I get a lot of people asking me to help them with the fallout of divorce.
The traditional model of how one gets divorced creates so much tension. We’re given a model to become estranged from a person we might have been with for decades. This is a way community and family can feel comfortable -- if we truly separate. We shouldn’t care for (let alone still love in some way), talk to, or be friends with that person again. We’re supposed to separate our lives as much as we can. Though that’s sometimes necessary, it may not be best for everyone involved, in most cases. It may require developing the capacity to do something different, which means examining your purpose of staying connected, readying yourself to move forward in your life and still manage your feelings, heal your grief, and figure out how to have other relationships that are much more satisfying and emotionally healthy for you – outside of this newly deemed ‘co-parenting relationship.’
Moving forward doesn’t necessarily mean that we dig into the relationship to understand what didn’t work and hang out all of the dirty laundry – but we do need to dig in enough to be able to identify and understand the key elements of the dynamics that were negative, so that we don’t continually get caught up in them. We can set boundaries and still formally work together – especially if we have kids. We can still keep our community together – so that there is no exclusion of one or the other. We can still be civil – and even kind – to one another. But, for this to work (in a healthy and sustainable way), people have to have the ability to work on themselves so that they can show up in a different way – and not fall into old patterns, creating a rift wherever they get involved.
Now, I’m not saying it’s easy – but the support I offer helps people go beyond the traditional model of breaking-up into something that might become a more loving and healthy environment for themselves, their children, extended family, and communities. It requires that those involved are much more interested in and willing to be cooperative and collaborative and less interested in being combative and litigious.
Much of the work I do involves helping people move through the divorce process: from, first, wanting to separate to, ultimately, having had a successful separation and moving on to healing and a healthier new life (and relationship) – especially if there are children involved. I teach people how to change their dynamics after divorce: to have clear boundaries, be more formal with each other, and set up systems so they can communicate more effectively. Managing the change in your relationship, once you’ve been separated, is critical. You have to learn how to maintain a certain amount of privacy and emotional distance from your ex partner for it to work.
That brings us to the types of support that can help couples and families in need. As a Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Mediator, I offer various options to meet the needs of my clients. When couples and families are coming into, through, or out of divorce, they often need different types of support, depending on their unique situation and where they are in the process. These may include general mediation, couples counseling, co-parenting counseling & mediation, family counseling, or family mediation. Some of this support comes even decades after a divorce has happened – but, ideally, the support happens all around the divorce, in real time, so that it doesn’t follow and impact the individuals involved – and their legacy.
So, let’s talk about these support options and how they’re effectively employed for different situations.
In the simplest sense, mediation is appropriate when we're trying to solve an issue or set of specific issues. During mediation, I teach negotiation skills – an effective tool to move people forward, past the stuck place couples find themselves. In mediation, we are not just trying to solve a problem, we’re just trying to find a way to move forward and collaborate effectively, which includes keeping agreements and predicting future life changes.
Co-Parent Counseling & Mediation
This is a coming together in a professional session to prepare you and your children for your separation. It involves planning and figuring out how to put your differences aside, parent together, and consistently make decisions in the “best interests“ of your children. It is not couples counseling or mediation, but it does require some looking back to resolve unresolved issues and ‘heal’ old wounds, so that lashing out or recoiling doesn’t remain a regular part of the co-parenting relationship – and negatively impact the potential for a success for everyone involved.
If you are thinking, this sounds great – but my ex-partner has no desire to work on himself, then co-parenting counseling is probably not going to work for you. It takes both people's efforts to maintain a collaborative parenting experience. It requires that you really dig deep and go beyond the reason why your relationship ended and work together for the best interests of the children.
Sometimes, in the beginning, it may seem that our ex doesn’t have an interest or willingness to work on him/herself, but with a guided session or two, we can come around to engagement – because both parties acknowledge and agree that it’s best for the children – and further agree that the current dysfunctional dynamics will not be permitted to continue in the new co-parenting relationship.
Couple counseling is appropriate when we’re trying to identify friction points, process, and gain insights about the relationship’s dynamics. In counseling, sometimes we compromise – and because it's very difficult to compromise one’s values, what I often teach people to do in counseling is to, instead, understand why something is so important to the other person and go beyond the ‘my way-your way’ and find the compromise. You agree to do something for someone else because it helps him out, makes him feel comfortable, and allows you to understand the real motivation around his needs.
Couples counseling is the starting point for family therapy – if I find that a couple has a lot of their own issues. I don’t bring them into family therapy without having sessions to help them resolve some of their couple issues first, so that they can discern between what is the couple's issue vs. what is the family system's issues. So often, the main distraction in raising a family is couple conflict. Having a couple do some work on their relationship not only helps them, but it also makes them better parents, because their kids are not in constant conflict within the family system. It’s not uncommon that so much of what is dysfunctional in a family is around how the couple functions.
When couples have a dysfunctional relationship with a lot of conflict and strife, it obviously affects the family – and it also becomes a focus of the children’s environment. Children see their parents fighting over what equates to different parenting styles, and the children develop an acuity to being somewhat ignored when issues arise and having the conflict tension take precedence over their receipt of actual parenting.
Sometimes, when I’m trying to help parents figure out how to strengthen their relationship and stay together, one of my primary goals is to get them to stop fighting in front of the children – to facilitate something called ‘united-front parenting.’ This basically means that, while in front of the kids, one person is in charge and the other person allows that person to lead. If they feel like the parent is getting too upset or volatile, then they can actually call out and ask if they need help. “Can I take over, do you want me to step in, do you need a break?” It’s not just taking over. It’s definitely not criticizing the parent in front of the child. There’s more to it, but it’s an example of how helpful tools like this can be for couples.
I don’t entertain people working on relationships in front of their kids; therefore, when a couple comes to me for family therapy, I always assess whether they're attempting to hide behind the parenting dynamic instead of working on their relationship. I do, however, encourage people to humanize themselves in front of their kids, for example, “mom and dad are working on talking nicer to each other. We do not want to fight in front of you and we don’t want fighting in our family. This is one of our values.” But, this is sorted in couples therapy first.
That brings us to family therapy.
Family therapy is very helpful when there has been an event that has impacted the entire family and is appropriate to discuss – as a family. Again, couples issues are often the source of family conflict, so those are addressed before family therapy ensues, where appropriate.
So let’s look at an example of where family therapy would be appropriate. Let's say there was a new family system where the mother remarried someone and continued to be the primary caregiver. The biological father was excluded from the family unit and only saw the kids on holidays or for summer vacation. There may have developed loyalty or anger issues that were repressed and now, as the children become adults, they don’t really want to have anything to do with the mother or the stepfather. In this case, I would bring units of treatment in to try to heal some of the past trauma in order to improve the families functioning as adults. It might be stepfather and mother, at first, because maybe there may still be some couple issues in their relationships that need to be cleared out so they can do family therapy together. For example, they may have disagreed on how the parenting happened in the family, one of the children didn’t get along with the stepfather, or perhaps the mother was resentful with how the stepfather might’ve butted into her parenting.
We may never meet with the whole family unit together, but instead, focus on pairs (e.g., just the siblings, mother and son, and mother and daughter separately). We would focus on solving some of the issues that have been overlooked in the family.
The reason why this family therapy is different from family mediation is because I’m actually gaining insight about the situation, helping the family to make decisions, and finding solutions to help them function better together.
There’s often major fallout from a separation that hasn’t been properly handled. There can be too much hurt, anger, resentment or anxiety for people to be able to even be around one another. This is when I tend to work with family members in mediation.
When divorces have gone poorly, there is damage to be encountered down the road – and, almost always, the damage will be found with any separation of a family, though some of it is more severe than others. Some of the damage makes it impossible for family members to be together again – even as adults, which is why I often counsel adult siblings. Even adult children may feel so injured from the separation that they can’t have a relationship with their parent(s) that’s workable.
We go back and talk about what happened (sometimes for the first time ever) and try to sort through some of the hurt, happenings, and healing. It’s not unusual that people come to me pre-holidays just for the purpose of getting through a specific gathering – not knowing how to be back together again.
The damage of a divorce can be severe and last for generations.
It is so critical that divorces are handled with the care that they deserve and require. They’re not just an event for the married couple to get through and then shake off and move on from. They have lasting and wide-reaching impacts on the couple, their children, their extended family and the way that all of them feel about themselves, their relationships, relationships in general, and so much more. These impacts, however, can be turned into learning, growing and healing opportunities, if handled properly.
Relationships are everything. We can create healthier relationships for ourselves and our current families, and help our generations to come to build and be strong, instead of just recovering.
Please let me know if I can help your family to recover and get to a healthier place.