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Divorce's Enablers

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Posted on Tuesday, 3 April 2012
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This guest article, written by UPEI's Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, was originally published as a blog post on Psychology Today.

You thought therapy would save your marriage? And all you got was divorce? Well, feel free to blame your therapist. That's because, for a long time, most therapists have been soft on divorce.

Few fields have played a bigger role in the evolution of America's mental health care system than couples therapists. These days, roughly one million American couples a year seek counselling to save their marriages or relationships. Many also attend pre-marital counselling.

One of the big myths spread by historians of marriage is that therapists have been a bunch of judgmental social conservatives trying to save marriages at all costs, and have tended to place the blame for marital failure on women. The trouble is, this interpretation wasn't even true back in the so-called conservative 1950s. Even in the heyday of June Cleaver and Father Knows Best, most of the leading couples therapists pursued the goal of saving people, not marriages. Under the cloak of "value neutrality," the field seemed more interested in preparing couples for divorce than preventing them from splitting. Marriage counselling was chiefly designed to help clients understand their problems, not keep them married.

With all the counter-cultural changes of the 1960s and '70s, the trend toward therapists' acceptance of divorce gathered momentum. Counsellors adopted the arguments of the women's movement as well as the theories of psychologists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Self-actualization and personal autonomy were all the rage.

Soon Americans were expressing thoughts about marriage and divorce that would have shocked their ancestors. Therapists rarely tried to discourage them. The self needed to be esteemed, affirmed, and unfettered, argued numerous therapists. Self-sacrifice to save a marriage was discouraged.

All this was happening while America's divorce rate climbed higher and higher. The rate began to rise in the 1960s and spiked in the 1980s. The country's marriage rate has been falling since the mid-1970s. These data and the ascendancy of couples counselling are hardly coincidental.

Of course, therapists aren't wholly to blame for the divorce epidemic of the last half century. The rise of a consumer culture since the 1950s, which breeds instant gratification through the purchasing of goods and services, has played a big role. People often view marriage, not as an integral social institution, but as just another disposable commodity.

Also, the population has aged over the last century. Many experts tell us that as couples get older together, they're bored with each other. "There's a feeling" among couples, one clinical social worker commented, that "if I don't go now, I'm never going to go."

Still, therapists have taken a leadership role by preaching that Americans should place their cravings for happiness before their committed relationships.

I'm not the first to caution people against seeing a therapist to save your marriage. There's been a growing groundswell of criticism directed against the profession since the 1990s. Consumer Reports and USA Today have warned Americans that when it comes to marriage counselling, buyer beware! The University of Minnesota's William J. Doherty has also expressed concerns about therapists' benign attitudes toward divorce. The only thing I would add to his eloquent voice is that the field's permissive attitudes toward divorce date back as far the days of Leave It to Beaver.

The good news is that such criticisms have stirred the field in the new millennium, and there are plenty of signs of a backlash against the notion that marriage is more than simply a lifestyle option. This is a good thing because you don't have to be a fan of HBO's In Treatment to know that there are a lot of talented Paul Westons out there who can help you save your marriage if they'd just change their tune about divorce.

Dr. Ian Dowbiggin is a Professor of History at UPEI. He's the author of several books, including The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society. Read more of Dr. Dowbiggin's writing on his blog at Psychology Today.