What's the Value of Saving a Marriage?
Consider a review of my book communicated to me by Barry McCarthy, one of the world’s most renowned sex and relationship experts. While he praises the book, Dr. McCarthy notes: “Of the books in this value-ladened field, the Haltzman book is the most pro-marriage and takes a clear stance about avoiding affairs.” When I received an email with Dr. McCarthy’s comments, I was struck by the implication of the review: That my approach was, first, “value-ladened” (like the rest of my field), and that it was more “pro-marriage” than others. And beyond that, as if a rarity among books of this sort, I position myself as someone who opposes affairs.
The feedback led to some reflection on my part. Over the past ten years I have researched many aspects of marital relationships through my own clinical practice and my Internet based investigation. Most researchers need to be held accountable to their own bias, and I am no different.
Looking at my own bias
Yes, I have bias. When research concludes that marriage is good for your health, or leads to greater levels of happiness or financial wealth, I am eager to embrace the results and share with my clients. If, on the other hand, a study suggests that people who are married are no better off then their single or divorced peers, I am quick to find fault with the study. Am I convinced that marriage, on average, is good for you? Yes. Are there conditions? Of course. It is clear to me that living with an individual who engages in repeated affairs, or is addicted to substances, or engages in domestic violence may present a real threat to a spouse. In cases like these, marriage is not a safe place, then there may be no option but to leave.
Some people feel strongly that the discovery of an affair between one partner and one affair mate should lead to the end of a marriage. I understand why they would feel that way. The emotional impact of affairs is huge. If you have been victim to an affair, then you know that no author can come close to finding the right words to reflect the vertigo-inducing loss of trust in your partner. I have heard my clients who have discovered an affair tell me, “everything I thought I knew was a lie.” Can any expert ever realistically expect that two people go back to the marital bed together after such a betrayal?
Esther Perel, author of Erotic Intelligence writes in her blog: “In America, infidelity is described in terms of perpetrators and victims, damages and cost. We [Americans] are far more tolerant of divorce with all the dissolutions of the family structure than of transgression.” She has pointed out that many countries politicians and business leaders go unscathed when acts of infidelity are uncovered, but divorce can end a career.
Should therapists care about marriage?
Can, or should a doctor or therapist take a position in support of marriage? I believe they should. When people come to me looking for help coming to grips with the devastation of an affair, they deserve to know all their options. I don’t have to remind them of the option of divorce, nor do I have to remind them of the option of “throw the bum out on his/her butt!” Those are the first things that they probably thought of. But I can’t remain silent about other options as well, those of healing from an affair, improving communication, and keeping a family together.
When I think of the “pro-marriage” label I place myself in the shoes of clients who come to see me in my office. Years before scheduling an appointment with me, the upbeat couples had scheduled an appointment with a priest, rabbi, minister or justice of the peace because they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. I didn’t make the couple’s decision to marry each other; they did. They know, and I know, that an affair shakes a marriage to its core. However, as a practitioner, if I can help couples to see that there is a way to survive infidelity, I may ultimately take them closer to realizing their dreams of a lifetime together. It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than a try, it’s worth putting all my heart and soul into it. Because in this value laden field, I believe that marriages can be saved.