Your marriage is in trouble. You don't know what to do . You want unbiased professional advice, "Can or should this marriage be saved?"
So, you ask around and get the name of a therapist, someone who can
offer impartial feedback about the viability of your relationship. Is
there enough worth salvaging, or is there too much dysfunction, too much
water under the bridge? Should you reinvest or cut your losses and
throw in the towel.
If, in your search for answers about your marriage, you have hopes that you are truly speaking to an objective third party, someone whose
advice comes without motives, biases, prejudice or blinders, think
again. All therapy is biased, whether therapists know or admit it or
not. Biases cannot be checked at the door. Sometimes biases seep out in
obvious ways, and other times, it's much more subtle. This, in and of
itself is not a problem, as long as you don't allow yourself to be
misguided in thinking that you are ever getting an impartial opinion
about anything. First and foremost, therapists are people, and people
have values, opinions, backgrounds and beliefs that influence everything
they say and do. In fact, in light of the fact that there are over four
hundred models of psychotherapy, why would a therapist choose one
particular model -the therapist's lens- over another? Bias.
The impact of bias is particularly noticeable when a couple seeking marital therapy is uncertain about the viability of their relationship.
So many of my clients have told me that their previous therapist
declared their marriage dead on arrival after just one session! This
raises an interesting question. How can a therapist tell when a marriage
is over? Are there certain marital problems, personality types of the
spouses, patterns of interactions or seriousness of marital difficulties
that are indicators that a particular marriage is doomed? Perhaps, but
follow along with me and think about the exercise I do when I offer
professional training to therapists working with couples.
I start by reminding participants that we all have a little inner voice that narrates life as we go along, a invisible chatty roommate, as
it were. Sometimes the voice is optimistic about a couple's chance of
making it, and other times, it's not. We may hear ourselves thinking,
"Boy, I can't believe she would want to put up with that," or "That man
is so kind, if his wife criticizes him one more time, I will burst a
blood vessel." Or sometimes we just tell ourselves, "I hope they cancel
the next appointment."
After everyone chuckles with recognition, I ask, "What is happening in the room- what are couples doing or saying- when that little inner
voice tells us, "This marriage is over. It's hopeless. I have no idea
how to help them move past this problem"? I ask people for their
responses. One by one, I hear, "I feel hopeless when, they won't stop
blaming each other. No one will take personal responsibility for the
problems." Or, "I feel hopeless when there have been multiple affairs,"
or "If there is no emotional affect, everything has gone flat. That's
when it's over." "I feel hopeless when there are long-standing substance
abuse problems." "I know the marriage is over when only one spouse is
willing to come in." "The marriage is over when couples yell and become
emotionally abusive." The doomsday list becomes rather exhaustive.
Then I ask, "When you heard other people's responses, was there anyone sitting here who thought to him or herself, "I don't get hopeless
when _____ (fill in the blank). Hands get raised and I ask for
examples. One person says, "I've worked with many couples where there
have been multiple affairs and I've helped them heal and move forward."
Or, "When couples don't take responsibility and blame each other
constantly, I just figure that goes with the territory. I don't become
hopeless at all." Or, "I can't tell you how many couples I have helped
to recover from long-standing substance abuse issues. That's not a
marital deal-breaker to me."
After a few more examples, I ask the group, "What does this tell us,?" and eventually someone says something that can be captured in the
phrase, "Hopelessness is in the eye of the beholder." In other words,
it's not the type, seriousness or chronicity of the problem that tells
therapists anything useful about the prognosis for the marriage.
Therapists can't tell when marriages are over, only the people in that
marriage know when they have nothing more to give, no energy to work
The longer I work with couples, the less I know about whose going to make it and who isn't. Sometimes, couples with deeply entrenched,
challenging problems prompt even me, the psychotic optimist, into
thinking that the marriage won't thrive. But then, in the 11th hour, the
couple gets their act together and begin working on their marriage in
earnest. Conversely, I've worked with couples who have what I deem to be
petty problems- wet towels on the bedroom floor, toothpaste caps left
on the counter- and in the end, they decide to divorce.
I have come to believe that the real culprit in marriage isn't the particular problems people bring to therapists, it's when one or both
spouses become hopeless. Hopelessness is the real cancer in marriage.
And if one spouse is hopeless and the therapist has serious doubts about
the marriage, what do you think the chances are for the marriage to
It's not a therapist's job to save every marriage. However, it is a therapist's responsibility to become aware of his or her own biases and be clear with couples about these relationship prejudices.
Additionally, it behooves therapists to learn skills to overcome blindspots. In other
words, if a therapist always feels uncertain about the outcome of
marital therapy when s/he works with couples who argue bitterly, this
therapist should hang out with other professionals who aren't rattled by
this sort of conflict and have found effective methods for helping
couples learn new skills to avoid hurtful interactions.
The more tools therapists have in their toolkit to help couples past difficult problems, the more hopeful therapists will feel about preserving relationships and this optimism is unquestionably contagious.
That's why I offer in-depth training for professionals who work with couples. Couples can't have faith that their problems are resolvable unless the professionals guiding the way believe they are.
Get more information about upcoming the Divorce Busting Intensive 3-day training.
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.