Divorce Busters Can Help Rescue Struggling Relationships


You might say Mark and Debbie Johnson's marriage lurched toward a calamitous disaster right on schedule. The Turlock, Calif., couple, two children in tow, had made it to seven years, the point at which spouses are expected to scratch the seven-year itch. There were no infidelities, rather the union eroded from a plague of casual drug use, alcohol and out-of-control rage. Like a derailed train, the marriage was hurtling toward its inevitable crash.

"We were emotionally divorced but living in the same house," recounted Debbie Johnson, now 39. "I got to the point in the marriage where I was miserable for so long that I just wanted to make him miserable. We had no feelings for each other. We didn't have hope. We just hadn't filed the divorce papers."

She was quick to anger; he was her provocateur. But because the couple had two children, they agreed to try a church-based intervention program designed explicitly for couples teetering toward divorce. Ultimately their marriage was saved by "Reconciling God's Way," a 12-week course taught at Big Valley Grace Community Church in Modesto by couples who have rebuilt their own relationships. Inspired by their experience, they, in turn, became "lay leaders," guiding other couples.

Such "divorce busting" approaches are relatively new, and in contrast to traditional marital therapy, they are short-term, less expensive and solution-oriented. Divorce intervention methods have proliferated largely in the last decade as research on the negative effects of divorce has increased and as marriage preservation therapies and premarital education courses have grown, said Michael Bowers, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Assn. of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). "More than 10 years ago, we were featuring what has now become known as 'divorce busting' types of intervention programs at our annual conference to train therapists," said Bowers.

"There is now more cultural focus on divorce and the impact of divorce. As boomers age, they are more reflective on the implications of their life choices. There are questions of legacy, such as 'How are we leaving the world?' at the level of family life."

The term "divorce busting" was coined by Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock, Ill., clinical social worker who held a therapist training seminar called "divorce busting" at the AAMFT annual conference in 1989. She authored "Divorce Busting: A Revolutionary and Rapid Program for Staying Together" (Simon and Schuster, 1993), launched a Web site (http://www.divorcebusting.com) and created a program based upon the principles she found worked best in her clinical practice counseling the doggedly divorce-bound.

"Marriage is not safe in all therapists' hands because most therapists are trained to help the individual find personal happiness," said Weiner-Davis. "When making relationships work, sometimes people have to put their spouse first and learn how to make compromises."

Wiener-Davis' practice is made up almost entirely of couples who have already seen a divorce attorney, or in which one is pursuing divorce. For some, an affair waits in the wings.

"I do something called solution-oriented therapy," said Weiner-Davis. "In my not-so-modest opinion, these couples don't have time to do a psycho-archeological dig. Couples want to know what they can do the moment they walk out the door to stop fighting. You have to decide on a daily basis to do the things that make your relationship work and to stop doing the things that are destructive to the relationship."

Psychotic Optimist

The most common divorce scenario, she said, is the wife who pursues her husband for emotional intimacy and the husband who withdraws. After years of the pursue/withdraw dance, the wife gives up and plans a divorce. As the last child decamps, the "walk-away wife" announces she wants a divorce to her shocked husband, who then pursues her as she shops for a lawyer. The clingy spouse must back off so the ambivalent one can decide if something is salvageable, said Weiner-Davis.

"I am a psychotic optimist," she said. "It is unbelievable to me how many couples think it is over and find their way back, including after they have actually divorced. Interestingly, 10% of people who divorce remarry each other."

Pat Rubenstein, a licensed therapist in Encino, also found marital therapy lacking when counseling divorce-bound couples. So Rubenstein began using a goal-oriented, finite "psycho-educational approach."

"I have found that couples therapy worked OK, but I didn't see enough change," said Rubenstein. In addition to her clinical practice, Rubenstein teaches a course called PAIRS, an acronym for practical application of intimate relationship skills, written by licensed therapist Lori Gordon in 1989. PAIRS helps couples trace the way they interact to their family of origin, identify sources of relationship unhappiness and misunderstandings and learn to resolve them.

"It takes out the blame and makes each person accountable," said Rubenstein. "Men love it because it is solution-oriented." Couples take their partner's "daily temperature reading," sit knee-to-knee and talk in turns, share what each spouse appreciates about the other, air complaints and talk about shared dreams.

Long before secular programs were developed, there were faith-based divorce-busting programs led by couples who resurrected near-dead marriages. One of the oldest is Retrovaille, a Catholic-based program started 24 years ago, said Pat Bate, deputy coordinator with her husband of Retrovaille International. Retrovaille, named for the French word for "discovery," was designed as a lifeline for couples too deep in distress to be helped by the Catholic relationship-strengthening seminar Marriage Encounters.

"Every presenting couple shares how they journeyed back to a healthy, loving relationship," said Bate. "For the first time, these couples, some who have divorced, realize there is hope."

But there is no one-size-fits-all program. Some couples need more help than what a three-month course affords. "If one of the partners has had an affair, you probably want the couple in marital therapy," advises Howard Markman, a University of Denver psychologist and an expert on marriage.

The Johnsons' problems were deeply entrenched, but they learned to deal with personal issues separately during the course of "Reconciling God's Way," then tackled their problems as a couple. Most importantly, they agree, they found hope. "We learned how to resolve conflict," said Mark Johnson, 41. "Over time, things started getting better for us. We wanted to work things through to make the marriage stronger. The biggest thing I learned is about sacrificial love and to honor Debbie as my most valuable gift."

To learn more about divorce intervention programs, go to http://www.smartmarriages.com, a clearinghouse of information on marriage, relationships and divorce. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at kathykelleher@home.com.

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