Marriage & Family Therapy: Why Do Therapists Divorce?
Recently, I wrote an article that raised some questions about the divorce rates of therapists, specifically Marriage and Family Therapists. As a MFT, I wanted to learn more about this topic. I decided to dig a little bit deeper, and see if I could make sense of these statistics in existing research. There are many studies about psychotherapists, but not as many specific to MFTs.
Duncan and Duerden (1990) published a study focused on the stressors and enhancers of the marital and family relationships of family professionals. The sample of 44 couples was obtained from a family professional membership list and their spouses. Couples were sent packets by mail, and had a response rate of 24%. Surveys included the following questions: “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely strengthened your own marriage/family?” and “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely stressful to your own marriage/family?” (p. 212). The surveys contained a list of eleven response items and a fill-in-the-blank item. Respondents were instructed to check the item if it applied to their situation, and rank it by strength.
The enhancer that family professionals most often checked was “Greater potential to prevent marital/family problems” (p. 212). The next three enhancers (in order of frequency) were “Greater awareness of problems as normal although stressful,” “Greater ability to solve marital/family problems,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” (p. 213).
When family professionals were asked to rank enhancers, the highest was “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” trailed by “Greater acceptance of our own part in marital/family problems” and “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs” (p. 213).
The stressors most often checked by family professionals were “Little time left for my own marriage/family” and “Little energy left for my own marriage/family” (p. 213). “Family professional sets unrealistic standards for marriage/family” was ranked third (p. 213). The same three items were also ranked the three highest, in the same order.
Results were also reported for the spouses of family professionals. The three most frequently checked enhancers for spouses were “Greater appreciation of own marital/family strengths,” “Greater awareness of some problems as normal, though stressful,” and “Greater sensitivity to each others’ needs.” The top three ranked enhancers were “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” “Greater sensitivity to each others’ needs,” and “Greater acceptance of our own part in marital/family problems” (p. 213).
The checking and ranking scores of the most important enhancers of both spouses and family professionals seem to be in agreement. Furthermore, the most commonly checked stressors for spouses were “Little time left for own marriage/family,” “Little energy left for own marriage/family,” and “Difficulty switching roles from family professional to family member” (p. 213). The first two stressors were also the most highly ranked. “Little energy left for own marriage/family” was ranked highest by the spouse group. This was followed closely by “Little time left for own marriage/family” and “Concern about job security due to shifts in funding” (p. 213). Once more, it seems that family professionals and their spouses had comparable checking frequencies and strength rankings in this area.
After further analysis, family professionals and their spouses reported significantly more enhancers than stressors (p < .001). Also, family professionals reported a significantly larger number of enhancers (p < .01) and stressors (p < .05) than the spouse group. The overall strength rank ordering of stressors and enhancers between family professionals and their spouses was significantly correlated for both stressors (p < .001) and enhancers (p < .05).
Duncan and Goddard (1993) completed a similar study and reported somewhat similar findings. This study again used a mailing to randomly sample family professionals from three different family related council membership lists. The sample size was 59 couples, with a 21% response rate. Surveys included exactly the same two questions: “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely strengthened your own marriage/family?” and “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely stressful to your own marriage/family?” (p. 436). The participants then were given eleven ranking response items, and also a written response item.
“Greater awareness of problems as normal although stressful,” “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” were the three most checked marital enhancers by the family professionals (p. 437). “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs,” was the highest ranked marriage enhancer for family professionals (p. 437). Moreover, “Greater parenting skills” was the highest ranked family enhancer by family professionals. The most checked marriage stressors by family professionals were “Little time left for own marriage/family” and “Little energy left for own marriage/family” (p. 437). The family professional rated unrealistic standards set for the marriage/family as most stressful for the marriage. Finally, lack of respect for the family professional’s role was reported to be most stressful for family life by the family professional.
The spouse group reported, “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs,” “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” as the most frequently reported enhancers (p. 437). These enhancers also had the three highest rankings. Parenting skills were also the most highly ranked family life enhancer in the spouse group. The spouses most often reported little time, little energy, and concerns about job security as marital and family life stressors. These were also the top three ranked stressors, in the same order. The family professionals and their spouses both reported significantly more marital enhancers than stressors (p < .001) and more family enhancers then stressors (p < .001). Family professionals, however, reported a significantly larger number of marital and family life enhancers (p < .001) and marital and family life stressors than their spouses (p < .05).
I think the good news here is these studies suggest that Marriage and Family Therapists do experience marital and parenting enhancements. The bad news is that those enhancements also appear to come with a set of problems. Now, we have some data to begin to explain the high divorce rates for Marriage and Family Therapists. There are still many unanswered questions.
How does this research compare with your experiences? Please take a moment and leave a comment below.
- Duncan, S. F., & Duerden, D. S. (1990). Stressors and enhancers in the marital/family life of the family professional. Family Relations, 39(2), 211-215.
- Duncan, S. F., & Goddard, H. W. (1993). Stressors and enhancers in the marital/family life of family professionals and their spouses. Family Relations, 42(4), 434-441.
Check out Summit Family Therapy in Peoria, IL to learn more about Dr. Courtney Stivers’ professional work.
I found it interesting how you mentioned how greater awareness of problems is key to solving relationship troubles. My wife and I have fallen on some hard times but we were able to power through when we remembered why we got married and how to cope with each others problems. We will be sure to keep this in mind as we start working with a marriage and family therapy specialist!
I wanted him back so much because of the love I have for him, I begged him with everything, I made promises but he refused. I explained my problem to someone online and she suggested that I should rather contact a spell caster ………➜➜➜➜➜ (DR_MACK@ YAHOO. COM) that could help me cast a spell to bring him back but I am the type that never believed in spell, I had no choice than to try it, I mailed the spell caster, and he told me there was no problem that everything will be okay before three days, that my ex will return to me before three days, he cast the spell and surprisingly in the second day, it was around 4pm. My ex called me, I was so surprise ——————————————I answered the call and all he said was that he was so sorry for everything that happened, ..( that he wanted me to return to him, that he loves me so much ). I was so happy and went to him, that was how we started living together happily again.
The studies were done 25 and 23 years ago. I doubt it is the same today.
It is however, an interesting topic that deserves a replication.
I wholeheartedly agree with Jan. Our experience sounds very similar. It takes a very discerning eye to read between the lines & pick up on a marriage that is utterly unhealthy, causing harm, & needs to end. There are therapists that do not pay attention to the signs & symptoms of NPD & only focus on ways to help the couple reconnect when this isn’t realistic. If addiction is present, that is a tell tale sign. When the client/couple comes in & tells their story, I have to be free & clear of an agenda other than to help them figure out if they want to continue working on the relationship or walk away.
Yes, I have friends who went to couple’s counseling and the husband blamed the wife for his sexual addiction. Of all the possible responses, the therapist told the wife that if she met his sexual needs he would not look elsewhere. They quit seeing that therapist, thankfully, but wow it set them back in their healing process. I appreciate your perspective on this.
Yes, it is hard to know exactly how relevant these studies are today. Since there is so little MFT specific research, I decided to still share them. I will likely write another post that includes psychotherapists in a broader sense. I hope to do more MFT specific research in the future if I can find the time or a funding source. Thank you for taking the time to post!
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I certainly want to be careful not to assume that divorce is always a bad or unhealthy decision. I wonder about some of the extremely low divorce rate occupations and if those relationships are actually healthy. It might be that they cannot leave a toxic relationship due to religious beliefs or financial dependence.
I would love to do a study to tease out some of these issues. I would rather do a measure of marital satisfaction across occupations and then compare with divorce rates. I am curious if those would be correlated somehow.
I appreciate you telling us your story.
We work hard to help couples improve and strengthen their marriage, encouraging them that there is so much to be gained. Although, many couples divorce because of things that can be worked on/changed, such as “not communicating” or “not spending enough time together,” there are some circumstances that are different.
Some marriages really should end in divorce because they are toxic. And some people who learn that, become therapists because of the pain that they have seen. I come from a long history of family members marrying undiagnosed Narcissists.
But it was so common that it seemed normal, along with all of the emotional anguish and verbal abuse (not physical abuse – that would have been recognized). On the way to trying to find a better way and healing for my family, I discovered that my choice to stay in a relationship with an emotionally and verbally abusive Narcissist wasn’t “just the way life is.” It was unhealthy. It was abuse. I wasn’t crazy or worthless.
And I didn’t want others to suffer the way my family did because they were unaware. Even the marriage therapist we went to did not see it at the time. (Later, another therapist did recognize his behavior and diagnosed it. But that was after more than two decades of an abusive marriage.) So, sometimes therapists divorce because they finally had the information needed to remove themselves from a toxic marriage – leading them to become a therapist and pass on the help. Thus the therapists training comes from a place of successful divorce, not a failure to stay married.