The D Word


I’ve been avoiding this post, primarily because I just know that if certain patients run across it on the web, they’re going to say, THAT’S ME! OMG! SHE WROTE ABOUT ME AND PUBLISHED IT ON THE WEB!

But you have to understand, this is not about you, unless, perhaps it fits and it is. This is a very common interactional sequence, and if you fit into it and you're pretty sure I'm your doc, well, that can’t be helped. As I’ve told you before, you’re not that special. We're all unique, but our emotional lives are not.

The Post:

A patient will come into therapy fed up with a partner, sincerely ready, wanting, willing, to leave. The partner has a thousand deficits, some of them truly tragic flaws. (If you think you don’t have flaws, character deficits, think again).

We all have these, tragic flaws, features of character disorders. There isn’t a soul who is free of shtick, and we therapists say, Long live the shtick, for it is our specialty, you see, working it through, turning it around. We have you rethink it, and if we have enough time and you have enough money, the shtick melts away and is no longer tragic, and the relationship improves, and no one has to go anywhere.

But yes, it can take a long time, and a lot of money. I’m always saying that the lawyers are making so much more, however, invest it in good therapy. You look at a lawyer and you’re broke. That’s why I sent my son to college to become a lawyer. At this writing, as a lawyer, he is making less per hour than the piano teacher across the street. But okay.

Back to you, this is not to say that every character deficit can be fixed or will be fixed, or that we should intuitively understand the other's deficits and accept this person as he or she is. We don't get things like this intuitively just because we walk on two legs and have a rational, thinking chip in our heads. How to live with and adapt to personality is surely an art and a skill, and it helps if our partner is willing to change those maladaptive slivers of self.

Why be dysfunctional when you can be functional? Why be a part of the problem when you can be a part of the solution?

But it's never that simple, is hardly intuitive, and is the reason you pay for help, is the truth.

And when therapy begins to drag on, when things aren’t getting better, many choose to call it quits, and that’s okay. If it makes you happy, I am prone to say, or actually sing. And sometimes it does, or it will.

Yet we are destined to bring into the next relationship that which we brought into the last relationship, thus the next relationship is likely to be unsuccessful, as well. We bring ourselves.

I serve on a committee that reviews proposals for research for ethical violations. It is called the Institutional Review Board, or IRB, the Office of Protection of Research Subjects. Each member of the committee reviews the research proposal and together, in a small room, we hold up, block the student’s journey to a PhD, block the proposal for as long as it takes to get things right. There’s metaphor in this, holding things up, working on things until they’re right, and in this process the student learns a great deal. It is the humbling hurdle, getting through IRB, but you have to do it or you can’t proceed with the adventure.

But the metaphor isn't why I bring up IRB here. Last week I read through one of these research protocols and learned that 62% of second marriages fail. That’s much higher than the rate of divorce for first marriages, 50%, and although you can do the Freakonomics, you can find alternative reasons, surely, my guess is that remarried partners are bringing themselves into that second marriage. And haven't changed.

Let's assume, however, that no one's been divorced yet, and everyone is still chipping away at the relationship and themselves, peddling as fast as possible in marital therapy. At some point in the middle phase of therapy, in the thick of the marriage, deep into conflict and avoidance, it is likely that one or both will not see any light at the end of the tunnel, despite the therapist's well intentions.

One of the partners is confident, actually, that this marriage is unbearable, unfixable, and might say:

You have to change or I want a divorce. Something's gotta' give, and it's you.

And the recipient of that good news will say: YOU have to change.

And partner #1 shoots back: I’m this way because of you.

And the wheels go round and round.

And the therapist enlightens the couple with circles and squares and arrows, interactional sequences and patterns, the dance you can read about in books (and should), yet the two magoos just can’t break out of their old behaviors.

And one says, often, unfortunately, "I want a divorce," but may do absolutely nothing about it, because inside it isn’t what is truly desired.

You want successful relationships, and if you've been married many years and have children, really want things to work.

You want things to work so even though you're complaining, you never get that lawyer, or if you do it is to spend your hard-earned money just to tell him,

"I’ll think about it."

But the damage is done. As soon as you threaten with the D word, certainly if you do it over and over again, a partner’s abandonment issues are lit. That part of the brain that says, FAILURE! LOSER! lights up.

In this situation we see ourselves embarrassed, alone, powerless in the face of our children who will act out all over the place because they know that they can. We are alone and the kids are acting out and we'll be damned if we’re going to call our ex to help us out because we're still furious about the emotional abandonment, one that began well before the divorce.

Calling the ex when the kids are acting up, of course, is what you have to do, because without that executive committee (read about it somewhere on the side bar), the kids have executive power and do whatever they want, and you’ll never know the half of it,either. Obviously this is not always the case, many children are sensitive and caring and do not want to make our lives miserable to accomplish their selfish task of individuation, but many are not. And they will have issues regardless of how they behave.

Thus once the abandonment nerve is triggered with the D word, our most primitive defenses kick in. No longer will we risk intimacy. No longer will we come closer, tell a wounded partner, “I’m sorry. I know you’re miserable. I shouldn’t have said that. Let’s talk. Let’s work it out. I love you.”

How can you say that when you might get kicked in the head? You might hear, “Well, I HATE you and I wish I had never married you!”


Once the D-word is out, there’s no taking it back. It’s out. And it comes out again, and again, and again, because without that bravado that comes with commitment, the other will not say, , “I’m sorry. I know you’re miserable. I shouldn’t have said that. Let’s talk. Let’s work it out. I love you.”

But that has to be said. I’m sorry. Just say that. Get over it, that fear of getting kicked in the head. Move in, not away, and assert, assert, assert. Pronounce the confidence you have in your problem-solving matter, the confidence you don’t have, but should have, and melt that miserable partner of yours with kindness. Keep any criticism out of your tone (you really can do this, you know, edit not only your words, but your tone), and kill with kindness.

No, it won’t always work. The partner who is already involved with someone else may not want you. It’s true. Once you taste other fruit, eating cantaloupe every day is not the same. On the other hand, if you only had cantaloupe, you really would be fine, you know.

Okay, hit me with your best shot. I kept it as short as I could.



Maire said…
Hi, Therapy Doc -

Hmmmm . . . I agree . . for the most part . . . what about the partner who won't participate in finding solutions until a dissolution of the relationship is threatened?

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)
blognut said…
Okay. :)

I've never experienced any of that - but okay, I'll keep it in mind in case I need it.

I'm fortunate in that Mr. Blognut and I actually get along; like each other, even. And the thought of the D-word hasn't entered my mind, or crossed my lips. Lucky, I guess.

However, I have a girlfriend who tosses that word around like 'Good morning' and I can't imagine the stress it creates for her spouse and her kids. I think that would be scary.
Excellent, of course, and sums up so much of what I see.

I know you were going for brevity and so you consciously omitted lots of nuance and what-ifs, but I would take a moment to note that in my view, if abuse (including on-going verbal) is involved then the concluding recommendation can't be the same 'reach out vulnerably' counsel as in this piece.

I stress it because I have seen abused spouses try to follow the path of vulnerable reaching out, with horrible results.
Lou said…
I loved it. I know for a fact that the killing with kindness and the really wanting it to work part goes a long way.

Let's hear it for "for better or for worse." (in many cases..)
Glimmer said…
I can't believe you wrote about me. Especially considering you are not my therapist and we've never even met.

Excellent post and I can confirm the trueness of it, all of it.
Glimmer said…
... except kids weren't involved, thank goodness.
Syd said…
We said that D word several times during our years together. It was during the drinking years that the subject would come up. I'd be fed up or she would be fed up and we would both strike out.

Yet, it wasn't until the last few months of drinking that I finally meant that I was done, finished. Yet, something kept me from going to a lawyer. So I went to Al-Anon instead to find out if I could get the help that I needed to get myself out of the insanity that living with alcoholism had created. And at the same time, she decided to go to AA. And we are still together but haven't said the D word in over 2 years. Not bad.
Cat said…
I think that on some level today you are a message meant for me and I really like that I can say something as simple as:" I want a successful relationship" or "I really want things to work."

It sounds so simple I wonder what kept me from coming up with it on my own, I think through my actions I say enough, but I am guessing this needs to be heard.
therapydoc said…
Maire, no easy answer, except to say the interactional sequence you describe, you (or someone like you) nagging for intimacy (words) and him avoiding, is worth labeling for starts.

If you watch the rubberband video, or have him watch it, you might get a better grip on it.

Without assessing the situation, it's impossible to really answer the question. I can tell you, however, that if it takes, THEN I'M LEAVING to get a response, you could certainly jiggle it with,


But then he might say, WELL GO. And you've just begun the cycle I describe in the post.

On the other hand, if you don't threaten, if you talk to a lawyer and then tell your spouse, I HATE OUR MARRIAGE, (don't shout it though) AND I GOT A LAWYER AND I WANT OUT, that often gets a partner up to the plate, into therapy, and ready and very willing to change.

It's the threatening, more than the action sometimes, that's psychological torture.

Tell me you're really doing it, and I'll fight for my marriage. Hurt me with talk of abandonment, and I'll hurt you back.
therapydoc said…
BLOGNUT, so you'll pass the post along to your friend.

RABBI, you're right. When there's abuse it's a whole other ball game.

LOU, for better or worse indeed. I like to think, you think this is bad? Wait til you can't find your teeth.

GLIM, how did you know it was about you? :)

SYD, you know I love those anonymous programs. What you prove is that if you work on #1, your partner's more likely to work on herself, himself, too.

and CAT, for sure, words are better than assuming a person knows you want him in your life. If a relationship has been conflictual, if people have had "words" then it's hard to know.
Ella said…
Ha, that's my parents going to family therapy in the 80s. They stayed married and still fight like that, it's exhausting and I don't want my kids to see it.
2nd marriage failure rate: Can't help but think of BTC's related observation about "Different therapist, same s#!t" - you can go to a new therapist with your same old issues and the relationship is going to be so much the same because you are bringing your unchanged self.
Retriever said…
Great post.

One thing I have found after twenty one years of marriage (mostly full of conflict and family illness and tragedy) is that being polite really helps. My spouse is better about this than I am (I m very hot-tempered). I tend to be nicer to strangers, people at work, and friends than to my family, and this is wrong and inconsiderte of me.
My spouse and I have flummoxed about six marriage counselors over the years. They get exasperated by our fighting, and tend to throw up their hands and say "You should consider divorce". Spouse and I , whatever else you can say about us, have come from families scarred by divorce that descroys the kids, so are more interested in how to be civilized and good parents. On good days I say to myself in the mirror "You're not such a great catch yourself."

I don't mean to sound like a masochistic or stupid jerk. I suspect that we might have been happier if we had not been bludgeoned by a kid's autism and psychosis, by relatives with out of control bipolar disorder tearing at our hearts, and by depression in several members of our own family. With such storms and stresses, one craves at least some continuity. One tries to keep promises and prays for the strength to live them out, knowing how one falls short even when trying one's hardest.

On good days, we respect some aspects of each other. And we have always been scrupulously faithful to each other, and helped and stood by each other in sickness and hard times. Not always with good grace,but each can utterly rely on the other. I vent to my friends like some melodramatic comic opera jackass, but care for him when he is worried or sick, and cook a great dinner each night. The kids joke that he only proposed to me because of delicious Sacher torte type cake I made for a birthday of his, and that he loves me for my dnners now....

We are the kind of couple that surivives hard times together but that doesn't (probably for separate, individual reasons to do with childhood traumas) have much fun. That doesn't make marriage worthles, or to be given up on. A friend of mine from Finland (a notably heroic nation in WWII against the RUssians) says simply "People go on and on about having a happy marriage, but the thing is to work at one so that it endures...."

But GOd bless all of you who actually enjoy it!!
Rach said…
I found couples counseling challenging and rewarding at the same time. Once people can see a relationship as a third entity that needs to be fed, cared for, given attention, and coddled- then it changes perspective. You're not giving in to the other person, you're giving in to the third party relationship.

But in such an independant minded society like america thats not always so easy.

And some marriages should end.

Very hard subject, thanks for writing about it.
blognut said…
Well, sure.

Now why didn't I think of that?

Unless she thinks I'm meddling, which I am, or worse, judging, which I am not meaning to be but it did kinda sound that way.

Oy! I'll do it anyway and hope she understands the intention. And I'll hope she doesn't want to divorce me now, too.
Anonymous said…
What if the killing with kindness doesn't work and you spend the small fortune for a year or years of therapy; and still the other doesn't react or act at all, and you move out, and the d word arises and still, they do nothing and you continue with therapy, continuing to try when do you call it quits? when is the end the end?? and how much do you beat a dead horse with kindness?
Becky said…
My husband and I have gone through rough patches off and on during our marriage. After going to 4 different counselors we finally found someone who made the world of difference to our relationship (not all counselors work for everyone, everyone - different personalities need certain kinds of counselors). We graduated from therapy 1 year ago and still get along well. I am not naive enough to think that we couldn't drift apart again, so I do read books from time to time to help strengthen our marriage... my latest favorite is "The Missing Link" by Drs. Richard & Phyllis Arno. This book helps remind me that god created us with different personalities. My husband is who he is and I have learned to not react to some of his behaviors that used to annoy me to death and he does the same.
Katie said…
Throwing the d word around is serious and after killing with kindness, a lot of therapy, and no responce from my husband I did threaten the d word and again no trying on his part. so now I am the d word which is final in July. I am still flooded with feelings of failure and why and I never wanted this, but you cant do it all on your own no matter how much kindness, and politeness you throw out there if you are talking to a wall. I know others have been exponentially more in their marriages but it sounded like their spouse had some remote feeling about not wanting to let go either. What happens when you are the only one killing with kindenss? is there a breaking point? or do you just grin and bear it,hope it gets better? and then you pray you are not part of the 50% of first marriages or 62% of second marriages. I have learned a lot from all I have been through and will not be taking a lot of things I brought into my first marriage. I did try to kill with kindness and sometimes it just doesnt work. But again marriage is a partnership and it takes two and if there is only one of you trying you are killing an already dead horse with kindness... What do you do then?
therapydoc said…
Depends on what you're going to miss if you leave one another. Many marriages don't begin until one or the other gets sick, not that you need to wait that long to get out.

It's really a cost-benefit analysis you're talking about. The gain of staying versus the loss of leaving, and a couple in this situation has already gone through that, and come out with, I MAY AS WELL STAY.

Does this mean you should? I don't know. It depends, like I said, what you are getting from the relationship.

SHOULD you get intimacy and friendship? For sure.

Can you wait until he/she is so needy that the ice will thaw? Your call. Is the gamble worth the wasted years? No good therapist will tell you one way or another.

But marriage therapy can, and should, become divorce therapy when the answer to the above is NO. Helping you get out peaceably, amicably, is also kindness. After years of marital therapy, it isn't all that hard. You're burnt out beating the dead horse.
MizFit said…
um, wow.
This is really really timely for a family member.

thank you.
Anonymous said…
Good to know that 38 percent of second marriages do work out. Second marriages are extra hard, I think, because of step-family issues and the involvement of ex-spouses. So 38 percent of 2nd marriages working is not bad. I'll take some comfort in that.

I wonder what the stats are on 3rd marriages?
therapydoc said…
Such a lovely, third of the cup or more of the cup full way to look at it. Don't know about the subsequents. I think (gut) they get more successful each time.
Mark said…
Good stuff, very general example of the course of action/inaction that a long term relationship often takes. The battles that we engage in our the battles that we often create. Some marriages our built on a battle model and to shift from that feels foreign to some.
My Mom was fond of saying it takes to to Tango, meaning that we could choose not to battle, we could choose as you said to kill them with kindness.
Relationships are often as complicated or as simple as we make them. We have choices to make. Thanks for sharing your innate wisdom.
Dawn said…
What about relationships that have simply reached their end?

Maybe every marriage is NOT meant to last until the other person dies, and why does that have to be seen as a failure?

This feels very "stay married and work harder" centric to me...while in fact you can't know how hard ( or not) anyone else HAS worked at their marriage.

I am choosing to look at the 18 years I have been with my husband as a successful marriage...that is ending in a non-hateful way.

As I said to him yesterday, his needs are not unreasonable, nor are mine unreasonable. However, I don't believe we will ever be able to meet those needs for each other.

And as an adult ( with 19 years of therapy under my belt) I can say - We did great things. We have a lovely child. We can part without having to declare a winner or loser.
therapydoc said…
Sure, for sure. It's not about failure, but some people feel that way. Thanks for pointing that out. And no doubt, a person can stay married a hundred years and not enjoy it one bit.

Again, it's a cost-benefit thing. And is it worth waiting it out, for it's a risk either way, Should I stay or should I go?

Personally, I think that the work has to be about intimacy, for if you have that, you can problem solve. You can problem solve without it and be happy, but it's not as much fun.

Without the intimacy, you could be living with just anyone. So I tell people in therapy, is that what you want, Just Anyone? Is this the best you can get? Is this the best you can be? You can't say, I love you? You can't say, I need you? There's a reason. Let's find out what that is.
Second marriages often come with the old baggage plus kids. Blending families is a high wire act, for everyone. As you say, you may as well work on the marriage you've got because there's a really good chance the second marriage is going to require even more work. But, unfortunately, there are character flaws that run so deep that even some of the most skillful therapists can't penetrate.
Anonymous said…
I think people get married because its such a societal pressure, expectation, thing to do. A lot of people really need to take a test before they get married because they're just not ready.
When I met my husband, he was the first man I'd ever met that made my heart flutter in my chest and my knees felt weak and shaky. I'd see him across the room and feel a warmth like stepping into sunlight after the darkness of the cool woods just seeing him.
After about two months of marriage, I lost my job and his mother called and started chewing me out for various reasons.
I called him, crying and he comforted me. More important he took my side and called his mom and explained that she couldn't treat his wife like that.
I wanted to cry all over again for loving him and his standing up for me against his families expectations.
Over 20 years of marriage 95% of our fights have been over his parents (mine died so not sure how that would have played in the long term.) After his father died we realized that most of it had been his mothers manipulations, which continue to this day. The difference is we now know what she's doing and just deal with it like the obligation that she is as an elderly woman who has to have her way.
Our very first fight I couldn't speak. I felt so angry and knew I was on the verge of saying some thing so horrible that would stain us forever. At this point I knew him, and that careless words would destroy things and always linger. I knew it. I started to leave to cool down and he wouldn't let me, explaining we needed to discuss it and not ignore problems. It wasn't easy. We started talking. As long as it took, we sometimes came to understand that what we were really fighting over was expectations; things that maybe we really didn't even want and maybe sometimes didn't understand. When we really looked at what was going on, sometimes we were just upset about other things and the only person we could vent with was each other. That was a revelation. Sometimes we came to understand that the other had hurt feelings and just needed to be reassured that the action that upset them in the first place wasn't intentional or didn't mean what they thought or feared. People have a lot of fears and they can surface in strange ways.
He's been there for me through vomiting blood, infertility, death, working through my childhood abuse issues, a lot. I love him. I look at him and he smiles and my heart still flutters. We're each others partner, lover, best friends; we talk, we cry, we bleed, we share, we laugh, we know together we can do anything . . . sometimes even fail together.
Its about the journey, not who wins. Its about being supportive and friends; not being the winner or the one who is right.
K in the desert
Maggie May said…
What a fantastic blog exchange you've created here.
I can't tell you how many couples I've worked with follow this similar pattern. Many positive thinking gurus will say, if its not working for you, then you should leave. OK, well, what if you don't fix what you're responsible for? Then you could make the same mistake down the road. Love is a choice, and I've found that a lot of people don't want to forgive each other, and that's how problems build up over time. "I'm sorry" isn't worth much if people won't accept them.

You can have the best relationship in the world, and if you don't put in the time to make it better, or even functional, then it could become the worst relationship in the world.
therapydoc said…
Thanks, ANON and Jim. And Maggie, wow. What a blog you have there.
porcini66 said…
I was just thinking the other day (in the throes of PMS) that man, I was an IDIOT to think that I wanted this life! But, this afternoon, hormonally less challenged, I realized once again that I have a good man. He has made plenty of mistakes, but have I. He is learning how to be, who he is, what he stands for and well, so am I. We are sharing the terrifyingly awesome responsibility of raising two beautiful children. He is bipolar. I am alcoholic. His family was verbally abusive and dysfunctional, I was sexually abused as child. You'd think we might shoulda been drowned at birth!

But, no. We are both intelligent, caring and creative people, doing the best we can and learning every day. Our primary mantra? You can do anything you want in this life except hurt another person. As we have grown and matured together, it is interesting to see how much more care we take to not hurt the other. To me, that defines why I would stay, even when I am frustrated. What an honor to see another grow and change!
therapydoc said…
The keep on trucking philosophy, or in Yiddish, viter (forward).

Love the honor thing.
Pink Hollyhock said…
TD, you're my own private therapist even though we've never met, and at least one of my close friends feels the same way. You are how we stay on balance. Keep writing your thought-out, detailed, long-way-around-the-barn posts if you can. We know it takes time and hard work to make it look easy. Everyone who reads you is learning, growing, benefiting and holding lives together. Thank you.
therapydoc said…
I mean that in a nice way. thanks, I'm really touched.
Cat said…
Oh I read this one I thought you wrote another already! At least I got to read your reply.
Lisa said…
And there's the whole you still have to co parent your kids even if you hate each other's guts part. Parents have to be on the same page, act in unity, and oh horrors, COMMUNICATE about and with their kids as issues come up. Divorce is not a ticket out from parenting together, though it seems to be. I deal with that every day in my practice. I always ask the couple how bad do they want out,because with kids involved, they really can't be "done."
therapydoc said…
Right, Lisa. And you want to walk them down the aisle, too.
Lisa Marie said…
Very good post, as always. Makes me wonder how much work my parents put into their marriage before calling it quits. From my memory, it wasn't much. My mom went on to have one more unsuccessful marriage (as was the one previous to my dad), but my dad is now happily married and has been for longer than my parents were married. An interesting take on the individuals effect in a marriage.
jaykbee said…
Good post. When I went to my therapist after separating, just to make sure I was doing the right thing or not her reaction to my story was to literally hold her head in her hands and exclaim "that is the sickest, messed up thing I have ever heard!" Umm yeah, not something one wants to hear from her Dr. lol.
Anonymous said…
I wouldn't know from divorce but I really like the thought that we can/should 'edit our tone'. Yes!

i will imagine my red pen doing its magic with my voice. sounds easier somehow because it's more concrete and tone can be such a shifty blighter.
Amy said…
I think that marriage is particularly hard for those who don't figure out the boundary thing first and/or have the curse of codependency dancing like sugar plums in their heads. I think my biggest relationship hurdles in life have involved learning how to establish decent bounaries. I'm still working it. The happiest marriages, the ones that seem to fall into the "happily ever after" model are those where the individuals have a solid sense of self, as do their partners, and they're able to work out their crap without too much broken crockery. The rest of us spin and churn and dance and avoid and churn and avoid and dance some more until our partner steps on a psychic landmine and we explode right into the next county.
Learning how to step around our partners landmines with kindness rather than avoidance - that's a pretty good approach, actually.
In other words, instead of feeding into more drama with the need to get the last word, the need to be right, or the need to nail yourself up to a flaming pogo stick, just say "I'm sorry. I love you. Let's just move on okay?" and really mean it - I think more relationships could be salvaged.

The older I get, the more I notice others baggage. Some guys I meet seem to have steamer trunks full of patio bricks (while my baggage is smaller, full of dust, spiders, and bric-a-brac). I also agree with your observation that unless we deal with what troubled us in the previous relationship - we bring that forward into the next one. That particular truth is rather sharp and nasty - and I think can cost folks a LOT of time on the couch.

Sadly, I think that the culture nowdays is "me me me" and "now! now! now!" and folks have lost sight that relationships take work, patience, and acceptance.

Acceptance is the hardest, I think.

I'm not a therapist, just a relationship veteran and seeker of calm waters and blue skies.
therapydoc said…
And I could have sworn you were a therapydoc! Thanks.
You are right about not throwing around the "D-word" if you don't really mean it.

For me, I've used it as a way of getting a reaction, to see if he really cared. In the end, it was just as stupid as trying to flirt with someone to see if your partner gets jealous.

All it did was cause hurt and anger on both of our parts. I was depressed just by the thought of divorce, and more hurt when he started preparing for future attacks by looking up divorce attorneys.

I didn't want divorce. I wanted to stop arguing.

You're right about saying "I'm sorry. I love you and I want this to work." It lowers the tension levels and deescalates the arguments. It also provides a lot of reassurance.

Thanks for the post.