It may come as no surprise that after 25 years as a last-ditch marriage therapist, my first thought at the end of Frozen II when Anna and Kristoff decide to get married was, “Sure, nice castle, but we all know you’ll be in therapy in five years.”
And when Bill and Melinda Gates, two of the richest people in the world — announced their plans to divorce after 27 years of marriage, my first thought was, “Sure, nice castle(s), but why didn’t you CALL ME??”
I mean, apart from the fact that they probably don’t have my number.
(214.357.4001 — in case someone knows them personally. It’s not too late. Really.)
Here’s the other reason. Change occurs when pain overcomes fear. Read that again. I’ll wait.
So … change occurs when pain overcomes fear. It’s true. It’s a rule in the universe. Like gravity.
This means that tolerable pain leads to longer, crummier marriages.
Also true. Also a rule in the universe. Also, like gravity.
And it’s REALLY hard to know what to do about a mediocre marriage. On average, couples let a problem simmer for six years before they seek therapy. Many of the couples I see have been married between 20 and 35 years. Meaning they’ve sometimes seen half a dozen therapists before they get to me.
Here are a few reasons marriage therapy might not work.
The truth is, most marriages die after a slow decline that erodes a relationship into tolerable but dissatisfying mediocrity.
Now I know zero about Bill and Melinda Gates’ marriage. Actually, that’s not true. I know one thing. I read an article once in which Melinda discussed how the family had fallen into gender roles. Melinda noticed one night that everyone had left the kitchen after supper and she was standing there… alone… doing the dishes… alone.
Score one for the slow decline.
(Side note: kudos to the Gates for doing their own dishes at all, right? You know they have an army of people working for them.)
According to the article, Melinda viewed this as a wake-up call. She hauled everyone back in the kitchen and they divvied up the work.
Score one for Melinda.
And yet… the slow decline had clearly begun. I wonder what would have happened if Bill and Melinda had listened to the meaning of the kitchen incident more than they listened to their fear of divorce? More than their fear of public failure? More than their fear of ruining their kids’ lives? More than their fear of selling the castle(s)? What would have happened if they’d let themselves translate the low-grade pain into a legit sense of urgency? What would have happened if that low-grade pain led to intelligent intervention?
Now maybe Bill and Melinda are not afraid of any of those things. As I said, I don’t know them. But I can say with certainty that many people stay married because they don’t want to get divorced. Not because they want to stay married. The catastrophe of divorce is much scarier than trudging along, keeping it together, “not giving up.” So they keep trying — just enough to keep going but not enough to make it better.
This means that by the time people are sitting on my couch seeking last-ditch marriage counseling, not only have they tried literally everything they can think of and mowed down three or four other therapists, they are in so much pain that they are finally unafraid to do whatever it takes to end the madness. By the time people are sitting on my couch, they’ve been living in their crummy marriage for as long as they can possibly stand it. And finally, one day, something or someone snaps, and that’s it. Boom.
My clients are tired. They’re pissed off. They’re discouraged. They’re bitter. They’re fresh out of answers. In fact, after all that pithy cheese-ball therapy, they’re convinced there are no answers. And … here’s my favorite part … they’re motivated. They literally do not want to be in this marriage one more day. And that’s a good thing.
My pitch to my clients in that first session? “Hey guys, I agree with you. This marriage sucks. Let’s end this marriage. Right here, right now. What time is it?” And I look at my watch. “Okay, it’s 4:30 on Wednesday the 2nd. Let’s do this. Let’s end this marriage TODAY. “
This is the part where they blink at me in stunned silence. Because, you know, they’re paying me not to say stuff like that.
Then I say, “The question I have for you is, are you interested in doing the hard work to create an entirely DIFFERENT marriage without changing the personnel? Are you interested in doing the hard work to be better, healthier humans and finding out if you can create a better, healthier marriage with better, healthier versions of yourselves? Because we all agree this marriage has to go. We’re not saving it. We’re pulling the plug. The patient is dead.”
The answer — after they get their heads around the possibility of ending the relationship without leaving the marriage — is, “Yes. Of course. Let’s dump this baby and do something better.”
This is the part where I remind them that therapy is cheaper than divorce. And now they’re REALLY in.
So we roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s time for some intelligent intervention.
Good marriage counseling is like four-dimensional chess. Lots of moving parts with a simple unifying premise: all behavior makes sense in context.
All. Behavior. Makes. Sense. In. Context.
So I roll out my four-step plan and we get to work finding the context and deconstructing the marriage, piece by piece. So we can create a new one. Piece by piece.
Step 1: We work to understand the patterns and problems in excruciating detail. Excruciating. Detail.
Step 2: We work to understand the history of the two humans who are perpetuating the problems. We look in all the nooks and crannies and find the dirt and take a good hard look at it.
Step 3: We roll out the multi-partiality and properly apportion responsibility, empowering both partners to effect real change in the marriage.
Step 4: We work to construct a new relationship in which everyone is consciously choosing to be a self-responsible grown-up and build a relationship in which their old behaviors no longer make sense.
So maybe Bill and Melinda are done. Baked. Shot-out. Waving the white flag.
But that’s exactly why they should call me. Because I think there’s a good chance that the pain has finally overcome the fear. There’s a good chance that, since they’re finally ready to end the relationship they might be ready to create a new marriage. From the ground up. They might finally have a chance at a really juicy, interesting life together.
And of course, therapy is cheaper than divorce. They could keep the castles. All of them.
Melanie specializes in couples and marital therapy – particularly last-ditch marriage counseling. She enjoys taking on the trickiest, stickiest relationship issues after couples have all but given up. She also works with a variety of other issues, including spousal abuse, women’s issues, codependency, and divorce recovery.