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How Can Therapy Help Us If My Spouse and I Are Going Through a Divorce?

Divorce happens in 2 ways. Either one person decides against the other’s will or both parties decide TOGETHER that the marriage should end. For the 2 nd to occur, it takes a lot of both parties talking about what they think and feel. It requires many conversations over time. The best place to have these conversations is in a counseling office. If you just “announce” the divorce and your spouse is not part of the decision making it will result in denial, frustration and anger and will make for rough divorce proceedings and negotiations.

Even if you didn’t make the decision to get divorced in a marriage counseling setting, it’s never too late in the process to go to therapy together to help the divorce process go more smoothly. Everyone, even the person who files, goes through all the stages of grief at some point during the divorce process. The first stage is denial. Denial is the emotional defense mechanism that helps us prepare for the loss of identity as a couple and the reorganization of the family once divorce has been decided. Once denial fades and you begin to accept divorce as a reality, you enter the bargaining stage. You may feel yourself getting panicked and wanting to negotiate with your partner to keep the marriage intact. Once the desire to bargain fades, there’s the anger stage, where you are upset and disappointed in all that has gone wrong. Eventually this feeling passes and you start to feel sadness of all that has been lost-intact family, marital status, adult company etc. This is the depression stage. When all of the feelings associated with these stages have been resolved, you move on to the acceptance stage. This is where you begin to understand that divorce was the last resort and you start being able to picture a life after divorce. It’s important to note that these stages are not necessarily experienced in order and you may jump back and forth between them from time to time. One of the benefits of marriage counseling is that it can help you and your spouse process these stages of grief in a healthy manner and realize that divorce is an opportunity for both of you to heal and move on.

A few years ago, I got a call from a couple who were just starting the divorce process and wanted me to see their three teenage children to help them work through it in a healthy way. Some of my work involved helping the kids process their feelings about the divorce and all the changes in the family that would come along with it, but the most important work ended up being with the parents in my sessions with them. There had been an affair between the wife and a third party. The third party reported the affair to the husband without the wife’s knowledge. The husband filed for divorce shortly after finding out and as you can imagine, the divorce process did not start out smoothly. The husband was extremely shocked and hurt and as a way of processing those feelings, was disparaging about his wife to their children. The teenagers were in turn, acting out against their mother because they saw how hurt their father was. I soon realized that in order to help the kids, I had to help the husband process his feelings about the affair and the divorce. Over the next few months I had many sessions with the husband and the wife together. The husband needed to process his anger and hurt with her in a healthy environment in order for him not to vilify her to the kids. His anger was also impeding the divorce proceedings. He was not able to compromise or negotiate with the attorneys because his resentment had not been dealt with. It was in a different way, but the wife also needed help grieving the divorce. Even though she had the affair, she was not prepared for things to happen as they did and or for the marriage to end up in divorce without any prior discussion. She was still dealing with all of the stages of grief.

These types of situations are complicated because no conversation about divorce or the state of the marriage had taken place prior to the spouse finding out about the affair. The husband had started out the process with anger and shock vs. there being a mutual acknowledgement from both parties that their marriage was in distress and divorce was a potential outcome. Marriage counseling helped both of them learn how to process all the stages of emotions and grief that go along with divorce and taught them how to conduct themselves in a positive way for their children.

I have the same conversation with every couple going through divorce when they come in for their first session: What do you want your relationship to look like in a year? What about 5 years? 20 years? Because the conversations that we’re having in the office today will set the tone for all future interactions between the two of you. Do you want to be the parents that are able to be under the same roof for your children’s football games, birthday parties, weddings? Do you want to co-parent together or are you going to have to parallel parent (a situation where you have limited contact because you have demonstrated that you cannot communicate with each other)? One of the overall goals of my work with divorced couples is for their children to be able to have both parents at their events and communicate with each other about important things that happen during each of their parenting time. This is the most ideal outcome for a family going through the transition of divorce. Doing this in a counseling office with a neutral, trained professional helps that become a possibility.

Other important discussion points in our sessions are how to explain to the kids that there’s going to be a change in the family (without actually using the word divorce), transitions necessary when becoming a different type of family once divorce is decided and how to tell family and friends you are getting divorced.

Marriage counseling is a healthy forum to help you and your spouse realize what you want your life and the condition of your family to be like post- divorce. It can help set a positive tone for your family for many years to come.

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