Michele Weiner-Davis is an internationally renowned clinical social worker and relationship therapist, best-selling author, marriage educator, sought-after speaker and self-proclaimed “psychotic optimist” about saving marriages. Her TEDx Talk on “The Sex-Starved Marriage” has received nearly one million views. Michele’s work has been featured on countless national media outlets. She has made numerous television appearances on shows including 48 Hours, 20/20, The Today Show, and Oprah.
Michele has authored seven popular books and is the Director of The Divorce Busting® Center with offices in Boulder, Colorado and Woodstock, Illinois as well as maintaining an international telephone coaching program.
How did divorce prevention become your passion?
I always tell people that I didn’t choose my career, that my career chose me. It is almost like it wasn’t a conscious decision. There were two really compelling forces. The first was my work in the early part of my career in a social service agency doing family therapy to help adolescents and their families. Initially when parents were having troubles in their relationship I would try to help them resolve their issues, but if that didn’t happen readily, I did what most people at the time were doing which was to help them dissolve their relationship amicably, break the news to the kids, get them into some support group and so on.
What I started to notice while continuing to work with these families was that divorce created more problems than it solved. Often they were unanticipated problems. I started to really question the ease with which I was helping people make this transition from marriage to divorce. So, surreptitiously, that was coupled with my own personal experience.
Truth be told, I think my personal story has had an even more profound effect on me. I grew up in an east coast version of the Walton family…really close knit, lots of extended family and family time together. My parents never fought. It was a wonderful childhood until one dark day when I was a senior in high school and my mom sat us all down and announces that after 23 years of marriage she had been miserable and had wanted a divorce. None of us saw that coming. So, there I was being launched into the world and my nest was falling apart. It was a very devastating time for me. I knew that the divorce would end my parent’s marriage, but I had no way to know the ways in which it would impact my family forever. In essence, it dissolved their relationship and my family as I knew it. I always say to people, ”Divorce is forever.” There are constant memories of the impact of divorce on families. Events, holidays or parties are always bittersweet. There were some occasions that were very painful too. During joyous events, there are always reminders of the dissolution of our family and the discomfort people feel in the presence of one another. So that really created a longing in me to do two things: one is to make my own marriage work and the other to be passionate about helping others prevent divorce.
I have been married for 44 years! The process of developing a model that I refer to as ”divorce-busting” is for people to know that I have not arrived at helping people prevent divorce from a religious or moral perspective. I do not think divorce is immoral and some marriages should be dissolved, but, with that being said, I really believe that the vast majority of struggling couples that are considering divorce have marital problems that are solvable. I strongly believe that there are so many unnecessary divorces in our country. I’m totally devoted to helping people regardless of the severity or chronicity of the problems. I help them unravel how they got there and, more importantly, find solutions so that they do not just stay together miserable, but that they find new ways to interact so that they fall back in love again.
Your treatment approach is “solution focused.” What is that?
Traditional therapy was based on the idea that if people were having problems, they could just gain insight into the past and how they are repeating patterns from the past and the insight will make them change. Then along comes solution-focused therapy and one of the basic underlying assumptions of the model is that you could analyze the past until the cows come home and have all the insight in the world and it’s not necessarily going to lead you to change. For example, you can understand why you’re depressed and still be depressed or why you’re overweight and still overeat. Solution-focused therapists are much more interested in helping people look toward the future and ask them where they want to be six months or a year from now…what are your goals? What concrete, specific steps do you need to take that will lead you to that goal that you are hoping for. Also, what are some of the obstacles you are faced with and some of the things you can do differently to overcome the obstacles. It’s pragmatic, goal-oriented, future-oriented and finding out about strengths and what they are doing right already. For example, couples say they fight all the time, but that’s impossible. There are months or days or weeks where things are going smoothly. So solution-focused therapy is interested in these exceptions to the problem and help people understand what it is they are doing differently when things are going well so they can do more of it. I believe that this therapy is based on the glass being half-full instead of half-empty. What I love about it is when you focus on people’s strengths and bypass that introspection about the past, you are focusing on helping people gain a better understanding of what they need to do to achieve their goals. Therapy tends to be briefer and people leave the session feeling better than when they walked in.
You have great strategies for working with one partner when the other refuses treatment. Can you discuss some of these?
I call this, "It takes one to tango.” It’s really based on the idea that relationships are like a dance and when one person changes the steps, the dance changes. One of the most classic examples of what happens when, say, a wife announces she wants a divorce and her husband is shocked and devastated. The most typical thing for the spouse wanting to stay in the marriage is to engage in behaviors that inadvertently pushes the other spouse away further. They beg, plead, cry and pursue. If separated, they constantly call, text and email. Relationships are like see-saws: the more one person does of something, the less the other person does. The more he pursues, the more she withdraws. So when these spouses make a desperate call to my office wanting to save the marriage, we help them to figure out what they are doing to push their spouse further away. We also help them to come up with strategies to stop doing that and also take a look at what piques their partner’s interest in maybe working on the marriage, expressing interest or even acting kinder. We even have people keep a solutions journal. We tell them to stop certain behaviors such as professing their love or acting depressed, which isn’t exactly attractive. We help them focus on developing their own emotional muscles so they will be more attractive to their spouse. It’s about more of what works and less of what doesn’t work.
You talk a lot about the "sex-starved marriage." What are your best tips for couples in this situation when one partner desires physical contact while the other turns away from it?
I did a TEDx talk about this topic. The person with the lower desire controls the sexual relationship. It is not a mutual decision. It is a decision made by the person who doesn’t really want to have sex. Usually that person feels, ”What’s the big deal…it’s just sex…go get a life.” But for the person yearning for more touch, it’s a huge deal and it’s not just sex. It’s about feeling wanted, loved and connected. One of the oddities about marriage is that we expect collaborative decision making in so many aspects…having kids…where to live…how to deal with in-laws. But missing from this is anything having to do with sex. I do think that with a sexual relationship, there should be mutuality and consensual agreements. One of the things that I recommend to people with lower desire is to adopt the ”Nike” philosophy and ”Just do it.” When I say that I mean that there is compelling research that for half the population, particularly women, that they do not have random, lusty thoughts leading them to want sex. If these women agree to have sex, they usually have a great time, they orgasm, they feel connected to their spouses. It comes from the physical arousal, not from having a random lusty thought about their partner. Some of these women who adopt the Nike philosophy find out they do not have low desire and they are not asexual. They need physical arousal so that they remember that they enjoy this. The other piece is that healthy relationships are based on mutual care-giving. There is nothing wrong and everything right with showing your love for a person yearning for that physical connection by being more physical. For the person with the higher desire, when vulnerable attempts at this physical connection are met with rejection, the response quickly shifts to anger or withdrawal. Anger is not an aphrodisiac. So, what I tell the higher desire person is that, when they talk to their spouse about being closer physically, make sure you are talking about what it is like to be in your shoes and that you are saying ”I miss you” and ”I want to feel close to you” or ”I don’t feel loved,” instead of showing impatience, annoyance or silence.
Of those who file for divorce, two-thirds of them are the wives. Why do you think this is so?
I have written and talked a lot about this. I call it the ”Walk-Away Wife Syndrome.” It’s not that women take their marital commitment less seriously or take the decision to divorce lightly. What I think, by and large, women are the primary caretakers of the relationship, especially in the beginning. They are the ones watching their ”love watches” and noting ”Have we spent enough time together and talked enough?” If the answer is yes, then life goes on swimmingly, but if the answer is no, she will begin to talk to him about these concerns. If the husband complies, then again, everything is okay. But, often the husband will pull away. When he’s continually unresponsive to this, the wife's complaints will shift to being about everything in the relationship. He’s not a good breadwinner…he’s sloppy…he’s not a good father. She’s complaining a lot. I have never met a man who wants to spend more time with someone like this. So, he engages more in other activities whether it’s work or the computer. As this continues, the wife starts to tell herself she is going to get out of the marriage. Maybe not today but some day after I get my ducks in a row. She starts planning her exit strategy. For every woman this is a little different. For example, for some it’s when the last kid is out of the house. While she’s planning this exit, he starts to think everything is okay until D-day comes and she asks for a divorce. He will then say, “I had no idea you were unhappy, why didn’t you tell me?” When she hears this, it begins to nail the marital coffin shut because she can’t fathom how he doesn’t have a clue about how unhappy she has been. A lot of women will say, “I can’t believe he doesn’t know…I did everything to let him know.” In my experience, it’s not that she has done everything but she has said everything. Women rely primarily on words as a means to get through to their husbands. Now that she filed for divorce, it’s the first time she stopped talking and is taking action and he finally gets what she means. Many of these husbands then recognize how they have been taking their wives for granted and how important the family is. These men can start to change in very profound ways. The challenge for the therapist is to help this woman believe that her husband can change and that the changes can be lasting. The therapist must find a way to instill hope that these changes can happen. And, I'm the biggest "hope-monger!"
Purchase Michele's Books on Amazon: The Divorce Remedy: The Proven 7-Step Program for Saving Your Marriage, The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido: A Couple's Guide, The Sex-Starved Wife: What to Do When He's Lost Desire, Healing from Infidelity: The Divorce Busting® Guide to Rebuilding Your Marriage After an Affair