Designing the future with creativity and an open mind
When it comes to uncoupling, one size does not fit all. We didn’t learn this in grad school. We got some training in doing couples therapy, but most likely, we didn’t learn much about how to help couples uncouple well.
Many couples who decide to separate or divorce often quit couples therapy. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can redefine our role and help them in a way that is dignified and fits their style, their issues, and their situation.
When partners decide that they no longer want to be together, I now tell them a version of the following:
“Regardless of whether you stay together or not, you still have to figure out how to talk about your differences, disappointments and disagreements. It’s premature to talk about what your separation or divorce will look like in the weeks, months or years to come. Divorce is a process, not an act and it’s possible to uncouple well, provided you are willing to not see your partner as your enemy, but as your partner in uncoupling”.
We can help a couple mourn their losses, design a separation agreement that fits their style, and help them with a parenting plan. We can get them ready to hire attorneys. We can educate them about the divorce process so they know what to expect.
In this blog, I will tell you about some non-traditional ideas to help couples uncouple well.
As part of this work, I ask couples to think about how they want to be during this process and how they want to handle disagreements and resentments. I tell them that there will be challenging moments and I offer to be a guide to help them get back on track when they stray from their ideal.
We discuss the good and bad in the experiences with their partner, as they do not need to corrupt good memories in order to move forward. I ask them “How has the relationship contributed to the person you are today?”
There are new ways to think about uncoupling. After we do this work, I can start to help them design their own future based on some creative ideas currently available to them.
Many couples carry with them the horrendous divorce stories of their parent’s generation. The typical divorce story of the 1980’s and 1990’s was based on old fashioned ways to think about uncoupling, depictions on the media, and tales of unscrupulous attorneys who often contributed to disaster divorces.
Within a marriage, there are several simultaneous partnerships intertwined with each other.
A marriage is a:
- A parenting partnership
- A sexual partnership
- A friendship partnership
- A parental partnership
- A financial partnership
- A household/roommate partnership
Sometimes, couples want to end all or most of their partnerships. But oftentimes, they only want to end some partnerships, and not others.
After working with the couple on dialoguing differently about their disagreements, I start to prepare them for the conversation about their options. I ask a lot of questions about their fears about divorce (losing time with the children and financial hardships are the two most common) and their fears about staying together (the most common ones are about losing the opportunity to be happier, and getting too old to find new love). Once I have an idea of their fears, longings and reservations, I can help them with the design of their own future based on what they said.
Here are some ideas for creative and contemporary arrangements that I have been introducing in the last few years to couples who wish to end some aspects of their partnerships but not others. Many of these ideas are based on a family with one or more children, but they also work for couples without children.
These arrangements can be temporary, but require a careful crafting of the agreements. Not all couples will be able to be calm enough to carry these out, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many are open to doing research about the ideas I am presenting and how committed they are to avoid the horror stories of the past. The hardest part of these conversations, it turns out, is to help each partner figure out what they each want and express it in spite of their guilt, fears and reservations that their partner doesn’t want the same thing. It’s only after they can each express their own wishes that they can work on an agreement that works for both of them.
Here are some of the options:
Nesting agreement. Unlike divorces of the past generations, some couples decide to inconvenience themselves, instead of inconveniencing the children. One couple I worked with for two years, had a nesting agreement for their first year, and then got back together. During the first year, they rented a studio; the children stayed in the house and the parents moved in and out of the house into the studio they shared, one week at a time. Another couple I worked with had a nesting agreement for about two years, and then decided to divorce. In this case, the nesting arrangement was a helpful way for the children to transition to the next phase.
Household separation. One couple I worked with didn’t want to uncouple their finances, but one member of the couple didn’t want the spouse as a roommate anymore. So, they created an arrangement whereby they rented two similar apartments in the same building. They continued to spend holidays, dinners, and vacations together. Another couple I worked with moved in together to a duplex and they each lived in a different space. And another couple stayed together in the same household but slept in different rooms.
Open relationship. There are many open relationship models. With agreements carefully crafted, one or both spouses can have a sexual partner but keep the parents as the primary partner. In other models, the third party can move into the household. One couple I worked with, the partners were no longer physically attracted to each other, but didn’t want to end all the other partnerships and they didn’t want a nesting or a separation agreement while their children were growing up. They decided that they would engage in occasional sexual encounters during professional conferences when they were out of town.
In most of these cases, couples wanted to end their sexual partnerships but not their financial or their parental partnerships. In many cases, neither parent wanted to lose time with their children and they wanted to see them in the mornings and at night.
Separation agreements. A good separation template and agreement can be the difference between a good divorce and a bad divorce. A separation agreement is not a legal document and should not be construed as such. It’s not an indication of precedent, but it could be thought of as a “trial run”. As we discuss the agreement, everything is on the table: living arrangements, frequency and type of contact with each other, parenting responsibilities and a time frame. I have worked with many couples helping them with separation agreements that work for both of them. Sometimes, the separation leads to a divorce, but often it doesn’t.
Stay tuned to Part II of helping couples uncouple well. I will talk about helping couples to divorce well.