“I’m a psychotic optimist.”

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Because you are a Nerve reader, you are probably somewhere near either side of thirty, which means your parents came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, which means they probably divorced in pursuit of more sex, more freedom, more "me" for themselves. And you were left — lonely, scared and dreamy — in front of the TV in your constantly rotating "home," fantasizing about the perfect family. As an adult, you are probably now trying to find more sex, more freedom, more "me" inside a marriage or marriage-like thing instead of "out there" somewhere.

Resurrecting the ghost of marriage past — mama bear, papa bear and baby bears — is the therapist and author Michele Weiner-Davis, a.k.a. the Divorce Buster. Her philosophy can be summed up in three words: Suck it up. Why divorce when you can just "really appreciate the times together that are good and not align yourself with the problem when your spouse is drinking?" I thought that was called "enabling," but who am I? Actually, I’m one of those Gen-Xers Michele refers to in our interview, who believes in marriage, who idealizes it, even. I guess I just idealize divorce, too. — Lisa Carver

"When parents decide to end their marriage, it means the death of the family."
That sounds good.

That’s from your first book. Isn’t that a rigid definition of family? Like a single parent and kids and maybe a grandparent don’t make a family.
What I’m saying there is, ask most kids. In families where there’s no domestic violence or intense emotional abuse, most kids will say they want their mom and dad together.

What kids want isn’t always what’s best. What about when one parent constantly criticizes the other in front of the kid?
They should get some help, fix their marriage and stick together.

“Hopelessness is the real cancer in marriage.”

Let’s say the criticizer doesn’t want help. Let’s say the mother is being criticized, and the kid is learning not to respect women – and if she’s a girl, she’s learning not to respect herself. Should the mother still not leave?
She should get help and find a better way to handle it. Either go to a marriage-education class or get herself into therapy with someone who really is pro-marriage and who can help her be a little more creative so that she is being a role model for the kids. One person can affect relationship change singlehandedly. I really do believe that when a person is stuck in a relationship problem, they can find new and better ways to approach the problem, and they can change it.

For example?
You and your spouse are together having a really good evening. You’re laughing, you’re joking; good feelings are flowing. If, for some perverted reason, you wanted the evening to go downhill, could you think of something you could do that would affect a change instantly? Most people would say, "Absolutely. I know exactly how to push his buttons." And I say, "Freeze that image. Because if you know how to push his buttons in a negative way, you can learn how to push his buttons in a positive way." Everyone has positive change buttons. You just have to find and activate them. If someone is being critical and nasty, the way in which those criticisms are handled actually fuel the problem. And so I will teach that person better, more flexible, more creative ways of handling that situation, to bring about more compassion and reason from the person who is continuously spiteful.

Under what circumstances do you agree it’s time to divorce?
There are no presenting problems – certain kinds of problems, severity of problems, chronicity of problems — that indicate a marriage can’t be mended. Ultimately, people throw in the towel because one person or both become hopeless. Hopelessness is the real cancer in marriage. As long as I’m able to show people that there’s reason for hope, that there are things they haven’t tried, I am a psychotic optimist. I really do believe that most relationships, marriages, can, and really should, be saved.

Dr. Laura says that adultery, abuse, or alcohol and drugs are grounds for divorce.
Garbage. I’ve seen people make changes in their lives to free themselves from those problems. Just because you have a problem doesn’t mean you are that problem. I’ve helped probably thousands of couples beyond infidelity, to mend their marriages in more healthy, more loving ways, so that’s absurd.

"Billy Graham’s wife never considered divorce, but she did consider murder. I can identify with that.”

Substance abuse is difficult, but I’ve also worked with people who, instead of divorcing, decided to detach from the problem, really appreciate the good times and not align themselves with the drinking. They found ways to cope with the difficulties through various kinds of support.

Did you go through a period of hopelessness in your marriage and feel like divorcing?
Absolutely. I think everybody does. I like Billy Graham’s wife’s line about that, though. She never considered divorce, but she did consider murder. I can identify with that.

People seem to feel that the sanctity of their own marriage is dependent upon the sanctity of other people’s marriages. We’re not like that about, say, other people’s financial, political, or even religious situations.
I’m not sure what you’re asking, to be perfectly honest.

Why are other people’s marriages a personal issue? Why is it our business? Why does the national average of divorce feel so threatening?
Because families are the foundation of our society. When two people decide to divorce, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It affects the family, it affects the extended family, it affects friends. There’s a price that’s paid from a societal standpoint. Research now tells us that people who are in healthy, loving, long-term marriages are physically healthier, they live longer, they do better financially, their sex lives are better. They make less use of the court system, the health-care system.

Married people take fewer sick days from work.
That’s exactly right. They do better all around. [Marriage] is not just behind closed doors. It is a societal issue.

How did you come up with divorce-busting?
When I was seventeen, my own parents divorced. I was a young adult, and I felt I should have been able to handle that. But their decision impacted my life immeasurably. I became determined to make my own marriage work and to help others who crossed my path do the same. The way I work with people — divorce-busting therapy — has been very, very effective over the years. The vast majority of people I work with leave with their marriages intact. It’s been powerfully reinforcing for me to see that I enable people to go home, love each other more completely and tuck their kids in bed at night. That’s pretty rewarding.

NPR just did a piece about how in the next election, unmarried women are the group being targeted, for votes. In the past it’s been soccer moms or NASCAR dads. We have gone from being a mostly married nation to a mostly unmarried nation. Could you ever see, in a free, rich, creative society, marriage being an expired concept?
Absolutely not! For something like ninety-five percent of Gen X-ers, marriage is still a top priority. Even with all of its trials and tribulations, it’s something they want for themselves. They know the numbers, they know the odds, and they still want to get married.

Do people ever get hostile with you because of your professional attitude?
Just the opposite!

They feel grateful?

"I don’t pry — it’s just who I am."

No one ever feels you’re being nosy?
Well, I’m not wearing my therapist’s hat when I go out into the world. Part of the feedback I get is that there is very little difference between who I am as a person and who I am as a therapist. I really am a person who tries to get people to get along and love each other and understand each other better. But I don’t pry – it’s just who I am. I’ve never been told, "Gee, I wish you wouldn’t ask me those questions."

Because you’re not. They’re bringing it up to you.
Probably, yeah. I live in a small town, and just the other day I was walking in the town square. This woman came up and started telling me about how long it’s been since she slept with her husband and asked me if I had any advice! So no, I don’t pry. It’s the other way around at this point, I think.

Is it terribly exciting, being on Oprah?
I enjoy being on television, period. I’m a bit of a ham. I liked Oprah. I liked all the television I’ve been on. I’ve done quite a bit of it.

How long had that woman gone without sex, the one who came up to you in the town square?
I think it was a couple of years.

Wow. Well, thank you very much for your time.
Good luck in your marriage.

Good luck in yours.  

©2004 Lisa Carver and