Rowing to Nowhere

Rowing to Nowhere

When is Enough Enough?

By Terry Real

July/August 2015

Like most therapists, I love it when couples step into new beginnings. Watching a partner move into accountability for the first time, or become vulnerable as never before, or demonstrate empathy where there’d been none—such moments make my day. But what about couples who’ve run out of new beginnings? If beginnings bring me delight, do endings always evoke sorrow? Not necessarily.

How I feel about couples splitting up depends on the situation and the couple. Some endings have broken my heart, made me look hard at my technique, and wonder what I might have done differently. But when I believed the couple, the therapy, and even the children were better served by the partners’ letting go, I’ve breathed a sigh of relief. In other words, I don’t see my job as stitching every couple together no matter what. Sometimes, in fact, my job turns out not to be forestalling the dissolution of a family, but facilitating it.

Most often, both partners don’t pull the plug at the same time: one partner wants out, while the other, to whatever degree, is devastated. The question then becomes, where do we therapists stand? When and how do we know if it’s time to help the couple dissolve versus throwing our weight behind one last try? And how do we, as therapists, let go ourselves? Of course, the therapeutically correct attitude is that where we stand shouldn’t matter. It’s not our decision, and it’s presumptuous of us to wade into a question that rightly belongs to the couple. Yet…

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1 Comment

Sunday, August 23, 2015 1:55:33 PM | posted by Magda Occhicone
Terry Real's article titled "Rowing to nowhere" left me thinking about how much I have learned and changed since becoming a marriage and family therapist 11 years ago. The author reminded me about my first steps as an unexperienced yet very enthusiastic therapist.

I remembered the early days when I still was a student and truly believed it was possible to "be neutral" with my clients. At last, that was the trend encouraged at that time. My first experiences as a beginner therapist still are vivid and were one of best lessons I received. I remember sitting in the therapy room with my first clients, my heart pounding and palms sweating thinking they must question my ability to help them. Too preoccupied thinking I need to do a great job, hearing my mentors' voices in my head, and worrying that, somehow, my clients would see through all my insecurities. Back then, it was simply too hard to just sit back and listen. I was too much in my head to be able to help anyone. However, it was a good experience, one that we all have to face as newly licensed therapists. I was fortunate enough to work with really great people who taught me how to control my emotions and just be myself in the therapy room. More wisdom came with more experience.

Fasforward few years and I finally realized during my journey as a therapist that being neural was in fact one thing I could never be with my clients. Not only because I have my own personal values that strongly impact how I conduct therapy and approach problems my clients bring up, but also how I view the goal of therapy sessions with my couples. I once was a very naive beginning therapist who actually believed that somehow (I blame my beginner's enthusiasm and the actual desire to help people ) I can help couples stay together. That somehow it was on me whether the couple stayed together or separated. For a long time, it was difficult not to see it as a professional failure when couples would announce their decision to break up. They sought my help. How was I not to feel responsible ?

Through many years of working with couples, I have finally realized that staying together is not necessarily the best solution for all involved. It is a difficult decision and it is not to be taken lightly. However, the real dilemma is helping couples decide whether to stay or separate when there is no serious abuse, addiction or mental illness (which are serious reasons to break up) . I have seen what Real calls "men and women of quieter desperation". Usually their conflict and lack of connection are more difficult to detect, even to a seasoned therapist. These are the couples with unclear agendas and hard time committing to a clear goal in therapy (staying or leaving). It feels like they keep thinking or talking about divorce but wonder if it is really that bad. How do I decide when enough is enough? Or whether the relationship is too good to leave or too bad to stay, which is a dilemma that well published author Mira Kirshenbaum, addressed in her book.

I used to believe that staying together for kids' sake was lesser evil than other alternatives . Yet, it occurred to me that being in a relationships with someone we don't fit with anymore can truly be a sacrifice we should not be expected to made. When we say our vowels and promise to stay "till death do us part", do we really mean it? Do we truly understand what we are promising? Can you really bear such a promise not really knowing yet who is this person you are marrying, and is it really fair to ask of anyone to be by our side when we know that our marriage is in fact long dead.

As a more experienced therapist, I have learned that the couples have a main voice in deciding their future. The spouses know best whether they can bear to live with their decision, and perhaps our job as I see it, is to prepare them for what is yet to come when they decide to end their marriage. It maybe a tough lesson to accept but as therapist we are not hired to fix our clients as we see it fit. Our job is to be supportive, discuss options and help them see more clearly what they perhaps have tried to avoid seeing. The reality may be difficult and painful to accept. Divorce is a tremendous loss and a lot of times feels like a failure. Failure to have a happy relationship we once hoped for, unfulfilled dreams, and loss of the future together. I don't think anybody would get married if they knew that down the road they are going to face divorce proceeding, custody arrangements and division of assets they once called home.