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 things out.
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 improve?
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.