It's Never Too Late

Judge Tim Philpot, Dr. Bill Doherty, and myself (Don Sizemore, LCSW), have worked together for over two years to implement a process whereby couples are given an opportunity to be sure that divorce is their best decision. Three marriages which came to me for the two hour court ordered Discernment Consultations have been reconciled, three families reunited. Families number one and two continue in treatment, going through the therapeutic protocol established by Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT. The third one that chose not to continue therapy is at greater risk for a return to divorce court, although as of this date they are still married and living together and report their relationship has improved. Three families were ready to divorce, standing before Judge Philpot waiting for his signature on the order. They have moved back in together, giving up their separate residences, and their children have one home.

A fourth couple postponed their divorce and attended 13 sessions, including 5 discernment counseling sessions and 8 marriage therapy sessions of EFT with an unsuccessful outcome. This couple has stopped therapy, lives separated but have not proceeded with divorce. One spouse continues to hold out hope but the other is in a position of stonewalling, unable or unwilling to stop self protecting. I do not think this relationship will survive.

The fifth couple, who is chronologically the first couple referred from the legal system by an attorney, not the court, was seen for 32 sessions of EFT. This is not an unsurprising number of sessions when there is a past history of childhood trauma that complicates developing secure attachment. Their therapy concluded over a year ago; they are still married and report their marital relationship is stable.

Do couples really want to divorce? Or more positive, do couples want to stay married? In my experience as a marriage therapist no one that I have seen is happy about their marriage failing from which I conclude no one really wants to divorce, especially those with children. This has not been more evidenced than with the 20 couples I have seen for the court ordered session. None of them were celebrating a failed marriage and the one common denominator was pain either expressed or repressed but still obvious on their faces.

Some might say that the pain on their faces is due to being forced to endure the Discernment Consultation session that has no chance of making a difference in their resolve to divorce and having to pay money to do it. There were two instances that come to mind where one spouse stonewalled their way through the session, not allowing one emotion to seep through, just a cold wall of protection. What impressed me about the other cases was that their certainty of being done with the relationship was based on their experience of emotional deprivation or rejection over an extended period of time. They were emotionally spent, had given up hope that their partner might change, and would not allow themselves to risk the pain of being disappointed again. It was never because they could not tolerate their partner and just wanted out; those kind of cases would likely not find their way to me and any abuse based relationships are ruled out for referral.

The judge, Tim Philpot, who was ordering discernment sessions was applying scientific advancements in the field of marriage and family therapy developed by Dr. Bill Doherty and colleagues from the University of Minnesota, to make a better assessment of the state of a marriage. Is this marriage irretrievably broken? Is reconciliation possible? Is there ambivalence about proceeding with final separation and divorce? Professional therapists who are properly trained now understand how couples gain and maintain a stable emotional connection, how they lose it, and how to repair it. The legal system has not kept up with scientific and therapeutic advancements and divorce is treated as an inevitable outcome when it gets to a lawyer and then to a judge. If this project has demonstrated anything it is that there is another way forward and simply processing a divorce decree because there are no other options is simply not true.

In most cases the couples I interviewed had not received couples counseling and if they had, it was ineffective. There are only a few research documented marital therapies that have efficacy and one of them is EFT with a 73% success rate. The others that I am aware of are Imago Therapy and the approach developed out of the John Gottman Institute. None of the couples had received counseling based on these approaches and the results were predictable. Many marriages that are in distress can be helped but too easily find their way onto the divorce track where the legal system offers no side track to slow the train down. This is tragic. It is as if we have accepted the inevitability of divorce. And worse, somehow divorce has become a right rather than an option of last resort. But what I have noticed in my sessions with desperate relationships (not just court ordered couples) is that more often than not if they can be shown a way, the couple will follow it to save their relationship.

Another benefit of connecting couples with the therapeutic community of counselors, is that in two other of my cases one of the spouses has continued to seek treatment. They wanted help making the transition through divorce for themselves and their children, how to best interact with their ex-spouse, and hopefully glean how not make the same mistakes again in their next relationship. It is well documented, and common sense, that patterns of behavior continue to repeat unless challenged by a thorough self examination such as that available with a trained therapist or wise mentor.

This experience has been an eye opening one. It is obvious we can affect in a positive direction seemingly hopeless and terminal relationships. Asking the question “Are you sure this divorce is best for you?” is not oppressive, it is compassionate and the just thing to do. To become numb and accept the inevitability of fractured marriages and families is to lose hope for ourselves.

Everything is Connected

I have had two major surgeries in thirteen months, a hip and knee replacement. Both were more involved and challenging than I expected, but in different ways. Sixteen months into this structural makeover has made me aware of a few things but primarily a reminder that we never really know what is going to happen next. And yet the paradox is that we live mostly as if everything will remain the same or at least consistently similar. And most of the time it probably does, until it doesn’t.

This reminds me of a quote by John Muir (naturalist, responsible for the existence of national parks like Yellowstone) who said something like: “When you tug at a single thing in the universe you find it is attached to everything else.” You change the alignment of a body with a new knee and hip and it affects everything else and the consequences are not predictable. You literally are not the same person because you are faced with different challenges, some good, some not so good. The point is you are affected by tugging at a single thing.

I think this is why events like divorce are not good. In my spiritual framework, in Malachi 2:16 a book in the Old Testament, it is said that God hates divorce because it does violence. We often moralize about divorce or same sex marriage which only serves to alienate and separate us into tribal camps, but if we begin to understand that everything is connected, all of us, and that we never really do anything that affects only ourselves, we begin to have wisdom that how we live our lives are not isolated events and these events might do violence to one another. Love one another because everything is connected.

Common Misconceptions of Couple Therapy

Maintaining a positive, supportive relationship with one’s partner in the face of expected and unusual life stress is one of the biggest challenges many couples face. Not uncommonly, instead of pulling together to face life’s difficulties, partners become disengaged or even hostile. The person you expect to always have your back begins to feel like the enemy. And sometimes it feels like the harder you try to fix the problem, the worse things get. The good news is that a well-trained couples therapist can help most relationships that have hit a rough patch. According to recent studies, 90% of couples who see a well-trained Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist experience improvement and 70% report full repair of their relationship. But here’s the bad news: many couples that could benefit from this therapy are reluctant to get help. Unfounded beliefs and misconceptions get in the way. Here is the truth about six common misconceptions: 1. The therapist will take sides. With some therapists, this in fact may happen. But an Emotionally Focused Couples (EFT) Therapist is trained to recognize how both partners contribute to their dance of anger or disconnection. Successful therapy invariably requires each partner to understand his or her role in the couple’s distress. 2. The therapist will tell us we should break up. Again, there are probably some therapists who would make this judgment, but the role of an EFT Therapist is to help couples understand how their relationship has gone wrong and to guide them – for as long as they are willing to try – in how to repair it. The decision of whether to stay in a relationship always belongs to the couple. 3. We are too far gone; the situation is hopeless. Many couples worry that their problems have gone on so long, there is no hope of improving their relationship. But even long-standing problems can be resolved with EFT therapy. The intensity of anger also does not necessarily indicate that a relationship can’t be improved. The only clear sign that EFT therapy won’t help is if one or both partners have become so disengaged they are no longer willing to try. 4. Talking about our problems will make things worse. Many couples have experienced that their own attempts to talk about their problems have made things worse, so this concern is understandable. They may even have had previous experiences in therapy where talking did make things worse. However, an EFT Therapist is trained to create a safe space where problems can be discussed productively. In many cases, the therapist will be able to help partners see each other’s struggles in new ways that open the door to healing and reconciliation. 5. Couples therapy is a waste of time and does not work. Many therapists who see couples aren’t trained in an effective model of couples therapy, and there is probably a significant risk that these therapists will not be helpful. However, EFT has years of research demonstrating its effectiveness in helping couples improve their relationships, and follow-up studies show these improvements are long lasting. EFT is one of a handful of couples therapies designated as empirically supported by the American Psychological Association. A therapist trained in EFT is guided by a roadmap that has one of the strongest track records in helping distressed couples. 6. We (or he or she) need individual therapy first. A growing body of evidence suggests that successful couples therapy can actually reduce an individual’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and other psychological disorders. At the very least, a stronger, more supportive relationship will reduce the suffering both partners experience when one partner is struggling with a psychological disorder. Couples therapy may not be the only treatment needed when a partner has significant psychological symptoms, but when the relationship has suffered, it is often the best place to start. By Ruth Jampol Ph.D.|July 6th, 2015

The Wages of Shame

"God does not lead the soul by shaming it, just as a good parent would not shame his or her child. It doesn't work anyway. We have all done it at times, and if we were raised in a punitive way our selves, we still tend to think that is the way to motivate people--by shaming them or making them feel guilty." Richard Rohr

Most if not all of the struggles, mental and emotional difficulties, relationship problems that I see in my counseling practice are because of shame. The road back from shame is long and difficult.  We must learn to love one another and love never includes shame.

What are the consequences of shame? We stop trusting, we shut down or attack, self protect and are deeply afraid of ever being vulnerable again. We become defensive, vigilant, believing we are flawed and patently unlovable. Shame is like being in a box that we can't see to find our way out of and are too afraid to even try. What can open this box? Only love, unconditional, sacrificial love that breaks through our defenses and says "You are cherished more than you can imagine. You are more important to me than I am to myself." Jesus said: "Love one another as I have loved you."

An Unconstrained Society

As a kid, I remember feeling constraint, “a state of being checked, restricted or compelled to avoid or perform some action” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Constraint is experienced as a force that limits and directs what choices and options we have to act. I knew, almost without conscious thought, that there were expectations of what I could do and what I could not do; what was good and what was not good. And then, during America's cultural revolution in the sixties and seventies all hell broke loose. Two landmark legal decisions weakened and undermined constraint in our society. One is no fault divorce beginning with Ronald Reagan's 1969 signing of California's law and the 1973 Supreme Court's ruling to legalize abortion. Both of these decisions made it easier, lessened constraint, on what we individually, unilaterally could do. We had the “right” to make decisions that was in the best interest of me, not us. These decisions helped elevate individual choice and freedom over community good. The effect has been disastrous on our society contributing to much of the social dysfunction we are experiencing today. I believe this has significantly contributed and is continuing to contribute to our loss of freedom.

Consider this comment by Bradford Wilcox, director of the Marriage Project ( “Prior to the late 1960s, Americans were more likely to look at marriage and family through the prisms of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. A successful, happy home was one in which intimacy was an important good, but by no means the only one in view. A decent job, a well-maintained home, mutual spousal aid, child-rearing, and shared religious faith were seen almost universally as the goods that marriage and family life were intended to advance.
But the psychological revolution's focus on individual fulfillment and personal growth changed all that. Increasingly, marriage was seen as a vehicle for a self-oriented ethic of romance, intimacy, and fulfillment. In this new psychological approach to married life, one's primary obligation was not to one's family but to one's self; hence, marital success was defined not by successfully meeting obligations to one's spouse and children but by a strong sense of subjective happiness in marriage — usually to be found in and through an intense, emotional relationship with one's spouse. The 1970s marked the period when, for many Americans, a more institutional model of marriage gave way to the "soul-mate model" of marriage.
Of course, the soul-mate model was much more likely to lead couples to divorce court than was the earlier institutional model of marriage. Now, those who felt they were in unfulfilling marriages also felt obligated to divorce in order to honor the newly widespread ethic of expressive individualism.”
Removing constraint on self expression with “an ethic of expressive individualism” is inherently destructive, it tears down and tears apart rather than builds up and connects. Or consider the “soul mate model of marriage” that places personal fulfillment over “duty, obligation, and sacrifice” for the good of the marriage and family. The effects a generation of divorce and breakdown in the family has had on our economic, physical, psychological, and social well being is well documented as every statistical examination of these factors indicate a significant loss in measures of well being. When we are losing ground on such measures, we are losing freedom because our choices become limited.

Even though divorce rates are dropping among the better educated and economically advantaged, the recent case of Mark Sanford and his wife Jenny (her recently released book about her response to his infidelity is Staying True) might be a prime example of the “soul mate model of marriage”. He is alleged to have said to his wife Jenny when discussing reconciling their marriage: “You expect me to give up my soul mate?” He also apparently refused to include a promise to marital fidelity in their wedding vows. Jenny's response? “In retrospect, I suppose I might have seen this as a sign that Mark was not fully committed to the time, though, I thought his honesty was brave and sweet.”

Wow. Both of these obviously bright, talented, and socially successful people have an incredibly skewed perspective on what love is. It is apparent that Jenny Sanford was attempting to live out the “duty, obligation, sacrifice” version of marriage while her husband clearly, and “honestly” was not. It is easy to do a “you've got to be kidding me” response to this but given our cultural milieu of what constitutes a good relationship it is not so surprising. There really is very little legal and societal constraint that compels us in the direction of what is good for all of us; our children, our families, our spouses, and paradoxically our selves. We are a mess when it comes to loving and caring for one another in a way that produces successful human beings. A good place to begin is understanding what is good and appropriate constraint on our desires so that we might be able to be there for each other.

Real Help for Marriages

I am experiencing the privilege of having conversations with Dr. Sharon Hart May, the author of books on safe haven marriages. Her latest book, How to Argue So Your Spouse Will Listen is one I give to every couple I counsel. My conversations by teleconference are focusing on EFT or Emotionally Focused Therapy, an approach to marriage counseling developed by Drs Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. A substantial body of research outlining the effectiveness of EFT now exists. Research studies find that 70-75% of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements. The only situation in which EFT is not indicated is on-going violence in the relationship. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers and hospital clinics and many different cultural groups. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness. I have found this approach to be remarkably effective with couples I see and can affirm that my experience with EFT is consistent with the research results. This method really helps couples.

I have over twenty-five years of experience with couples and marriage. I am a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and have taken numerous courses and workshops on how to help couples stay married and most of them have a documented success rate of around 35%. (One notable exception is Dr. John Gottman's work). I cannot express how frustrating and sad it is to watch couples make a decision to separate and divorce. I almost quit seeing couples who were in distress because I knew how unhelpful traditional marriage counseling was with true and meaningful results. I no longer feel that way and am now confident that with God and this method I can help any couple who desires to stay together or reconnect.

I do not make this statement lightly. I know it is bold. The couples that find their way to my office are in significant distress. There typically has been an affair or some other major betrayal or traumatic experience that severely stresses the relationship bond. There is great emotional pain present but the tools and means are available to help them restore, redeem, and transform their relationship and grow into loving union. I am humbled and grateful to participate in such a thing as this. Please tell any couple who is experiencing marital difficulties that real hope is available.

May Blessings Be in Your Day