At the annual conference of the American Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy in San Francisco recently, there was standing room only at one workshop. Its title? "Divorce Busters," featuring techniques to help ". . . even the most pessimistic, last-ditch couples."
"I admit it. I am militant about saving marriages. If this were a court of law, I would be the defense attorney for the marriage," Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., therapist, told the crowd of 400.
Her views are a sign of the times. In the 1960s, when divorce rates began to soar, many therapists adopted a more casual attitude toward marital dissolution, with individual growth taking precedence over the marital relationship. Divorce came to be viewed as a brief crisis of perhaps a year, without lasting impact on adults and children.
Since then, therapists have gotten an earful from clients who are struggling to deal with complexities such as custody arrangements, finances, single parenthood, dating, the risk of AIDS, remarriage and even second divorces.
With more than 25 years to observe the outcomes, many therapists, like Weiner-Davis, are working harder to save marriages.
"The pendulum has begun to swing. Divorce still is the most appropriate result for some people. But what we're seeing with our members, especially when children are involved, is more emphasis on marriage enrichment and family preservation," notes Ralph Earle, president of the 16,000-member association.
Weiner-Davis and others are responding by developing new techniques to save marriages.
Some practitioners are immediately focusing on strengths of the relationship, breaking negative behavior patterns and defusing crises.
"What we have to do is determine (quickly), 'Is there any life in this marriage?' " explains Bunny Duhl, a counseling psychologist and director of the New England Family Institute in Portland, Me.
Comments Marion Solomon, a Westwood therapist and author of "Narcissism and Intimacy: Love and Marriage in an Age of Confusion" (W.W. Norton): "We used to focus more on personal growth. If personal growth meant you had to get a divorce, that was a valid conclusion. In the '80s, we are recognizing that divorce hasn't been a particularly good answer for marital problems.
"Many people, evaluating the reasons for their divorces of the '60s and '70s, will tell you, 'That was the worst thing that could have happened to me,' " Solomon said. "So today, if people say the marriage is holding them back, we think perhaps we have to help them see how they are responsible, too."
In years past, Solomon said, when couples came in describing money, sex or children as the issue, she would treat the immediate problem.
"Today, I am listening much more for what's underneath, and how people have become emotionally injured," she said. "I try to get couples to see that by not showing love, not affirming a partner, and not focusing on what is positive about the other person, they are hurting each other."
Many other therapists report that they, too, are changing their methods. The experience of 37-year-old Weiner-Davis, who holds a psychology degree from Grinnell College and a master's degree in social work from the University of Kansas, is instructive. About six years ago, she noticed some traditional therapeutic tools weren't working.
"Like many therapists, I was trained to believe that if we can just get couples to clearly communicate their feelings, then we can get them to resolve problems. Instead, I realized couples had talked ad nauseam (about feelings), but didn't know what to do about it. Asking them to talk about their anger only would stir things up again, making matters worse," she said.
Weiner-Davis developed what she refers to as "uncommon sense ideas." On initial interviews, rather than determining what the couple is fighting about, she immediately asks: "Can you think of a time when you had a truce and things were working better? What was different?"
"What I have done is to get people to think about the successful times and strengths. Usually, couples can tell me what they need to do to make things better and instead of dwelling on the negative, I can get them thinking about success and solutions," Weiner-Davis said.
Only a slight change is necessary to see improvement, she believes. Putting aside ultimate goals, she asks clients: "What would be the first sign, however small, that things were starting to get back on track? A woman will reply, 'If only in the morning, instead of shouting at me, he could just give me a peck on the cheek.' "
The seemingly minor act, Weiner-Davis said, can be effective.
"Most people, when treated well, will respond by doing something thoughtful. So Dad kisses Mom, Mom does something kind for Dad, and then the children seem to relax and do better. There's a ripple effect."
In opposition to her training, Weiner-Davis also discovered the worst approach is to have couples in the room together, "particularly when one partner wants to stay in (the marriage) and one partner wants out. What you get is one person saying how much better things are, and the other negating every statement. An unhappy person is much more likely to talk about positive aspects of marriage if he can say it in private first," she explains.
Such changes in treatment, therapists say, are born out of need. About four years ago, Boulder, Colo., marriage and family therapist Suzanne Pope and her psychiatrist colleague Jan Raynak were frustrated when treating couples stubbornly locked in combat, a syndrome they called "the Blame Game."
"These are the couples who can't stop blaming each other. In every discussion, each person has his bag of rotten tomatoes to throw, and you can't get them to stop long enough to move beyond the negative exchange and communicate," said Pope, who works with the Colorado Institute for Marriage and Family Therapy. In the extreme, couples are like the constantly feuding George and Martha in Edward Albee's play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" They stage free-ranging battles before friends and relatives, each partner hoping to be declared the winner.
The intricate dance, Pope said, is devised by partners afraid of becoming too close.
"Rather than avoiding each other, they are interacting. But by entering into this cycle, they block all the issues. And although they don't know it, they feel hopeless."
Pope and Raynak believe these couples have strengths.
"They are tenacious. They are committed to one another. And both people are direct and verbal, which can be very helpful. The problem was, how do we get under the barnacles and reach these people?" Pope said. The answer, the therapist found, was in quickly intervening to disrupt a couple's pattern.
"If you can just block the zinger, that's one of the small pieces that can begin to build hope again," Pope said.
When couples begin carrying on during sessions, the co-therapists frequently throw spouses off balance with off-putting interruptions. On one occasion Pope stopped an embroiled couple in their tracks by telling them "the score is 3-2."
Pope teaches couples to break negative cycles by using similar unanticipated responses, such as ignoring the angry remark, giving a kiss, or turning to talk to someone else.
Sometimes, merely answering a question is effective. A husband who walks into the kitchen, angrily demanding, "Why did you buy these small containers of apple juice?" might be trying to irritate his wife by charging her with being a poor manager or inadequate homemaker.
If the wife angrily replies, "What would you know about grocery shopping? You never help with chores and if you go to the supermarket, you bring back all the things we don't need," the conflict escalates. If, on the other hand, the wife simply states, "I needed small cans for Billy's lunch," the exchange ends.
"If a spouse has a vendetta, and you keep responding in a literal way, it will drive them crazy. It will force them to put the real problem on the table," Pope explains.
Depending upon the type of practice, of course, therapists face different challenges. April Westfall, a clinical psychologist with the Marriage Counsel of Philadelphia, works with many couples after revelation of an extramarital affair.
"Affairs occur in the best and worst marriages," Westfall maintains. Over the years, rather than expecting doom, Westfall has come to view the crisis as an opportunity to put the marriage on a stronger footing.
"I don't see couples who head for the divorce lawyer right away. I see couples where at least one partner is hesitant enough about going through a divorce to come in and see if the marriage can be saved," she said.
Marital survival depends on many factors, she believes, including how long the affair lasted, how attached the husband or wife feels to the affair partner, and whether the liaison was public. If the affair involved a relative or friend of the couple, the injured spouse experiences even greater feelings of betrayal and outrage.
Initially, Westfall attempts to defuse the crisis by encouraging couples to express feelings of upset and anger. She believes the aggrieved spouse should be able to ask questions about the affair partner, "anything to take some of the mystery away."
Interestingly, she said, men usually want to know sexual details, while women want to know what the other woman was like and how she dressed.
Fairly soon, Westfall begins talking about why the affair happened and problems in the marital relationship.
"I try to put the affair in the context of the entire marriage. If I can get them to see that this is like other crises they have dealt with, such as job disruptions, ill children, the death of relatives, couples can be reminded of their resilience. It tends to make them feel more hopeful and that there is a possibility they can get through this," she says.
Westfall offers one caveat. Chances for survival are much less if the affair, or series of affairs, has been ongoing for years.
"The amount of subterfuge, deception and direct lying that goes along with that kind of secrecy almost becomes unforgiveable," Westfall says.
"I have come to see that both partners feel tremendous loss. The partner not involved (in the affair) feels a loss of attractiveness as a spouse. The involved spouse gives up the affair partner and feels the loss. Both husband and wife feel a longing to return to a more innocent period in their lives together. You can't put these painful feelings to rest right away. But for many couples, this can be a constructive time of recommitment to the marriage."
Despite seemingly herculean effort, experts do agree that in many cases, divorce is still the best option. In these instances, therapists attempt to help partners separate.
They caution, however, that breaking up doesn't always solve the problem.
"When people have trouble in marriage, they often assume they simply have chosen the wrong partner," says Augustus Y. Napier, author of "It's the Fragile Bonds: In Search of an Equal, Intimate and Enduring Marriage" (Harper & Row).
However, "the difficulties in marriage are not only between us but within each of us, and the experience of divorce does not resolve those deeply internalized struggles, which we each brought into the marriage and carry forward into the next."