Why marriage counseling fails

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Aug 02, 2002 12:00 AM
William Pinsof, a respected family therapist and editor of Family Process Journal, has just devoted a whole issue to the idea that preventing divorce is, well, a bad idea. "Divorce, Living Together Are New Norms," screamed the headline in USA Today.

"It is time to move beyond thinking about the divorce rate as an indicator of a social disorder that must be reduced, to thinking about it more neutrally and inquisitively," Pinsoff writes. Divorce should be regarded as one of the "normal social events in the life course of modern families."

Hmm, could ideas like this be one reason why a lot of Americans are afraid to consult marriage counselors?

I recently co-authored a study, "Does Divorce Make People Happy?" (www.americanvalues.org), that compared the well-being of unhappy spouses who divorced or separated with unhappy spouses who stayed in their marriages, using nationally representative survey data. Contrary to expectations, unhappy spouses who divorced or separated were not psychologically better off five years later. This was probably because most of the unhappy spouses who avoided divorce did not stay trapped in misery: Two-thirds of unhappy spouses who stayed married ended up happily married five years down the road.

How do unhappy couples turn their marriages around? To find out, we conducted focus-group interviews with 55 formerly unhappy spouses. Our sample consisted of husbands and wives from suburban New Jersey and northern Virginia, and was heavily weighted in favor of affluent, educated couples -- just the sort most likely to seek counseling.

Guess how many told us that marriage counseling played a key role in helping them avoid divorce and build happier, warmer marriages? Very, very few.

About one-third of these formerly unhappy spouses did consult a counselor (either secular or religious). Most of these reported the counseling was modestly helpful. But few offered counseling as one of the primary reasons why their marriages avoided divorce and became happier.

Meanwhile, a large number of spouses, especially husbands, saw counseling in a negative light, as a threat to their marriages.

If you go to a counselor "you end up divorced," said one. Several husbands told us they did not like to speak about their intimate problems to someone who is "watching the clock." One husband said he hated the idea of "paying someone to listen to your problems." Others had a more nuanced view: "Counselors are like ballplayers," said another, "some are good and some aren't."

In general, husbands expressed a strong preference for religious counseling over secular marriage counseling for two reasons: First, husbands had greater confidence that clergy would not purposefully or inadvertently encourage divorce. They saw religious counselors as actively rooting for the marriage to succeed. Second, husbands more often saw religious counselors as being genuinely interested in them and their marriage.

Wives did not have the same negative views about secular counseling. But I was surprised to find that, when push came to shove, more wives mentioned divorce attorneys than marriage counselors were key to turning their marriage around.

Why? When husbands behaved badly, wives looked for help from others -- be it family members or divorce lawyers -- to pressure their husbands to behave more like good family men. These women were lucky to find family law attorneys who listened to their desires, and acted as dire warning signals to their husbands about their discontent rather than hustling the couple down the path to divorce.

Marriage neutrality was not what unhappy spouses of either sex seeking help told us they wanted. Both husbands and wives said they wanted to get help from someone who wanted their marriage to succeed.

Here is my question for Dr. Pinsof and other marriage therapists who think as he does: Is there room in your profession for people like that, for the kind of counselors clients say they want -- pros who prefer marriage to divorce?