Instruction #1: “Gather the following materials: a pair of scissors, paste or glue to use on paper, and a piece of construction paper, lightweight cardboard, or a plain piece of paper (in that order or preference) at least 8″ x 10″ and no larger than 16″ X 20.” You will also need to gather two to five magazines (preferably magazines with lots of different pictures). Flip through the pages and cut out any pictures, phrases, colors, images, symbols, or anything else that reminds you of your childhood. When you feel you have enough material, paste the clippings to your sheet of paper, so that they form a collage. [Now] write down how you think any of these pictures, phrases or colors might have relevance to your current [marital] relationship.”
Instruction #2: Make a list of the top five attributes you want in a spouse, “read your list aloud three times a day for three days, then burn it. . . . Burning the list is significant, it releases and transforms the energy [to] the Universe.”
The first instruction above, the psychological art project, was written by Jay Gale, Ph.D. a “licensed psychologist,” in his and Sheila Church’s book SO Days to a Happier Marriage. (My guess is that it would take 15 days alone just to complete Dr. Gale’s “collage.”) The second, the burning-list-as-smoking-prayer, comes from Kalyn Wolf Gibbens, formerly a “make-up artist, body worker, and owner of a flotation tank center in Tucson, Arizona,” currently a “lecturer, publisher, community member and world citizen.”
Question: Your marriage is in trouble. You are worried, unhappy, possibly desperate. Which of the above counselors do you call—Dr. Cut-and-Paste, or Ms. Burning Love? Whose advice do you take?
Now tell the truth: the very question makes you want to put your head in the oven, doesn’t it? I hereby offer my own instructions, designed like those above to help you toward your heart’s desire, a happy marriage. Instruction #1: Turning counter-clockwise in a circle, pat your head while rubbing your stomach. Instruction #2: Grow up.
Along with the steady rise in divorce rates (55 percent of first marriages and 63 percent of second marriages end in divorce), we have witnessed in this country a parallel rise in the availability of all manner of therapy and marriage counseling, along with all manner of self-help marriage books. Supply, it would seem, is meeting demand. But no one ever asks if the supply is tainted, if it is mismatched to the demand, if, in some perverse way, it actually feeds the problems that create the demand.
Instead, we see a kind of societal panic, a willingness to try just about anything to bring America’s divorce epidemic—and the misery that accompanies it—under control. Many churches now require betrothed couples to submit to extensive premarital counseling, often demanding a specific engagement period, the taking of compatibility tests, and a nonnegotiable number of sessions. The main focus of these sessions is, in the words of one minister, the examination of a couple’s “perceptions and expectations of each other.” In other words, the principal topic of this pastoral counseling is not spirituality.
And how well do these preemptive strikes against divorce— whether inside or outside a religious context—actually work? The bottom line: no one knows. “But,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting, “it couldn’t hurt.”
It couldn’t hurt. The arrogance of that statement is astonishing. I know eouples whose marriages have been helped enormously, even “saved” in their view, through pre- or post-marriage counseling. And I have met therapists who are likable, caring, and, by all appearances, competent. Taken as a group, however, the “therapeutic community” is not one to err on the side of caution. Instead, mental health professionals, whose influence is evident throughout society (even in churches), operate precisely by Ms. Weiner-Davis’s motto; it couldn’t hurt.
But it can hurt, of course. A pseudoscience based on an ever- shifting foundation and constantly changing data, applied psychology has the potential to do real harm to vulnerable people. Worse (at least for its “consumers”), the field advances through the study of failure rather than the observation of success (illness rather than wellness), leaving it oblivious to its own ignorance. The main product of the study of dysfunction being statistics, clinical psychologists thereby put into practice—on marriage, childrearing, divorce, depression, adoption, you name it—theories for which they have data but no proof. And when, years later, their theories are shown to be misguided, inadequate, unhelpful, or harmful, they do not, as a profession, say “I’m sorry.” They say . . . “Never mind.” Then they advise you to get therapy to help you through the problems created by their previous therapy. One unforgettable example of the self-confident insularity that pervades the field is the case of a New Jersey therapist who admitted to having sex with a female patient. The state governing board of his profession suspended his license for five years and ordered him to undergo . . . therapy. No doubt it is the same prescription the board gave his female victim. After all, it couldn’t hurt.
It would seem that in the study of all things human, a little humility is in order. Psychologists have been around for generations, after all, but relationships—in this case, as judged by divorce rates—are more unhappy than ever. Nevertheless, most of the books and articles available on maintaining or mending a marriage are written with an air of dauntless confidence. The problem here becomes not just one of tone but of practicality. For these authors, resolute all, offer interpretations, analyses, prescriptions, and advice that are often in total contradiction to one another. In a day’s reading, for instance, you can learn from one source that anger is a normal human emotion, and from another that it is “destructive to a relationship, no matter what its form” (Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of Getting The Love You Want). You can discover that no one really understands the triggers of romantic love, and also that “you fell in love because your old brain [the brain stem combined with the limbic system] had your partner confused with your parents. Your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood.” That’s Dr. Hendrix again. Dr. Hendrix sticks in the mind for two reasons: first, because he is a wet blanket on every great love poem ever written; and second, because of his “ironic” discovery that “the more I have become involved in a psychological study of love relationships, the more I find myself siding with the more conservative proponents of marriage. I have come to believe that couples should make every effort to honor their wedding vows to stay together ’till death do us part’—not for moral reasons, but for psychological ones: fidelity and commitment appear to be conditions dictated by the unconscious mind.” Leaving aside the fact that Dr. Hendrix’s reasoning on this subject makes clear that he hasn’t the faintest idea—or the slightest interest in learning—what the “conservative proponents of marriage” are actually saying, his conclusion is a perfect illustration of the detached, self-referential, context-free environment in which modern psychology operates. We should honor our vows, we are told, not for reasons we understand—like moral law—but for reasons we do not: the workings of the unconscious mind. That is, it is preferable to see ourselves as sailing minus a compass on the murky waters of our unconscious than to choose values, to make judgments.
After the listen-to-what-you-don’t-know theories of Dr. Hendrix, you can read that we should maintain, somewhere inside, an idealized image of our spouse, and then, from another source, that spousal idealization is unfair and counterproductive. You can learn that communication (i.e., talking, talking, talking) is the first key to maintaining a marriage, and that communication is not necessarily vital to a happy marriage (from Judith Wallerstein, clinical psychologist and my hero of the week: “I’m so tired of this, ‘Give me a hug. I need a hug’ . . . It’s juvenile”).
You can even read opposing interpretations of such pop culture icons as I Love Lucy. One theory has Lucy and Ricky as ideally paired because their reactions to the world are perfectly matched: they shout, smack their foreheads, and slam doors. Then there’s the opinion of Jay Gale (Dr. Cut-and-Paste, you’ll recall), who posits that “in the real world” the Ricardos’ relationship “would have been a disaster waiting to happen,” seeing as how they “engaged in very little teamwork, there was little honest sharing, and there was virtually no effective listening.” With that, you are now face to face with the single characteristic all authors of marriage manuals have in common, however divergent their theories, conclusions, or advice: they are utterly lacking a sense of humor. Their idea of a joke is to end a sentence with an exclamation point. The plodding Dr. Gale, blindly missing the forest for the trees, must be the only living American (excluding his colleagues but including children) who does not understand the point of I Love Lucy. If Lucy and Ricky had engaged in “teamwork, honest sharing, and effective listening,” they would not have been funny.
Enough. My head is swimming. In fact, I am considering making a list of all the marriage manuals I hate, then burning it. Having identified what these authors have in common—humorlessness—let us now ask if there is anything, anything at all, they agree on. The answer is yes. Generally they agree that the first and greatest cause of conflict in a marriage is “unrealistic expectations” of one’s spouse and of the institution of marriage itself. And what exactly is it that today’s newlyweds (and not-so-newlyweds) expect from a spouse and a marriage? Based on published case histories and transcribed therapy sessions (names changed, of course), they expect to create a union while maintaining independence. They expect privacy without being alone, and feedback without judgments. They expect to be needed within the bounds of their own convenience, and to feel safe without feeling crowded. They expect to enjoy supportiveness without feeling dependent. And in many cases, they expect to continue dating after marriage. They take for granted above all their right to be understood, and their partners’ obligation to honor that right. And if it all goes haywire, they expect to escape the relationship without suffering guilt.
So how does the world of mainstream marriage counseling respond to the rampant infantilism it blithely labels “unrealistic expectations”? It responds by reassuring couples that each spouse’s feelings, opinions, reactions, desires, and needs are valid unto themselves and deserving of respect and recognition, even as all of the above are clashing with the other spouse’s feelings, opinions, reactions, desires, and needs, which are, of course, equally valid unto themselves and therefore equally deserving of respect and recognition. Therapists operate from the same assumption as their clients: you have an absolute right to be understood, and your only responsibility is to enjoy your own specialness. The memorable Dr. Gale again; “You are a unique person in a unique relationship with a unique partner, and you live in a unique society at a unique point in history. Your relationship is unlike any that ever was, or ever will be.”
Consider for a moment the full implication of those words. If you, your mate, your society, and your historical context are all unique; if your relationship is unlike any that ever was or ever will be, by what possible means do you develop empathy? With whom do you identify? How do you learn compassion? Who are you? Where are you? What are you?
The success of therapy (in the therapist’s view) depends first on the patient’s willingness to adopt the language of therapy. Today this hurdle poses little problem, because the language of therapy has become the language of the culture. The hordes of contemporary Self-ists and the world of Me Therapy are finding mutual reinforcement and validation through the shared exaltation of uniqueness, celebration of feelings, and worship of self-esteem. On both sides the vocabulary is repetitive, self-serving, and hideously claustrophobic.
One can spend days reading tomes by “experts” on the subject of marriage and never once come across the words duty, wisdom, or sacrifice. And here, in the observation of what is not present, reality finally reveals itself. The origins of marriage in most cultures are fundamentally religious. And the foundation of religion is one of obligation, devotion, and selflessness, which means that the language of religion—the moral law that Dr. Hendrix so assuredly dismisses in favor of the unconscious mind—is by nature judgmental. But the language of therapy is, as we have seen, determinedly nonjudgmental. The language of therapy now being the language of the culture, we thereby suffer the disappearance of such words (and therefore such ideals) as wisdom, obligation, and sacrifice, even as we endure the corruption of terms (and therefore concepts) like rights, abuse, and victim.
In the value-free world of therapy (the very existence of which defines a value, just as nonjudgmentalism is a form of judgment), lost people encounter only silence on what they need most—directions to the world outside the Self: some perspective on their place in humankind, a sense of historic connections, a basic understanding of right and wrong, and an awareness that selflessness can be a form of freedom.
So we have come full circle: divorce in this country is not the problem, it is a symptom; and therapy, as it is often practiced, is not the cure, but rather an aspect of the disease. Not only is this circumstance disheartening in itself, it is also responsible for producing some of the most boring people on the face of the earth.
A clinical psychologist once volunteered to me that the birth-order combination in my marriage—my husband and 1 are both first-borns—was the “worst possible pairing,” the pairing with the highest odds against success, because both spouses tend to be bossy, opinionated, and controlling (the proof of this theory being, of course, the statistics produced by the study of failed marriages between first-borns). At the time she told me this, I was, as she knew, preparing to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary. So her birth-order information struck me as one of those tidbits that’s interesting, even accurate (yes, we are both bossy, opinionated, and controlling), but utterly irrelevant. It was all quite funny to me, so I said, “That’s it! We should have called the whole thing off. It was never going to last.” She paused for a moment, then replied earnestly, as if from another planet, “I know a really good book on birth order, if you’re interested.”
I was completely at a loss. What are you supposed to do if you beat the odds for 30 years—apologize? Only now do I realize how I should have responded to her: “Gather the following materials: a pair of scissors, paste or glue . . . “
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