Making things work with With your Ex: Coping With the Pain of Divorce
Over the years as a clinician, I have come to the conclusion there are times I could more deeply relate and actually know more of the in's and out's of what the client could be experiencing as I too had experienced the same issue and addressed it. My own process of going through a divorce recently is one of these times. While I don’t think I had to go through a divorce to best help, as I have begun to live through it, I do feel a finer appreciation of what we may be dealing with and how to better help.
In my almost 20 years now as a clinician and supervisor, I have seen clients enveloped in anger and pain, lashing out on their partners in ways never before imagined. Tumbling through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of grief (e.g. denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) towards what seems like a bottomless pit is how many of my clients come in. They can be so hurt and acting out as well as in.
I cannot begin to put a number to all the times I have seen and heard situations of one parent railing against another and saying what a terrible parent the other is. How many times have you heard one party expressing these concerns in the presence of the children? It is so sad to see. I wonder if my clients can see me cringe a split second before I intervene and attempt to remind them of young ears nearby?
If this now single client is coming in after the separation /divorce, I can help them heal via some of the wonderful tools a counselor might use: normalize their pain, encourage the appropriate expression of the anger, empty chair it out (where you can visualize the person you are angry with, sitting in a chair in front of you, and get all of your feelings out -- to where it is not actually said -- at least not in this exact way -- to the real person), etc. And while reunification of the marriage may not be the goal, most of us do want things to be better with their one-time partner -- whether to be friends, co-parents, or even not to hold the same intense emotions towards that person that they do currently. I think the problem is that they cannot fathom how to make this happen, and I see this is where and how most of us get stuck in continuing the cycle of lashing out.
Unfortunately, I think too often people (and I know I have at times) only see things as one way or the other. For example, the sentiment “I don’t want to see him/her ever again” comes up often – they fathom no other options. Yet I think even if they decide to separate as a couple, what about the (possible) relationship they can have in the future? Will they communicate? Will they be friends? Perhaps more importantly is the reality that if they have children, what kind of relationship will they have as parents? I fear we do not give this as much thought as we could and need to.
Again, feeling the pain of the separation can be overwhelming. The interactions we may be having with our significant other can seem unmanageable. We know from John Gottman's work that when the heart rate goes up to about 80 beats per minute (BPM) for a man and 90 BPM for a woman, the flooding process begins. At this level, physiological arousal makes it hard to focus on what the other person is saying, which is going to lead to increased defensiveness and hostility. We are no longer thinking rationally but rather reacting. Even while a therapist, my initial reactions were not much better. It is too easy to catastrophize at this time, thinking and expecting the worst for the future. Yet this does not have to be the case; it certainly has not been for me.
How to Best Separate
While I struggled with confusion, anger and sadness, I also focused on the future relationship I wanted to have with my boy's mom. I envisioned the benefits in working together to be the best parents we could be. Through my own individual counseling, couples counseling, as well as with the support of friends, I decided to put my best foot forward and work together to be the best parents we could be. You can get there as well.
In my work, what I want to know has less to do with how did clients get this way and more about what is it that they really want? Bottom line I'll say, "take a deep breath, put the anger, sadness and all the other feelings you are entitled to aside for a moment and tell me what kind of relationship you would like with this person for the future? How would you be communicating?” For relationships with children involved, I'll ask what the visitation would look like and how they will connect for school issues, the children's sports or other activities, etc. This reality check can help focus more on the broader aspects of what is to come.
I'll ask them to imagine themselves as a child going through the same situation and to feel the vulnerability and confusion. I'll ask "if you were this child, what would you need from your parents?" I might follow-up with asking what they would experience if the parent could not provide this, as well as examine what might be getting in the way of the parents meeting these needs.
To me, it is all about perspective and experience. I believe most people imagine separation or divorce as an overwhelmingly negative experience and are more likely to expect all the “goo” to happen if they separate/divorce. But imagine if you had the perspective that it does not have to be this way? What if you knew from other's experiences that things can work out, meaning the two continue to have some type of positive relationship even if not a "couple?" I like to wonder aloud with a “crazy” idea, such as what would it take for you to forgive this person?
Earlier this year, I had a family come in with the young man struggling in school. For the intake, his biological mother came in, joined by both the boy's father and stepmother. They related well to each other, worked on the intake/assessment paperwork as a team and all seemed dedicated to helping their young man. Visitation included weekly time at one home and the following week at another. They addressed school issues, childcare, and other key needs as a team. It was wonderful to see. Wouldn’t it be great if divorces like this were the norm?
Getting to acceptance is certainly easier said than done. I can never predict how much time each client may need within the stages of grief. I never make it a horse-race, as each is entitled to their pain. It is important to me though to help individuals identify their role in the conflict as I know the future is not about finding a better mate but rather about being one ourselves. “Let’s face it,” I’ll say. “I learn more from my mistakes than from my successes.” The more I model openness and growth, the more you will envision it.
This is Where Counselors Come In
I may have to help with the vision as many may have the general hope, yet get stuck in the fog trying to see the how to implement it. Believe it so! Share the positive examples you have observed and keys to their success. Challenge and undermine catastrophizing. When a client says, “it’s always like this,” or “he always does that.” I may say “no” as I then help them challenge this distortion. To then punctuate hope, I’ll note that even if it seems this way it certainly does not have to be this way moving forward. I want them to feel the control they have in making things work and remind them how they can choose. It is truly up to you.
I expect it will take some time to process everything they are going through now. As they begin to verbalize future possibilities, I let them know how much they can do. I might have the clients make a list of all the things they have power over in their lives, including what type of relationship(s) they have now and want to have. I’ll look at their planning out steps in how to achieve them, examining what is getting in the way of it now and so forth.
I want them to imagine future interactions such as special events for family members or children’s birthday parties and being civil (if that is all they are wanting at this point), and the feelings that are coming up. At some point, when the client is moving through the stages, I’ll ask them to make a list of the positive things about the relationship they had with their significant other (and even strengths about that person if they are ready).
Digging deeper, I’ll probe past losses and separation and any hurt coming up. I’ll help explore any learning the client can grasp from this fresh wound, as well as help clients recognize what is coming up now may be related to past hurts..
As friends going through similar situations (separation/divorce) would ask me when I was ready to date, I became apprehensive. When would I know? Too often, I see friends jump right back into a relationship as if nothing happened. Now, I am sitting here thinking this cannot be good. The goal cannot be to just get through it. Time-wise though, no one size fits all answer is coming here – I wish there was such a thing, yet I am not sure how many of our clients would listen if there was a magical number anyway. Generalizing, I do fear we men especially succumb harder to loneliness and jump back into the next relationship.
I believe my knowledge helped me slow down getting back into the dating arena. I have learned that if I am still reeling in anger or sadness, it is too soon. If the thought of going out with a new person will make your previous partner jealous, it is too soon. Sometimes, of course, it is hard. I know I have allowed my own limits to be tested over the smallest things and I’ll personalize. Keeping up a positive relationship with my boy’s mom takes effort and patience and does bring up past hurts from time to time. The neat thing is they are infinitesimal now to where they were initially and I know they can and will be even better.
Gottman, J., (1994).. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Simon & Shuster Paperbacks
By Stuart A. Kaplowitz, Marriage & Family Therapist Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
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Author:Stuart A. Kaplowitz, Marriage & Family Therapist
Biography: 20 years in the field managing and directing clinical programs
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