Working With Couples Considering Divorce
For individuals in the U.S. & U.S. territories
In Working With Couples Considering Divorce, Dr. William J. Doherty demonstrates his approach to therapy with couples who are thinking of dissolving their marriages. Dr. Doherty's therapeutic approach is to consider the viewpoints of each member of the couple individually, then to look at them as a unit, and to try to help them resolve the issues that seem to be leading them toward divorce.
In this session, Dr. Doherty works with a couple who have been married for 12 years who have two children. The husband has recently moved out and they are considering divorce. Doherty is able to highlight their ambivalence and manages to get a commitment from each to work for 6 months in therapy before making a decision regarding the marriage. This powerful session is 90 minutes long and involves the therapist working with the couple together, with each partner alone, and then back together.
This demonstration represents a special approach to working with married couples where one or both spouses are considering divorce and are ambivalent about working to salvage their marriage. ("Marriage" here can be defined broadly to include couples who have made a public life-long commitment, regardless of gender and legal marital status.) Often these couples have not tried couples therapy, given it a serious effort, or have not seen a competent marriage therapist. (Many therapists treating couples lack training and experience in this challenging modality.)
Absent domestic violence, other forms of abuse, or bad faith on the part of one of the partners, Dr. Doherty sees his role as holding onto hope for demoralized couples and encouraging them to make a major effort to salvage their marriage. His approaches are based in value considerations (a lifetime marital commitment should not be withdrawn without an all-out effort to sustain it) and pragmatic considerations (many people who end a marriage go on to repeat the same pattern in subsequent relationships).
There is also poll data from a variety of sources showing that 40% or more of divorced people regret their divorce and wish they had worked harder as a couple to save their marriage. Dr. Doherty rejects the idea that therapists should be "neutral" about the decision to divorce (as if the decision were about changing jobs), and he believes that therapists can respect clients' autonomy while first exploring the possibility of restoring the marriage to health.
In practical terms, Dr. Doherty invites each partner to focus on what he or she can change in him- or herself to be healthier and make the relationship better, and he steers them away from focusing on what the other partner can or cannot do to change.
Dr. Doherty sees the couple together and each spouse separately—the couple together in order for him to see how they interact, and each one separately to help each to make an independent assessment and decision. (The agreement calls for a summary at the end of each session of what was discussed in the individual parts; if someone is having a secret affair, he will not force disclosure but will not begin marriage therapy until the affair is ended.) He focuses the sessions on whether to carve out a period of time (usually six months) of serious effort in marriage therapy, with divorce off the table.
With this approach, Dr. Doherty contends that "marriage therapy" does not begin until the couple and therapist are all working on the goal of improving the marriage; prior to this decision, they are doing assessment and decision making counseling. Otherwise, ambivalent spouses can claim that they "tried therapy" even though they stayed on the fence until the other person bailed out of the process.
Focusing the decision on whether to try a course of therapy is more realistic than asking the clients to make a permanent decision on whether they want to stay married. In other words, the commitment Dr. Doherty seeks is to the therapy, rather than to a lifetime of marriage. He continues with a process of conjoint and separate conversations until there is a decision on whether to proceed with marriage therapy. Usually this occurs within several sessions.
The most common presentation is one partner leaning "out" of the marriage and the other wanting to preserve it. In that case, Dr. Doherty uses the same format but the conversation with the "in" spouse focuses on self-care, being constructive at home, and using this crisis as a wake-up call to make personal changes in a healthy direction.
Dr. Doherty does not use this approach when there is serious risk of abuse.
William J. Doherty, PhD, is professor of family social science and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed psychologist.
He received his PhD in family studies from the University of Connecticut in 1978 and served on the faculties of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Iowa and at the University of Oklahoma before taking his current position at the University of Minnesota in 1986.
He is past-president of the National Council on Family Relations, the oldest interdisciplinary family studies organization in North America. In 1992, he received the Significant Contribution to the Field of Marriage and Family Therapy Award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
For his work on moral and community issues in therapy, the Utne Reader magazine named him one of the 10 most innovative therapists in the United States.
He has authored or edited 9 professional books on family studies and family therapy, over 150 scholarly publications in variety of journals and books, and 4 books for the lay public.
His book Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility (1995) is a critique of contemporary psychotherapy's emphasis on individual self-interest and demonstrates a communitarian approach to psychological healing. The book has received widespread acclaim as an original contribution to contemporary psychotherapy.
His book Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times (2000) is a call for parents to assume leadership in their families, instead of anxiously surrendering children to the peer culture and the consumer culture. It won Forward Magazine's Parenting Book of the Year Award for books from independent publishers.
His book Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart (2001), describes how marriage has been undermined by the me-first consumer culture, by frenetic busyness, and by over-indulgent parenting, and shows how couples can take back their marriages through rock-solid commitment, rituals of connection and love, and participation in communities that support their marriages. It won the Self-Help Book of the Year Award for books from independent publishers.
His most recent book, Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World (2002), highlights the problem of overscheduled kids and underconnected families and shows parents how to reclaim family time and use it well. The book is coauthored with Barbara Z. Carlson. It describes the Putting Family First initiative based in Wayzata, Minnesota.
- Doherty, W. (2006). Couples on the brink: Stopping the marriage-go-round. Psychotherapy Networker, March/April, 30–39, 70
- Doherty, W. J. (1995). Soul searching: Why psychotherapy must promote moral responsibility. New York: Basic Books.
- Doherty, William J. (2001). Take back your marriage: Sticking together in a world that pulls us apart. New York: Guilford Press.
- Doherty, W. J. (2002). How therapists harm marriages and what we can do about it. Journal of Couples and Relationship Therapy 1, 1–17.
- Values-Sensitive Family Therapy. William J. Doherty interviewing a woman having an affair and considering ending her marriage. "Family Therapy with the Experts" Allyn & Bacon.
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