which is often a story about pleasure. When I joined Terry Real as a cotherapist working with couples, I was struck by how often a story about pleasure lies underneath a story about loss. Anger at mothers--which is crucial to hear and respond to--is often closer to the surface; what often goes unnoticed are memories of pleasure. A man I call Dan was coruscating in his descriptions of his mother's intrusive behavior, and it would have been easy to overlook his saying, almost in passing, "My mother and I were buddies, we were pals."

I'd tell therapists to pay attention to resonance, because voice depends on resonance. We're surrounded by cultural resonances that affect what can and can't be said and heard. If a therapist wants to hear a voice that's been ignored or discredited, he or she will have to create a resonance that signals the possibility of this voice being heard. We know this now with respect to trauma. The Birth of Pleasure does this for love.


PN: What's particularly interesting for those of us who identify you with your research with girls and women is how much of your new book is about boys and men. I was especially struck by your statement, "Within a patriarchal society and culture, mother and son are a potentially revolutionary couple."

CG: I speak from experience, as the mother of three sons. What's revolutionary is this relationship. If sons stay in connection with mothers and mothers with sons, the patriarchal plot cannot go forward, because it depends on breaking this relationship. I know how often I felt pressured in the name of psychology or for the sake of my sons' masculinity to separate myself from them or them from me, as if our knowing each other would stand in the way of their becoming men. It would stand in the way of their seeing the world through a patriarchal lens, which loses the interiority or subjectivity of women. Olga Silverstein has written very powerfully about the courage it takes to raise good men. And many of us have now done this, and the implications are revolutionary, calling for new ways of structuring both work and family life.

PN: So here's my final question. How does The Birth of Pleasurer reflect your own experience of marriage?

CG: I knew you'd get around to that. I write about my own dreams in the book because if something is true psychologically, it's true for me, too. And the same is true with pleasure. Like many people of my generation, meaning those of us who married before all the rules changed, I've been in many marriages with the same person. When I think about marriage I think of the infant research, showing that relationships follow a tidal rhythm--finding and losing and finding again. So Jim and I will lose our experience of pleasure with each other, and then we'll find it again, and it's the finding that's crucial. What's important is not to get stuck in the loss, to resist the pull of tragic love stories. And then sometimes pleasure comes in unexpected ways. I remember Jim showing me the opening of his first book and my intense pleasure in reading it. He was describing his experience as a boy growing up in Nebraska, looking up at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way, and the writing was so exquisite and naked and emotionally true, it was the voice of the man I had fallen in love with, a voice I find irresistible. And there it was on the page in front of me.

I see The Birth of Pleasure as a hopeful book. I hope it's not foolishly optimistic. I wanted to encourage people to listen for the voice of pleasure in themselves and in others, to stay with the vulnerability of joy, and to cast a skeptical eye on tragic love stories.

--Richard Simon

Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is a senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker .

Richard Simon, Ph.D., is the editor of the Psychotherapy Networker and author of One on One: Interviews With the Shapers of Family Therapy . Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to


Tuesday, 30 December 2008 13:55

Bad Couples Therapy

Written by


Bad Couples Therapy

Betting Past the Myth of Therapist Neutrality

by William Doherty

I want to propose a new competition for therapists: awards for the worst experiences doing couples therapy. My own entry would be in the category of a worst experience as a new couples therapist in the first session. It was 26 years ago, but as they say, it feels like yesterday. As a graduate student, I'd done individual counseling before, and had worked with parents and kids, but had never worked with a couple. Thirty minutes into the first session, when I was lost in the midst of a meandering series of questions, the husband leaned forward and said, "I don't think you know what you are doing." Alas, he was right. Naked came the new couples therapist.

Since then, as we say in Lake Wobegon, I like to think I've become an above-average couples therapist, but that might not be much of a distinction. A dirty little secret in the therapy field is that couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists aren't good at it. Of course, this wouldn't be a public health problem if most therapists stayed away from couples work, but they don't. Surveys indicate that about 80 percent of therapists in private practice do couples therapy. Where they got their training is a mystery, because most therapists practicing today never took a course in couples therapy and never did their internships under supervision from someone who'd mastered the art. From a consumer's point of view, going in for couples therapy is like having your broken leg set by a doctor who skipped orthopedics in medical school.

What's my evidence for these assertions? Most therapists today trained as psychologists, social workers, professional counselors, or psychiatrists. None of these professions requires a course in marital therapy. At best, some programs offer an elective in "family therapy," which usually focuses on parent-child work. Only the professional specialty of marriage and family therapy, which constitutes about 12 percent of psychotherapy practitioners in the United States, requires coursework in couples therapy, but even there you can get a license after working only with parents and kids. After coursework, few internship settings in any field give systematic training in couples therapy, which isn't ordinarily a reimbursable service.

The result is that most therapists learn couples therapy after they get licensed--through workshops and by trial and error. Most specialize in individual therapy, and work with couples on the side. Most have never had anyone observe or critique their couples work. So it's not surprising that the only form of therapy that received low ratings in a famous national survey of therapy clients, published in 1996 by Consumer Reports, was couples therapy. The state of the art in couples therapy isn't very artful.

Why is couples therapy a uniquely difficult form of practice? For starters, there's an ever-present risk of winning one spouse's allegiance at the expense of the other spouse's. All your wonderful joining skills from individual therapy can backfire within seconds with a couple. A brilliant therapeutic observation can blow up in your face when one spouse thinks you're genius and the other thinks you're clueless--or worse, allied with the enemy. After all, one spouse who agrees with you too vociferously can dramatically undercut your effectiveness.

Couples sessions can be scenes of rapid escalation uncommon in individual therapy, and even in family therapy. Lose control over the process for 15 seconds and you can have spouses screaming at each other and wondering why they're paying you to watch them mix it up. In individual therapy, you can always say, "Tell me more about that," and take a few minutes to figure out what to do next. In couples therapy, the emotional intensity of the couple's dynamics doesn't give you this luxury.

Even more unnerving is the fact that couples therapy often begins with the threat that the couple will split up. Often, one spouse is coming just to drop off his or her partner at a therapist's doorstep before exiting. Others are so demoralized that they need an intense infusion of hope before agreeing to a second session. Therapists who prefer to take their time doing their favorite lengthy assessment instead of intervening immediately may lose couples who arrive in crisis and need a rapid response to stop the bleeding. A laid-back or timid therapist can doom a marriage that requires quick CPR. If couples therapy were a sport, it would resemble wrestling, not baseball--because it can be over in a flash if you don't have your wits about you.

As in any sport or art form, there are beginners' mistakes and advanced practitioners' mistakes. Inexperienced and untrained couples therapists don't manage sessions well. They struggle with the techniques of couples therapy, and clients often sense that these therapists aren't skillful. More advanced therapists can manage sessions well with challenging couples, but they make subtler mistakes, of which neither they nor their clients may be aware. I'll start with beginners' mistakes and then describe how couples therapy can go south, even in the hands of experienced therapists.

Beginners' Mistakes

Mistake No. 1--Lack of Structure: The most common mistake made by inexperienced couples therapists is providing too little structure for the sessions. These therapists let spouses interrupt each other and talk over each other. They watch and observe as spouses speak for each other and read each other's minds, making attacks and counterattacks. Sessions generate a lot of energetic conversation, but little learning or change. The partners simply reproduce their familiar patterns in the office. The therapist may end the session with something blandly reassuring like, "Well, we've gotten a number of the issues on the table," but the couple leaves demoralized.

Screenwriters are onto this fundamental clinical mistake. In the movie The Ref, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are a warring couple in a therapist's office. At one point, they turn to the therapist, almost pleading for him to intervene in their bickering. He says reflexively, "What I can say is that communication is good." Later, he adds, "I'm not here to give advice or to take sides," whereupon Davis shoots back, "Then what good are you anyway?" When the therapist loses control completely and begs the couple to lower their voices, they shout back, "Fuck you!" in unison--the first time they've agreed on anything in the session.

Sometimes a therapist who doesn't create a clear structure for the sessions will conclude that some clients aren't good candidates for couples therapy because they're too reactive in each other's presence. The upshot is a referral, splitting up the partners for individual therapy, which might further erode the marriage. I once saw a tape of an inexperienced couples therapist who announced that the sessions didn't seem "safe enough" for the angry spouses. (There was no evidence of physical violence or emotional cruelty in the relationship.) The real issue wasn't the couple's ability to handle the joint sessions--it was the therapist's ability. She was the one who didn't feel safe.

I remember when I first realized that I had to ratchet up my structuring skills. I was working with a couple in which the husband was Israeli and the wife American. David was opinionated and assertive, but loving and committed. The challenge I faced in the early sessions was his tendency to interrupt his wife, Sarah. I tried to keep him at bay with my standard armamentarium of diplomatically crafted "I-statements." "David," I'd say, "I'm concerned about your interrupting Maria, which means she can't finish her thought. I'd like to reinforce the ground rule that neither of you interrupts the other. Is that something you're willing to commit to?" He'd agree, be cooperative for a while, and then start interrupting again when she got his goat. Finally, I fell back on my working-class Philadelphia roots, bluntly instructing him, "David, stop interrupting your wife. Let her finish." He looked as though he was taking in my message for the first time. "Okay," he replied meekly. Thereafter, when he'd start to interrupt, I'd keep looking at Sarah while waving my arm in his direction, shooing his comments away. He cut it out, the therapy progressed, and I realized I'd reclaimed a piece of my Philly street past that I could use when the occasion required.

Mistake No. 2--No Plan for Change
: After lack of structure, the most common complaint I hear is that many therapists don't recommend changes in the couple's day-to-day relationship. Some therapists act as if insight alone is enough to help couples change intractable patterns of thinking and acting. But we all know that certain dynamics within a relationship have a life of their own. I start emotional, you start rational, I get angrier, and you get more controlled. Then I mention your mother and you blow up, which pleases me immensely. Just pointing out this dynamic isn't enough to change it. All empirically supported forms of couples therapy require active interventions aimed at teaching couples new ways to interact. Most involve homework assignments. Of course, just making interventions isn't enough if they're too global or generic. If my wife and I are fighting continually over her mother, saying to us, "Remember to paraphrase and use your other communication skills" won't take us very far. Good therapy addresses the way couples actually do their own particular dance, both during the session and back at home.

Mistake No. 3--Giving Up: The third common mistake of inexperienced therapists is giving up on the relationship because the therapist feels overwhelmed with the couple's problems. I've heard enough stories about therapists who abandoned ship too soon to be confident that this is a common mistake. In one case, the therapist did an assessment during the first session, and in the second session pronounced that the couple was incompatible and weren't candidates for couples therapy--without ever trying to help them. In another case, a woman whose husband was becoming emotionally abusive as his Parkinson's disease progressed told me that, at the end of the first session, the therapist had said, "Your husband will never change, so you have to accept what he's doing or get out." Translation: "I don't have a clue about Parkinson's disease or how to help an elderly couple with serious marital problems, so I'm pronouncing yours a hopeless case." This also kept the therapist's average length of treatment in favorable territory with his managed-care employer.

Some therapists survive the early sessions but get frustrated later and actively advise couples to separate. When deciding that the couple isn't amenable to treatment, they don't seem to factor in their own skill level. They may further reduce their own sense of responsibility by making a delayed diagnosis that one of the spouses has a personality disorder. This often means nothing more than "I can't work with this person." Giving up this way is akin to a primary care physician's pronouncing a patient incurable without referring the patient to a specialist in his or her life-threatening condition. I once worked with a young family physician who had a rule that no one should be allowed to die without a consultation from a specialist in what is killing them. I would argue the same for couples: treatment failures, especially those that lead to divorce, shouldn't be accepted without a consultation or referral to a competent, experienced therapist who specializes in working with couples.

Experienced Therapists' Mistakes

Mistake No. 1--Thinking All Couples Are Equal: Advanced practitioners' mistakes are more about strategy than technique, more about missing the context than specific relational dynamics, and more about unacknowledged values than lack of knowledge. I'll focus on two areas of poor couples therapy by experienced therapists: working with remarried couples and working with couples deciding whether to work on their marriage or divorce.

Remarried couples with stepchildren are a minefield, even for experienced therapists, because the partners almost always come with parenting issues, not just couples problems, and because many therapists miss the nuances of stepfamily dynamics. Therapists who specialize in adult relational work but aren't skilled at parent-child therapy will fail with these families. Experienced therapists who treat remarried couples like first-marrieds usually manage the individual sessions well, but use the wrong overall strategy.

I remember my own awakening on therapy with remarried couples almost as clearly as I remember my first session of couples therapy. It was in the spring of 1985, and I'd been trying to get Dave and Diane to reduce conflict in their two-year-old marriage by being equal parents with Kevin, Diane's challenging, 14-year-old son from a previous marriage. It was a familiar coparenting problem. Dave thought that Diane was too soft on the boy, and Diane thought Dave was too strict. They'd sometimes  reach a "compromise," but Diane wouldn't follow through on it. I'd helped many couples with this kind of bread-and-butter problem in family therapy, but I was stuck here. I can feel the chair I was sitting on when I said to myself something like, Bill, why are you insisting that this woman share parenting authority equally with this man? He didn't raise Kevin, Kevin doesn't see him as a father, and Dave doesn't have the same investment as Diane does. She can't treat Dave as an equal here, so stop beating up on her for not succeeding.

I realized that I was misapplying a norm about coresponsibility in biological coparenting to a family structure where it didn't apply in the same way. I then told the couple that I could understand why Diane couldn't give Dave equal say in disciplining her son--the fact was that Diane was the parent. With so many years invested in her son and Dave's relationship with Kevin so new, she couldn't share authority 50-50. I introduced a metaphor that I would come to use often with stepfamilies: in the parenting domain with her child, Diane was the "first violinist" and Dave "second violinist." Diane immediately was relieved, and Dave immediately was alarmed. There was a lot of work ahead, but they did achieve a workable coparenting relationship based on Diane's leadership with her son. Shortly thereafter, I read Betty Carter's work on stepfamilies in which she argued for treating the spouses as having different roles with the children, and then I came across new research by Mavis Hetherington making the same point. Stepfamilies are a different species, and couples in these families have to be treated with different approaches. Many experienced couples therapists still don't know this--or even if they do know it, still lack a viable treatment model.

Beyond coparenting leadership issues, couples in stepfamilies swim in a sea of divided loyalties, which even experienced therapists sometimes miss. I once consulted on a case of a recently married couple in which the wife had three children and the husband none. One thorny issue was that the husband felt left out of the wife's emotional world because they had little time alone together. The wife agreed, and she told the therapist how torn she felt about this. She loved her husband and wanted the marriage to work, but her three school-age children required nearly all of her time after work and in the evenings. She helped them with their homework every night, and they had the kind of extracurricular activity schedules that render contemporary parents part-time chauffeurs and full-time activity directors on the family cruise ship. Weekends were spent doing errands and driving the kids to their traveling soccer games.

In one of the early sessions, the therapist, who was highly experienced in couples work, empathized with the wife's feeling caught between the needs of her husband and those of her children, and supported the wife's decision to prioritize the children. The therapist explained that these years of raising school-age children are ones in which the children's time demands are huge, and the marital relationship inevitably has to take a back seat. She said that, as a wife and mother, she herself knew about these demands, which ease when children get older. In other words, the therapist normalized the marital gap in terms of the family life cycle, recognizing especially the unique strain on a wife who couldn't meet everyone's needs. The wife burst into tears at feeling so deeply understood and accepted. The therapist then turned to the husband and gently asked him for his feelings and thoughts as he'd followed the conversation and seen his wife's pain and tears. The husband, a "good guy," who didn't like conflict, owned that he'd been selfish and pledged to back off on his demands for more time with his wife, promising he'd be more understanding in the future.

The session ended with a warm glow. The couple agreed to continue working on other issues that had brought them to therapy. The therapist was pleased at how she'd been able to combine her clinical skills and her own experience as a wife and mother to help this couple. A few days later, the husband called to end the therapy, saying tersely that they'd decided to continue to work on things by themselves.

The therapist was stunned and consulted with me. I helped her see that she'd missed that there were two distinct family developmental stages at work in this case. Yes, the parent-child development stage was one of intense time demands (leaving aside for the moment the overscheduling supported by the wider culture), but the marital-developmental stage had its own pacing needs: a puppy marriage needs time for play and nurturing. To put aside their new marriage for years on end is dangerous. Of course, it's dangerous even in long-term relationships, but at least there may be a strong foundation and memories of good years. The husband was appropriately worried about the viability of a neglected new marriage. What struck me was how even a skilled, experienced couples therapist had misunderstood the special needs of a remarried couple.

Mistake No. 2--Not Standing by Marriage: If beginners give up on couple relationships because of lack of skill, experienced therapists sometimes give up on couples because of the values they hold about commitment in a troubled marriage. I've heard experienced therapists announce proudly, "I'm not here to save marriages; I'm here to help people." This split between people and their permanent, committed, intimate relationships (which is how I'm defining marriage ) has a superficial appeal. No one wants to save a marriage at the cost of great damage to a spouse or the children. But the statement reflects a troubling--and usually unacknowledged--tendency to value a client's current happiness over everything else.

One highly regarded therapist in my local community describes his approach to working with couples in this way: "I tell them that the point is to have a good life together. If they think they can have a good life together, then let's give it a try. But if they conclude that they can't have a good life together, then I tell them maybe they should move on." Again, at one level, this sounds like practical advice, but as a philosophy of working with marital commitment, it's lame. How does it differ from counseling someone about a job decision? If you think that your frustrating accounting job can eventually work out for you, then try to improve the situation; if not, move on. Most of us didn't stand up in front of our family, our friends (and maybe our God) and declare our undying loyalty and commitment to Arthur Andersen LLP, but we did so with our spouse.

In this way, the ethic of market capitalism can invade the consulting room without anyone's seeing it. Do what works for you as an autonomous individual as long as it meets your needs, and be prepared to cut your losses if the futures market in your marriage looks grim. There are legitimate reasons to divorce, but given the hopes and dreams that nearly everyone brings to a marriage, divorce is a wrenching, often tragic, event. I see divorce more like amputation than like cosmetic surgery. That's a different value orientation than that of one prominent family therapist who sees his job as helping people decide on their best option. "The good marriage or the good divorce," he told a journalist, "it matters not."

A lesbian therapist told me of how her own therapist wouldn't permit her to bring the children's needs into the therapy conversation when she was contemplating whether to stay with her partner. "This isn't about the kids," the therapist insisted. "It's about what you need and want." When the client objected that she had to weigh the kids' needs in her decision, and wanted to talk about it, the therapist balked, insisting that the client was avoiding dealing with her real issues. Finally, the client fired the therapist. Later, she told me that she and her partner had found a way to stay committed, improve their relationship, and raise their children together. The therapist in this case was a highly regarded professional, a "therapist's therapist" in the community.

It was an experience that happened to a couple who are close to my family that radicalized me about how today's therapists deal with commitment. It's a story like many others I've heard from clients, colleagues, and friends. Monica's life was thrown into chaos the day that Rob, her husband of 18 years, announced that he was having an affair with her best friend and wanted an "open marriage." When Monica refused, Rob bolted from the house and was found the next day wandering around aimlessly in a nearby woods. After two weeks in a mental hospital, diagnosed with an acute, psychotic depression, he was released to outpatient treatment. Though he claimed during his hospitalization that he wanted a divorce, his therapist had the good sense to urge him to not make any major decisions until he was feeling better.

Meanwhile, Monica was beside herself. She had two young children at home, held a demanding job, and was struggling with a serious chronic illness diagnosed a year before. Indeed, Rob had never been able to cope with her diagnosis, or with his own job loss six months later. (He was now working again.) In addition, the family had just recently moved to a new city.

Clearly, this couple had been through a lot of stress. For a former straight-arrow man with strong religious and moral values, Rob was acting in a completely uncharacteristic way. Monica was depressed, agitated, and confused. Being an intelligent consumer, she sought out recommendations and found a highly regarded clinical psychologist. Rob continued in individual outpatient psychotherapy, while living alone in an apartment. He still wanted a divorce.

As Monica recounted, her therapist, after two sessions of assessment and crisis intervention, suggested that she pursue the divorce. She resisted, affirming her hope that the real Rob would reemerge from his mid-life crisis. She suspected that the affair with her friend would be short-lived (as it was). She was angry and hurt, she said, but determined not to give up on an 18-year marriage after only one month of hell. The therapist, according to Monica, interpreted her resistance to "moving on with her life" as stemming from an inability to "grieve the end of her marriage." He then connected this inability to the loss of her mother when Monica was a small child. Monica's difficulty in letting go of a failed marriage, he claimed, stemmed from unfinished mourning over her mother's death.

Fortunately, Monica had the strength to fire the therapist. Not many clients would be able to do that, especially in the face of such expert pathologizing of their moral commitment. It was equally fortunate that Monica and Rob found a good marital therapist, who saw them through their crisis and onward to an ultimately healthier marriage. When I last saw them, Rob was more emotionally available than I'd ever seen him before. He and Monica had survived an intervention that I call therapist-assisted marital suicide.

The therapist's blundering in this case stemmed not from clinical incompetence in knowledge and technique, but from his values and beliefs. He simply didn't recognize the importance of a commitment made "for better or worse." Like attorneys who automatically fight their clients' opponents, some therapists encourage clients to rid themselves of currently toxic spouses, rather than working hard to see what can be salvaged and restored. This approach may be wrongheaded, even when it comes to individual well-being. Recent research by sociologist Linda Waite has found that the great majority of unhappy spouses who persevere in their (nonviolent) marriages for five years report marked improvements in their marriages, and that divorce, on average, doesn't make people in unhappy marriages any better off in personal well-being.

Ultimately, clinical skills aren't enough in couples therapy, because here, more than in any other form of therapy, our clinical skills and values intersect. Treating a client's depression or anxiety doesn't involve the kind of value judgments that working with couples does. Feminists were among the first to point out the inevitability of moral positions in couples work. You can't work with heterosexual couples without a framework that addresses justice and equality in gender relations. If you claim to be neutral, you'll enact whatever traditional value orientation you have about women and men and how they should make a life together. The same is true for race and sexual orientation. Not to have a moral framework is to have an unacknowledged one, and in mainstream American culture, that will probably be individualistic rather than relational or communitarian.

Just as clients who value gender equality won't be well served by therapists with traditional value orientations about gender, clients who cherish their moral commitment to their marriage, as Monica did, won't be safe in the hands of clinically skilled couples therapists who have individualistic orientations. Such clients need therapists who understand the wisdom of Thornton Wilder when he wrote: "I didn't marry you because you were perfect. I didn't even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn't a house that protected them; and it wasn't our love that protected them--it was that promise."

The biggest problem in couples therapy, beyond the raw incompetence that sadly abounds, is the myth of therapist neutrality, which keeps us from talking about our values with one another and our clients. If you think you're neutral, you can't frame clinical decisions in moral terms, let alone make your values known to your clients. That's partly why stepfamilies and fragile couples get such bad treatment from even good therapists. Stepfamily life is like a morality play with conflicting claims for justice, loyalty, and preferential treatment. You can't work with remarried couples without a moral compass. Fragile couples are caught in a moral crucible, trying to discern whether their personal suffering is enough to cancel their lifetime commitment, and whether their dreams for a better life outweigh their children's needs for a stable family. The therapist's moral values are writ large on these clinical landscapes, but we can't talk about them without violating the neutrality taboo. And for clients, there's the scary fact that what therapists can't talk about may be decisive in the process and outcome of their therapy.

In the end, we need to cultivate wise couples therapists, not just competent ones. Wise therapists see the whole context of people's lives, and can reflect openly and deeply on values and broader social forces influencing the profession. My wisdom won't be the same as yours, but we have to engage one another on the big questions, instead of hiding behind the wizard's veil of clinical neutrality. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntrye wrote that, in a world that seduces professionals into seeing their work as the delivery of technical services stripped of larger social context and moral meaning, the hallmark of a true profession is a never-ending argument about whether it's being true to its fundamental values, principles, and practices. In other words, becoming a competent couples therapist is just the first step in becoming a good one.

William Doherty, Ph.D., is professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. Address: Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, 290 McNeal Hall, St. Paul, MN 55108. E-mails to the author may be sent to