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Whether Couples Therapy Follows

The culminating moment in our work came when Michael told me that, although he now understood intellectually that there were good reasons to try to reconcile, his heart just wasn’t in it: he didn’t really “want” Jennifer as a husband should want a wife. He had no desire for her romantically, no sexual passion. It would be faking it to continue together under these circumstances. I tried standard therapist lines, such as the value of trying the behavior first (acting loving and romantic) and seeing whether the feelings came back. I talked about love being a decision, a choice, and not a mysterious force outside of our volition. I made an analogy to times when we don’t feel much spontaneous love for our teenagers, but we dig deep and hang in there with them until our parental affection resurrects. Michael politely told me that he’d thought of all of this (other therapists had tried these approaches), but at the end of the day, he didn’t see how he could make use of couples therapy if he had no feelings of desire to draw on.

I’ve developed a question for situations like this, which requires a careful and dramatic setup. I said, “I’m going to ask you something now that I’d like you to think about before answering.” Then I asked slowly and deliberately, “Do you want to want Jennifer? Do you want to want to have feelings for her? If I could take a magic wand out of this desk drawer and grant you the wish that you’d love and desire your wife, would you want to be granted that wish?” After Michael was speechless for the first time in our work, I told him that this was too important a question to answer right away if he was uncertain. Would he be willing to think about it before our next session? He wrote the question down. In the couple check-out, he tearfully told Jennifer that this was a question he wanted to do soul searching on because it seemed so important. Jennifer’s boundaries were intact enough by this point for her to listen to him with compassion, putting aside her hurt that the question required him to think so hard. The next day, Michael e-mailed me that he realized he very much wanted to want Jennifer, and would like to begin the reconciliation work. He didn’t shift overnight, but Michael did commit to the work of changing himself so that he could love Jennifer again.

Other times in Discernment Counseling, couples decide not to pursue reconciliation in couples therapy, and end up divorcing in a better place. In one case, the couple had been separated after the husband’s affair, but had remained in almost daily contact for a year. He often ate dinner with his wife and the kids, and did family activities on weekends. She’d talked to a divorce lawyer, but had put the divorce on hold. He’d initiated Discernment Counseling through his lawyer’s referral in order to save the marriage—a rare initiative on his part, which impressed his wife and gave her hope. But he remained ambivalent about changing his dysfunctional relationship with alcohol—he’d had a DWI and had nearly lost his professional license—and accepting responsibility for endangering the marriage through his affair. He told me he was “not going to crawl back home on my knees asking for forgiveness”; the sex in his marriage had been bad for years, and his wife was part of that problem.

Over three discernment sessions, the leaning-out wife came to see her role in the distance they’d created in the marriage, but I supported her view that her husband needed to show that he was stepping up to accept responsibility and work on serious change if they were to have a chance at a healthy marriage. He never did.

They stopped Discernment Counseling, but the wife came back to me after several months. She wanted my feedback on her decision to restart the divorce process. I supported her sense that her husband apparently was unwilling to take the major steps needed to save the marriage; in fact, he seemed to be going in the opposite direction. I accepted her sense that it was time for her to give up hope for a successful reconciliation, and aim instead for continued good coparenting. I affirmed her long, hard effort to avoid this outcome—important now and in the future, when she, like other leaning-out spouses, would be asked by their children why they’d ended the marriage.

At the end of the session, I told her that if her husband got in touch with me to debrief about what happened, I’d tell him what I told her, and I’d see whether this impending divorce might motivate him to work on his problems. However, I assured her that I wouldn’t try to create pressure on her to change her mind about the divorce. (I was worried about another round of his last-ditch but halfhearted efforts to avoid divorce.) “Who knows what he might become in a few years if he gets serious about his problems,” I said. “He’s the father of your children, and if he changes for the better, that’s a good thing. You can always make other decisions later about your relationship with him, but for now, you know what you have to do.” When Discernment Counseling ends with at least one partner having clarity and confidence about divorcing, and in commitment to good coparenting, I consider it a success.

The most successful divorcing cases are those in which both parties have come to see their marital narrative in a more complex way, each a coauthor and not just a character in a script handed to them. The healing power of Discernment Counseling for couples who divorce stems from the absence of pressure to change the marriage, the expanded narrative of the marriage that it yields, the individual work on self-differentiation, and the carefully orchestrated sharing the couple does at the end of sessions. By going through this crucible, the couple acquires a deeper, richer level of knowledge about their relationship and the problems they faced that they couldn’t resolve in the end. In Discernment Counseling, the only failure is not to have learned anything.

For mixed-agenda couples who decide to embark on a journey of reconciliation, I’ve found the subsequent couples therapy to be more focused and intense because of our time in Discernment Counseling. The couples therapy is front-loaded with a different agenda that we’ve developed together. This agenda not only includes directly clinical material, but may result in agreement on drawing on other resources, including alcohol assessment, financial counseling, a couples retreat weekend, or a return to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation. In other words, we negotiate a full-bore reconciliation plan; we don’t just drift into therapy. This may be their last best chance to restore the marriage: it’s all-hands-on-deck time. As the weeks and therapy sessions go by, all three of us know whether we’re on a healing trajectory, or whether the reconciliation effort isn’t gaining traction. Surprises seldom appear at the six-month mark, but the couples who’ve been in Discernment Counseling are likelier to give couples therapy a genuinely good try, not a halfhearted effort.

The big blind spot for many couples therapists is forgetting that there are always two commitment issues on the table whenever we start working with a couple: their commitment to each other, and their commitment to healing their relationship in therapy. In other words, the issues are whether they’re going to stay together, and whether they’re going to work together on the marriage. Mixed-agenda couples come to us emotionally raw, holding tickets for different destinations for their marriage, often having said dreadful things to each other, feeling like failures in past couples therapy, dealing with third parties who are lining up to take sides, and fearing both the unknown abyss of divorce and the slow death of a miserable marriage. With so much at stake, we owe them more than fumbling approaches that ignore the realities of what they’re confronting.

William Doherty, Ph.D., is professor of family social science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. He’s the author of the books Take Back Your Marriage and Soul Searching, and is cofounder of the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists. Contact:

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  • Comment Link Tuesday, 10 July 2012 19:41 posted by dina lankester

    Great article on a very common presenting problem, highlighting common pitfalls.
    Thanks for the posting.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 10 July 2012 19:39 posted by dina lewis

    enter your message here...

  • Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2011 10:36 posted by Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

    “Discernment Counseling is all about helping both parties own their own contributions to the marital problems before deciding to exit a failing marriage”
    But what about the couples who continue to be on different sides of the choice—a leaver and a Stander? The now-Leaving partner may refuse continuing counseling, but what do you or will you offer in the way of help to the Standing spouse and how will you support him or her in their Stand?

  • Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2011 10:36 posted by Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

    What about Leaning Outers who are in an on-going affair—usually the case at my forum? The may be pressuring the Leaning-Outer to not only leave but to also file for divorce.
    Is it more true that counseling will not work when a third party is involved? That’s what I’ve been told and believed, but individual counseling can remains beneficial—though most MLCers refuse any kind of counseling other than a first session or two to help the spouse accept the end.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2011 10:36 posted by Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

    “I’ve been amazed at how much challenge leaning-in partners will accept from me in Discernment Counseling because they know I want to help them pull their marriage out of the fire.”
    But what about those leaning-out partners who agree to continue, but they are only doing it to help their spouse accept the end (the leaning outer ‘knows’ it’s inevitable) or to get their spouse off their back?
    Soon after Bomb Drop Sweetheart agreed to go to a single session with me—to help me accept the end and this is common with others at my forum.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2011 10:35 posted by Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

    “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.”
    Okay, but in many situations isn’t this still too fast? And it is still about exploring which path—thus focused on marriage-divorce. For some Leaning-Outers would it be more helpful to suggest they make no decision, but instead put their marriage on a shelf and work on themselves? That is what I advised Sweetheart to do—probably a few times over the years he cycled in-and-out. I told him I was not going anywhere and so I would not pressure him to work on us, choose me, go to therapy… and if one of his fears was that he might choose me and I’d have changed my mind I reassured him that was not what would happen. It took a long time before he truly believed that; I had to prove it through his cycling in-and-out.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 17 December 2011 10:34 posted by Kenda-Ruth Stumpf

    Thank you so much for this article. I have several different questions along with comments and since they are varied I would like to submit them separately.
    I am not a therapist. I run a website and support forum for Standers and the main issue is midlife crisis (MLC), typically with infidelity. I reference them to your list of Family Friendly Therapists—but I wish the list were bigger.

    “After 40 years of marriage and 33 years as a marital therapist, my own view of incompatibility is that it’s much overrated.”
    Thank you. To me it is like some convenient-sounding excuse—along with irreconcilable differences—that means nothing in the long run.
    Compatibility is a result of a concerted effort to work together; it doesn’t just happen or already exist.