- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

For decades, we’ve heard the advice. “Marriage in trouble? Go see a counselor.”

But did you know that more than a few mental health professionals think marriage counseling may be hazardous to your marital health?

“The counseling profession is trying to help you through the divorce, not help you repair the marriage,” says James D. Wright, a sociologist at the University of Central Florida. In that sense, he says, “marriage counseling is more like divorce counseling.”

Mr. Wright recently saw his views unexpectedly upheld in a long-term study of 600 couples in Louisiana, half of whom were in divorce-resistant “covenant marriages” and half in “standard,” easy-to-end marriages. “Covenant couples” are legally required to get premarital counseling before the wedding and get marital counseling if the marriage falters.

As expected, premarital counseling was a boon to couples, as it prepared them for marriage, says Mr. Wright, who details the study’s findings in a new book, “Covenant Marriage: The Movement to Reclaim Tradition in Marriage.” But when struggling spouses went for marital counseling, many ended up in Splitsville.

“Our results suggest that couples who receive marital counseling [during marriage] are substantially more likely to divorce than couples who forgo this option,” Mr. Wright and his colleagues wrote. In fact, getting marital counseling raised the chances for divorce by two or three times.

Thus, until there’s evidence that marital counseling actually helps couples strengthen their marriages, “our research strongly cautions against such counseling, much less making it mandatory,” they wrote.

So what are desperate housewives (and their husbands) to do if they want to save their marriages? One solution may be to see a “marriage-friendly” therapist.

“Hang in there. Help is on the way. Your marriage is worth the effort,” William J. Doherty says in a video on the Web site for the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists (www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com), which he co-founded in 2005 with Pepperdine University psychology professor Kathleen S. Wenger.

To join the registry, therapists must agree with a “values” statement that affirms “the unique value of marriage and the importance of lifelong commitment in marriage.”

Being marriage-friendly doesn’t mean a therapist must “blindly” try to save a marriage that is “toxic and dangerous,” or disregard a couple’s decision to divorce, should that be their ultimate choice, the statement says. But it means the therapist agrees that “many and maybe even most marriages can be restored to health, even when the spouses are unhappy, conflicted, or demoralized.”

The registry has about 225 therapists and is growing gradually, says Mr. Doherty, a prominent psychologist and marriage and family therapist. This is a small roster, compared to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which has 24,000 members.

AAMFT doesn’t address the “marriage friendliness” of its therapists, but says they care deeply about the “overall, long-term well-being of individuals and their families.” Moreover, marriage and family therapy is proven effective in treating many kinds of mental, emotional and health problems, it adds on its Web site (www.aamft.org).

The marriage-friendly registry doesn’t mean to imply that other therapists are “unfriendly” to marriage, Mr. Doherty says. But it’s a fact that most therapists are “neutral” about whether a marriage lives or dies, whereas the therapists on the registry “will fight for your marriage,” he says. “This is a big difference, and it’s why we use the term ‘marriage friendly.’”

Joanne Irving, a Bethesda therapist, was one of the first to join the marriage-friendly registry. She believes it has helped many of her clients find her, and that husbands who are searching for help are especially attracted to the “marriage-friendly” identification.

“In my opinion, nobody really wants to get divorced,” she says. “People get divorced because they feel like they’ve tried everything they know how to make it better, and it just isn’t getting better.” But, she says, if you can help a couple feel hope for their marriage - right from the first session - and give them tools to improve their relationship, in many cases, the marriage can “more than survive; it can thrive.”

  • Contact Cheryl Wetzstein at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.
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