How can a couple who is seeking help in marriage counseling have dual agendas? When half of the couple can finish this statement, “I only came because…”, there is a dual agenda. Quoting Bill Doherty, “When someone is drowning, they want a flotation device, not a swimming lesson.”
What does having a “dual agenda” mean?
Couples with dual agendas have one person who is ambivalent about marriage counseling as being a useful tool that will firmly lead them to decide to stay because they have already decided to leave.
There are many reasons couples seek counseling when there is a dual agenda present. Perhaps there was already ambivalence about the marriage and there was an affair. Perhaps one spouse was looking for an escape or feels intense guilt about leaving the marriage but hopes therapy will either help them change how they feel or help them find a way out of the marriage. Perhaps there is ambivalence because they have fallen out of love and do not think any amount of therapy will change their feelings.
When one spouse decides that there is no reason to continue to stay married, they say that they have affection and admiration for the other but no longer have love, passion, sexual interest, or desire to be with the other spouse. When a client is ambivalent about the effectiveness of counseling, they cannot be willed back into committing to the marriage, it is time to move on.
The effects of couples having a dual agenda.
This is a type of ambivalence or “leaning out” and the leaning out spouse has little, if any, desire to dig into the serious issues of the relationship. Thus, leaving the other spouse feeling rejected and without a tangible way forward.
The idea of partners leaning in and leaning out of a relationship is the brainchild of Mark Butler, Jacob Gossner, and Stephen Fife. Their study was published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, in May of 2021. It is a brilliant study that outlines what happens in a relationship after infidelity is revealed called,” Partners Taking Turns Leaning In and Leaning Out: Trusting in the Healing Arc of attachment Dynamics following Betrayal.” The paper is designed to help couples heal after infidelity threatens the pair bond attachment.
Definitions and effects.
Betrayal trauma and betrayal trauma theory are defined as follows:
Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being: Childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse perpetrated by a caregiver are examples of betrayal trauma. A theory that predicts that the degree to which a negative event represents a betrayal by a trusted needed other will influence how that event is processed and remembered.
The aftermath is this once safe, “being for the other” union is disrupted both partners experience confusion and ambivalence in the relationship in waves. One spouse may want to put the event behind them and the other may need the offending spouse to express remorse while validating the depth of pain the betrayal has caused. Sometimes, when the fallout occurs, the aggrieved spouse will try to convince the offending partner to recommit to the marriage, vowing to forgive the other.
Then the anger and pain of the aggrieved partner engulf the couple. The offending spouse may agree to recommit to the marriage, show remorse, and validate the pain the aggrieved spouse is experiencing, only to be unable to endure the fluctuating emotional response between promised forgiveness and the unpredictability of the expressed anger.
Both spouses have ambivalence toward the union. The “leaning in” and “leaning out” is alternating, in an asynchronous trajectory, either toward healing the marriage or dissolving it. Mixed agenda couples “leaning in” or have the desire to save the relationship or “leaning out”, are reluctant to work on the relationship, they are considering three possible outcomes; ending the marriage, committing to a period where both spouses give maximum effort to save the marriage or to postpone the decision. Four questions need answering:
- What happened in the relationship which caused the couple to consider ending it?
- What has been done to try to fix the relationship?
- How do children factor into the decision to end the relationship?
- What was the best time each partner experienced in the relationship?
There is a model of therapy which helps the couple navigate the dual agenda. The model is Discernment Therapy. This model is not considered a treatment, discernment counseling is a therapist-guided assessment process that helps couples decide what the next steps are in the relationship. This is done by first meeting with the couple together to understand why they are seeking counsel.
Then, the therapist meets with the couple as individuals to get an assessment of what happened up to this point and their contributions. After the individual sessions, it is time to meet with the couples again to see if they both can identify how they each are a contribution to the relationship issues and to explore potential solutions.
Discernment therapy is short. If one spouse has already decided to leave the marriage, Discernment counseling can help reduce the conflict in separation. Discernment counseling is not for the couple where one spouse has already made the decision to leave and wishes for the therapy to be a way to force the other spouse to accept it. DT is also not a model where domestic violence is present and both are not willing to participate without coercion.
Goals in therapy.
Discernment counseling as a path to connecting dual agendas in couples counseling, there are three clear goals after the individual sessions:
Goal 1: Where is each partner in the relationship? Is the leaning-out partner considering committing to the marriage or is more settled on the idea no amount of therapy will change their direction? Is the leaning-in spouse remaining committed to solving the issues in the marriage?
Goal 2: Check in to insure understanding of discernment counseling as it is not an intervention to bring immediate improvement to the relationship.
Goal 3: Avoid discussing or rehashing issues discussed in the first session.
Remember, the goal of Discernment Therapy in couples counseling is to assess the commitment of each spouse in the relationship. When the commitment to heal the marriage is established by both partners, going on to the next steps can be done with confidence as each gains a deeper understanding of their contributions to the issues presented in the relationship.
“Removing the Ring”, Courtesy of Cottonbro, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Counseling”, Courtesy of Cottonbro, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Fight”, Courtesy of Alex Green, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Couple Embracing”, Courtesy of Radu Florin, Pexels.com, CC0 License