Never, not once, in my career have I ever told a couple to get married. Or to stay married. Or to get a divorce. Ever. And I never will. That part of the equation is none of my business.
On the other hand, I do sometimes observe aloud to a couple that their reluctance to make a definitive commitment – to choose each other in words and constant deeds – might be exactly what’s provoking conflict. Amorphous bonds and incomplete commitments are, by their nature, unstable and destabilizing. This should not surprise us.
I do sometimes observe aloud to a couple “There is no inherent pathology in this relationship.” In fact, I say that sentence a lot, because inherently pathological relationships aren’t all that common. Invariably, the couple will say, “What does that mean?” It means this: while the temptation to divorce is real and weighty, the fact is the divorce is unlikely to resolve the real issues at hand. You are welcome to divorce. It will be hell for a while, then you’ll get well, and then you’ll meet someone new and marry again. And then, in the new union, you’ll find yourself breaking down in exactly the same developmental spot as in the last marriage.
You can run, but you can’t hide, from the work of selfhood.
“There is no inherent pathology in this relationship” – I love saying this to couples. First, because it’s true. Second, because it’s so doggone encouraging! It’s another way of saying, “Hey, the stuff you two are working on here, while terribly uncomfortable, is absolutely no different than the stuff all couples work on every day. This is a normal marriage with normal sorts of breakdowns and foundering. And normal, everyday husbands and wives can fix these problems and continue to grow love, trust and intimacy over a lifetime.”
This is what I mean when I say the significant majority of divorces in America are clinically unnecessary.
I do sometimes observe aloud to couples, “Why are you here?” Not because the couple is wasting my time, but because I’m actually curious about why they keep giving me money just so I will listen to them recite the reasons why their mate is a loser. Why they think it’s worth their time and dollars to convince me that they’ve tried everything and that’s why they never follow through on any assignment I might suggest. Some couples will neither divorce NOR do the work of marriage. They will neither choose each other NOR let the other go. You’ve heard the real estate joke “The only thing holding this house together is the termites holding hands.” Well, sometimes I think the only thing holding some people together is the antagonism, resentment and bitterness holding hands. It’s all I can do sometimes not to put my tongue in my cheek and say, “Hey, here’s a friendly financial tip! You two can fight like this at home for free.”
Okay, the truth is, I have actually said that out loud to couples.
There do exist unions that I would be willing to say are inherently pathological. Shooting to the top of the list here are domestic violence relationships. I won’t even see these couples for couples counseling, because the research suggests that couples counseling increases the likelihood of violence. I refer these people to individual therapy with specialists in domestic violence. There is a true sickness in these bonds. And I harbor little statistical hope for their healing. Though, my hat is off to the rare couple that does authentically heal and change domestic violence.
Yet, there are other relationships, too, absent physical violence, where love, while real, becomes twisted into something terrible. I have known normal, sane, well-educated, uprightly moral people to inexplicably bring out the very worst in each other. I can’t actually explain it. But I’ve seen it. Here are two people who thrive in every other dimension of their lives. But not in the union. Neither of them has diagnosable personality disorders, but, side by side, they behave as if they do. The moment they are apart, they behave normally again. Side by side, their love becomes savage, cruel, demeaning, manipulative and crazy-making. Put them in separate rooms and they are kind, loving, warm people.
Again, never once have I instructed or suggested that a couple break up. And I won’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sometimes privately relieved and happy for both of them when they do.
(Steven Kalas, a therapist, author and Episcopal priest, writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.” He can be reached at email@example.com.)