For many struggling couples, the advice of friends or religious leaders is often: "Go to counseling." Yet not all counselors are created equal.
Bill Doherty, professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota, believes that far too many marriage counselors have a "marriage neutral" approach rather than a "pro-marital-commitment stance," meaning the counselor "does not work vigorously to restore hope for demoralized spouses," according to his Second Chances Act, a piece of legislation aimed at reducing unnecessary divorce.
Because of this, many couples who attend counseling hoping for encouragement and tools are often pushed into blaming the other spouse, or trying to see their marriage as the cause of their problems and something to get rid of.
Recognizing this problem, Doherty co-founded The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists, an online registry that lists pro-marriage therapists and marriage counselors.
Dr. Bert Diament, a licensed psychologist in Florida on the registry has been counseling couples for over 40 years and begins each session by making it clear that they're hiring him because "at least part of them wants to save the marriage, so that's what I'll be concentrating on," he said.
"The purpose of the counseling is going to be to see whether there are the kinds of issues between them that can either be accepted by each or that they can negotiate to make some changes," he said. "But the purpose is to save the marriage."
Even friends should be careful about how they talk to friends or family members who are struggling in their relationships.
"A lot of time family and friends undermine the possibility of the marriage being saved," Doherty said. "If you have a good friend or a relative who says she found out her husband had an affair and you're outraged by that…and say, 'You should divorce the bum,' that's not a helpful response, but a lot of people do that. People can try to be better friends to the marriages in their world, and (realize) that being a friend to a marriage is different from being a friend to a friend."
But for some couples, even a pro-marriage counselor may not be the best place to start. For years, Doherty struggled with how to relate to couples where one was dedicated to saving the relationship while another was looking toward the door.
For these "mixed-agenda couples" Doherty began what he now calls "discernment counseling."
"It's is a pretty revolutionary approach because it says, 'OK, you're not appropriate candidates right now for marriage counseling," Doherty said. "So let's back up and … take a 360 degree look at your marriage."
The counselor doesn't dive into marital problems, nor suggest solutions, but instead helps the couple evaluate where they are, and where they could go.
The five sessions are considered successful when couples have greater confidence going forward with their decisions — either to divorce amicably, to work toward reconciliation, or to wait on making any decision for a while.
Discernment counseling is just another attempt to help couples slow down and take a "rest stop" before barreling forward toward a divorce, Doherty says. Right now, the program is being used in the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, and is already gaining popularity within the counseling world as another tool to help reduce the number of unnecessary divorces.
"It's the first thing in my career where the demand is exceeding the supply," Doherty said. "That old line, 'You build it and they will come,' has never worked out in my life. But this seems to have hit a nerve."