A More Perfect Union

Therapist Bill Doherty says marriage is threatened—by his own profession

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.