Should You Stay in a So-So Marriage?
Spencer recently spoke with Huffington Post about the controversy sparked by this New York Times opinion piece:
You’ll find Spencer’s powerful perspective at this article’s conclusion, and you can check out experts from her full answers below:
Should Couples Force Themselves to Stay in Untenable Marriages?
Over my 10+ years of experience with couples, I can’t think of any good examples of when a couple was choosing to stay married and I thought that was a terrible idea. This could be due to a few notable things about couple therapy in general, and then my specific practice (or a combination of them):
1: If two people engage in working on their relationship, even though it’s hard, I think it’s worth it to keep trying. They are both agreeing to struggle and grow together. There’s equality and meaningful connection in that. If this is a careful choice, I want to support this work. This is a professional bias, but this is the professional bias people are seeking in couple therapy. While I stay mindful of realities, part of my role is to look towards the good to promote connection and healing. Most couples in therapy wouldn’t benefit from the therapist taking a skeptical stance, such as assuming they are largely staying in the relationship just because they don’t want to admit failure, or other less than earnest reasons to invest in reconciliation.
2: So it’s possible that couple and family therapists by virtue of their role may have a different take on patterns of staying together than someone studying the cultural and societal trends in people avoiding divorce. I am so very curious about what Tish Harrison Warren’s couple therapist would have to say about her marriage…
All that is to say that when couples earnestly engage in couple therapy and seem loath to split up, I am loath to see them split up as well!
3: I also am a big advocate for personal responsibility and keeping “your side of the street clean” in relationships. Which is why I wouldn’t necessarily champion someone splitting with a long-term partner solely due to a period of dissatisfaction, or even some suffering without a thorough look into their own perspective and behavior. This is assuming there is no major safety issue for anyone – Domestic Violence and Abuse are a whole other topic! I often encourage my individual clients to stick with their relationships enough time to see how things change when they are able to keep a nice “clean street,” such as ensuring they are communicating clearly and positively with their partner and they are not responding with reactivity.
If you have done your work and you feel confident that you and your partner are not a good match, that despite your best efforts it’s not working, then I support leaving. But many clients I see are aware that they are contributing to the problematic system. They are bringing in their own baggage and combining it with their partners, and it is a lot to sort out. They recognize, however, as Warren alludes to in her writing, that if they don’t work it out with this partner, they are going to bring this baggage into their next relationship, or have to sort through it all alone. ←- I think these are the people for whom Warren wrote this article. For those people, the message to stick with it could be powerful and helpful. The backlash is because people are treating this op-ed as if it’s addressed to everyone. The miscommunication could be because of Warren’s own style and words, or people reading and processing her words with their own stuff in mind. The whole situation seems to need some mediation.
Broadly speaking, when might a marriage not be fixable?
I can highlight one clear sign that a marriage is not fixable: When one or more people aren’t DOING anything to fix it. I almost wrote, “don’t want to fix it,” but even that feeling can come into play sometimes in marriages worth saving. People can get upset and reactively say that they give up, but their behavior turning towards their partner continues to outweigh some exasperated commentary. OR, people can say they “want to fix it” but then do nothing. So focus on the inaction and the distraction from doing the work to reconcile if you are determining whether or not it’s time to end things.
Many times, through a discernment exploration, I’ve had clients clearly determine and state that they were not willing to change or do anything to fix their relationship. Case closed.
Then there are the couples who avoid using couple therapy as a place to listen and grow, and rather, treat couple therapy like they are already in divorce court. They myopically express preoccupation with what the other person has done wrong and how that person needs to change. They either can’t or refuse to see their role and what they might do help repair. Some may even say they want things to work, but they put the burden of change on the other person and refuse to do much work themselves.
I have no moral judgment on these stances. Not every relationship is worth working for – especially if someone has seriously wronged you. If you’re taking this stance, however, it’s over.
One more plug for discernment counseling: It is amazing how quickly the truth can come out when we take this approach. If you are unsure about your relationship, find a therapist who has some training in discernment counseling. Taking this type of approach before committing to full-on therapy you can save some heartache: either from staying in relationship not worth saving OR figuring out that it is worth saving because you both now have some clarity and are willing to dig in and do the work.
With regard to the op-ed, I think that for a specific group of people, it conveys a powerful and helpful message. It’s not for everyone, but it is an important one for the people who have a lot of baggage to sort out in their relationship. Those who find meaning in the struggle of sorting it out. Family therapists use this saying when people get together, “water seeks its own level.” Meaning people with a lot of baggage tend to find each other. It’s going to be miserable to sort through it whether you are alone or with someone else. I think she really means that some partners need to “normalize” suffering TOGETHER as part of their journey, and not something they will necessarily escape if they break up.