DIVORCE AND THE LIFE CYCLE: A DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH - Handbook of couples therapy

If therapy for divorcing couples is defined as involving the mediation of interpersonal conflict, the management of crisis, or the working through of grief, one has basically only a first-order change situation. That is, surface issues have changed, for example, economic and custody issues are presumably settled. Yet, no significant change in the person’s level of personal and interpersonal functioning and development may have been accomplished. The individuals are often still struggling with a particular developmental task of individuation or intimacy and are likely to reenact the developmental struggle in future relationships. When a marriage comes apart because two people do not or cannot grow together or are frozen in the status quo, then divorce can be a powerful and positive release of energy and development. In the case of significant interlocking developmental blocks, the decision to divorce is more problematic unless the individual and dyad dysfunction is explored and carefully worked through. Although almost all marital therapists understandably share a promarriage bias, separation and divorce can be more realistically viewed by the therapist as increasingly common milestones in adult development that bring potential for both stress and growth. When half of the people in a society experience a significant personal and interpersonal life event, there is an obvious need to integrate that event into our thinking about what is normative experience in the individual, marital, and family life cycle. Two decades ago, Carter and McGoldrick discussed divorce as a paranormative event in the family life cycle. A basic reader on marital and family therapy published in 2000 described the stages of normative marital life cycle as courtship and marriage, and defined the stages of the family life cycle entirely by the presence of children and the state of the child’s development, for example, child raising with no mention of divorce or remarriage or even cohabitation . These traditional models presume one major lifetime relationship, one marriage, one commitment. They are also predicated on the view that the individual and marital tasks of establishing autonomy and intimacy are defined mainly through bonding, rather than through an actual cycle of bonding, separating, and rebonding. Intimacy and Identity A more useful approach to conceptualizing a marital/ family life cycle model applicable to all people, married or divorced, in Divorcing Couples 413 414 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES alternative or emerging family forms, and from different cultures and ethnicities, is to employ general concepts of development that all family members must accomplish at various points in their marriages and families. David Rice and I earlier published this model in greater detail . In sum, a parsimonious model of life cycle development is based on the assumption that there are but two key tasks of all human development. These key tasks may recur and need to be reworked and redefined over the course of a lifetime of passage through perhaps several significant relationships. The first is intimacy in which one works to achieve communion, that is, closeness with another person; and the second, identity, in which one works to achieve successful separation or differentiation of self from others. These two tasks are basic to all human development. They are also interlocking: The goal is to be close, yet separate; to be intimate, yet autonomous; to find the self, yet to merge with the other . The basic themes of intimacy/communion and identity/separation recur over and over again in the life cycle, but with different meanings in each period of life, necessitating redefinition and transformation. The adaptive solution for one period of life may not be the best one for the next. Unlike traditional marital and family life cycle conceptions, the proposed model is nonlinear and multileveled, and the sequence is not rigid or necessarily predictable. Key marker events like marriage and divorce have the potential for impeding individual development in intimacy and identity and conversely to stimulating further growth in these tasks. Paradoxically, in divorce it is the very breakdown of intimacy, of the task of communion with a significant partner, that has the potential to lead to a better-defined individual identity and differentiation of self, yet also involves the danger of permanently blocking growth in intimacy if other issues are not resolved. Table 23.1 provides a conceptualization of this model as applied to divorce, noting the developmental tasks, dangers, and opportunities for the divorcing adult or child of divorceand the corresponding goals for therapy. The model does not seek to oversimplify the complexities of human development over the lifespan. The concepts of intimacy and identity have enormously rich complexity and interaction. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of these concepts helps us see individual development as a continuous unfolding of basic themes that have always had historical, cultural, and interpersonal meaning. A further advantage is that the model can be easily applied to a multicultural context. Lyle and Faure have taken the model and used it very effectively to integrate concerns about ethnicity and divorce, incorporating the parallel elements of acculturation and enculturation. In multicultural counseling with Hispanic families, they note that using a recursive, nonlinear developmental model has many benefits and shifts attention away from the completion of a particular stage toward the process of development. Divorcing Couples 415
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