Treating the Mixed-Agenda Couple
By William Doherty
At least 30 percent of couples coming to therapy have fundamentally different agendas about whether to try to save the marriage. If we’re ever going to improve our success rates, we need to address that ambivalence from the moment they arrive in our offices.
The trouble starts almost immediately. Doing what you think is your best first-session work, you point to issues they could work on, but the “leaning-out” partner slinks down further in his/her chair. You try your best empathizing with that partner’s hopelessness, whereupon the “leaning-in” partner, sensing you, too, are giving up on the marriage, dissolves into sobs. Soon the session degenerates into blaming and defensiveness, or pleading and cold distance. At the end of this most unedifying hour, you offer a follow-up appointment, half-hoping they won’t come back. You need the business, but not this kind of business.
When you bring the case to your consultation group, your colleagues give you an analysis of the couple’s dynamic, but nothing concrete about what to do. They say you can’t save every marriage (and that you shouldn’t see that as your job), that when spouse A has made up his/her mind to leave spouse B, you just have to accept the decision, and that the leaning-in spouse had probably been guilty of ignoring the problems until it was too late, anyway. You tried, but it didn’t work. The marriage was already DOA when the couple got to your office. All in all, it isn’t your fault. Still, you wonder if there wasn’t a better way for you to have handled this marital emergency-room visit.
Not that it necessarily gets any better if the couple surprises you by coming back for more sessions; they’re just inviting you to get deeply enmeshed in their polarized dance. While never signing up to look seriously at him/herself or make real changes in attitude, the leaning-out partner nonetheless can now check the “tried marriage counseling” box on the good-divorce task list and walk away with a clear conscience. The leaning-in partner, desperately trying to get something going for the marriage, alternates between abject apologies, righteous scolding, and lectures about God’s will for marriage, the decline of the family, and the end of Western civilization as we know it. At this point, you don’t know whether you’re their marriage counselor, their divorce counselor, or an individual counselor to one or both of them. You try to resist your nontherapeutic urge to declare a plague on both their houses.
This “couples therapy” generally peters out within a few sessions. (In my research, the typical divorcing couple with children has had four marriage-counseling sessions, just enough to feel they’ve “tried.”) It’s now time for termination, divorce counseling, or individual therapy for the partner who’s been left. When you process the case again with your colleagues, you’re likely to hear the old saw that you can’t work harder than your clients and a reminder that your job is to help couples who really want help.
Yet there may be something about this pat formulation that bothers you. For one thing, it means that you may be consigning an awful lot of couples to the divorce courts. From my practice experience and conversations with therapists around the country, I estimate that at least 30 percent of couples present with different agendas about whether to try to save the marriage or move toward divorce. Surprisingly common, this clinical presentation still has no name and has garnered little attention. Although there’s a smattering of clinical literature—including chapters by prominent therapists in a 1989 book edited by John Crosby, titled When One Wants Out and the Other Doesn’t—we don’t have a collective body of workable strategies for this kind of couple. But the stakes are high: mixed-agenda couples make decisions that alter their lives and those of their children forever, and as therapists, we’re each making it up as we go along.
Why isn’t the mixed agenda-couple addressed systematically in our clinical models? It’s partly because our best clinical models are developed in research settings today, where you don’t waste resources (and the chance to show that your model is effective) on couples in which one partner has a lawyer on speed dial and is highly skeptical about trying your therapy. When I read this literature, I see caveats that the model applies to situations when both parties are interested in working on their marriage instead of looking for the exit. The older clinical models came from brilliant clinicians who may have mainly attracted couples motivated to take advantage of seeing a well-known therapist. Either way, clinical leaders don’t talk or write much about working with ambivalent couples for whom the first presenting issue is conflict over whether even to try therapy.
True, I’ve known some highly skilled therapists who’ve developed their own effective ways of working with mixed-agenda couples, and I’ve incorporated some of their approaches into my own work, but their practices haven’t been disseminated in the field. Instead, the average couples therapist often makes a fundamental mistake over and over: doing the first phase of therapy the same way for couples motivated to work on their relationships that they do for couples with conflicting agendas about divorce. As a result, most therapists don’t have a systematic way to work with couples when the survival of their marriage is on the line.
In the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, I’ve been working almost exclusively with mixed-agenda couples for the past few years, and have developed a detailed protocol to help me and other therapists do more systematic work. The protocol helps therapists avoid three common mistakes in work with leaning-out and leaning-in spouses. Have no doubt: I’ve made all these mistakes over a 33-year career.
Mistake #1. Pursuing the Distancer
Ambivalent Al appears in your office along with Desperate Diane to perform the American predivorce rite of trying couples therapy. In truth, Al may not be completely sure he wants a divorce—research shows that people go back and forth on this decision—but he’s even less sure he wants therapy to repair the relationship. Meanwhile, Diane sees this first session as the last chance to save the marriage. You work hard to coax Al into using therapy to try to save the marriage, thereby executing the misbegotten strategy of pursuing a distancer—and replicating the marital dynamic, to boot. Al either declines to reschedule or passively agrees to “try” couples therapy. After a handful of going-nowhere sessions, he declares the therapy a failure, or he continues in therapy until Diane gives up in frustration and is forced to take responsibility for starting the divorce process.
Mistake #2: Siding with the Distancer
Here you do join with the leaning-out partner’s reasons for leaving, but unfortunately don’t equally connect with the leaning-in partner’s passion to save the marriage. Trained as we are in sniffing out pathology, we often see good reasons why this marriage is on life support, and correctly note that it will take dedicated effort by two motivated people to turn things around. Since this motivation is lacking in one party, there’s no contract for couples therapy. This analysis pleases the leaning-out partner, but devastates the other partner. The therapist feels the rejected partner’s pain, but offers no hope, and even adds salt to the wound by reminding him or her that in a no-fault divorce state, it takes just one party to end a marriage. At the end of the session, there’s emotional blood on the floor, some of it inevitable, given the stakes, but some coming from the therapist’s mistake of siding with the bolter and bailing too soon on the believer’s hopes that the marriage can be saved.
I recall a couple in which the demoralized wife was stuck about whether to work on the marriage or move on with her life, and the husband got her to come to a couples session. At the end of the first session, I told them that I could do marriage counseling or divorce counseling, whichever they decided they wanted, but I needed a direction. The leaning-in husband was quietly agitated, the wife sullen. They couldn’t agree on a direction during the intervening week, and didn’t return. My need for immediate clarity trumped their need for time and help deciding on a direction. And I offered no hope. They’re on my short list of former clients I want to look up in the great therapy afterlife and say, “I’m sorry.”
Mistake #3: Doing Couples Sessions Only
This mistake doesn’t seem obvious. Why not just keep seeing the couple together and facilitate their communication in therapy about the decision about whether to split up or work on their marriage? For starters, each person has to decide independently whether to move toward divorce or work on the marriage; one can’t decide for the other, and “giving in” leads to nothing good. Whether to stay and work on the marriage is a personal decision best pursued in individual conversations with the two parties, along with carefully facilitated couple-level conversations. Doing traditional couples therapy invites too much risk and vulnerability if you invite the partners to share everything they think and feel in front of the other. In my experience, leaning-out spouses are reluctant to share how little sexual attraction they’ve felt for years, or how they doubt that they ever really loved their mate. Leaning-in spouses fear alienating the other even more if they vent their rage about being the fall guy or their humiliation about being cheated on. In addition, only seeing both partners together in the room can lead either to excruciating disclosures with little immediate chance for healing or to withholding and paralysis, after which someone announces that therapy isn’t working. I know a few therapists who can pull off this high-wire act, managing so much polarization and reactivity without losing either partner, but not many. I used to have my successes and failures with a couples-only approach, but have stopped because I discovered a less risky and more productive way to proceed.
The turning point for me was a workshop given by the prominent family therapist Betty Carter in the early 1990s. I heard her describe how she worked with polarized partners separately and together on their differing goals—working with one to clarify the feelings about divorce versus staying in the marriage, and working with the other to try to save the marriage—and how she shuttled back and forth between individual and joint conversations. Without her experience to rely on, I don’t know if I’d have been brave enough to try this approach. I wouldn’t have believed that couples would accept a counterintuitive way of helping two people with seemingly incompatible goals. In fact, however, couples accept it well—as long as they don’t have to sit there and listen to the other person agonize. Starting from Carter’s approach, I developed an informal way of working with mixed-agenda couples that I’ve used for nearly 20 years. It’s a protocol I call Discernment Counseling. Here’s the guts of the approach.
Discernment in Theory
When one or both of the partners are reluctant to try to salvage the relationship in therapy, I propose this counseling as a short-term process with the goal of achieving greater clarity about whether to try to restore the marriage or to continue toward divorce. I don’t frame the immediate decision as whether to divorce or stay married for life, but whether to carve out a six-month period of all-out effort to restore the marriage to health, with divorce off the table during that time. At the end of six months, they can put the divorce decision back on the table, based on what they’ve learned about the possibility of successfully rebuilding their marriage.
Many experienced therapists use a similar approach of recommending a number of sessions of therapy before a final decision on the marriage. But I’ve learned to be cautious about a quick decision to try couples therapy from the leaning-out spouse; the result often is halfhearted therapy. Instead, I suggest slowing down and spending time (up to five sessions if necessary) to explore which path to take. I want to avoid both precipitous decisions to divorce and precipitous decisions to try reconciliation.
A central strategy of this work is that although the couple comes in together each time, most of the work goes on in separate conversations with each spouse. In the first 40 minutes of the initial session, I see them together and get both their stories and perspectives on the marriage. After asking what they hope to get from seeing me, I inquire about their divorce narratives (how they got to this point), their repair narratives (how they tried to solve their problems and what outside help they sought), and a question about the best of times in their relationship history. I then spend more than an hour seeing each of them separately. During that time, I focus on each one’s agenda (leaving or saving the marriage, along with other agendas) and try to open up a deeper understanding of each one’s contributions to the marital dynamics and areas of potential change. At the end of each individual conversation, I help the partner prepare a summary to be shared with the other partner at the end of the session.