Working with couples on the brink of divorce is never easy. Doing so during a pandemic, when couples are in quarantine with their children, and perhaps elderly parents, and without the daily breather of going off to work, makes it all more challenging. But just as the Chinese character for “crisis” represents the blending of two other characters—“danger” and “change point” (not, as is often said, “opportunity”)—I’ve found that the crisis of commitment and connection that characterizes couples in the last-chance moment can lead couples to take some chances to change, and even to love again. Specializing in this work for the past 20 years, I often feel like I’m conducting open heart surgery—highly focused and fully immersed, risky, invigorating, and a bit messy at times, but usually satisfying, when couples surprise themselves and come back from the brink, more in love than ever.
What I realized most from working with couples on the brink of divorce during this pressure-cooker time was that simply deploying our well-honed, research-supported psychotherapeutic concepts and interventions doesn’t often suffice. We need to help these couples actively “reach up” to their higher values, whether these be spiritual, religious, or ethical. Compassion, patience, grace, care, humility, relational responsibility, honesty—and that most ineffable value and state of interbeing, love—provide the direction and fuel that last-chance couples need to effectively engage the communication tools we teach, and the fresh ways of viewing themselves and their partners that we attempt to elicit in them.
Less distressed couples who aren’t questioning the relationship’s viability are still in close touch with these values and the feeling states that flow from them. For these partners, learning new ways to communicate and helping them understand and step away from unhealthy patterns often lead to a rapid shift. Not so with partners who’ve come to view one another as intimate enemies. As far as I know, there’s no nifty psychological technique for helping them immediately reconnect to these spiritually informed states. In fact, the need for this challenging, courageous, often irrational-seeming leap toward their higher values may be revealed only when they realize that the techniques and understandings we therapists purvey won’t automatically fix their relationship.
This was certainly the case with Regina and Ted, an interracial couple on the brink of divorce, who came to see me as the pandemic was erupting across a country simmering with racial tensions. It made for a stew of heavy conflict, which I worried would result in a therapeutic impasse.
On the Brink of Divorce
Regina, 39, was a first-generation Black Haitian American who’d come to the United States at age six with her mother, father, and younger sister and settled in a large midwestern city. Ted, 40, was a fourth-generation white English American, raised in a rural town in a northeastern state. They contacted me after two attempts at couple therapy, both with well-regarded, experienced colleagues, yet both resulting in no real improvement; in fact, things had gotten worse. The lack of positive movement from those therapies had led both partners to feel rather hopeless about the possibility of lasting change.
Married for 10 years, with conflict arising early on, both stated that this would be their last attempt before separating, despite their wish to stay together for the sake of their three young children: Robert, 18 months; Angelina, 6; and Samantha, 8.
They found both previous therapists accurate in observing many of their issues: chronic high conflict, Ted’s hair-trigger critical comments and contemptuous tone, Regina’s tendency to become angrily silent or mutter critical rejoinders under her breath. Their sessions had mostly centered on each partner voicing their complaints and the therapists’ attempts to resolve the issue of the week. The therapists had invited the partners to express the more vulnerable feelings underneath their anger, and to explore how family-of-origin experiences might be influencing how they responded to one another.
Regina and Ted understood the therapists’ rationale for helping them open up emotionally and explore the influence of the past on their present-day troubles, but they acknowledged that they’d often “weaponized” what they’d learned about each other’s deeper feelings and family histories in later conflicts. They’d received no concrete instruction as to how to avoid these patterns and improve their communication.
Regina found me online and was drawn to what I describe as my “integrative action-insight” approach, with an emphasis on first learning new ways of interacting, and later, in calmer waters, exploring family- and culture-of-origin sources of emotional sensitivity and behavior.
We began working together online, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in the mandate to shelter at home. Regina, Ted, and their children had temporarily moved to Florida to get out of New York City and to be with Regina’s mother, who offered only limited childcare support due to ill health. Chief among their challenges was how to equitably balance between them each one’s need to work, with helping the two oldest children with online schooling, caring for the baby, and doing housework and meal prep—with no time or energy left for themselves individually or as a couple. Having met in an Ivy League law school 12 years ago, Regina was now completing her dissertation in sociology, and Ted had recently been promoted to partner in a high-profile law firm. Both were feeling a great deal of pressure—and exhaustion—by the end of the day. Yet rather than approaching these challenges as a team, with mutual appreciation and support, each felt judged by the other, alone in meeting the challenges of daily life.
Ted took the “first shift” with the kids, starting at 6 a.m., making breakfast and getting them dressed while caring for little Robert—and glancing occasionally at emails to orient himself to the work day ahead. Regina took over four hours later, after getting some writing done, and Ted relieved her again four hours after that. Regina’s mom took the kids for about an hour each day, but tired easily.
To their credit, they’d established a fair distribution of housework and childcare, but each partner complained bitterly about not getting enough work done, and both were inflexible with one another in weeks when one or the other faced a pressing deadline. Their arguments, sometimes erupting in front of the kids, typically involved Ted critiquing Regina for missing some minor detail in childcare or chores, or taking care of bills late, or asking him to do “one more thing,” with Regina responding sullenly, or with more open hostility (“You’re a monster!”). They’d eventually fall into resentful silences, with no attempts at repair.
First Steps Toward Building Hope of Change
In our first session, I asked what had attracted them to each other. It’s always a good prognostic sign when distressed couples shift their affect and warmly remember their early times—and not such a good sign when they don’t spontaneously make that emotional shift, even though they can recall what drew them together. Each described some positives: Regina had liked Ted’s strong moral principles and work ethic, his concerns about racial injustice, and his overall intelligence; and Ted had found Regina extremely bright, lively, funny, spontaneous, and easy to talk with. Yet neither showed much warmth or enthusiasm as they recounted these sources of attraction.
Ted and Regina also said they shared similar perspectives on politics and social justice issues, and when I asked if they’d experienced any challenges as an interracial couple, both quickly said this had never been an issue. I took note, wondering if some of their tensions might later be revealed as influenced by racial and culture differences, but not wanting in this first session to challenge one of the few areas they viewed as not conflictual. I gently moved on to ask about physical attraction, to which they both said, “Sure, of course,” but in a manner that suggested it’d been a long time since they’d felt sexual passion.
Both stated that years of conflict, and their current levels of enhanced stress and discord due to quarantining, were making it hard to reconnect emotionally to their initially positive bond with one another. As we explored their conflicts further, it became apparent that, as happens so often in distressed couples, the very attributes that attracted one to the other had become major sources of irritation and polarization: Regina saw Ted as obsessive (in fact, he’d suffered from OCD and had undergone years of treatment), humorless, judgmental, and controlling; and Ted saw Regina as flighty and disorganized, and saw her tendency to laugh when faced with stressors as “weird.”
Although curious about whether my more action-oriented approach might help them, both acknowledged—with expressions of resignation, eyes turned to the floor—their deep despair and hopelessness about the marriage and the possibility of change. They also acknowledged having little consistent motivation to work on improving the relationship, with more energy invested in thoughts of separation. I acknowledged and validated their feelings, and asked if they each felt lonely. Glancing quickly at one another, and then away, Regina and Ted both said yes.
I complimented them on being able to name this painful, vulnerable feeling, and noted that I hoped in our work together, they’d be able to name more of those softer, underlying feelings—of sadness, hurt, and disappointment—as these emotions, I told them, are typically the “roiling currents underneath the crashing, visible whitecaps of anger.” Faces slightly brightened, they seemed interested in this visual metaphor, supporting the principle I learned as a student of Salvador Minuchin—that effective therapy must use language that captivates clients’ imagination.
As part of creating our therapeutic alliance and to address their sense of hopelessness, I described the principles of my Creative Relational Movement (CRM) approach to change. While therapists often don’t discuss with clients how therapy works, with couples who doubt it can be effective, it’s essential to share our ideas about change.
The first CRM principle I talked to them about was that insight rarely automatically leads to new action. In fact, it’s often new actions that help couples step away from old patterns and allow them to reflect more deeply on the conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, and internalized relational maps that have driven their problem patterns.
I reassured them that a sustained feeling of motivation isn’t necessary for change—motivation for any activity (work, practicing an instrument, exercising, parenting) fluctuates day to day, and if anything, the feeling of motivation often comes from seeing and feeling daily enactments of preferred patterns of interaction. As a longtime professional drummer, I shared with them that drummers start their practice day doing quite repetitive simple exercises, whether highly motivated to or not, but that within minutes, one’s hands feel more limber and strong, and motivation builds through doing the exercises. As the AA saying goes, “You can’t think (and we might add, or feel) your way into new action, but you can act your way into new thinking (and feeling).” Change in behavior and attitudes inevitably feels artificial and irrational initially, but with practice, it becomes more natural.
With CRM, the focus of therapy is to engage in nonbinding creative “experiments in possibility.” Partners considering divorce want to see evidence of possible change, and quickly, if they’re to consider sticking with the therapy and the relationship. Endless talking about their history of pain reinforces their hopelessness and strengthens their desire to leave. Yet improvement may, paradoxically, make a partner who has finally gotten up the gumption to end things feel trapped in the relationship. Therefore, I always reassure couples that even if things improve, they may still decide to end the marriage. This typically results in deep sighs of relief, and greater willingness to experiment with change.
The last point I relayed to them is that in CRM, change efforts need to be linked to specific times of the day and week—what I’ve termed “relational rhythms.” Relying on spontaneous good feelings to enact new patterns rarely works. Regina and Ted said that hearing these fresh ideas about change encouraged them to give it a try, so I suggested that we start with me teaching them some research-based communication and problem-solving skills that could reduce their tendency to escalate, withdraw, invalidate one another, and negatively interpret one another’s motivations.
I reviewed the research on these problem patterns, did some “neuroeducation” in the style of Mona Fishbane and Dan Siegel about what happens in our brains during conflict, taught them mindful breathing and some Qigong moves to help them modulate their negative arousal, and showed them the Speaker-Listener technique from the PREP program. Initially, they said they found these tools useful, but not surprisingly, over the ensuing weeks, they rarely used them, especially during conflicts.
Drawing on John and Julie Gottman’s research-based practices to address their shared sense of not being respected, I suggested that they make one statement of appreciation or admiration a day. They liked this idea and offered a few positive statements in the session. Then, drawing on the Gottman finding of the importance of physiological soothing, I encouraged them to do what I call the “How was your day, dear?” conversation at day’s end, and provide each other emotional support through some “empathic murmurings.” I also noted that, if not this week, then soon, I’d suggest they try small moments of pleasurable connection spread across the day—what I’ve called “60-Second Pleasure Points.”
They liked these ideas, tried them, and found them helpful, but over the weeks, these activities also often fell by the wayside. Overall, however, they reported fewer fights, and they even made love one time.
Addressing Race and Reaching Higher Ground
Now that they seemed to be in slightly calmer waters, we explored their experiences in their respective families of origin. Regina had witnessed her mother berating her father for not trying hard enough to find a higher-paying job. Her father had felt his wife was unsympathetic to his sense of hopelessness in procuring such a job as a Black man from a country often viewed disparagingly. This left Regina with a heightened sensitivity to being told she wasn’t worthy or working hard enough—which Ted’s critical comments triggered.
Ted had frequently felt criticized by his mother for getting an A when she’d felt he should be getting an A+. His intense attention to detail, and his eventual struggles with OCD, were attempts to be perfect and thereby avoid criticism. But this came at a cost: he lost his ability to enjoy life and turned to Regina to stimulate that enjoyment, but at the same time, rejected her as “not serious enough.” This left her confused about what Ted wanted from her.
After the murder of George Floyd by police, the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the world brought Regina and Ted together in spirit for a couple of weeks. They took pride in being an interracial couple and in having dealt well with instances of racial tension at their daughters’ mostly white school. As a white man who considers himself an active ally to persons of color, I joined them in their outrage about the racial injustices pervading our society, suggesting the general need to talk openly about these issues in all cross-racial relationships, which strengthened our therapeutic relationship, and perhaps set the stage for a future conversation about these issues in their marriage.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, on yet another occasion when Ted had criticized Regina, this time for not completing a certain chore in a timely way, she’d burst out, “Yes, Massa!” This felt hurtful to Ted, given his sense of himself as a white ally in the fight for racial justice, which Regina had affirmed about him many times. Interestingly, in the session when they reported this interaction, Regina for the first time wore, and frequently readjusted, an African-style headwrap, saying, “I’m feeling very Black today!”
Regina apologized, but said she’d come to realize that part of her resentment about his many criticisms was due to his being white and her being Black. This was the first time that she’d connected her anger with him to their racial differences. She went on to say that when he described her occasional laughter at painful moments (including when he criticized her), as “weird” and “inappropriate,” he was revealing his ignorance about a coping style of Black people, who sometimes use laughter to cope with ongoing racism and struggle.
She said, “Ted, I know you aren’t racist, but you have to understand that when you talk to me that way, I feel insulted, and I’d like you to be more aware of how those comments land on me as a Black woman.”
For the first time in our sessions, Ted seemed quietly receptive to Regina’s complaints. I imagined this was because her feeling hurt connected not only to his guilt about hurting her—a feeling that typically prompted a rebuttal to assuage his feelings—but to his commitment to higher values of fairness and justice, especially as relates to racism and white privilege. I urged him to ask her more about how she saw the relationship through the lens of race and ethnicity.
She said, “Well, when you call me ‘stupid’—in my Haitian culture, even one Haitian to another, you just don’t call someone stupid. And you know that I’m not stupid. I can’t believe the kids hear you say that to me.”
Ted said, gently and warmly, “Regina, you’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And I’m sorry for saying those things. I’ve been trying to avoid feeling stupid my whole life, and I guess I say that to you to make myself feel less stupid. I’m sorry.”
Regina looked softer, and said, “Thanks for that. It’s a start.
It was this session, among several others with other clients during this challenging, existential period, that led me to start asking couples the following sorts of questions about guiding values: What are the values you think are most important, as a human being? How could those values bring energy to the work we’re doing?
Regina and Ted agreed on the importance of equality, fairness, and compassion. I asked them, “What’s kept you from letting those values influence how you treat one another?” A bit embarrassed, but productively so, each said a version of “getting so caught up in hurt and anger.” I challenged them that week to try to be more intentional in linking their higher values to their use of all the practices I’d shared with them. The results were remarkable.
After two weeks of steady improvement, I asked them to take another courageous leap—toward the vague but powerful value of love. What would it mean to bring the energy of love into their relationship? How might seeing love in action affect their children? And despite the residue of pain they still inhabited, even with the progress they’d made, could they reach that far?
They decided, in the words of the classic jazz song, to “take a chance on love,” and so far, they’re moving in their now preferred direction of staying together. They smile at each other during sessions. They report more lovemaking and late-night hanging out, and less conflict. The many challenges of this raging pandemic still circle around their family. Will the kids go back to school? When should they return to New York? But Regina and Ted have walked back together from the cliff of despair and relationship dissolution. They’re no longer “last chance.”
By Donna Baptiste
Peter Fraenkel’s case narrative drew me in immediately, as I recalled my own work with couples on the brink of dissolution and facing feelings of futility in helping them “hope again” for a breakthrough. A part of me was rooting for him to help Ted and Regina fight for their relationship, but the gentle cynic in me wondered, “Will this iteration of therapy help? What will be different?” I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, due in part to Fraenkel’s skillful and compassionate installation of hope, they were able to uncover signs of a new season of marriage.
I appreciated how Fraenkel helped this couple name the racial stress and sensitivity in their relationship that had gone unexplored for years, even as they, and people across the country, united around the Black Lives Matter movement.
Like Regina, I’m a Black woman of Caribbean ancestry, and I resonated with her cultural pain and personal turbulence about Black lives and deaths. Some therapists might assume that merely choosing a partner of a different race nullifies racial tension, privilege, and bias in a relationship. It does not, and every interracial/ethnic couple can benefit from discovering how their racial identity plays out in small and large moments. It can lead to naming a powerful and disruptive dynamic: “what I feel with others who don’t accept me racially, I also feel with you.”
As a fellow couple therapist, I also admired Fraenkel’s persistence in piloting this couple through an array of clinical strategies. There was a little Gottman method, some Emotionally Focused Therapy, neurosensitivity and mind-body work, and more. But a focus on values-based intimacy seemed to ignite a spark. This type of intimacy can be compelling and transformative, deepening a couple’s bond by connecting them to a shared passion for some larger purpose: in this case, racial justice, compassion, and a commitment to raising their biracial children in a world where Black lives matter.
One strategy I wish was more prominent in Fraenkel’s work with Regina and Ted is widening their lens to see new possibilities around their current phase in the family life cycle as parents to an infant and two young children. Especially these days, parents in families of young children toil mightily to meet their children’s needs and keep the household going. Who can blame them for feeling overwhelmed, despondent, neglected by each other?
Tired families need cheerleaders and others in their lives who are simpatico. In joining a friendship or couple parenting group, Ted and Regina could tell stories about their children, vent, laugh, cry, listen, and bond with others in a similar situation. An emphasis on repairing within-couple dynamics in therapy can be useful and enriching, but helping a couple access the natural support and resources outside of therapy that often emerge from these groups can be equally helpful and build lifelong resilience in families.
Illustration BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Peter Fraenkel, PhD, is a couple therapist, psychologist, associate professor of psychology at City College of New York, and professional drummer who studied with Aretha’s drummer. He received the 2012 American Family Therapy Award for Innovative Contribution to Family Therapy, and is the author of Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track, and Last Chance Couple Therapy: Bringing Couples Back from the Brink.
Donna Baptiste, Ed.D., LCP, LMFT, is Department Chair and clinical professor of the master of arts degree program (online and on-campus) at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. She sees couples and families in her practice.