Is your unhappy marriage stuck in cruise control?

The present divorce rate is around 49%, and it’s older folks in long-term marriages who are the ones most often calling it quits. Financial concerns, concerns about the welfare of the children, and a desire for continued stability are all reasons people give for not addressing marital problems sooner rather than later. It seems that there is a belief that airing issues will lead to separation and/or divorce and that folks find it is a better choice to suffer in silence. It almost feels like an either or situation in which they either suffer in silence or take the leap into ending the relationship. But aren’t there other options in between and if so, why aren’t people choosing them.

Counseling is the most recommended resource when a marriage is in trouble. For some couples, the cost is too high in terms of dollars and/or time. They don’t have the insurance to cover it, they can’t take time off from work without consequences, and/or they can’t afford child care when they have to go to counseling. It’s also common for one person to want to go and for the other to be resistant. There can be a fear that they will be blamed for the problems or that they will hear/learn things that are hurtful and threaten the status quo. Some folks have no real confidence in counseling and consider it a waste of time. Perhaps they had a bad experience in the past, which just reinforces the notion that it won’t help and could make things worse.

However if problems are ignored they won’t go away—they will only get worse. So what can a couple do? There is a model of brief counseling that can help. It was developed by Drs. Fischer and Hardy of The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Actually a number of therapists have been doing something like this for quite a while, but too many others do not. Fischer and Hardy’s approach is structured to help couples who are “on the brink,” to decide whether to divorce or work on their marriage.

They are given three paths to choose from:

• Status quo—no therapy and no change
• Separation or divorce
• Commitment to six months of couples therapy with divorce off the table for that time

The goal is to help couples get clarity and to give them clear options. I like the set time limit as people will take as much time as they are given and given a specific time, will come to a decision by the deadline. Without this, couples can go for years in an unhappy and even dysfunctional relationship, believing they have no other option but to endure until they can get out. By that time, there is no hope of saving the relationship. The human cost is high and the cost to children can be the greatest. Divorce should be the last resort—and with real choices open to them, I believe more couples would take the reconciliation route.

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