Putting Divorce on the Table in Couples Therapy

How to Tell When Splitting Up is the Best Option for a Failing Marriage

Terry Real

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.

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. 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?

A Man behind Walls


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 his wife, Jane, had said she was considering leaving him. He had, Jane told him, been pushing her out of their marriage for years. While remaining calm externally, inside Henry was shocked and devastated.

“Yes, Henry,” Jane had said in our first meeting. “Things are that bad. They’ve been that bad. And I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t believe that things will stay bad.” She then turned to me, saying, “I’ve given up hope.”

Before coming to see me, the pattern had been that the more Henry withheld, the angrier Jane became, and the angrier Jane became, the more Henry withheld. But with two years of therapy under her belt, Jane was finally opting out. She no longer wanted to play the game.

The problem with Henry’s sensitivity was that it was a one-way street. He’s enormously sensitive to what’s coming into him, but can be quite insensitive in his behavior toward others, especially Jane. He’ll say or do nothing overtly offensive, but sink into an unremitting withdrawal. He’s complicated, with the sensitivities of someone who doesn’t have boundaries, but whose stance in the relationship is one-up and walled off.

“That’s the mark of being one-up and walled off,” I tell him. “It’s like I’m not in connection to you because you’re not good enough. You don’t deserve me.” Henry listens, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Henry,” I say, “death to you in this relationship is withdrawal, particularly angry withdrawal. You’ve got to tell her when you’re hurt or angry. Let her help you at those times. If you keep punishing her like this, you’re going to lose her.”

“I may have already,” Henry says, managing somehow to sulk and be haughty at the same time.

“This is mean, Henry,” I tell him, “Your behavior is mean-spirited. Your withdrawal isn’t neutral---it’s hostile. And it will cost you your marriage if it doesn’t stop.”

At the end of that first session, I offer Jane a deal. I ask her if she’d give therapy three months. This is a contract I’ve successfully used before with highly ambivalent partners. “Three months,” I tell her, “not to commit to the marriage, but just to see what happens, to evaluate whether to stay or go. It turns out that what you have to do to save the marriage is the same thing you have to do to determine whether it feels salvageable. Put your issues on the table, and see where, if anywhere, it goes.

To Go or to Stay

There are two impulses, two voices if you will, in couples and family therapy these days. One speaks for the collective, the conservation of the family, and a kind of status quo; the other speaks for individual fulfillment, the right to have pleasure and freedom to express oneself---in short, the good of the family or the good of its individuals. This is where we therapists must take a hard look at the values we hold, our biases, our own family histories.

I have a saying I teach my students: don’t ask your clients to do what you wouldn’t do. Where’s the fairness in that? Specifically, when one partner is teetering, don’t pull toward preserving a union if it’s not a relationship you’d stay in yourself. As therapists, we’ve all encountered relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily want but that seem to work for the people inside them. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to that moment when a client says, “I don’t think I can stay and be treated like this,” or “There’s nothing horrible happening here, but I’m dying of loneliness,” and our honest response as we listen is “Yeah, I’d feel that way too.” If that’s our experience, we should indicate it somehow and stop trying to hide behind the mask of neutrality.

This blog is excerpted from "Rowing to Nowhere". The full version is available in the July/August 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Children/Adolescents

Tags: boundaries | counseling | divorce | empathy | family | family therapy | loneliness | psychotherapy | relationships | therapist | therapy | marriage | networker | love | Terry Reak | breakup | breaking up

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