THE DECISION TO DIVORCE - Handbook of couples therapy

The transition to divorce therapy is not as clear as a therapist might like, often involving a fairly lengthy period in which the clients go back and forth about whether to stay together. Finally, a time comes when the therapist can offer the observation that the issue the couple is discussing has been repeatedly addressed without resolution and that neither party has desired to or been capable of making necessary changes and accommodations to preserve the marriage. The implicit question is whether the marriage is ended and there is a need to make a decision to move forward. Often, this point of no return occurs after clients see a continuous pattern, a marital flip-flop, sometimes over months, sometimes over years, of repetitious emotional partings, bondings, and partings again. If the couple has gone to therapy and tried to conscientiously do what they feel they could to preserve the relationship, then subsequent postdivorce guilt and regret may be lessened. Thus, it behooves the therapist not to abort this process, but also to be a realistic observer and reporter about when a couple is simply repeating patterns and is locked into a status quo that is hurting themselves and perhaps their children. What unhappy, dissatisfied couple doesn’t actively fight or manifest dysfunction in front of their children? Recent research has shown that children do better when parents divorce in high-conflict marriages, but stay married in low-conflict, unhappy marriages. This is, of course, a dilemma for the therapist: whose interest to put first. Whatever your personal bias, the therapist should conscientiously help the couple discuss the consequences of a decision to divorce for the children as well as for themselves. Sometimes, the decision will be to wait until the children are older, but more often in today’s milieu of high expectations for personal fulfillment, individual needs are put first. Rarely is there anything anyone can do to dissuade a spouse who is determined to sever the marital ties . . . the therapist can suggest a trial separation, which can serve as cooling-off period during which to make more rational choices . Structured Separation The likelihood is high that a divorcing couple will experience a period of separation. This separation can serve several functions. It can be a conflict management toola means of de-escalating anger and irrational decision making, and a protection against escalating physical or emotional violence. It can be a temporary vacation from the dispute. It can afford a structured, time-limited period for decision making or breaking an impasse, and it can be a period for new learning and value clarification in which to explore other options in relationships, work, and living independently and to acknowledge there are choices. Most importantly, the therapist needs to help the couple openly acknowledge whether the separation is really a dress rehearsal for divorce, in which the partners are buying some time to make the emotional and behavioral adjustments necessary for divorce. Conversely, it can be agreed that the separation is a tool to continue to work on preserving the marriage by reformulating the marital contract, breaking old perceptions, and working on independence and personal growth conducive to helping the marriage. The latter case involves a structured separation with counseling. Both parties agree they will continue couple therapy on a regular basis while physically separated. Most often, the couple agrees that financial arrangements stay in place and no big life changes will occur except Divorcing Couples 419 420 SPECIAL ISSUES FACED BY COUPLES for one spouse’s moving out. Sometimes, an arrangement can be made where the spouses take turns living in the house or other temporary housing. If the parties agree not to bring in lawyers right away, the process is far more likely to remain nonadversarial, and the therapist can better help the couple to maintain or achieve a nonblame attitude that is far more conducive to personal and familial healing. The therapist basically continues to do couple counseling. The couple should be informed that more than half of couples who decide to physically separate do go on to divorce. Knowing this, the noninitiator may strongly oppose a separation, fearing it signals the reality of a divorce. Mixed messages about separating may be given by both parties, and the therapist needs to help the couple not only sort out those messages, but to explore the advantages and disadvantages of a separation. A legal separation involves essentially all the financial and custodial decisions of a divorce, but may be preferred by couples who feel there need to be very clear guidelines in these areas and who want the relief and security of having these decisions in place. Whether a separation is a dress rehearsal or acknowledged prelude to divorce or an alternative attempt to change perceptions and save a marriage, it is important for the therapist and clients to go over the ground rules of the separation. In this author’s experience, amazingly few couples openly talk about all the practical ramifications and decisions of a separation, other perhaps than to discuss what happens with the children. Issues that must be decided include length of initial separation, time of evaluation and follow-up, continuing counseling, placement and visitation, child support and finances, whether to involve lawyers, how to tell the children, which individuals outside the family will be told about the separation and by whom and how, and whether the couple will see other people or remain monogamous. The latter decisions can be the cause of much conflict and misunderstanding, and damage control can be prevented in therapy by clear ground rules. These areas, of course, must also be addressed if and when the parties go on to a final divorce. In this author’s experience, a structured separation with counseling needs a minimum period of three months and is often six months to one year in length.
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