The Benefits of Couples’ Therapy – Even if You Get Divorced

This is adapted from my new book, Divorce: A Love Story, co-written with my former wife, Anne Menkens. It’s only $2.99 and is available here.

We first sought out a couples’ therapist when our daughter, now 18, was an infant. We were unhappy, our marriage lacked intimacy and we were worried about our prospects. Of course, many parents of newborns are unhappy — they’re sleep-deprived, their futures are filled with inherent uncertainty and they have little time to think about anything other than diapers, feedings and more diapers.

But we knew something deeper was amiss. We were both graduate students at the time, so we went to counseling services at our university. Our first therapist was a nice guy, and he was clearly determined to keep us together. That is not so unusual or necessarily a bad thing. We didn’t present with the kinds of problems indicating a need to separate right away. There was no physical or verbal abuse, for example. We didn’t hate one another, and we were not yet ready to admit that we were not in love. But when we talked about what was bothering us, our therapist had the habit of reframing our problems as less serious than we perceived them. In so doing, he committed perhaps the cardinal sin for a therapist — trying to talk us out of our feelings. For example, when we talked about not having any sexual attraction for one another, our therapist said, “lots of people become less interested in sex as they get older.” We were in our early 30s and had been married for fewer than two years. We had not lost interest in sex. But we spent more time trying to explain ourselves and then questioning his agenda than we did dealing with the real problem, which was that weren’t interested in each other.

Our therapist thought we had merely lost something that had once enlivened our relationship. He gave us “exercises” designed to help us connect physically and communicate better about our wants and needs. Of course, many couples who once had a vibrant sex life become less attracted to one another over time. Or, they put physical intimacy on the back burner because of the exhausting details of everyday life, work, and parenthood. But by the time we went to therapy, we knew we didn’t click in that way and perhaps never really had.

As we finished our graduate work and prepared to move, we took a break from therapy. In our new home in Maine, our daughter then two, we were more focused on settling in to new jobs and a new community. However, as the adrenaline of starting anew wore off, we were forced again to face the deficits in our relationship.

Our new therapist came highly recommended. She was an exceptional person — a versatile professional with a direct, unsentimental New England manner. She put us on notice in our first meeting, letting us know that it made no difference to her whether we stayed together.

She also instructed us to write the story of our own individual “love histories,” to be typed up and delivered at the next appointment. Our therapist immediately grasped that neither of us could be fully honest with one another in the room – we were just too afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. She knew we were comfortable expressing ourselves in writing and that this assignment would save us weeks of time with her. We plunged with gusto into our respective accounts, handed them in, and waited for the verdict. At the following appointment, she shared with us her highlighter-filled observations about the recurring themes in our stories. With what we came to know as her trademark incisiveness, she reduced our histories to simple, ruthless (and spot-on) conclusions about each of us: “Anne, you’ve never gone for what you truly wanted, and Jonathan, you’ve never known what you wanted.”

Obvious though this seems to us now, the extent to which her observations explained our fundamental dilemma was astonishing. For one thing, our therapist was able to take all the guilt and shame out of the question of our marital struggles. There were reasons for our problems that had nothing to do with whether we were good, decent people. Confused? Yes. Somewhat cowardly or immature with regard to owning our true feelings? Admittedly. But bad people? No.

As our therapist saw it, her job was to help us figure out what was best for each of us, whatever that was. She assured us that we would remain committed parents regardless, and that our daughter would be OK. Initially, she did work under the assumption that we would want to stay together, because that’s what she thought she heard from us. As in Chapel Hill, we were tasked with intimacy-building exercises between appointments. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine a more sure-fire way of draining intimacy from a relationship than repurposing it as “homework.” Needless to say, these again went nowhere.

One day our therapist asked an important question: “Why would you want to be someone somebody settled for?”

We could have protested that we had not settled, we had truly been in love. But we had no answer or protest to make: we knew it was true. We were not happy and could not remember a time when we gave each other the kind of intimate connection one needs from a lifelong romantic partner. We clung to our marriage primarily out of fear of what divorce would mean for our precious daughter — we didn’t want to ruin her life by getting divorced.

But although our daughter was still young, we feared she would become ever more aware of the disconnect between what we were saying about love and what we were living out on a day-to-day basis.

It would be disingenuous to say that we divorced “for her” — we didn’t. But we knew that staying together would not have guaranteed her happiness either. And we resolved to do everything in our power to keep our marital failure from becoming a parenting failure.

Once we recognized that, ending the marriage was the clear choice for us. And though we have had our ups and downs since, one of the true gifts of the divorce has been the way our relationship has matured.

Our therapist challenged us to develop a new paradigm for dealing with one another. “You’re going to be ‘related’ as long as you’re raising your daughter,” she said. “You have the chance to have a very good post-divorce relationship. The bomb that is at the center of all relationships — the relationship’s ending — has been diffused. You don’t have to be afraid of that anymore. You can be honest with one another, you can face disagreements without worrying that the other one will leave you. You have the chance to have a much deeper — in some ways, a more intimate — relationship now.”

We both felt deep guilt about what this would mean for our daughter, but we both knew it was also the right decision. Our therapist didn’t direct us to that decision. Instead, she showed us how owning our own feelings and our pasts, rather than blaming the other, would allow us to build stronger relationships with one another, and with others. Our daughter, on the cusp of college, has turned out OK. And we’ve managed to establish a healthy, supportive parenting partnership.

Couples therapy didn’t keep us married. But it certainly “worked.”

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