From the Editor
Divorce was totally unknown in the 1950s Bronx neighborhood where I grew up. To be sure, few of the marriages I saw were so wonderful by today’s exalted therapeutic standards, but ending them was as inconceivable in that long-ago world as the cell phone, Michael Jackson, and an eight-trillion-dollar national debt. However, I do remember one kid who moved to the neighborhood whose parents had divorced. There seemed to be a whiff of something shameful and foreign about him. Back then, divorce may have happened to people in exotic places like California, but not in the Bronx.
Nevertheless, by the time I got married, there’d been what amounted to a cultural revolution, and divorce had become an everyday part of the social landscape. My older relatives were still scandalized, but within my circle of friends and acquaintances, the new dispensation meant liberation from crusty rules and taboos, and freedom to do your own thing. Divorced people didn’t seem particularly deficient or traumatized; they seemed normal, living their lives, dating, getting remarried, and if they wished, redivorced.
And then, one day, I got divorced. There was no bloodletting, no dramatic turning point, just the common story of two people growing apart, increasingly unable to bridge the differences between them. Still, even though we had no children, each of us was enough of a child of the ’50s that the decision was far from clear-cut, and we went to a therapist who knew both of us very well to help us figure out what to do. In that confusing, tumultuous time, he created an atmosphere of safety and clarity in which, whatever happened during the rest of the week, it seemed our best selves could regularly emerge in his office. He seemed to keep asking the right questions and making us tune in so closely to what we were saying to each other–and to ourselves–that both of us came to trust that we were moving toward the best possible choice. In our case, that meant splitting up, but still relying on our therapist in the aftermath of that decision to serve as a kind of lighthouse as we each proceeded on our bumpy, life-altering journey toward the unknown.
Whenever I have my doubts about some of the odd things done in the name of therapy, I think back gratefully to my therapist back then and the impact he had on my life. But in “Couples on the Brink,” William Doherty wonders whether enough therapists have reflected deeply on their role in guiding troubled couples through the most critical decision people bring to our offices. He argues that “clinical neutrality” with couples considering divorce is really a sham–it’s impossible for the therapist not to influence a couple’s decision. Quoting novelist Pat Conroy, Doherty observes that divorce marks “the death of a small civilization,” a particularly grave finale when children are part of that “civilization.” Too often, he writes, therapists treat the divorce decision as if it had no more weight than “changing jobs from Walmart to Target.”
Elsewhere in this issue, Barry McCarthy argues that some marriages are so fatally flawed that it’s better to help a couple think deeply about what they’re doing and move carefully toward a “good divorce”–the earlier the better–rather than continue in a clearly lousy relationship. Ending a marriage is seldom a happy outcome for a couple, but it may well be necessary. And helping a couple separate in a reasoned, thoughtful way is not the same as promoting divorce. You can be promarriage, McCarthy writes, without necessarily being antidivorce.
What becomes clear in this issue is that a single, knee-jerk reaction to divorce–whether pro or con, unreconstructed divorce liberal or born-again promarriage conservative–is far too blunt a reaction to provide definite answers to the two individual souls bringing their own highly personal, homemade “civilization” into a therapist’s office. Our job is to help spouses better understand their feelings and motives, balance their desires with their moral obligations, review the past, peer into the future, and confront the present–in short, to offer not just blanket emotional support, general research findings, or well-crafted values statements, but that rarest of therapeutic commodities: wisdom, amidst the murky uncertainties of one of life’s more momentous decisions.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.