How Can Couples Therapists Help During Separation or Divorce?
In part I of Helping Couples Uncouple Well, I described how couples can design their future with creativity and an open mind. I described separation agreements, nesting agreements, and open relationships. Sometimes, couples who separate get back together, but sometimes they move on to get divorced.
The above arrangements may be temporary and after a while, couples may decide to break up. When couples get to that point, they have a lot of choices to make. They need to choose their legal options, where they are going to live, how they will talk to the children, and how they will split up the finances and time with their children. And they also need to choose how they are going to act during the process of divorce. Each choice requires thoughtful considerations, an open mind and most of all, difficult dialogues between the partners. Research shows that couples who continue working with their couples therapist in the process of uncoupling, have a better divorce.
Unfortunately, in many cases, couples stop working with their couples therapist when they decide to split. The reasons why couples quit their therapy are varied and complex. Sometimes the decision to stop therapy comes from the clients, sometimes it is spearheaded, consciously or not, by their therapist. Sometimes they quit because they sense that their therapist is no longer able or willing to help them.
Therapists who work with couples have often not learned how to help couples to uncouple well. Many therapists find it difficult to help couples who want to divorce because they are not aware of the laws in their state regarding division of assets and parental agreements. Therapists may also not be aware of the different kinds of legal divorce options that exist. Sometimes, therapists have only their own experience or that of their parents or siblings as a model.
In my experience supervising cases with therapists who work with couples, I find that therapists tend not to be fully prepared to help couples navigate the complexities of uncoupling, due to lack of experience, lack of knowledge about the legal issues, or identity issues regarding the role of the couples therapist.
Additionally, some of us may even have a bias against helping couples to dissolve a relationship, which may prevent us from seeking education regarding how to help couples navigate separation and divorce. After all, we have all been trained to help couples get along better. If we help them get divorced, what does that say about our original mission?
In my view, whether a couple decides to stay together or not, they still have to be able to figure out how to problem solve around their differences and disagreements to arrive at a smooth transition that works for their family situation. And therapists who work with couples do have the therapeutic skills to engage in this kind of work.
On the client's side, some couples may conclude, erroneously, that now that they have decided to end the relationship, they don’t need the help of their couples therapist. They may rely on the advice of friends or neighbors who, though not ill intentioned, may have horror stories to share that influence how the couple goes about dissolving their bond.
And yet, attorneys tell me that the couples I worked with after they decide to separate or divorce, have better divorces than the couples who quit therapy which is consistent with the research, as I mentioned above.
What are the legal approaches to divorce?
Couples therapists who educate themselves on the options, will be most helpful to couples. Most couples who decide to get divorced are not sure about what path is right for their situation. Dissolving a relationship with dignity and creativity increases the chances of ending the relationship emotionally intact instead of emotionally destroyed. This prevents couples from feeling mutually victimized or like pawns of the legal system. A therapist can have a roster of referrals for divorce attorneys or divorce coaches that the couple can consult with together or separately.
Some choices can result in mutually destructive outcomes, while other paths can be catalysts for building strength, wisdom, and awareness. Working with a couples therapist can give couples more control over the outcome, manage their anxiety and feel less mutually victimized.
There are essentially three paths to a divorce: the collaborative approach, the mediation approach or the litigation approach.
The collaborative divorce gives the couple the most control over the process because it enables couples who have decided to separate or end their marriage to work with their collaborative professionals including collaboratively trained lawyers, coaches and financial professionals in order to avoid the uncertain outcome of court and to achieve a settlement that best meets the specific needs of both parties and their children without the underlying threat of litigation. The process allows parties to have a fair settlement. The voluntary process is initiated when the couple signs a contract (a "participation agreement") binding each other to the process and disqualifying their respective lawyer's right to represent either one in any future family-related litigation. The collaborative divorce process works even in high conflict situations, in part, because each partner is represented by their own attorney.
Divorce mediation is a process that allows divorcing couples to meet with a specially-trained, neutral, third-party to discuss and resolve common divorce-related issues. Mediation is typically less stressful and less expensive than a divorce trial, and it usually proceeds much faster. There are also attorney assisted mediations, which can be more expensive and in many cases, more beneficial than mediation alone.
A divorce is "litigated" (or "contested") when the spouses can't agree on how to resolve the issues—like child support, spousal support, or how to divide property—and one of them files a divorce complaint with the court that results in a trial or a settlement.
In a litigated divorce the couple has the potential of losing control over the outcome because a judge may have to make the final decision about what gets included in an agreement. In a mediated divorce and the collaborative divorce, couples have a lot more control over the outcome and the agreements.
Many people are aware of the litigated divorce choice and less aware of the other two options, or they may think the other two choices would not work in their case, which may or may not be true.
What are the stages of divorce?
There are at least five stages in the process of ending a relationship: pre-divorce, initial, middle, end, and post. Each partner may be at a different stage or move back and forth between the stages. The more out of sync the couple is, the more challenging the process can be. Each stage presents couples with different challenges. Two of the most stressful issues for couples who decide to divorce is the loss of time with their children and the financial fallout of the decision. Couples therapy can help manage anxiety and reactivity when couples are out of sync and help them get to the same stage. The partner who is ready to move on, may need to slow down, and the partner who is not ready to move on, may need help in accepting that their partner may want the divorce more than they do. Rarely do two partners start out by wanting the divorce at the same time.
What actually happens during uncoupling sessions?
The counselor will propose individual and joint sessions. During the individual sessions, counselors help clients address their fears, concerns and worse-case scenarios. In joint sessions, couples counselors facilitate difficult conversations in a safe environment to create a vision of the kind of divorce the couple wants to have. Together, the couple can create a platform for finding solutions as a team, design rituals, write personal manifestos regarding their vision of a good divorce, and more.
Here is a sample something I may say to a couple who decided to separate or divorce:
“A divorce is a project, not an act. If you take the time to prepare for the project of coming up with an agreement that benefits all of you, the process will go smoother and the result will be emotionally and financially better. You will spend less money on attorneys, and you will have some control over the outcome. I know you both love your children and that you want what's best for them. In order to divorce, you will need to separate. A separation agreement may be the first step in the process, because it is a trial run.”
Here is a description of what I may propose to couples in an email:
1) Write a personal mission statement/manifesto spelling out the ideal version of how you want be in this process.This document will be used to help protect you against your own negative impulses during challenging moments and will offer a guide to get back on track when you stray from your ideal.
At a minimum, this statement should address the following:
- The good and bad in the experiences with your spouse, as we do not need to corrupt good memories in order to create space. How has the relationship contributed to the person you are today?
- Description of the kind of person you want to be now and in five years.
- The ideal way in which to handle disputes and resentments.
- Habitual and reactive behaviors you want to change
2) Write down thoughts/ideas about how you would like to set up each of the following categories during the separation: Living arrangements; children schedule/responsibilities; frequency and type of contact with each other, or with the family; finances; communication with each other, children, family/friends.
3) Make a list of every fear you have about the separation process (i.e., fears about how you perceive your spouse will behave, fears about outcomes and uncertainty). Make the list extensive. Start with non-financial issues and save financial for the end.
4) Read the two articles attached to this email: What Do Couples Need to Know About the Brain, by Sara Schwarzbaum, and Is Your Partner More to Blame? By Brent Atkinson.
To summarize, I propose three writing assignments and two readings. I generally ask that the couple send me the writing assignments prior to the meeting. If couples have a hard time with these writing assignments, we may do them in session.
It’s clear that the separation/divorce process will encourage couples to have honest, open and difficult conversations about their wishes, fears, and their vision for the future in a way that they didn’t have before. When it comes to uncoupling well, one size does not fit all. I feel proud of the clients who put in the hard work to uncouple well. I want to thank Kate Engler, Jay Lebow and Michelle Lawrance for some of the ideas reflected in this blog.