More Perfect Union
Therapist Bill Doherty says marriage is threatened—by his own profession
Minnesota Monthly, July 2008
By Andrea Grazzini Walstrom

A More Perfect Union

BILL DOHERTY, the marriage therapist, was meeting with divorce lawyers. Not,
for the record, to end his own marriage of 36 years. Nor was he there to
lecture them about the damage their work wreaks on families. Doherty, a
wirey 63-year-old with fair skin and white hair, was moderating a discussion
among a small group of attorneys in Edina. The lawyers were wrestling:
Should they suggest other options to their clients? Did their professional
code of ethics allow them to caution couples against divorce?

Good therapist that he is, Doherty listened carefully for most of the
session and then, finally, offered his own vision: What about providing an
“exit ramp” for couples on the road to divorce—such as reconciliation
resources for interested couples? By the time the meeting was over, Doherty
had “buy-in from every single person in the room,” says Linda Wray, one of
the attorneys in attendance. In other words, he’d talked a bunch of divorce
lawyers into counseling the virtues of not using their services.

William “Bill” Doherty is the director of the marriage and family therapy
program in the department of Family Social Science at the University of
Minnesota. A practicing therapist, respected professor, and seasoned
researcher, he has been widely quoted on the subject of marriage in the
national media. He is the author of 13 books, including Take Back Your
Marriage, and the producer of a number of video series, among them, one for
engaged couples, featuring his daughter, Elizabeth Doherty Thomas. He may
also be, judging by his resumé, the nation’s most zealous advocate for
healthy marriages.

Marriage is “good for couples, their kids, and society,” says Doherty. But
the institution has also taken a beating since the 1970s, when Doherty first
began counseling couples. The stigma associated with divorce has largely
disappeared; and expectations regarding wedded bliss have expanded
considerably. “Marriage has weakened as an institution while the ideals for
what it should accomplish have gone through the roof,” he says.

Doherty doesn’t blame divorce lawyers or any specific group for the erosion
of marriage. He points the finger at a number of factors, chief among them a
“consumer culture” that surrounds marriage and his colleagues, therapists
themselves.

THE DIVORCE RATE among American couples reached roughly 50 percent in the
1980s, after climbing dramatically for two decades. And it hasn’t budged
much since then.

Part of the problem, as Doherty sees it, is the influence of consumerism on
views of marriage: “Consumer culture tells us that we never have enough of
anything we want, that the new is always better than the old,” he writes in
his book Take Back Your Marriage. “It teaches us not be loyal to anything or
anyone that does not continue to meet our needs at the right price.”

The notion of spousal duty—sticking by your mate even in the most trying
times—seems to have disappeared from the marriage contract altogether. “The
traditional marriage vows in some parts of the country,” Doherty noted in a
1999 speech, “are changed to ‘as long as we both shall love,’ instead of ‘as
long as we both shall live.’ I think people now are beginning to see
themselves as ‘leasing’ a marriage…. [It’s] like saying, ‘I’m not sure if
this car will last long, so I’ll lease.’”

Consumer attitudes have also heightened expectations about getting hitched.
Doherty worries that newlyweds may have unrealistic ideas about what marital
relations can actually offer. “Couples expect great sex and great
communications and equal-gendered partnerships,” he says. “There is maybe
one couple who has achieved it, and they live in Indiana.”

Such problems are exacerbated, Doherty maintains, when couples seek
counseling. Most therapists are trained to stay “values neutral,” he says.
Professionally, they’re expected to refrain from inserting their opinions
into their clients’ decisions. If a client says her problem is her marriage,
the thinking goes, the solution is a divorce. Rather then fight the seeming
inevitability of a split, many therapists focus their energies on supporting
the individual in her decision-making.

But Doherty isn’t willing to give up on marriage quite that quickly. The
benefits of marriage are too numerous: Research shows that married couples
are generally better off financially than singles and even unmarried
couples. Married women are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than
single women, and married men report more satisfying sexual relationships
than their bachelor counterparts. Children born to married parents are less
likely to experience poverty, abuse, and behavioral and emotional problems
than children born out of wedlock.

So Doherty is hustling to keep couples together—and sometimes even get them
married. It’s consuming work that has Doherty delivering keynote speeches at
conferences around the world and leading talks and groups here at home.
Minnesota has a long history of support for couples and families, he says.
But that doesn’t mean there’s always unanimous support for the kind of
marriage-boosting initiatives Doherty would like to see funded. The state’s
“many liberals and progressives identify a marriage-positive stance as a
conservative value,” he says. (Lest you think he sounds like a right-wing
patsy: He’s pro–gay marriage. Communities are healthier, he says, when
same-sex couples are in committed, socially sanctioned relationships.)

IT’S DINNERTIME on a Thursday night and Danyelle and Davis Draheim are
eating Subway sandwiches with other couples in the basement of Catholic
Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They’re here to participate in a talk
led by Doherty on “Men and Women: How Are We Different?” The event is part
of the Minnesota Family Formation Project, a Doherty-led effort for unwed
parents interested in marriage—to keep fathers involved in their kids lives
and reduce the strain on mothers who are often financially and emotionally
strapped.

Doherty relaxes as he talks, his scholarly locution replaced by the East
Coast accent of his working-class childhood. He grew up in a large
Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia, where, he says, “marriage was
forever.” He met his wife, Leah, in 1970, and perhaps not unexpectedly, the
union has become a lab for Doherty’s ideas on how to get couples to connect:
He often tells groups how he and his wife used to shoo their children away
from the table after dinner so they could talk for a few minutes—one on
one—over a cup of coffee. Their rituals also include a nightly dip in the
hot tub outside their Roseville home.

As the crowd polishes off the sandwiches, Doherty talks about expectations
in marriages. “We expect our spouse to act like our very best same-sex
friend,” he says. Heads nod with recognition. “It’s not going to happen,” he
adds. The group laughs.

The Draheims are here because they saw a flyer in a packet of new-baby
literature shortly after their first son was born. If they signed up to
participate in a new program for unmarried couples, the flyer indicated,
they could avail themselves of the services offered by a relationship coach,
meet with a married mentor couple, participate in the “Couples Connection”
classes Doherty leads, and get a yearly stipend. “It was 70 bucks,” says
Davis. “What did we have to lose?” Within a year of receiving the flyer,
they were married.

It isn’t the first time Doherty has used financial incentives to encourage
people to think about getting married or about nurturing their marriage. In
2001, Doherty worked with state senator Steve Dille, of Dassel, to secure
what is now a $70 discount on marriage licenses for couples who complete 12
hours’ worth of premarital classes. (Nearly 40 percent of newlyweds take
advantage of the marriage-license discount, which couples can obtain if they
provide proof that they’ve completed a pre-marriage education program.) In
2004, Doherty and Dille worked together again to secure a $5
marriage-license surcharge to augment $1 million in federal Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds for the Family Formation Project.

Is there a return on the investment in marriage that Doherty—and
taxpayers—have made? Nationally, the divorce rate for college-educated women
has dropped by one third in the last decade, and Doherty says young people
have a different view of divorce than their parents: 45 percent of 18 to 29
year olds say divorce should be avoided except in extreme cases. Doherty’s
own research on premarital education has found that premarital couples
programs strengthens unions: A majority of the couples he surveyed said
pre-wedding conversations with a therapist, minister, or other professional
had improved their communication and conflict management skills.

Doherty also believes he’s changing the “neutral” stance of some of his
peers. When he offered a workshop on “Couples on the Brink: Stopping the
Marriage-Go-Round” at a conference for marriage and family therapists, his
session was swamped by nearly 400 attendees. The ensuing dialogue touched
repeatedly on psychotherapists’ contribution to their clients’ divorces.

But some believe Doherty is going too far. Barry McCarthy, a therapist and
professor at American University in Washington, D.C., thinks some marriages
are “fatally flawed” by abuse, deception, or serious incompatibility. In
such cases, McCarthy believes therapists should keep their personal values
out of couples’ decisions. Still, even McCarthy counts himself among
Doherty’s many fans.

“Bill is one of the most well-respected people in the marriage and family
industry,” says McCarthy. Diane Sollee, the director and founder of the
Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, says Doherty has a
unique ability “to work with very different groups all within their goals
and help them reach consensus.”

Like marriage, Doherty’s work takes plenty of commitment. “Couples work at
marriage together,” he says. “They take responsibilities. They don’t give up
hope.” And neither, Bill Doherty adds, will he.

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer who lives in Burnsville.

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