First of all, if you’re reading this it means you are at least intrigued with these couples or with the idea of having a new type of service to offer.
You may see really tough couples or perhaps you are a short-term, more skills-focused therapist who is great at marketing to the lower conflict couples who just want a tune up.
No matter, here’s a reality for every couples therapist.
The journey someone takes towards wanting to file for divorce (remember it’s nearly always ONE person, rarely both people who want to end the marriage) is filled with a lot of doubts, uncertainties, and some “testing” of their spouse (subconsciously or not).
In this journey, perhaps even very early on, where the idea of divorce flickers in their head and spooks them out, or perhaps a bit further down their roller coaster of doubt, many will seek out marriage therapy.
But here’s the thing. These spouses (mostly wives, as 2/3 of divorce filings in heterosexual marriages are from women) may not have told their spouse anything about their divorce ideation!
The spouses come in. They share normal marital complaints. They show up, try to do what you suggest. It goes well, or not. They may be fairly short term – calendars get busy, some life crisis interrupts the work. They may be with you longer but things get a bit stuck and traction is gone in the work. Eventually therapy peters out. All the while, the therapy may be a way the leaning out spouses “tests” their partner, a trial run to see if the other person will make changes. But neither you nor the leaning in spouse know that someone’s commitment is tentative, and the marriage is on the line.
Here’s something so obvious we almost don’t want to type it out:
There is a BIG difference between being upset and leaning OUT of the marriage.
To spell it out with an example, many husbands know their wives aren’t happy, but in their mind, that is a mood that comes and goes. It’s just part of a normal marriage. But if she is willing to implode the family in a divorce, he will be much more alert and take more seriously all the issues she brings up.
Perhaps the only other analogy in human relationships would be foster kids who have been abandoned before, and for whom foster parenting holds a literal risk of another abandonment. It’s scary and hard, and good foster parents are trained to understand how their parenting skills need to include a deep awareness of how this child’s actions may be to “prove” they will be left again, even though the child consciously wants nothing more than a permanent, loving home.
In that analogy we are like the foster parents – our couples therapy skills need to be highly tuned to the divorce thoughts of one, and the fear of abandonment of the other spouse.
So yes, you may not be seeing many couples openly discussing divorce.
Instead you may have stalled cases, or therapy that never takes off, but you chalk it up to someone just not being a therapy fan, or any number of other reasons. You may even have couples who terminate “fine enough” but you don’t know that the work was not strong enough to make one spouse get over the divorce thoughts.
We don’t blame these divorce-pondering spouses. It’s a huge risk to disclose, potentially creating a crisis.
Here’s our message to you.
We can unwittingly oversee a final attempt to save a marriage,
but without the awareness that the commitment TO the marriage is what is really being tested!
Based on a couple of studies, we estimate that up to thirty percent of couples who come to our offices have a spouse who is making a decision about staying married. If you take general divorce ideation, many more people are pondering but not talking aloud.
So you are right. You may not be seeing a lot of couples where both know one person is seriously leaning out. But you are seeing some couples where one person is “using” the therapy to help them discern if the marriage is savable.
And that huge elephant in the room, unaddressed, leads to disappointing outcomes.
By offering a new service, we are giving you give a new window of opportunity for a spouse to even know there is another path forward– a way to work on discerning whether to leave or commit to serious work on the marriage in therapy. Not half-hearted therapy where they watch to see if their spouse changes enough.
You can help ambivalent spouses figure out whether to make one last try or move towards divorce.