“Your marriage has one goal,” Hal Runkel said. “Marriage has evolved into a people-growing machine.”
Runkel is a marriage and family therapist based in Atlanta, and he was explaining to me why he’s never attached to any one particular outcome in couples therapy. If the couple chooses to divorce after working with him, so be it. To him, that’s not a failure on his part or on that of his clients.
Marriage, he told me, “is perfectly designed to help you grow up. It challenges your blind spots. Marriage will expose your selfishness. It’ll expose your immaturity. And that’s a good thing. It will continually ask you to grow in ways you couldn’t have anticipated.”
What sometimes happens is that one or both partners change so drastically that they come to the realization that their marriage isn’t helping them live the life they want. “Making a mature decision in that direction may be the best outcome of all,” Runkel said.
This is a hard pill to swallow, if for no other reason than that it’s completely impractical: It can seem like there’s no point in getting married if you anticipate growing so much that you may one day grow out of your spousal identity.
Yet based on the many conversations I had with couples therapists for this story, I got the sense that it’s the resistance to the possibility of growth that makes a marriage, and life in general, even more difficult.
As Laura Markham, a psychologist in New York and the founder of Aha! Parenting, put it when I interviewed her (for another story, about parents with different child-rearing styles) every clash is an opportunity to “grow yourself.” Markham added, “We don’t get married so we can grow, but honestly, it’s one of the best laboratories to do that.”
Put another way, if you’re so afraid of your marriage changing and then ending, you may wind up creating what you fear.
Rachel Zamore, a marriage and family therapist and the founder of InnerWell Integrative Counseling and Couples Therapy, in Vermont, told me that people who accept the inevitability of change tend to do the best in relationships.
“Being able to embrace circumstances and experiences of our lives as an opportunity for growth and development as opposed to something that’s either making us unhappy or making us happy,” she said, is a key to relationship satisfaction. “We can have more agency than maybe we realize.”
The internet has lots of treatises on how getting divorced doesn’t indicate that you failed at love or at life.
On CafeMom, Mary Hawkins likened leaving an unfulfilling marriage to leaving a dead-end job: “It means you had the presence of mind to know that you were not in the right position, so you took the initiative to find something else and make a change.” She added: “You know what is a failure? Staying in a marriage that is sucking the life out of you.”
And on Scary Mommy, Ella Davis wrote: “The failure in my marriage did not occur on the day I filed those papers. It was in the effort I put in to avoid that at all costs.”
The therapists I spoke with seemed to suggest a twist on the idea that divorce doesn’t constitute failure because you’re making the choice to end suffering. Divorce isn’t a failure also because being in any kind of relationship teaches you something — even if that’s how to be in another relationship.
Couples’ fear of confronting troublesome issues in their marriage sometimes manifests in waiting too long to seek help.
“There can be a point of no return,” Michael McNulty said, referring to when couples are displaying too much contempt toward each other or if they feel too hurt. McNulty is a master trainer at the Gottman Institute and the founder of the Chicago Relationship Center.
When couples come to see him, McNulty said, he asks them fill out questionnaires that assess the strength of the relationship — and if he sees that a match is “difficult” he’ll be honest about that with the couple.
“We really need to rebuild the relationship from the ground up to make this work, and it will take a lot of work to do that,” he’ll tell them, he said. “Then they choose whether or not to work on it.”
The theme of “work” — and whether partners have the wherewithal to do it — is something I heard more than once from couples therapists.
Zamore also practices a new type of therapy called discernment counseling, in which couples on the brink of divorce have between one and five sessions to decide whether to stay married as they are, seek six months of couples therapy, or start the divorce process. She told me that often after several sessions of discernment counseling, a client will begin to understand how their marriage got to this point and, in particular, how they contributed to their marital problems.
And sometimes they’ll say to Zamore, “But I just don’t have it in me to work on this marriage.” She doesn’t judge their choice.
Rarely do therapists explicitly advise couples to separate or divorce — that’s a decision the couple has to make on their own. Rachel Sussman, a relationship therapist based in New York City, told me she’ll sometimes tell the couple she doesn’t think therapy is working and ask, “Would you consider making some sort of a change?”
Some couples, Sussman said, are “floored,” protesting that they don’t believe in divorce or that it wouldn’t be good for the kids.
But some react as though she’s just spoken the words they couldn’t. “People are kind of relieved,” she said.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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