Marriage encounter, marriage skills courses, and support groups
Some mental health centers and a few marriage counselors offer small classes for persons wanting to work on marital problems. Most of these courses describe different kinds of marital problems and teach various skills, such as listening, empathy, assertiveness, negotiation, etc., that will help with relationship problems. Ordinarily, these classes are for couples who do not have serious psychiatric problems and who are motivated to improve their relationships on their own. The cost is less than couple's therapy. There are some advantages of groups, including hearing the problems others have--and the solutions that work for them. Also, support groups for marital concerns exist in a few communities. Call your Mental Health Center to find out what groups and classes are available.
Marriage Encounter weekend programs are designed for couples who do not have serious problems but want to enrich and revitalize their love. There will be some group discussion of marriage and some experience for the couple that will facilitate closeness, warmth, and affection. Churches often sponsor these programs, but you do not need to be religious to attend. They are not expensive. Call 1-800-795-LOVE to find out about these worthwhile activities.
Therapy and counseling
When the friction heats up in marriages, more people (maybe 10-20%) than ever before are considering getting professional help. That is very wise. We may be making progress. But I am still disturbed that most do not seek help. What is wrong with the other 80%? Getting therapy seems so reasonable to me; it seems that every friend, every parent, every child, every relative, and every professional person in contact with the unhappy couple should recommend counseling. Why don't they? Divorce is such an emotionally laden decision (perhaps more so than who to marry), we need help seeing the situation realistically, trying to resolve the problems, deciding what other alternatives exist, considering the consequences to others, making reasonable plans for our future, etc. Anyone going though marital hell or a divorce needs a friend to talk to and vent with, no doubt, but he/she needs much more than that--a wise, experienced, unemotional but empathic and caring counselor (the earlier the better).
As soon as there is continuing conflict in a marriage, both partners should openly acknowledge the situation to themselves and each other. They both should show their concern by immediately trying to rectify the situation using self-help methods. Read if you don't have any ideas. If the couple can not make any progress within a month or so (or if it seems like an overwhelming problem and emotions are intense), they should immediately go together to a qualified counselor. THIS IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT. But, there are some things you should know about marriage counseling.
Family and marriage counselors have no magic. The partners themselves must work to understand the conflicts (with the therapist's help), devise possible solutions, try out the solutions, see what works, etc. Relationship problems are hard to resolve, partly because most people seeking professional help have waited much too long. Do not expect the counselor to take sides, tell you what to do, or to make your decisions for you. The clients who expect to patch up their troubles in a session or two, say for $60 to $200, are expecting magic and will be disappointed. It will, at least, take several sessions (plus reading and practicing on your own) and probably months.
In counseling, the problems must be described (from both viewpoints), goals set, treatment plan developed, some understanding acquired, new communication skills learned, new attitudes utilized, compromises negotiated, and love rekindled. It is not possible to know in advance what a "successful" outcome will be, it isn't always a happy marriage forever; divorce may be the wise or only choice; staying together merely to be close to the children may be the best outcome possible; a trial separation may be wise. Most marriage therapists believe that both people must be genuinely committed to improving the marriage via talking therapy in order to benefit from it. So a couple, still hoping to save the marriage, should see a therapist together (unless it is the opinion of a qualified therapist that only one partner has serious psychiatric or personality problems).
The qualifications of marital counselors varies greatly. Almost anyone can legally call him/herself a marriage counselor, so don't just look up a counselor in the Yellow Pages (although a qualified counselor is likely to be listed there if he/she is primarily in private practice). McCary (1975) says half the marriage counselors may be incompetent. Many MA-level counselors, especially those from one-year graduate programs, have little or no specific training in couple's therapy. I recommend you check to see if your health insurance covers private therapy for marital problems (usually it won't) and/or some associated anxiety-depression diagnosis (it always will). If your insurance will pay 50% or more of the expense or if you have the money, search out the most experienced and most highly recommended (by several people) marriage therapist in your area. Most insurance will not pay for a MA-level counselor. The therapy available in Community Mental Health Centers is usually adequate, if you ask for and get an experienced MA-level or doctoral level therapist. State supported Mental Health Centers are low cost if you are poor and charge less than half the price of private practitioners even if you have a good income.
The discipline of your therapist is important. Most Ph. D. psychologists can handle marital problems, but, if at all possible, search for one who is a marriage specialist. Many MD's and psychiatrists have little or no training with marital problems (if they are drug-oriented, they can't do you much good). Some psychiatrists, who are talking therapists, are excellent. In many clinics, the MA-level social workers are assigned most of the marriage counseling cases, so they sometimes (but not always) have lots of experience. Discipline is important but not as important as experience and reputation.
There is an old but still relevant book focusing specifically on helping couples find professional help (Koch & Koch, 1976). Get recommendations of therapists from several people--your family physician (tactfully letting him/her know you don't need a MD), your minister, your lawyer, a local Mental Health Center, Psychology Department, or from other people with experience. Select one who is well recommended and try out the therapist for a session or two, if either you or your spouse have doubts, try another therapist until you both are satisfied. At the first session, find out about the counselor's training and level of experience with your kind of problem. Don't hesitate to ask all the questions you want. In a later stage of counseling when you are deeply involved in telling your stories and, hopefully, starting to gain some understanding, it is very inefficient to switch to another therapist. In fact, if you become very dissatisfied with the therapy after 4 or 5 sessions, don't just drop out. Instead, matter-of-factly confront the therapist with your concern or complaint, e.g. that he/she seems biased in favor of your spouse, that there seems to be no progress and the therapist doesn't seem to be doing much, that the focus isn't on the main problems as you see it, that you have negative feelings towards the counselor, etc. These are not uncommon feelings in marital therapy (even when progress is being made) and it is often to your advantage to work them out rather than leave therapy prematurely. Important topics often offend or upset us but must be faced. Of course, if you are wasting your time, get another therapist.
For hundreds of years in Europe, marriage and divorce were religious matters, not civil matters. This meant, as it does today in the Catholic Church, that there was almost no way to get a divorce. Only 130 years ago, divorce became a civil matter to be handled by the courts in England and the U.S. Very few divorces were granted initially by the courts; a spouse had to be proven to be "at fault," i.e. guilty of adultery or extreme cruelty. Gradually, more grounds for divorce were added, but someone still had to be at fault. In the 1920's, there was one divorce granted for every 7 marriages; recently, there has been one divorce granted for every two marriages. Starting in 1970 in California, several states have adopted "no fault" divorce laws permitting anyone to get a divorce who wants one (if they pay the court and lawyer's fees). Thus, only in the last 25 years have there been remarkable changes in the law as well as in peoples' attitudes toward divorce.
When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.
-George Bernard Shaw, 1963
We are freer than we have been for centuries to dissolve an unhappy marriage. There are other factors associated with the increasing divorce rate. Many of these social-economic factors would be considered good, e.g. more equal education and job opportunities for women, higher incomes, fewer children, fewer religious restrictions, and general social acceptance of divorce and of women living alone. Yet, as we will see, there are terrible consequences frequently associated with divorce (and with continuing a bad marriage). Over 75% of Americans accept divorce as a solution when a couple can't get along, even if they have children. But there is concern by some that divorce may have become too easy (few people who have personally gone through a divorce consider it easy).
Reasons for divorce; divorce rate
What are the reasons given for divorce by the spouses? In order of importance, women say (1) incompatibility and unhappiness, (2) husband's alcohol, physical and verbal abuse, (3) husband's infidelity, (4) disagreements about religion and children, (5) their own alcohol abuse, (6) their own infidelity, and (7) their needs for independence. Men say (1) drug abuse (wife's or his) and mental illness, (2) many differences (religion, communication, in-laws), (3) his alcohol and physical abuse, (4) wife's independence and infidelity, (5) incompatibility and unhappiness, (6) wife's alcohol abuse, and (7) his infidelity (Cleek and Pearson, 1985). In general, "emotional problems" are the most common cause of divorce; men cite "sexual problems" three times more often than women and women cite an "affair" twice as often as men (Janus & Janus, 1993). Quite often, people say they do not really know why their spouse filed for divorce.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, has found that divorce worldwide occurs most common in the fourth year of marriage or between ages 25 and 29. She speculates that 4 years have been needed in human history to attract a mate, establish a home, produce a child, and raise it until it was weaned. Humans may have survived a few million years by changing partners with each new child or every 4 or 5 years. She suggests it could be our genetic inheritance.
More than a million people a year get a divorce. Who divorces? What is the divorce rate? Divorce is most common among couples who have been married only two or three years. 40% of men and 50% of women getting a divorce are less than 30 (this will change as we marry later). Between 10% and 15% of people aged 35 to 55 are currently divorced. About 20% of marriages last less than 5 years, 33% last less than 10 years, and 40% last less than 15 years. For three decades the most common estimate has been that one out of every two marriages will end in divorce. The US divorce rate, highest by far in the world, was thought by some to have stopped rising in the 1980's but that was misinformation. Recent estimates are that 65% to 70% of all new marriages will fail. There are many complex factors involved in divorce. Examples: about 60% of teenage marriages last less than 5 years. Being pregnant when married increases the chances of divorce. Children of divorced parents are more divorce-prone.
Besides those who get a divorce, 80% of those who nevertheless stay married have considered divorce sometime during their marriage. So, if we are realistic, most of us can expect to have serious trouble sometime in our marriages. Remember also that many marriages that last are pretty unhappy or an "empty shell." Yet, marital troubles do not deter us from trying again, 80% of all divorced people get remarried, usually 3 or 4 years after their divorce. Thus, about one-third of all married people today have been married before. The risk of divorce is even slightly greater in the second marriage; about 50-60% of remarriages end in divorce (Goetting, 1982). For unknown reasons, third marriages seem to do better. Maybe we get wiser, older, or tired of playing musical chairs.
Most are not prepared for marriage
In our culture, we have very unrealistic ideas about marriage. We may falsely believe that marriage will bring us great joy (true) all the time (not true). After a few years, marriage gives big thrills only rarely. If your marriage is a good one, it gives mostly comfort, closeness, satisfaction with our lives, fun with the kids, and deep gratitude in quiet moments for the companionship and life together. We falsely assume that marriage is maintenance-free, which is absolute non-sense. Marriage takes attention, effort, and knowledge. We are not given an instruction manual nor the tools for maintenance and repair of loving relationships. When "things go wrong," we don't know what is wrong or what to say or who to talk to or how to change our or our partner's feelings or behavior. Given our impossible expectations of marriage and the fact that we were never encouraged to face our naivete and ignorance about it, is it any wonder that we walk away when the marriage starts to break down and our anger flares?
To the inexperienced and uninformed (that's most of us), it seems so much easier and even exciting to fantasize about finding "the right person" for you--someone who will truly appreciate you just as you are. Besides, we don't love each other any more! Clearly, it is my partner who has a serious problem. How could I possibly fix him/her, he/she is so messed up and I'm no shrink! I want a divorce! It is so difficult to see the problems that will occur in the next marriage, but they are inevitable.