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 while that stance may be great in principle, it usually doesn’t work out so cleanly in real life. Often one partner is asking, sometimes desperately, for our help in reeling his or her mate back in, while the other partner is teetering on the edge of whether to stay or go, asking for a kind of permission from us, or conversely, wanting us to offer some good reasons to stick it out.
In such situations, you can kiss the idea of therapeutic neutrality goodbye. If ever there were such a thing, it surely doesn’t exist here. The questions we choose to ask, the goals of the therapy we define, the amount of attention we give one issue over another, our tone, even our facial expressions, clearly convey our real convictions to our clients. No matter how neutral we strive to be, most of our clients know where we stand. They can feel it. Those exquisite mirror neurons we talk about so much not only enable us to read our clients, but them to read us. So by what criteria do we decide when it’s time to push the relationship on, and when it’s time to pull the plug?
Some situations seem clear. Most of us would agree, for example, that the relationship is untenable if one partner has a serious addiction to drugs, alcohol, or sex that they refuse to treat appropriately, or if there’s a major psychiatric disorder that the partner will do nothing about. Other examples are physical violence, chronic emotional sadism, continual lying and manipulation, a pattern of longstanding gross irresponsibility—financial, marital, parental—not to mention flagrant untreated character disorders, like severe narcissism or sociopathy. Sometimes the partner who feels drawn to leave admits never having really loved the spouse to begin with, marrying to please parents, under pressure from a pregnancy, or because the person looked good on paper. It’s hard for us therapists to create love where there’s been none all along.
But these outliers aren’t the cases that keep us awake at night. The more bothersome cases are the ambiguous ones, the marriages in pretty bad straits that aren’t so obviously far gone that demise seems inevitable. These are marriages where, after months and months of trying every trick we know, the couples still stubbornly refuse to improve, or where the dissatisfied partner remains intractable, even while the other makes positive changes, or where couples make us think, Well, they could stay together, but if they do, will they be truly fulfilled?
I’ve worked with couples where I can honestly say the therapy moved the relationship from absolutely intolerable to adequately bearable: things got just better enough that both partners stayed. But could they sustain happiness? Often I believed they couldn’t, not by my standards, anyway. In these cases, was I of service to them, or would they’ve been better off if I’d facilitated their saying goodbye to one another?
A Man behind Walls
Two months into our work together, I watch Henry puff out his cheeks and slowly exhale, trying to keep his composure. I can practically hear him counting to 10. Sometimes I wish he’d just let go and lose it, which I’ve never seen him do, though his wife, Jane, reported that once, after a tough therapy session, he’d suddenly pulled the car off to the side of the road, gotten out, and thrown up. Getting back in the car he’d told her, “We’re not going to discuss it.” And that was that.
Dark-haired, short, and handsome, Henry was getting a crash course in not being in control—a position he neither liked, nor was used to. His accustomed world shattered the night Jane had said she was considering leaving him. As Jane told him, he’d been pushing her out of their marriage for years. While remaining calm externally, inside Henry was shocked and devastated. Sure, he’d thought, there’s been fighting. Sometimes, we didn’t get along so well, but this? What about the kids? Was she really willing to break the family apart? And for what? Were things actually that bad? These were the questions Henry eventually spoke out loud to Jane in their first therapy session with me, a few weeks after Jane’s announcement. It was Henry who’d called, telling me that his wife was fed up and that I needed to pull her off the ledge.
This blog is excerpted from "Rowing to Nowhere" by Terry Real. Check out the entire more articles in the July/August issue on therapists and the dilemma of divorce.
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