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Here, we describe the divorce talk of couples who take a route that includes marriage counseling. The counselor might be a marriage and family therapist, a psychologist, a social worker, or even a clergyman. The percentage of couples contemplating divorce who enter into marriage counseling is unknown. For those who do take this route, the decision to seek counseling not only requires the recognition that there are problems in the marriage, but also an acceptance of the idea that treatment is worth trying. Entering counseling is colored by many factors, including the couple's financial means, religious restrictions, and attitudes toward counseling (Doss, Atkins, and Christensen 2003; Briggle and Byers 1997).

Consider four different types of couples contemplating divorce that share in common the decision to seek help. Each is concerned with the need for change in their troubled marriage, but each talks about change differently. Their shared assumption is that the problems in their marriages have resulted in a situation where a crossroads has been reached requiring a change in the status quo. However, the ways in which they describe the need for change relates to how they view their relationship and how hard they work at changing their marriage in the therapy setting. The four types consist of (1) couples who see their relationship as beyond change, (2) those who are unclear about what needs to change, (3) those who place the responsibility for change on their spouse, and (4) those who share the responsibility for change.

We have adapted David Olsen's (1993) "circumplex model" in putting the types together into a single framework. Olsen's model has two dimensions that form a four-cell grid into which any couple or family can be placed. The first dimension is organizational and refers to how the various roles in the marriage or family are structured. On this dimension, a relationship can be overly structured, such that the roles played are rigid, or it can lack adequate structure with few clearly designated roles and thus can be viewed as chaotic. The second dimension refers to the emotional


Enmeshed Disengaged


Enmeshed Disengaged


He/she needs to change

It's too late to change


We need to change


Something needs to change (aggressive)

Something needs to change (passive)

Types of Couples Facing Divorce

Types of Couples Facing Divorce contours of the relationship, on how much emotional closeness or distance there is in the marriage. A relationship can be so emotionally flooded that there are no personal boundaries and the partners are emotionally "enmeshed," or it can be so distant that they are emotionally "disengaged." The accompanying figure combines these dimensions with a slightly altered version of the four types of couples identified earlier.

We discuss the divorce talk of these couple types under the following headings: (1) It's Too Late to Change; (2) Something Needs to Change (passive); (3) He/She Needs to Change; and (4) We Need to Change. Note that the figure indicates that there are two varieties of the "something needs to change" type, one passive and the other aggressive. We will not present an example of the latter, as such chaotically enmeshed couples consider and often threaten change during crisis situations, but are not motivated to pursue change once the crisis subsides. This couple type is less likely than any of the others to seek counseling.

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