POSTDIVORCE ADJUSTMENT - Handbook of couples therapy

Following key tasks of restructuring and adjustment engendered by divorce, therapy can focus more on ego reparation tasks: regaining self-esteem and confidence, coping with loneliness and aloneness, and building a social support network of friends and intimates. These tasks are immeasurably helped if the person has gained a realistic understanding of the causes of the divorce, his or her contributions, and unraveling the patterns of unconscious childhood strivings in the marriage and other relationships as well as family of origin issues. This is the so-called marital autopsy. Alvin and Pearson further point out that the relationship system before the divorce is likely to continue to be perpetuated in the divorce, which may lead to continuing painful conflict for all parties involved. Thus, an ambitious second-order goal of postdivorce therapy is to change this pattern of dysfunctional relating and to resolve old narcissistic wounding. Such goals can improve the likelihood of better co-parenting and family relationships. The general goal is to help the person use the trauma and changes wrought by the divorce to effect further developmental change and growth. A minority of individuals appear in postdivorce therapy many years after the divorce, still obsessed and stuck in the divorce trauma. They may have had severe psychopathology prior to their divorce or have become severely depressed and dysfunctional postdivorce. They cannot resolve their rage, projection of blame, and desire for retaliation. They are nowhere near completing the emotional and psychic divorce necessary for adjustment and healthy development. This type of high-conflict family and parent who cannot empathize with the other parent is often damaging to children’s long-term adjustment. Reviewing a large body of research and the mediating variables in postdivorce adjustment, Hetherington et al. concludes that family process emerges as the key variable. It is largely negative, continuing dysfunction in family relationships between parents, children, and siblings that accounts for differences in children’s adjustment. Pathological adjustments to divorce-related ego wounding can involve a perceptual distortion of reality and being rigidly stuck in childhood conflicts. Thus, the child within the parent is perceived and projected onto the real child. Any assault on one’s self is perceived as an assault on the child. Furthermore, the person projects his own anger with the ex-spouse onto the ex-spouse, maintaining instead that the ex-spouse is the angry person . The perception of the ex-spouse’s anger acts to justify continuing retaliation, sometimes to the point where no differing opinion can be accepted, leading to a stalemate in therapy. Fortunately, such high-conflict families and individuals represent a minority of postdivorce therapy clients, but they are memorable enough to warrant careful screening before the therapist becomes involved in an essentially intractable dispute. When clients, through the help of therapy, can finally realize how damaging this continuing blame, projection, and conflict are to themselves, they are better able to give up the secondary gains of maintaining the delusion and conflict. Such realization brings relief, forward movement, and the breaking of the developmental impasse. Postdivorce adjustment changes may involve role restructuring tasks as well as ego reparation, particularly if one spouse remarries. Kinship structures and roles within blended or binuclear families are often ambiguous and fraught with ambivalent expectations and uncertainties . Consider the 57-year-old man with two children and four grandchildren who marries a 35-year-old woman with two young children, one of whom is adopted. He may be a grandfather, a new husband, and a new father simultaneously, but his role is even more undefined with his new children, his old in-laws, and his new in-laws. Yet, he may want his inlaws, wife, and ex-wife to recognize all these children as members of their families, although each of these people draw their kinship webs somewhat differently from his. Thus, postdivorce therapy often focuses on mediating the ambivalence and conflicts produced when previously mapped-out relationships of the nuclear and extended family are transformed by divorce, producing competing and contradictory depictions and expectations of kinship. Divorcing Couples 425 426 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES Well-known protective factors in postdivorce adjustment and resilience include not only a supportive new partner, but higher education, satisfying, stable employment, financial security, and supportive social networks . Goals in therapy often include helping the client initiate new friendships with single friends, repair old friendship and family relationships, join various clubs or groups, and explore new interests and hobbies. The person may question previously held beliefs about his or her talents and work goals. A change of job or a return to school for new tools and skills may be very beneficial in raising self-esteem and confidence as well as in providing necessary financial security postdivorce. Men may have to be encouraged to learn child rearing, cooking, and housekeeping skills to make a comfortable home for themselves and their children. Women may have to learn new skills in financial management, car repair and maintenance, or other areas that a former spouse controlled. Children may have to become more responsible and share in household tasks. The potential for challenge and growth is obvious. Transitional Relationship At some point, sometimes early in the postdivorce adjustment process, the client may become involved in a new relationship. Sometimes, this person is waiting in the wings prior to the divorce. The person often represents a contrast to the old partner. Superficial personal, physical, or situational characteristics draw the divorced person in. The opportunity for some ego repair and regaining of confidence in one’s attractiveness and worthiness can be valuable in these relationships, but often they are transitory and do not represent a real change of direction or pattern in the person’s development of intimacy and identity. It is useful to explain to clients the dynamics of the transitional relationship, even though they may want to bask in the feeling of temporary love and security without analyzing their motives or the similar variables in that relationship and the unsuccessful marriage. It takes many clients a while to understand that they need a period of being alone, of introspection and change after a divorce, to successfully transcend old patterns of choice and unresolved strivings. The primary losses in divorce, ego/object loss and role loss result in major challenges to the clients’ self-esteem, identity, and the capacity to be intimate. Ultimately, a therapist must help the person get to the point where he or she can say, I love myself without the love of that other and I can love myself without being the spouse of that other .
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