Therapy for Helping Couples Divorce with Dignity

Tammy Nelson on the Mechanics of the Intentional Divorce

Tammy Nelson

I’ve always made it my primary goal to save the marriage, if at all possible; however, I’ve often felt that I was working harder at it than either of the partners involved, especially with the couples who come to my office only to check off an imaginary box---“tried couples therapy”---before heading off to consult their respective lawyers. Of course, even among these last-ditch efforts, some unhappy couples do find new and better ways of relating to each other during therapy and decide to stick together. But what I’ve come to realize is that once a marriage has sufficiently unraveled, therapy often hits an impasse, and divorce becomes an inevitable reality.

At one time in my career, I’d have considered divorce as an outcome of therapy to be a failure---by the couple and by me. But over the years, I’ve learned to think of it as another opportunity to help. I’ve learned that I can help couples end their union in as thoughtful and pragmatic a way as possible. In other words, both partners can come through the experience with their dignity intact, their sanity whole, and in a greater spirit of cooperation and goodwill---attributes they’ll need as they continue to share responsibilities for their investments, their interests and their children.

Thus, when couples clearly intend to divorce, I often guide them through what I call an intentional divorce, which I reframe as not the end but the completion of their marriage. The framework I’ve developed for the intentional divorce comprises three phases.

The Crisis Phase

Typically, once the couple has made the decision to divorce and after I’ve explored all available alternative options with them, I wait to see if they’ve become stable enough emotionally to begin thinking in terms of practically and reasonably ending the marriage in a peaceful way. Sometimes couples need a few weeks off to go home and discuss the possibilities. Sometimes they take time alone to talk with friends or an individual therapist. I ask them to commit to another session a few weeks out, and reassure them that no matter what they decide, I can still be with them throughout the process, to guide and support them. If they have questions, they can email or call me.

If couples contact me again, I ask them specifically to commit to a conscious, intentional divorce, during which they slow down the process. Instead of making impulsive decisions, they commit to working through each detail of the divorce, either in sessions with me or with a mediator or a collaborative divorce attorney, someone professionally and ethically bound to neutrality between them, who helps them negotiate their separation fairly.

The Insight Phase

During this phase, the couple reviews the marriage, exploring what brought them together, what they’ve learned from being married, how they’ve helped and hurt one another, and how they’ve come to realize that the marriage can’t continue. This phase primarily involves processing sadness and learning about the role each person played in bringing the marriage to its completion---which is important in preparing each partner to avoid repeating the same mistakes in later relationships.

Because the grief around the death of the marriage is now palpable, replacing the raw shock of the crisis phase, the couple may be overcome with a sense of loss. Even if the partners aren’t mourning the loss of their spouse per se, they’re likely mourning the loss of the promise of what the marriage was supposed to be. Perhaps, for instance, it’s the dream of a retirement house in Maine, on the coast, with their grandchildren at their feet. Or maybe they thought they’d travel together when the kids grew up. Neither of them dreamed about a future that included divorce, splitting up their property, and discussions about sharing custody.

The letting go of the marriage can now be done with less guilt, and it begins to feel like the marriage is coming to its completion.

The Vision Phase

Divorce can bring up intense feeling of shame, but it can also be a time of hope and potential transformation. In this final vision phase, the couple creates, with my help, a new agreement to move forward, relinquishing their explicitly monogamous marital relationship with each other in favor of a new one, as coparents and friends, or sometimes agreeing to detach completely from one another. I remind the couples that staying angry with each other keeps them locked into the worst version of their marriage.

Most divorces end in a courtroom with a short legal decision read from the bench, a gavel dropped, and a feeling of anticlimax. There’s often a feeling of awkwardness immediately afterward, as both now ex-spouses stand uncertainly outside the courtroom, unsure of what to do next. “See ya around” doesn’t quite capture the importance of the moment. Creating a ritual in this intentional divorce phase helps bring the marriage to a more emotionally resonant ending, symbolically marking the beginning of a new stage of life and implicitly giving people permission to move on.

At this point in the treatment, I review the process with the divorcing couple and see if anything needs more work or detailed explanation. One or both partners may continue in individual therapy with me or with a referral. Many people are left with the need to create a vision for their life and a new experience going forward. Individual therapy includes helping them adjust to single life, single parenting, and eventually dating again. But it’s always important throughout the process of divorce counseling to remember that while we’re helping the couple end one period of their lives—virtually always involving pain and loss—we’re also helping them begin a new one.

This blog is excerpted from "The Intentional Divorce". The full version is available in the July/August 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Couples | Children/Adolescents | Parenting

Tags: collaborative divorce | counseling | divorce | divorce counseling | divorces | grief | parents | psychotherapy | sex | therapy | marriage | networker | love | uncoupling | divorcing | marry | Tammy Nelson

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