What happens when marriage counselors want to heal society? Relationship gurus Harville Hendrix (called the “marriage whisperer” by Oprah) and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, are so convinced that keeping couples together is the key to societal happiness and prosperity that they have launched a campaign to prevent break-ups and divorce, hosting free workshops in Dallas, with an eye to more cities. They believe that Imago dialogue, a formalized conversation method they have created to help couples communicate better, can save any relationship. And they believe almost any marriage, even if it’s miserable and abusive, is worth saving.
Jessica Weisberg's Pacific Standard feature is currently available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—and will be posted online on Monday, March 16. Until then, an excerpt:
Unlike most conventional marriage therapy, Imago has a clear and simple definition of success: reconciliation. This appeals to many practitioners and clients alike. Sessions are civil and feel productive. But is keeping a couple together always a sound goal? Hunt and Hendrix believe so. According to their findings, we are all instinctually attracted to people who can help us heal from childhood traumas. They argue that it’s impossible to fall out of love, that conflict is a sign that you’re with the right person, and that fighting is essential to emotional and spiritual growth. Mismatches, by this logic, are effectively ruled out. You’re with the right person if you are happy, and you’re with the right person if you’re miserable and fighting.
This has made Hendrix and Hunt into absolutists. “You end the relationship when the person is brain-dead or brain-damaged,” Hendrix says in one video, in response to a question of when to call it quits. “As long as they can talk and relate, there’s hope for a relationship.”
Even cases of spousal violence are resolvable. “It takes two to create this warped ballet,” Hendrix and Hunt write in Keeping the Love You Find. “What is rarely acknowledged is that the battered wife knows only one way—the way she learned from her own mother—to get attention, and that is to provoke her distant, silent husband with relentless, though perhaps subtle, criticism, complaints, and rejection—until he explodes.”
Later in the chapter, Hendrix and Hunt acknowledge that abuse by an unrepentant partner should spell the end of a relationship, but, “when the addict or abuser is willing to acknowledge and work on the problems,” then “the attempt to save the relationship should be made.” I sent Hendrix and Hunt an email asking them to comment on these passages, but they did not respond.
In Dallas, I met Tammy and David, who had been married for 30 years and separated for six months. “I was being abused,” Tammy told me while David was in the bathroom. “He threatened to kill me in front of my kids.” She moved into a women’s shelter, but a divorce group made her decide never to have one. She wanted to stay with David, and had read Hendrix and Hunt’s books. “Separation is painful enough,” Tammy said. “I don’t want to end up repeating the same patterns with someone new.”
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