Why We Shouldn't Be Neutral about Divorce

Divorced Couples Are Saying Something Important about Regret

William Doherty

When I began my therapy practice, I was 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.” Another senior therapist put his motto more succinctly: “The good marriage, the good divorce—it matters not.” I now cringe as I write these bromides because they don’t reflect the anguish of the clients we were working with as they tried to figure out what to do with their marriages—not to mention the children. But at the time, I was impressed by the aura of worldly therapeutic savoir faire they conveyed.

Gotcha Moments

Two experiences during the 1980s propelled me out of my denial about the seriousness of divorce. I still recall where I was sitting (actually, lying in bed) 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 (economic or psychological), 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!

Reading Habits of the Heart was the biggest “gotcha” of my career because I realized how much I’d absorbed the culture of what the authors called “expressive individualism,” which constrained me from engaging clients about the complexity of moral choices in everyday life. The most embarrassing part was seeing how my tribe of mostly liberal therapists were kissing cousins to right-leaning economists. When I told agonizing clients that their children would be fine so long as they, the parents, took care of themselves, I was Ronald Reagan in therapist garb.

What Research Reveals

Once I began to talk about write about my work, I was out as a therapist who’s willing to challenge psychological individualism and engage clients’ commitments. But at that point, I felt secure only when it came to parent–child commitments, that unassailable bedrock of human society. I remember being skittish in 1990, when Michele Weiner-Davis gave her famous “Divorce Busting” speech at a national family therapy conference. I agreed with her critique of neutrality in couples therapy, but realized I hadn’t moved to a place of clinical comfort in dealing with marital commitment. Also, I was worried about losing membership in the tribe of enlightened therapists who believe that it’s our job to neither prevent nor encourage divorce. While therapists generally believe in parental commitment (because of vulnerable children), many see marital commitment as a matter of contractual relationship between independent adults.

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.

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?”

Becoming Marriage Friendly

Another reason for my conviction that people should work on their marriage before splitting (except in risky situations) is that staying and trying creates richer possibilities for human flourishing, both as a couple and individually. If well used, a marriage in trouble is also an opportunity. For one thing, confronting uncomfortable issues in a marriage, rather than just stuffing them, and then facing up to your own contribution to the problems, requires summoning up courage—always a bracing exercise in what Virginia Satir called the task of people-making. Working at their marriage, even if it fails in the end, helps the spouses grow up, and maybe discover something invaluable about their relationship and about themselves that they might otherwise have missed. Carl Whitaker, one of my therapy heroes, used to say, “People marry each other for profoundly important reasons, and no one should divorce until they deal with those things that caused them to marry and then want to divorce each other.”

Commitment isn’t made just once, but over and over through the course of a marriage. We cling to it during the dark nights of the soul that come to nearly every marriage, times when the love is hard to feel but the promise keeps us together.


William Doherty, PhD, is a professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. He is founder of Citizen Therapists for Democracy. His books include Helping Couples on the Brink of Divorce (with Steven Harris) and Medical Family Therapy (with Susan McDaniel and Jeri Hepworth).

This blog is excerpted from "Reflections on the Divorce Revolution" by William Doherty. The full version is available in the July/August 2015 issue, Should This Marriage Be Saved?: Therapists and the Dilemma of Divorce

Photo © Peter Dazeley

Topic: Couples | Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: counseling | depression | discernment counseling | divorce | divorced | family | family therapy | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | William Doherty | marriage | networker | divorcing | union | Couple's Therapy | married

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Saturday, January 19, 2019 6:49:56 PM | posted by Harvey Hyman
I agree with the article's point of view but I think it's not strong enough. When I faced tensions and difficulties in my marriage and thought about leaving I sought advice from a therapist and she told me straight out "you've got two young children who need two parents and a stable family so work it out and do the right thing." I stayed. Both of my kids are happy, healthy, and flourishing. My daughter is in medical school and my son just got accepted to Harvard. Long after I got that advice I became a therapist helping clients with addictions to heroin, meth, and/or alcohol. Guess what? Most of them are products of divorce and the divorce was a life shattering experience for them which plunged them into conflicting loyalties, confusion, sadness, and despair. If a parent takes his/her own life to end emotional pain the great odds are that his/her children will grow up with MDD and one or more will also be a suicide. Parents must consider their children's needs not just their own when facing the complex decision whether to divorce. If they do divorce they must refrain from unrestrained disparagement of the ex-spouse in front of the kids because it is toxic and traumatic.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 7:50:57 AM | posted by Amy L. Dorsey
Dr. Doherty, In reading this article, several things came to mind as a divorced person of 10 years with children. I agree with your commentary on working at the marriage until it ends and how this is a growing process for both parties, especially if you have children. I can say though, as someone who worked at saving the marriage and who also wanted the divorce, it was painful for me to see that the party who didn't want the divorce did not work as hard as I was working. Society, people, friends, family, and sometimes therapists forget the person who wants the divorce is in a much pain, if not more for wanting it. Focus is so much of the time directed toward the person on the receiving end of divorce papers and not nearly as much on the person sending them. I cannot tell you the pain I was in sending those papers considering his feelings, my family's feelings, the fact that I had children. It took a heavy toll bearing that burden. Pain of wanting a divorce is abysmal at best and this is why I struggled so long to stay until I could only go. I want to say, that many people feel divorce is the destruction of the family and technically, yes, it is. It is a breakdown. But, being divorced for so long now, what was built between my ex-husband and I was a friendship, which allowed us to effectively co-parent leaving my children well-adjusted despite two homes. Breakdown sometimes leads to building and dare I say, a better situation than marriage for all parties. Building that friendship is a story for another time, but something that should explored more in therapeutic articles. As a therapist myself, I feel the need to address this with may of my clients. Thank you for the article.

Monday, January 1, 2018 5:54:55 PM | posted by Rona Michelson
As a therapist I agree wholeheartedly with advocating for marriage. What put me off was your gratuitous linking of neutrality with "right leaning" people and Ronald Reagan. I don't see this as a political issue at all, but if forced to put it in that context, it has been the liberal side that has been advocating "do your own thing" and "if it feels good, do it". I am reminded of a painful encounter with a client, mother of 3 children ages 6-10, who thought her hisband was a "good provider" and a "good father" but he wasn't as exciting as her neighbor's husband. When I spoke to her about the possible negative effects on her children she said, "You mean because I have kids I can"t have any fun?" She then explained to me that today"s values are that you should do what makes you feel good. Responsibility and commitment were old fashioned.... Vestiges of a more primitive civilization....

Saturday, December 30, 2017 2:46:43 PM | posted by Michele Weiner-Davis
Bill, Thanks so much for the shout out. So, glad we're kindred spirits. Thanks for all you do. Michele Weiner-Davis

Friday, December 29, 2017 4:44:16 PM | posted by Dana
As a school psychologist who witnessed the emotional consequences of divorce, I feel it’s my duty to inform parents about those harmful consequences and urge them to do their best to try whatever they can to resolve their issues before splitting the marriage, family and the child’s well-being apart. Most if not all couples built a house thinking they will be happy family forever. Something went wrong along the way , and maybe with some help they could work out the issues. However,after a decision was made its my duty to help the child and his family to adjust to the new situation . If we don’t accept it, how the child would. Undoubtedly, it’s a more complexed issue for a clinican who works with the individual only and not with the spouse or all the family members

Tuesday, December 27, 2016 6:39:37 PM | posted by Ellen Marie Dumer
Dr. Doherty...as I have dealt with my own (unwanted) divorce some 30 years ago, the divorce of friends, the marriage issues of my children's marriages, and the marriages of my clients, I have always felt that I was "doing something wrong" (against my training) when I would ask the question “What would be right for others in your life?” Thank you for giving therapists permission to discuss the self-sacrifice necessary in marriage.

Sunday, November 27, 2016 9:47:51 AM | posted by Bernadette Hackett
Tried to access the article on 4 types of depression and could not. Pls advise why I had difficulty. Thank you.