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Hopefully Ever After

By Michele Weiner-Davis

This article, first published in the Sept/Oct, 2001 issue of Psychotherapy Networker, is about my personal and professional "Divorce Busting" journey.


Recently, while giving a "Divorce Busting" workshop for therapists in California, I asked the group of experienced clinicians to identify the sure signs of a dying marriage. "As you sit with couples in your office," I asked, "at what point does a little voice inside your head whisper, 'it doesn't matter what I do--this marriage is over?'"

After a moment of silence, a few hands shot up in the air. "When two people can't stop arguing, I give up," offered a woman in the back of the room. "I don't mind the arguments," countered another therapist, "because at least the couple is passionate about something. What gets me is when there is no emotion-when one partner just sits there, totally apathetic." A man sitting by the window looking pensive said, "I get hopeless when there's an affair and the unfaithful spouse isn't willing to stop seeing the other person." From across the room, a young woman asserted with confidence: "A marriage is doomed when only one spouse is willing to come in. Then there is no marriage."

I listened without comment until everyone had identified their criteria for folding their tents. "You know," I finally responded, "the longer I work with couples, the less I know about which ones will rebound from the brink of divorce and which ones won't. Often, in the eleventh hour, those who I believe to be the least likely to mend their relationships are the ones who make it. If, when you are working with a couple, you think you can tell when their marriage is dead, you should refer them to someone else."

Although my voice rang with conviction, I totally understand why the therapists in my workshop said what they did. When I began doing marital therapy in the late Seventies, I was a newlywed, twenty-something therapist charged with helping couples who were usually older than me and grappling with issues I had yet to face in my own life. They spoke of parenting conflicts, career disappointments, money problems, aging parents and infidelities, and though I was in way over my head, I gamely tried to apply what I had learned in graduate school about marriage therapy. This "expertise" consisted mainly of teaching couples how to trace family-of-origin patterns that they might be repeating in their marriage, and encouraging them to fully express their feelings toward each other. Most of my couples left my office full of insight and still mad as hell at each other-often even angrier than when they had walked in.

But when couples failed to improve, rather than look at my own lack of experience or my paltry therapeutic toolkit, I assumed that the impasses in their relationships were due to their irreconcilable differences. So I shifted gears. I began to question the wisdom of staying in unsatisfying marriages. "Have you ever wondered whether you might just be incompatible?" I'd ask. "Are you really happy with her? Have you considered a trial separation?" When my clients wondered about the impact of divorce on their children, I was emphatic: "You can't be a good parent if you're not happy. Don't worry, your children will be resilient."

My advice, of course, was perfectly in tune with the times. This was the follow-your-bliss Seventies, when Fritz Perls's "Gestalt Prayer" -you do your thing, I'll do mine, et cetera---passed for therapeutic wisdom. But my philosophy of marriage and divorce had also been shaped by my own family experience - more profoundly than I then knew.

One evening when I was 16, my mother called my two brothers, my father and me into the living room. Because impromptu family meetings weren't the norm, I sensed that something was wrong. My heart started racing. My mother took a deep breath. "I've been really unhappy for the past twenty-three years of my marriage, she announced. Your father and I are getting a divorce."

Her words took my breath away. Unhappy? With my father? How was that possible? In my 16 years on the planet, I couldn't remember my parents having a single fight. As far as I was concerned, I had been raised in a New York City version of the Walton family, wrapped in the safety and security of a warm, close-knit clan. "You have to keep trying!" I pleaded. "I've tried enough," answered my mother quietly, resolutely. "I've seen a psychiatrist for three years about this. There comes a time when you have to throw in the towel." The pain in my father's eyes was more than I could bear. As my brothers and I scattered to our respective bedrooms to grieve, my older brother screamed at my mother, "If you divorce Dad, you are not my mother!"

For several weeks, I persisted in the belief that my parents simply could not split up. I wrote my mother an impassioned letter, literally begging her to reconsider her decision. When she lovingly but firmly explained that it was too late for second thoughts, I threatened to run away. When that ploy also failed to change her mind, it began to dawn on me, ever so slowly, that my family was not a democracy and that I would have no vote in this matter. I could cry, plead, threaten, or dance on the moon, but my parents were going to come apart.

So I turned my energies to accepting what I could not change. Because I adored my mother, I tried hard to understand how she must be feeling. Even as a teenager, I could see big differences in my parents' personalities and ways of looking at the world. My mother had always been a lover of ideas, spirituality, and deeply intimate conversations. My father is from the Old World, a traditional man who believes that good husbands provide well for their families, come home at the same time every night and fix things when they break. Although I loved and admired my rock-solid, handsome father, I had to face the fact that my mother felt something was missing. She told me that to stay in her marriage was to give up any hope for real happiness. Naturally, I didn't want that. Over time, I came to feel that the divorce was sad and unfortunate but ultimately understandable, given the huge gap between my mother's and father's visions of a fulfilling relationship.

So years later, when so many couples in my practice seemed worlds apart, this was the bottom-line philosophy that increasingly guided my work. Divorce is distressing and regrettable, no question, but often it's simply the best available option. People have a right to follow their dreams. Everybody copes, more or less. Kids bounce back.

After all, I largely had. After my parents split, I left home and attended a small, nurturing college, where I flourished. After leaving college, my life continued to fall into place. I married my husband, Jim, began to grow my therapy practice, and gave birth to two children.

Our children taught us the meaning of unconditional love and the gifts that come from selflessness and responsibility. They showed us what is really important in life-- family. I cherished these lessons every day. But ironically, during this period of deep contentment and gratitude, something else began to stir inside me. I began to experience unexpected feelings of loss about my own childhood family. Increasingly I found myself searching for a way to understand what seemed like an inexplicable underlying grief. Although I thought I had made my peace with my parents' divorce, I was coming to understand that my pain wasn't just about the demise of my parents' relationship. It was about the loss of my family.

Although I adored my two brothers, after my parents' divorce, I had less and less contact with them. I had never before recognized how much my mother had held our family together. It was she who made holiday dinners and birthday cakes. It was she who filled my father in on our daily lives. It was my mother who was the hub of the wheel for my extended family and when she gave up that role, no one else stepped up to the plate. My father, traditionalist that he is, simply wasn't prepared to take over my mother's role as family magnet.

The loss I felt wasn't just for myself. As a child who had been tucked in at night by both my mother and father, I never dreamed that my children would never see my parents as a couple. I couldn't anticipate that when my kids were little, they would wistfully keep asking me whether "Omi" and "Pappy" would remarry each other someday. I never imagined that I wouldn't have a comfortable, rambling family home that I could return to anytime to visit with my parents, show off my children, touch base with my grown-up brothers and their families. I never knew that my father would never again be able to attend anything but major family events such as weddings and Bat Mitzvahs because he found family functions too painful to bear. I simply never knew we'd never be together as a family again.

Did it have to happen? I began to wonder. Why was Mom so sure their marriage couldn't work; why didn't Dad fight harder for her? I found myself haunted by their hopelessness. It was around that time that I became drawn to Solution-Focused therapy, which offered an optimistic, down-to-earth framework for helping couples find solutions to their conflicts. I found it useful because it got me to stop analyzing why couples were having problems and instead, figure out what they could do about those problems.

But the truth was, I wasn't just after any solution. I now understood that not all solutions were created equal. Except in abusive situations, I wanted to help couples choose their marriages over divorce. Period. But I realized I needed to develop more effective marriage-saving approaches if I was to do more than just impose my values on people.

Over the next several years, I paid close attention to the strategies I tried with couples that seemed to ratchet up their energy and willingness to keep trying. Ultimately, I developed a couples approach called Divorce Busting. Some people think that divorce-busting means advising people to stay married or proselytizing about the impact of divorce on the family. Frankly, I can't imagine anything less useful.

What I'm after, instead, is teaching couples skills that combat hopelessness, which I'm convinced is the number one killer of marriages. I've learned, over time, that hope can grow in the most unlikely situations - when only one spouse agrees to come to therapy, when one spouse claims he or she wants out or has already filed for divorce, when people seem more intent on being right than on being happy, when infidelity dampens trust. Although not all marriages can, or even should, survive, the capacity of people to reopen their hearts to each other never fails to humble me. When I help couples find their way back to each other, I feel I'm infusing life and spirit into a marriage, and a family, that might otherwise have died. In those moments, I feel truly blessed.

After all these years of helping other people deal with their marital crises, what about my own feelings about my parents' divorce today? Sometimes in quiet moments, I sit with my mother, who is now a therapist herself, and we speculate about how things might have turned out differently had she gotten better professional advice. We wonder: Did the divorce really have to happen? But in truth, I probably wonder more than she does.

My mother likes to quip that had it not been for her divorce, I would never have found such a sense of mission in my life and that people who have benefited from my dedication to divorce busting have her to thank. And while the intensity I felt about my parents' divorce has largely subsided over the years, I can still feel the stirrings of the old sadness when the topic comes up between us, even though my mother and I have long ago been able to agree to disagree about its impact. Nevertheless, I sometimes tease my mother with the old joke about two ninety-year-olds, who, after seventy years of marriage, hobble into the judge's chambers to announce that they're calling it quits. The judge looks up at them and says, 'You've been married for seventy years, why in the world would you want to divorce now?' To which the wife replies softly, 'We wanted to wait until the kids died.'"

My mom and I laugh, then quickly turn our conversation to other things.

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2009 Copyright - Michele Weiner-Davis. All rights reserved.

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