People seek therapy to help them decide whether to stay in a marriage, leave marriage or make the transition from marriage to being single again. These goals can be addressed in individual or couple’s therapy (and involve children). Divorce is likely to bring up painful feelings like tremendous sadness, guilt, anger, confusion, fear, loneliness and shame whether a person is the “leave-er” or the “leave-ee”. If children are involved, the stress level is compounded by another layer of pressure. People leave relationships and marriages for a number of reasons or a mixture of reasons. Some of the reasons are:
- Lack of commitment, including marrying too young or marrying the wrong person
- Infidelity or other major breaches of trust
- Too much arguing
- Grossly unrealistic ideas about what the marriage would be like, power issues and unresolved conflict about roles, chores or care for children
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Abuse of alcohol or other drugs
- Financial problems and disagreements about money
Dr. John Gottman, world renowned marriage and family expert says that problems and conflict alone do not lead to divorce. Rather, it is the way a couple relates to each other either leads to resolution or break-up. According to the Gottman Institute, the four key components that predict divorce are:
- Criticism, particularly when the criticism outweighs frequent positive statements
- Contempt and lack of respect-Gottman argues that this is the single best predictor of divorce and can be seen even early on in a relationship
- Defensiveness- People who cannot take responsibility for a problem cannot fix it. They also cannot display empathy for their spouse, which is an essential ingredient to move past an impasse
- Stonewalling, which is the deliberate avoidance of interaction and discussion of problems. Stonewalling can make it impossible to resolve an argument
In order to cope with the mental, physical and financial course of uncoupling, a person often chooses to see a therapist. Divorce therapy is usually done on an individual basis but in certain cases where individuals are calm and respectful, child rearing issues can be mediated together. In these cases, “divorce therapy” offers a place to address the dissolution of a marriage in a constructive and dignified way. A divorce therapist acts as a sort of mediator, and sets guidelines to ensure that the divorce is achieved with minimal hostility. Therapists can address pertinent issues, such as living and nesting arrangements, financial obligation, supporting child adjustments and parenting responsibilities. Significant financial, employment or housing issues compound the loss. Loss of relationships with friends or family, or loss of time with children can feel unbearable. A therapist can provide an objective and rational perspective and help navigate and prepare for the ups and downs. Therapists offer a gentle place where a person can learn, leverage inner strength and reframe the situation as an opportunity for personal development and a new purpose.
Divorce sometimes spurs mental health conditions in addition to an expected period of grief and loss. The perceived “failure” can also trigger conditions that were already present albeit in smaller levels, such as depression or anxiety. A therapist is trained to assist in responding to the emergence of these issues and can be an additional set of “eyes” or “ears” when a person’s perspective is shaded by such things as a cloud of sadness.
Therapy can be a critical opportunity for children to move forward in a healthy way that does not compromise relationships, school, play or development. Parents are often focussed on their own feelings and without intending to do it, they overlook the loss, pain, abandonment and confusion felt by children. Children struggle with devastating feelings. Some children struggle with loyalty to one parent, take responsibility for causing the divorce, wish for parents to reunite, or try to fix a parent’s broken heart. Things are worse if there is a lot of friction during the transition or if children are privy to conversations meant for adults. Helping children find strategies and tools to process emotions is a priority that yields great benefit for years to come and shows them that hope and dignity can prevail even during these difficult times.
References: Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Crown.
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