Case Study


Case Study

Bowing Out: The Dilemma of Uncoupling

By Alicia Muñoz

November/December 2019


Like the Property Brothers, couples therapists are often sought out by clients to reconstruct and renovate their partnership. But it’s pretty rare for a couple to walk into a therapist’s office in search of a demolitionist to help them tear down the whole structure so they can walk away from it—even when they plan to remain in one another’s lives.

In popular parlance, this subset of couples is sometimes referred to as uncouplers. Katherine Woodward Thomas coined the term in her book Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, but it was famous uncouplers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin who brought the phrase into the mainstream. Therapist Bill Doherty, in response to what he saw as a counseling trend that began in the ’70s, when reactive, thoughtless divorces were far too casually encouraged by therapists, evolved a time-limited, targeted therapy known as discernment counseling. Its goal is to help potential uncouplers think responsibly about the impact of separation on their own and others’ long-term well-being.

As one of those ’70s children-of-divorced-parents myself, I became a couples therapist in large part because I believe the bond two adult human beings create when they marry is worth fighting for with every fiber and cell of their being. If a loving couple shares a…

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2 Comments

Monday, December 16, 2019 4:54:19 PM | posted by Susan M Greene LMFT
When Bill states, “I call this a ‘no harm, no foul’ narrative, like ‘I love my spouse, but I’m not in love any longer,’” I respectfully disagree. Sometimes that sentiment represents an inevitably dull, dark, or even stormy season of love cycles, and it will swing back to connection again, but sometimes it represents an inner knowing of one’s own truth. And, it could be both of those things and more. I suspect the author would have said the exact same thing if it had been the Husband, and not the Wife, who was presenting with the same concerns. Man or woman, the work of differentiation is difficult. From a Developmental Model (The Couples Institute, Pearson, also Passionate Marriage, Schnarch) this couple's presentation speaks to a symbiotic, conflict avoidant organization. This kind of organization usually leads to a sense of dullness, boredom, and being in a very stuck, suffocating place. It is also common in this kind of arrangement for one partner to cling to the old merged symbiotic way of being while one member eventually starts "practicing" in an effort to grow, get back in touch with self and bring in fresh waters. This seemed apparent in the wife's reaction when it was suggested they could work on improving their connection in therapy. For the Wife in this kind of couple, more connections sounds like working to inhabit the prison ever more deeply. Meanwhile, the husband in this couple is delighted to work toward getting back into the the comfy symbiotic state through "more connection" in therapy. It could have just as easily been the Wife who is the one pulling for symbiosis and in many couples that would be the case, with the Husband pushing for freedom through a divorce. Or a same sex couple. This couple, if they ever got to the place where they agreed to do therapy to improve or save their relationship, might benefit from the therapist working to disrupt their symbiosis, pushing both of them toward more differentiation. Their relationship would be less safe, but more vibrant and authentic. This vibrancy could lead to fresh waters without the need for divorce. Both of them will likely have to do this work eventually in other relationships where they are likely to fall into the same traps of intimacy.

Friday, November 1, 2019 7:34:01 AM | posted by linda
Alicia Munoz is a master: of writing, of telling the truth, and of explaining complex issues in a way that most people can understand as she does in her three books and her other writing. I’m so glad she is writing for Networker; she merges her vulnerability with professionalism and wisdom in a way few writers can. I also have long admired Bill Dougherty’s work, such as his call to challenge clients who make life choices that will harm their kids, his work with Better Angels using brave and innovative ways to lessen the political divide in America. In addition, I value his discernment counseling, which helps therapists out of impossible positions when working with couples in situations where one partner is in and one is “leaning out.” However, his response to Alicia disturbs me, which is why I am trying to “lean in” to understand the deeper reasons for my reactivity. As a long time marriage therapist (Imago trained ) , and a writer of two books about relationships I buy into a “general morality theme,” which means that I do my best to help my client explore his or her truest motivations for relationship decisions . After that, I am simply a plumber, someone who goes into someone’s house and fixes something that’s not working at their direction. All the while, I am encouraging them to follow through on their decisions in the kindest and most conscious way possible. When Bill states, “I call this a ‘no harm, no foul’ narrative, like ‘I love my spouse, but I’m not in love any longer,’” I respectfully disagree. Sometimes that sentiment represents an inevitably dull, dark, or even stormy season of love cycles, and it will swing back to connection again, but sometimes it represents an inner knowing of one’s own truth. While discernment counseling may have been useful for this couple, Bill’s response to Alicia feels self-righteous and smug. I find this response extremely offensive as a woman, a therapist, and a person who defines the therapist’s role as one that helps lead our clients to themselves rather than one that imposes our own thinly disguised views of what is best for them.