Can't We Talk This Over?

Therapists encourage troubled couples to stay together

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As America's divorce rate soared to one in every two new marriages during the 1970s and '80s, most family therapists ran for neutral ground. "Whether you stay together or split up is your decision," ran the standard therapy pitch. "My role is to help you look at your relationship and determine how to deal with it." But now the social pendulum seems to be swinging back toward more traditional values that celebrate hearth and kin, and a growing minority of marriage counselors are trumpeting a new — some would say radical — line to couples in trouble: Stay together.

The message comes at a time when many spouses seem primed to listen. The U.S. divorce rate stands at 4.7 for every 1,000 people, down from an all-time high of 5.3 per 1,000 in 1979, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Divorce rates tend to dip when the economy turns downward, so demographers project that the number could fall still lower in coming months. Economic considerations aside, the fear of AIDS, a general maturing of the baby-boom generation and a growing awareness of the problems divorce poses for children have all conspired to make it a less attractive option.

The "divorce busters" are led by Michele Weiner-Davis, a therapist from Woodstock, Ill. "Most of the problems people bring into therapy when they're considering divorce are solvable," she insists. Weiner-Davis favors a short- term, problem-solving approach to conflict. If the couple is having money problems, she focuses on finances. "I'm sure there are more things involved than just money issues," she says. "But if you resolve that issue, you'll have an effect on other aspects of the relationship as well."

Diane Medved, a clinical psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif., and the author of 1989's The Case Against Divorce (Donald I. Fine; $18.95), is another advocate of staying hitched. "Divorce as a cure is far worse than the disease," she says. Medved routinely gives spouses homework assignments to improve communication skills and encourages couples to cement their ties by expressing gratitude to each other. "People need to talk about the good stuff and appreciate each other more out loud," she says. Medved admits she employs strategies that some family therapists avoid. If one spouse seeks her counsel but the other refuses it, Medved will sometimes telephone the resister and ask to hear his or her side of the story.

Many therapists, however, are wary of quick-fix approaches that set togetherness as a preferred goal. "The idea that in eight to 10 sessions somebody can solve anything, much less discover what exactly is going on, is preposterous," says Chicago psychiatrist Jeffrey Roth. Traditionalists warn that therapists who are bent on keeping people together may overlook serious problems, even abuse. "To remain in a marriage to please or appease an authority can really be quite destructive," warns Manhattan marriage therapist Laura Singer. "Resentments may fester and erupt at a later date." Divorce may not be the answer for many unhappy couples, but staying together may not always be the answer either.