Marriage is a lifelong commitment that is especially challenging in today’s throwaway culture. The commitment brings obligations to work on challenges before giving up. Marriages often have other stakeholders, especially children, who are also affected by choices a couple makes about their marriage. Most troubled marriages can be restored to health if a couple devotes themselves whole-heartedly. However, often healing is not possible. This is often because, in the words of well-known family therapist, Bill Doherty, Ph.D., one member of the couple is leaning in and the other is leaning out. The couple has, in his words, a mixed agenda.
In my view, as a clinical psychologist who has worked with many of these couples, what often can make things worse is counseling aimed at promoting healing and therapy, when the issues are much deeper and the main dilemma the couple is facing is whether a divorce is necessary. Because love and fairness must go hand in hand, healing a marriage should not come at the expense of one of the spouses and, in my view, some divorces are necessary to prevent further destructive harm. Some divorces are unavoidable because one party chooses the divorce path against the wishes of their spouse.
Often, in my work to promote fairness and healing, I will inform a couple about additional resources, including divorce professionals who can assist them. Sometimes I will help couples evaluate their options before making a final decision about divorce, especially when one partner wants to preserve and repair the relationship (“leaning in”) and the other is leaning out toward ending it. Research has shown that this “mixed agenda” is common among couples approaching divorce. There is also specialized help available, but this is difficult to present to couples. However, sometimes, the goal of marriage counseling is not to solve problems in the relationship, but to figure out whether the problems can be solved.
I like to help mixed agenda couples move forward with clarity about next steps for their relationship and, hopefully, to a deeper understanding of what happened to their relationship and the contribution each made to the problems. Marriage counseling with a mixed agenda couple means counseling takes one of three paths: It can focus on the end of the relationship through separation and divorce, with the couple making a steadfast commitment to counseling for six months and assessment for a referral for other services to preserve the relationship, or staying the course and deciding later. I always respect the reasons for ending the relationship while opening up the possibility of restoring the relationship to health. With mixed agenda couples, an assessment of which of the three paths can be as brief as one session and as long as five sessions. The couple is in charge, deciding whether to return for subsequent sessions, which typically last from 1.5 to 2 hours.
Contact me to arrange a consultation if your marriage or relationship seems to be one with a mixed agenda. We can meet as a couple and explore, collaboratively, what might be the best course. My efforts are always devoted to reducing destructive harm, promoting health and fairness and, when the couple desires it, to assisting with repair and healing.