Counselors Can Help Troubled Marriages

Counselors Can Help Troubled Marriages

Mental Health: Searching for Marriage-Friendly Therapists Can Make a Difference

“Seeing a marriage therapist selected at random from the phone book can be hazardous to a couple’s marital health,” said William J. Doherty, author of several books on familial relations and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota.

About 2 percent of the American population sees a marriage and family therapist each year. But there’s no consensus on the best way to treat troubled couples. Some, like Doherty, believe the therapist should act as an advocate for the marriage itself. However, almost two-thirds of marital therapists describe themselves as neutral on the question of whether a client couple stays married or divorces. As one summed up: “The good marriage, the good divorce, it matters not.”

Doherty thinks it does matter. He’s no cultural warrior for the religious right, he describes himself as a nice, NPR-listening, Planned Parenthood-contributing, Unitarian Universalist liberal, but as a marital therapist he has witnessed the trauma which accompanies divorce, and it has made him a proponent of lifelong marriage. “The consequences, the fallout for divorce, both for adults and children, can be serious,” he said. “This is a process that involves a lot of pain and dislocation for generally a lot of people.”

According to Doherty, a good marital therapist supports the couples’ original goal for themselves: lifetime commitment. And to help couples find therapists who hold the same philosophy, in June 2005 he and Kathleen Wenger, overseer of clinical training and professional development for marriage and family therapists at Pepperdine University, created the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists.

The registry lists 190 therapists in 35 states. Therapists who wish to add their names must complete an application, provide proof of licensing and sign a values statement affirming the value of marriage. The registry is a secular enterprise, although some of the therapists listed on it do incorporate their faith into their practice, and it lists therapists who treat cohabitating couples and gay couples as well as the legally married.

“A neutral approach isn’t neutral when it comes to the question of divorce,” Doherty said, “and it can damage a marriage’s chance of survival. Therapists, who espouse neutrality tend to couch their comments in the language of individual self-interest, i.e. asking a client, ‘What do you need to do for you?’ This focus on individual needs at the expense of moral obligations gives support to the more ambivalent spouse and ignores the fact that the dissolution of a marriage usually affects more people than the husband and wife alone.”

“It’s hard for therapists to overcome their training,” Doherty said. Some see embracing the role of marriage advocate as tantamount to abandoning their professional principles of non-judgment and respect for autonomy. But some do change. Doherty did.

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In the 1970s and 1980s, Doherty used the neutral approach. But as he treated more couples, and as he continued treating individuals who remarried and raised stepchildren, he noticed the individuals who’d chosen divorce weren’t necessarily happier.

“I wasn’t seeing many of these good divorces that people write about,” he said.

Also, research began to show that the thinking which prevailed during the 1970s, that divorce didn’t carry long-term consequences for children, was misguided.

A marital therapist’s role should be a holder of hope — sometimes even when the couple has none, Doherty said. They should have a master’s or doctorate, a license and a minimum of two years supervised clinical experience in family therapy. (“About 80 percent of private practice therapists in the United States say they offer marital therapy, but most do not have the same rigorous training as therapists who specialized in the field,” Doherty said. Instead, they are individual therapists who picked up training on the side at workshops.) Marital therapists also must be able to handle two people in a session, one of whom likely doesn’t want to be there. It’s their job to ensure the session isn’t consumed by conflict; it’s rather like chairing a meeting.

At any point one spouse may abruptly quit therapy. To avoid this, Doherty tries to get couples to agree at the start to postpone a decision about their marriage until after a specified course of therapy.

He tries to schedule one-on-one sessions with ambivalent spouses to point out how their own flaws, not just their spouse’s, have contributed to the marriage’s decline, or he might talk about divorce’s impact on children, if the couple has them. Using techniques like these, he tries to keep the couple coming back.

Doherty said he tries to help couples achieve a marriage that, by their own standards, is good enough. Sometimes people must make compromises to stay married, such as maintaining an affectionate relationship with the spouse but turning to a friend for heart-to-heart communication.

“We can either make that (compromise) a tragedy, a settling for less than all you could have in life, or you can approach it with: This can be a reasonable decision that people make,” he said. “It’s not necessarily selling yourself out to accept some limitations and weaknesses in your marriage, as long as they are not the kinds of things that really diminish you as a person.”

“There are certainly reasons to divorce,” Doherty said. Domestic violence, chronic infidelity, or drug or alcohol abuse are all reasons to leave a marriage. Also, sometimes one partner simply wants a divorce and cannot be persuaded to stay. What Doherty wants to combat is what he sees as consumerism applied to marriage, where one spouse feels entitled to a marriage that always makes them happy. Instead of seeing themselves as a citizen contributing to a joint effort, they view their spouse as a purveyor of marital services. Entitlement can lead to complaint, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to distance, and in a few years a once healthy marriage has reached a crisis.

Doherty likes to compare marriage to living in his home state of Minnesota. “Marriage begins in springtime, with flowers and sunshine, but when they reach the crisis point, it’s like the dark freeze of a northern winter. Many of us are tempted to give up and move south at this point, not realizing that maybe we’ve hit a rough spot in a marriage that’s actually above average,” he wrote in an article. “The problem with giving up, of course, is that our next marriage will enter its own winter at some point. So do we just keep moving on, or do we make our stand now ‘with this person, in this season?'”


Here’s a suggested reading list for those contemplating divorce.

Take Back Your Marriage, by William J. Doherty.

This book discusses the pressure consumerist attitudes place on a marriage and how relationship rituals can keep partners glued together over time.

Time for a Better Marriage: Training in Marriage Enrichment, by Jon Carlson and Don Dinkmeyer Sr.

This book emphasizes how individuals choose their own attitudes and actions, and these in turn, affect the quality of their marriage.

The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong and Loving Marriage, by Susan Heitler.

This book talks about the best ways to talk. Dialogue, it argues, creates a couple’s shared world, and when it turns nasty, the relationship loses its appeal.

The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons.

Ahrons studied post-divorce families and found adults and children can emerge from a divorce with their emotional health intact.

For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered, by E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly.

Scholarly in tone, this book examines how divorce, far from being an isolated event, reshapes intimate relationships over time.

The Truth About Children and Divorce, by Robert E. Emery.

This book explains why it is critical for divorcing spouses to cooperate with each other as parents, as well as what makes that goal so difficult to achieve.


The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists

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