More than 40 years ago, no-fault divorce laws opened the door for people to leave problematic marriages without needing to “show cause.” This has been heralded as a great victory for those imprisoned in abusive marriages, and it has provided a much-needed mechanism to escape such relationships.
In the no-fault divorce era, “irreconcilable differences” is the most common reason given by courts for why marriages are legally dissolved. However, research suggests that not all couples that file for divorce are united in their desire to end the marriage. Often, one spouse wants the divorce and the other does not, at least at the beginning of the process. For example, in as many as 40% of couples filing for divorce in Minnesota’s Hennepin County (the county containing Minneapolis), one or both partners expressed an interest in reconciling if suitable options for doing so existed. This finding led us to believe in the possibility that more divorces than previously thought might be unnecessary and preventable, in that many couples could rebuild a happy marriage given the right resources and assistance.
We’re pursuing this line of inquiry through the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. Funded by a five-dollar surcharge to every marriage license sold in the state, the project aims “to develop, disseminate, and evaluate best practices to help couples at high risk for divorce who are uncertain whether to divorce or to try to rebuild their marriage, and to enhance the capacity of therapists, lawyers, clergy, and other professionals to work effectively with these couples.”
Most of the energy of our Couples on the Brink team has been spent in developing and evaluating a discernment counseling protocol for mixed-agenda couples (where one spouse is hoping to preserve the relationship and the other is ambivalent about it). The goal of discernment counseling is to help couples gain a better understanding of how their marriage got to the brink of divorce and the role each partner may have played in it, and thus enable them to make decisions about the future of their marriage with more clarity and confidence. Using a new way of combining couple time and individual time in discernment counseling sessions, we help spouses see more clearly their own role in their relationship “dance.”
More divorces than previously thought might be unnecessary and preventable.
Equipped with that new perspective, couples decide whether to proceed with a divorce or commit to a reconciliation path in couples therapy. The reconciliation path involves committing to take divorce off the table for six months and spending that time working to restore their marriage to health. After that period, couples can revisit their decision about staying together or divorcing based on what they have learned by working hard, with good help, on their marriage. The key to this approach is the prospect of re-establishing the health of the marriage, not just staying married at all costs.
Recently we’ve concluded an evaluation of the first 100 consecutive cases of clients who have received discernment counseling in the project. We’ve found that 47 percent of the couples that initiated discernment counseling decided, through the process, to try to reconcile and restore health to their relationship. Forty-one percent of our couples chose to pursue divorce, while 12 percent decided to not make a decision but stay the course for the time being.
What is important to understand about these findings is that the couples were all on the divorce path when they initially met with us. Half had already seen a divorce attorney. These couples were far more distressed than participants in traditional studies of couple therapy (in technical terms, they averaged a full standard deviation below the cut off for clinical populations on a standard measure of marital adjustment). It is not a stretch to state that at least one of the partners in each of these couples would have said at the outset of our work together that they had irreconcilable differences. Yet two years after entering our project, 38 percent of couples were still married, most of them having successfully finished treatment.
A caveat to our work presented here is that our evaluation was not based on an experimental design, and we cannot show that discernment counseling “caused” a change in the divorce trajectories of the couples. Instead, we see our research as opening a dialogue about unnecessary divorce and premature divorce decisions. We have no interest in eliminating divorce as an option for leaving a toxic marriage. But we believe that there are a significant number of couples on a path toward divorce who could benefit from slowing down and reconsidering whether divorce is a necessary course of action. Given all that is riding on this decision—the couples’ kids, finances, mental and emotional health, their memories and their future—any time spent gaining more clarity and confidence about it is probably time well spent.
Steven M. Harris and William J. Doherty are professors at the University of Minnesota and the Associate Director and Director, respectively, of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.