Couples therapists are in the business of keeping their clients happy and in tune with each other’s needs ― but what happens when a couple is absolutely miserable and would be better off separating?
HuffPost asked a number of mental health professionals if they’ve ever been in that ethical predicament, and what factors, would lead them to encourage a divorce. Here’s what they said.
In general, therapists try to stay at arm’s length with their clients, and let them arrive at their own decisions.
Most therapists said they give as little directive as possible on the outcome of relationships, even if a couple is fighting like proverbial cats and dogs in their office. In fact, most therapists refrain from giving direct advice to their clients on any subject, including the decision to divorce, said Marni Feuerman, a marriage and family therapist in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I have never and would never make that call for a couple,” she said. “I have said other things, such as, ‘There isn’t any more I can do for you,’ when I have really done everything with a couple and there is no progress, but the actual decision to split up should not be mine.”
Feuerman has seen firsthand how dangerous a therapist’s subtle suggestion to split can be for couples who still want to fight for their marriage.
“I have gotten couples who see me after other therapists have told them to divorce and they were able to make tremendous progress,” she said. “A therapist should not encourage putting the final nail in the marital coffin. In fact, it’s unethical and dangerous to push divorce if the client’s themselves haven’t brought it up first.”
If a couple or individual asks point blank if they should divorce, therapists still won’t push a particular decision.
What happens if a client directly asks a therapist, “You’ve seen how toxic we are together. Should we just get a divorce?”
Usually, therapists will try to redirect the conversation with some questions of their own, said Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, and co-creator of the Mental Health Boot Camp.
“I would tell my client, ‘That’s not my decision. You get to make that call,’” he said. “In sessions, we can talk about what they value most in a relationship, where their strengths and deficits are, what brought them together in the first place, what it might need to make the relationship tolerable, strategize communication tools, and identify how much they’re willing to sacrifice, but in the end, it’s not my decision to make.”
If there are signs of physical abuse, therapists will absolutely help the victim get the resources they need and even suggest leaving.
Of course, if a client faces physical harm by staying in their relationship, therapists have an ethical responsibility to say something, said Patrick Schultz, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The scenario played out in last year’s HBO drama “Big Little Lies,” where a marriage counselor pushes Nicole Kidman’s character to leave her abusive husband. Just like in the show, Schultz said he tries to broach the subject only when he has the opportunity to speak with the abused spouse alone.
“I meet with couples individually, to hear each person’s side of the relationship, and this is typically where abuse will come out,” he said. “Keeping my clients safe is the utmost priority, and it’s better to talk about splitting up in an abusive relationship in a one-on-one setting; the abuse can actually get worse if the abuser is aware of the idea of separation.”
Sometimes, the couple comes into therapy too late and divorce is a foregone conclusion.
The average couple that decides to go to marriage therapy has been struggling on their own for about six years. Given that lag time, when they finally do trudge into a therapist’s office, their relationship is oftentimes dead on arrival, Schultz said.
“With one particular couple I had in my office, they had been having issues with infighting, hurt feelings, and negative interactions for 15 years,” he said. “The pain was so deep that neither one of them was able to forgive the other or use the skills we practiced due to the patterns they found themselves in.”
Other times, the couple is there to have a third party mediate the unraveling of their marriage.
It makes it a little easier for the therapist when the couple recognizes that the marriage is, for all intents and purposes, over. In that case, their job is to help the couple untangle their lives and plan out what their relationship will look like post-divorce, said Howes.
“I’ve worked with a handful of couples who knew they were chronically incompatible and sought counseling to help them break up or divorce in a way that was the healthiest for their family,” he said.
Divorce isn’t pretty and these couples understand that counseling can help them arrive at closure, and, in cases where there are children, co-parent in the most mature way possible, Howes said.
“I’ve had a positive outcome virtually every time a couple has come in at this stage in their relationship, and would recommend it to anyone divorcing or breaking up,” he said. “Of course, these couples are the exception to the rule, but it speaks to the power of having a good, clear ending.”