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This is a process that involves a lot of pain and dislocation for generally a lot of people...

Counselors Can Help Troubled Marriages


Counselors Can Help Troubled Marriages


Mental Health: Searching for Marriage-Friendly Therapists Can Make a Difference


By CLAIRE BUSHEY

    Seeing a marriage therapist selected at random from the phone book can be hazardous to a couple’s marital health, said William J. Doherty, author of several books on familial relations and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota.      

About 2 percent of the American population sees a marriage and family therapist each year. But there’s no consensus on the best way to treat troubled couples. Some, like Doherty, believe the therapist should act as an advocate for the marriage itself. However, almost two-thirds of marital therapists describe themselves as “neutral” on the question of whether a client couple stays married or divorces. As one summed up: “The good marriage, the good divorce – it matters not.”       


Doherty thinks it does matter. He’s no cultural warrior for the religious right – he describes himself as “a nice, NPR-listening, Planned Parenthood-contributing, Unitarian Universalist liberal” – but as a marital therapist he has witnessed the trauma which accompanies divorce, and it has made him a proponent of lifelong marriage. “The consequences, the fallout for divorce, both for adults and children, can be serious,” he said. “This is a process that involves a lot of pain and dislocation for generally a lot of people.”      

According to Doherty, a good marital therapist supports the couples’ original goal for themselves: lifetime commitment. And to help couples find therapists who hold the same philosophy, in June 2005 he and Kathleen Wenger, overseer of clinical training and professional development for marriage and family therapists at Pepperdine University, created the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists.       

The registry lists 190 therapists in 35 states. Therapists who wish to add their names must complete an application, provide proof of licensing and sign a values statement affirming the value of marriage. The registry is a secular enterprise, although some of the therapists listed on it do incorporate their faith into their practice, and it lists therapists who treat cohabitating couples and gay couples as well as the legally married.      

 A “neutral” approach isn’t neutral when it comes to the question of divorce, Doherty said, and it can damage a marriage’s chance of survival. Therapists who espouse neutrality tend to couch their comments in the language of individual self-interest, i.e. asking a client  “What do you need to do for you?” This focus on individual needs at the expense of moral obligations gives support to the more ambivalent spouse and ignores the fact that the dissolution of a marriage usually affects more people than the husband and wife alone.     

It’s hard for therapists to overcome their training, Doherty said. Some see embracing the role of marriage advocate as tantamount to abandoning their professional principles of non-judgment and respect for autonomy. But some do change. Doherty did.     

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