Like the Property Brothers, couples therapists are often sought out by clients to reconstruct and renovate their partnership. But it’s pretty rare for a couple to walk into a therapist’s office in search of a demolitionist to help them tear down the whole structure so they can walk away from it—even when they plan to remain in one another’s lives.

In popular parlance, this subset of couples is sometimes referred to as uncouplers. Katherine Woodward Thomas coined the term in her book Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, but it was famous uncouplers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin who brought the phrase into the mainstream. Therapist Bill Doherty, in response to what he saw as a counseling trend that began in the ’70s, when reactive, thoughtless divorces were far too casually encouraged by therapists, evolved a time-limited, targeted therapy known as discernment counseling. Its goal is to help potential uncouplers think responsibly about the impact of separation on their own and others’ long-term well-being.

As one of those ’70s children-of-divorced-parents myself, I became a couples therapist in large part because I believe the bond two adult human beings create when they marry is worth fighting for with every fiber and cell of their being. If a loving couple shares a meaningful history with no major, deal-breaker issues, my view has been that uncoupling is a premature step at best. At worst, it’s something they’ll agonizingly regret.

Over the last few years, however, my own pro-togetherness bias has been challenged by a new breed of psychologically minded uncouplers. To my surprise, I found that being steeped in attachment-based couples therapy models can actually hinder sensitivity to the nuances of their unique dilemmas.

Even as I remain a staunch advocate of couplehood and its powerful benefits, I’ve increasingly found my work with 21st-century uncouplers turning some of my favorite, long-held views on love, togetherness, and marital success upside down. Ronald and Julia offer a case in point.

Capsizing the Boat

Julia said her reasons for wanting a divorce had nothing to do with Ronald or with the quality of their life together. She had no regrets about being married to him. He was the only person she’d want to be married to—if indeed she wanted to be married. But she didn’t—not anymore. When she and I first touched base on the phone, Julia insisted—with an undertone of deep remorse—that her desires and needs had simply changed. Ronald had sounded panicked on our call. He suggested that Julia, at age 47, was having a midlife crisis. They had an eight-year-old son.

I’d expected to see a sullen, angry man and a wary woman seated at opposite ends of the couch in my waiting area, yet when I opened the door to greet them in person for the first time, a loving couple met my gaze. Ronald, stocky and exuding no-nonsense determination, had one arm on the couch armrest and the other lying along the cushions behind Julia’s shoulders. Julia, sun-kissed and windswept, seemed calm and self-possessed.

Many couples at a crossroads reflexively blame their partner when they feel scared, hurt, or vulnerable, but Ronald and Julia were different. In our first session, Julia talked about what a loving father Ronald was to their young son, Max, how patient he was with her high-energy lifestyle, and how deeply grateful she felt toward him for routinely washing the dishes and making her coffee. “You’re my best friend,” she said, her eyes moist.

Ronald’s jaw tightened as he cleared his throat and looked away. “Well, I could go on and on about you,” he said, turning back to her a moment later, tears in his eyes now. “Your intelligence, kindness . . . but that’s not why we’re here.”

Five minutes into the session and they were both reaching for tissues.

“These tears,” I began. “They’re expressing . . .”

“Love and gratitude,” Julia murmured. “And guilt. I’m just so sorry I’m hurting you. But I need us to have a space where you can begin to get used to the idea of separating.”

“And you?” I asked Ronald, after giving Julia’s words a few moments to reverberate in the space between the three of us. “What about your tears?”

“I don’t know,” Ronald shrugged. “Confused. Scared.”

In our first few meetings, we worked on trying to understand the forces that had contributed to their estrangement, if you could even call it that. Their respect for one another, their support of each other’s interests, their commitment to parenting Max and staying connected as a family—all of that had remained consistent over many years. More than growing estranged as a couple, they’d evolved—or devolved—into a chronic state of hyperattunement in all their interactions with one another. They’d both been avoiding rocking the boat for a long time, and now Julia’s “I want a divorce” announcement had capsized it.

Once they’d learned the Imago communication protocol I teach all couples in the first few sessions, Ronald and Julia began talking about things they hadn’t openly discussed before. Julia wanted what she called “freedom to be myself.” She just hadn’t been able to ask for it. She had a burgeoning self within her, she explained, one that she’d never known was there. Apparently, this self of hers had begun to emerge in the latter half of her marriage, as she’d accomplished goals she’d never thought herself capable of, from pulling off a natural birth despite naysaying doctors to becoming a successful entrepreneur. Julia wasn’t the same timid, eager-to-please young woman who’d found a haven in marriage in her early 20s. Now, she longed to meet herself as whoever she would be when she wasn’t someone’s spouse.

In our sessions, Ronald learned to give a voice to his assumptions about Julia’s desires, rather than simply reacting to them. He also focused more on managing his anxiety. He needed help staying present—as most of us do—when he felt the pull of painful “shoulds” from the past and scary “what ifs” from the future. The prospect of separation from Julia could trigger an instant fight-flight-freeze response, which for him included either blaming himself for not having seen this coming or staring into space with tears drenching his collar. He’d been adopted at a young age, and then his adoptive parents had divorced. He’d learned to cling to what he loved.

I didn’t try to hide my agenda from either of them. I told them it was clear there was a lot at stake should they choose to divorce. If there were a way to approach their marriage fresh, and engage in behaviors that might help it regenerate, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to do so? When I suggested we try exploring avenues to improve their connection, Ronald’s eyes lit up and he grew more animated. Julia’s eyes glazed over, or else she turned away and sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Julia said. “I’d be faking it. I have to be authentic.”

“So what the hell are we doing here?” Ronald asked in a rare moment of pique.

“I’ll say it again.” Julia assumed a long-suffering tone. “I want us to transition in a way that honors you and us. I want to figure out how we can stay a family and do this together.”

I continued to support Julia and Ronald in speaking honestly about what they wanted and how they were feeling, however I didn’t give up hope that this marriage could be turned around. After all, there was no abuse, no infidelity: just gritty, every-day, imperfect love.

Whenever the opportunity arose, I offered invitations to help them expand their connection as a couple, saying, “You know, in Imago therapy, differences in a marriage are seen as growth opportunities in disguise,” or “Have you explored Gary Chapman’s Love Languages?” or “Speaking of sexuality, a lot of my clients find Jaiya’s Erotic Blueprints really helpful.” But these offerings were met with indifference by Julia, or else her initial interest fizzled out as soon as I brought up the ways we might apply new methodologies to their situation.

“I Would Give Up the Unessential”

By our fifth session, Ronald had resigned himself to the fact that Julia wasn’t interested in working on their marriage. “I’m angry,” he said. “I have a lot of whys.” Why had this happened? Why had she kept her ambivalence to herself and then made this decision on her own—a decision he should have weighed in on, since it had such a huge impact on him and their son?

Julia, as it turned out, had felt increasingly guilty about her evolving aversion to marriage, and she’d used every psychological defense in the playbook to avoid facing it: she’d minimized, denied, blamed, rationalized, justified, projected, displaced, sublimated, and wondered whether she was gay. She’d redirected her aversion into ballroom dancing, cooking classes, and weekend trips with friends. Over the last year, despite these conscious and unconscious attempts to maintain the status quo, her dissatisfaction had intensified—even though Ronald had done nothing wrong.

“Maybe it sounds ridiculous at my age,” she said. “But the phrase freedom to be myself captures it.”

“Why?” Ronald asked. Why were his needs irrelevant? “What about me?” he insisted. He wanted to preserve what he felt was essential to his happiness: a stable sense of himself as Julia’s husband, familiar routines and life experiences, and their family setup as it was now.

Julia always gave some version of the same answer: “I have to get aligned with who I’m becoming. To stop feeling like a fraud in a role that doesn’t fit me. To avoid resenting you. To have more of my real self to give you and Max.”

After one of our sessions, I remember scouring my basement for an ancient, yellowed paperback copy of The Awakening, a novel from a time when women’s options were far more limited than they are now. There was a passage in it, which I’d underlined 30-odd years earlier, that echoed Julia’s struggle. Disillusioned with her marriage, the main character, Edna Pontellier, tells her friend, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

Occasionally, I wondered whether Julia was having an affair. Their marriage, by both of their accounts, had been regularly (if not all that passionately) sexual until Julia brought up divorce, at which point they’d both agreed it was best to avoid “confusing the situation.” As I’d gotten to know Julia, my sense was that cheating wasn’t the issue. Like Ronald, I didn’t understand why she wasn’t willing to negotiate more of the “freedom to be herself” that she so desperately craved with the caring, flesh-and-blood partner seated directly in front of her.

“Am I missing something?” Ronald said one afternoon. “If I’m being stupid—I mean, if you’re only telling me half the story . . . I know you’ve said there’s no one else, but. . . .”

“There’s no one else.” Julia shook her head, looking exhausted. “Sometimes I think you wish I was having an affair.”

“It would make more sense,” Ronald admitted.

In a way, though, Julia had started having an affair—a serious, long-forbidden, monogamous love affair with herself.

The Longest Leash

Although I noticed our work stalling, I held on to my pro-togetherness agenda. During one session, seeing an opportunity to connect the “trapped” sense Julia reported feeling with Ronald to her experiences as a young girl burdened by her anxious parents’ many expectations of her, I asked, “Are you willing to go a little deeper?” Previously, I’d led her through “parent–child dialogues,” an Imago tool for processing unresolved attachment dynamics that can resurface with spouses. These dialogues had brought insights and awareness, but Julia’s focus on divorce hadn’t changed.

Still, I harbored the hope that some important shift would emerge from doing more regressive work. Maybe if Julia could trace her hunger for this “freedom-to-be-myself” back to its source, and experience some of that old, thwarted longing with awareness and support, she’d recognize the possibility of finding a more interdependent type of freedom with Ronald.

“Would you be willing to connect with that little girl inside you?” I ventured.

“No!” Julia cried out. “I don’t want to keep doing this! I’m not a little girl anymore!” Then she crossed her arms, shook her head, and said softly, “I’m done.”

For 20 or 30 seconds—which can feel like a very long time if you’re one of three people in a small room where someone has just had a strong, emotional outburst—we sat in silence. The energy shifted, as though a thunderstorm had swept in and the humidity had spiked. I tried to remember what therapists do in moments like these while I struggled to overcome a powerful impulse to glance at the clock. Did I look as self-conscious and sheepish as Ronald?

“So what do you think just happened?” I asked finally.

“Have you ever seen that picture of Alice in Wonderland trapped in a tiny, little house?” Julia shrugged, reaching for the tissue box. “You know, with her head stuck out of the chimney and her arms coming through the windows? That’s how I feel. Every day. Like I swallowed some weird potion and I don’t fit anymore. I can’t go back to being the way I was. I can’t change the size of the house. I wish I could. This whole thing isn’t about my childhood. It’s about now.”

Ronald leaned forward and removed a piece of tissue sticking to one of Julia’s eyelashes, gently, almost as though he were threading a needle. His eyes were bloodshot but tender. I invited him to share what Julia’s words had evoked in him.

“Okay, I’m going to try to be totally up front here. I can see I’ve put a lot of pressure on you, and that’s not fair,” he said. “I suppose I’ve known you don’t want to be married for a while. Years. I just thought if I gave you a long leash, we’d be fine. Everything would stay the same. Our marriage isn’t bad.”

Julia watched him with a combination of concern and awe.

“But even the longest leash is still a leash,” he conceded. “I don’t want it to be, but it is.” Julia leaned forward and took his hand. “I’ve been worried about what people will say. Poor guy, what a loser. His marriage failed; his wife left him. These sessions have helped me see how scared I am. I get it—the house doesn’t fit you. It’s selfish to try to make you responsible for my happiness.”

I breathed extra slowly as Ronald spoke. I do this instinctively if I’m privy to moments like these as a mix of sacred truth-telling and heroic ownership are underway. When two people take in their partner’s perspective through the expansive lens of the heart, my job gets simple: shut up, be present, and stay out of their way.

A Successful Marriage Ends

Both Julia and Ronald dreaded telling their son, and it took time to get clear on a united message and figure out how and when they could do it in a way that felt developmentally appropriate for an eight-year-old. It wasn’t easy, and it was something we revisited after Max started wetting the bed and exhibiting oppositional behaviors in the wake of the news. There were a lot of other areas that needed attention, too: navigating family members’ reactions, rethinking living arrangements, figuring out finances, even referrals for short-term individual therapy. Ronald in particular needed help understanding what new boundaries would help him remake his identity.

But overall, our work unfolded with more tolerance and grace than I expected. Four months after starting therapy, we were all finally on the same page. Ronald and Julia continued to value and care for each other, while clarifying which aspects of their former life they’d need to let go of. I focused on creating the structure and safety to support them in processing strong and often conflicting emotions. Once, when I disclosed how moved I was by their mutual respect in the midst of grief and uncertainty, Julia said, “I appreciate you saying that; it feels good to hear.” Ronald smiled wryly. “I wish this wasn’t happening, but I’m still proud of us. Love doesn’t always look like it’s supposed to.”

Was Julia a casualty of a morally bankrupt, self-centered culture? Or was it an act of courage to permit herself to grow in a new direction, despite disrupting other people’s comfort levels and expectations, including mine at times? Did this experience offer Ronald an opportunity to do his own, long-overdue inner work of grieving and differentiation? Would Max suffer needlessly or grow up with a template of resilient human relationships, the son of loving coparents? Had I helped this particular pair of uncouplers, or had I failed them by missing opportunities to catalyze insights that might have set them on track to stay married?

I think I know the answers to some of these questions, but another therapist might disagree, or have different answers. Either way, the questions are worth asking.

Although narrow and limiting views about what’s universally “right” and “wrong” for couples still exert influence over all of us, we have more space now for alternative paths in marriages and families than in Edna Pontellier’s time, which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t all that long ago.

As someone who finds much of my own sense of belonging, fulfillment, and emotional connection within marriage, I’ll likely continue to see uncoupling as a last resort, while I do my best to bring new life to floundering relationships. Yet my ideas about the meaning and purpose of matrimony are always evolving in my work with modern-day couples—and especially modern-day uncouplers. I’m no longer so convinced that only dysfunctional partnerships should end, or that loving couples with changing needs always serve the world best by staying married to one another.


Case Commentary

By William Doherty

I’ve seen many couples like Julia and Ronald. They present special challenges that Alicia Muñoz embraced with caring and courage. If she were in my community, I’d refer many couples to her, just not Julia and Ronald. From my perspective, Muñoz was too impressed by Julia’s “soft narrative” for why she wanted to end the marriage: namely, that she doesn’t want to be married any longer because being married is keeping her from finding her true self.

I call this a “no harm, no foul” narrative, like “I love my spouse, but I’m not in love any longer” and “We’re both great people, but we’ve grown in different directions.” When used as the reason for leaving a mostly positive, long-term marriage with a young child, these explanations usually hide more than they reveal about what’s really going on.

Muñoz did try to explore deeper issues for Julia, Ronald, and their relationship. But Julia never really signed up for this exploration because she was leaning out of the marriage and reluctant to do couples therapy. Never a customer for Imago therapy, she seemed to experience therapeutic insights as a way to trap her into staying in a marriage that stifled her growth. So she blew up the therapy: “No más! I’m done! No more making me look at myself and this relationship!” The therapist was doing surgery with a patient who had not signed up for it.

Frustrating experiences with couples like this forced me to develop discernment counseling as a way to help clients decide whether to divorce or start serious couples therapy. The goals are clarity and confidence in a direction for the relationship based on a more complex understanding of what’s happened to the marriage and each person’s contributions to the problems. Therapy doesn’t start unless and until both partners sign up for it.

In the individual conversations that are a hallmark of discernment counseling, I would try to help Julia figure out what’s really going for her in this marriage. How did she give away her sense of self, and what would she have to change in herself to succeed in this or any committed intimate union? I suspect that for Julia, the issue is whether she can sustain an intimate relationship and a solid self at the same time.

These conversations would occur without the pressure of Ronald being in the room to show hurt and to advocate for the marriage. The time with Ronald alone would help him use this crisis as a wake-up call to understand his own issues (possibly his dependency issues and avoidance of conflict), and to avoid pressuring his wife so that she can come to a decision on her own.

After several sessions of discernment counseling, some couples like Julia and Ronald start couples therapy with both partners having a personal agenda for change. For other couples, the leaning-out spouse like Julia decides to divorce rather than try couples therapy, and we talk about how to navigate the breakup. Either way, the relationship narrative sounds closer to what a novelist might create than to a self-help meme.

Author Response

Reading Bill Doherty’s thoughtful case commentary gave me a lot to think about. I can see how taking the discernment counseling approach with a couple like this might help address the issue of trying to “do surgery on someone who hadn’t signed up for it” and create the possibility for understanding more of what’s really happening for both clients through one-on-one meetings. Although I don’t believe it would’ve changed the direction we ultimately moved in, maybe Julia, Ronald, and I could’ve gained greater clarity about the work we were doing sooner and moved forward with less angst.

That said, I can’t help thinking about the concerns several of my heterosexual female uncoupling clients have shared with me. While “we’re all equal” may be the official story in many traditional marriages, stealthy gender-related power dynamics can still erode a woman’s sense of agency.

If I’m positioning myself as a truth-assessor or truth-upholder in initial, separate one-on-one sessions with each partner, and leveraging my expertise and authority to advocate for marriage, or for being discerning about the “real” issues, I’d want to do this with a very keen cultural awareness. Unfortunately, for many of the heterosexual female clients I see who have begun to prioritize their needs, voice, and personal power, the struggle to inhabit their “true selves” in an institution that carries within it the patriarchal values that shaped it isn’t just a self-help meme or a “soft narrative”—it’s more of a hard, existential reality.

 

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ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT

Alicia Muñoz

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nourish Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past sixteen years, she has provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.

 

 

William Doherty

William Doherty, PhD, 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 forthcoming book, The Ethical Lives of Clients: Transcending Self-Interest in Psychotherapy

 

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