Why We Shouldn't Be Neutral about Divorce
Divorced couples are saying something important about regret.
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.
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.
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