Why Therapists Should Give Clients' Marriage a Second Chance

William Doherty on the Merits of Discernment Counseling

William Doherty

I grew up during the era when divorce was seen as a moral failure. In my working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood in 1950s Philadelphia, I knew only one divorced family, and they were a basket case of dysfunction. The single mother was overwhelmed, the boys out of control, and my friends and I knew the one day a year that the father came to visit his children. We all knew troubled marriages where screaming matches could be heard through the walls of our row houses---but divorce, that was serious stuff.

In my therapy practice, I learned to be strictly neutral about divorce. It was the clients’ decision, not mine, and not much different from career choices and deciding whether to stay or leave a job. A senior therapist once told me what he said to the couples he saw: “The main thing is what you think will make you happier in the next phase of your life. If you think you’ll be happier staying married, I’ll help you do that. If you think you’ll be happier getting divorced, I’ll help you do that.”

Two experiences during the 1980s propelled me out of my denial about the seriousness of divorce. I still recall where I was sitting as I read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by sociologist Robert Bellah and colleagues. Through interviews and cultural analysis, they argued that both liberal therapists and conservative politicians espoused a trickle-down model, where if individuals looked after their own needs, good things would automatically flow toward others. The cultural analysis really came home to me in the story of a therapist who had trouble explaining to the interviewer why she was committed to her children. She couldn’t go beyond repeating that she’d personally feel bad if she abandoned her children, but that she wouldn’t lay a guilt trip on anyone else by saying that all parents should faithfully care for their own children. As I finished reading this chapter in the book, the hair stood up on my neck with recognition of how impoverished my own ability to express social obligations had become. Thank goodness Bellah and his colleagues didn’t interview me!

What Research Reveals

In a way, therapists and social scientists are just catching up with the lived experience of our fellow citizens. Clients have always told us about their painful soul searching in deciding whether to break up their marriage, especially when they have children. Few people end their marriage without considerable pain, and many people don’t want the divorce that their spouse is insisting on. (Divorce is rarely a consensus decision, at least at the beginning.) Surveys consistently find about 40 percent of divorcees eventually have regrets about their divorce, including whether they and their partner worked hard enough to prevent it.

Indeed, divorce may be the most significant moral conundrum in adult life, and the one we see most often in therapy, but we dress it up only in clinical clothing because that’s what makes us most comfortable. We’re like physicians who make everything biomedical because that’s what they’re prepared to respond to.

The problem isn’t our lack of moral sensibility about life’s dilemmas. It’s that we’re not sure how to engage clients’ self-interest and their responsibility to others in therapy, the former being well codified in our techniques and the latter being, well, vastly underdeveloped. We have a hundred ways to ask “What would be right for you?” and hardly any to ask “What would be right for others in your life?”

Here’s the irony: while therapeutic language is libertarian at the personal level, most therapists believe in social responsibility at the community level. Talking about interpersonal responsibility hangs us up, and it’s hard for many therapists to believe that it’s possible without lapsing into shaming clients and driving them away. So we stay in our safety zone, coming out only in cases of abuse where we’re mandated reporters and upholders of legal and ethical norms.

Becoming Marriage Friendly

The main way of avoiding doomed, half-hearted couples therapy is that I don’t claim to be doing couples therapy until I have an informed agreement with both partners to work on the marriage. That way, if a leaning-out partner says that the marriage counseling isn’t working, I point out that they haven’t tried marriage counseling yet. Discernment counseling is helping them decide whether to try marriage counseling. I tell them it’s like taking an antibiotic: you can’t say that the antibiotic isn’t helping if you haven’t taken it yet. We’re working on a decision about whether to try the medication or let the disease take its course. It’s also important that this be a short-term process, ensuring the discernment counseling doesn’t seem like endless couples therapy.

Discernment counseling is designed to create an environment that brings out the best self in both parties in mixed-agenda couples. I help the leaning-out partners in the marriage see their own contribution to the problems in a more complex way, and if they’re dealing with abuse, ongoing affairs, or other serious irresponsibility from their partners, I help firm up their resolve that the situation must change. Leaning-in partners get to do something more constructive than just waiting for the other to decide the fate of the marriage: they can try to reboot the marriage by making constructive changes in themselves.

Discernment Counseling in Practice

For couples who go on to divorce, my impression is that most benefit from this deep dive into the subterranean passages of their relationship. Their initial divorce narratives become a lot more complex, their individual roles in the marriage drama more nuanced and clearly drawn. Almost always, they feel they did right by themselves and their families by slowing down and entering the moral crucible of divorce decision making. Is any of this different from what they’d have achieved in regular psychotherapy or couples therapy? I believe that discernment counseling offers something distinctive from individual therapy, because both partners go through it together, and from couples therapy, because the focus is on soul searching and learning without the added pressure of working on change in the face of ambivalence.

This blog is excerpted from “Reflections on the Divorce Revolution." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples | Children/Adolescents

Tags: affairs | counseling | discernment counseling | divorce | divorced | families | family | fighting | kids | psychotherapy | therapist | William Doherty | arguing | marriage | networker | uncoupling | union

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1 Comment

Friday, August 7, 2015 8:06:49 PM | posted by Callie Marie
I agree that couple who are seeking marriage counseling should be willing to work on their marriage before thinking about ending it. Ultimately I think they need to end up making the choice that will make both parties happy. If my husband and I started fighting, I would rather try to fix the problem than end a marriage without even trying at all.