Coping with divorce or separation

Sometimes in couple counselling one or both parties will decide to separate and seek divorce. If that process is started before emotions, for example around rejection and resentment, are processed then legal proceedings can be messy. Encouragingindividuals, especially the ‘unhappy partner’ to stay in therapy during the separation process, in order to resolve issues relating to the past and to cope with unexpected events and feelings can help them to find greater peace of mind and future happiness. This article sets out some case examples leading to identifying areas of supportive intervention on which counselling might focus.

Coping with divorce and separation

Four illustrative examples

Working empathetically and therapeutically with individuals where there are significant emotional issues can help smooth the path to resolving the practical issues of separating, making the legal process quicker, less acrimonious and less hurtful. As illustration, four case composites are set out below. All names and occupations have been changed.

A year after discovering her husband’s affair, but prior to divorce, Samantha, who was a well-known textile designer, felt ready to date. She followed up on an internet chat to meet a man. At the end of the evening she went back to a nearby cheap hotel and slept with him. In retrospect, she said she was desperate for romance and validation. For her it was a tawdry experience which clashed brutally with her ‘dream’ and made worse by the man not responding to her texts. It resurrected feelings of rejection she still harboured about her marriage and also triggered deeper feelings of low self-worth. At the time she also had work problems. Counselling focusedon restoring her self-confidence and addressing her issues of self-esteem and relationship anxiety, much of which was connected to her parent’s unhappy marriage and her father’s serial infidelity. The counselling gave her greater self-confidence to deal with the dissolution of her marriage. It also helped her with her job.

Mike felt extremely resentful about his wife terminating their long marriage, which he felt was characterised by self-sacrifice on his part. She was an international sportswoman and he had travelled extensively to support her at competitions. His emotional response to separation was a mix of hurt and anger. During counselling Mike identified a wider pattern of relegating his own needs which he traced to formative experience – a father who committed suicide, and an emotionally needy mother. Over time he came to address his own issues to do with assertiveness and felt much more able to create a new life.

Jane and Phil, both accountants, initially came to counselling as a couple whose marriage was in trouble. Fairly quickly, Phil announced that he wanted to separate. Jane continued with counselling. One incident was particularly difficult for her. Prior to Phil calling time on the relationship, every year Jane and he would create a framed montage of holiday photographs which they would hang in their high-ceilinged loft apartment. When the legal process touched on the distribution of shared possessions, the photographs took on a painful significance for Jane, making her question the basis of the relationship and if it had any real value in her life. Counselling enabled Jane to take a more nuanced view of the past leading to her retaining happy memories rather than seeing the relationship as a failure because it ended.

Helen’s family held very traditional values. She saw herself very much as a homemaker. When her husband, Henry, left her for another woman she expressed extreme anger. Her rage prevented her from processing her deeper feelings of sadness and hurt, and made divorce acrimonious and lengthy, further inhibiting her emotional repair. She found it very difficult to share her children with the ‘other woman’. During counselling she came to recognise the significance of an inherited family motto ‘to be a good wife and mother’, which was the main benchmark against which she judged herself. She came to recognise a wider range of personal qualities and accomplishments which helped to create a more rounded personal identity and restore her self-esteem.

Four ways of helping - Translating the above into good practice guidelines suggests the following four areas for counselling focus.

Repositioning perception

Many couples will already have been to relationship counselling with at least one partner hoping to resolve their relationship problem. For couples seeking divorce that process clearly was not successful. But that does not mean that they can’t be helped to take a more positive view of the past, and in some cases of themselves. Not all romantic relationships are life-long. Around one half of all U.K. marriages end in divorce. But because they don’t last forever doesn’t mean they need to be seen as failures, without redeeming or happy features. Helping individuals to salvage some positivity even among the wreckage of their sadness can help with their present trauma and future fears.

For partners who didn’t want the relationship to end, feelings of abandonment or low self-worth may be evoked. They may find it very hard to envisage a different life ahead. The future is seen as hugely challenging and often frightening. Restoring self-confidence, preparing for a new way of being, with new possibilities are key ingredients to helping individuals to move on. They may have suppressed a sense of self over many years with their personal identity intimately bound up in being part of a couple. In such cases ‘uncoupling’ is hard. Helping with moving the focus from ‘us’ to ‘me’ can be transformational.

Managing feelings

Often people enter divorce proceedings without even having begun to process their emotions – grief, loss, guilt, anger, and fear to mention just a few. Feelings of self-sacrifice or betrayal, or abandonment can trigger feelings of resentment and sometimes rage. Helping to process feelings and understand them in a safe and supportive space is therapeutic. Often there is a feeling of loss of control and regaining a sense of autonomy can be immensely helpful. Distinguishing between the behaviours displayed by oneself or one’s partner, such as anger, and the underlying feelings, for example fear, can help move the emotional and relational cycle from destructive to healing.

Irrespective of whose decision it is to part, there will be issues of loss which will confront both parties at some level. For the ‘departing’ partner there may be issues of guilt. For the ‘abandoned’ partner there may be feelings of guilt about past behaviour or a sense of not being ‘good enough’. Irrespective of the specific emotions they need to be acknowledged and dealt with for good emotional health and recovery.

Dealing with childcare and third parties

Divorce proceedings can be especially difficult when children are involved, and there are issues of access and co-parenting. These difficulties can be compounded when one party has already moved onto a new relationship. Feelings of loss, resentment and anger are common responses. Typically parents do want to do what is best for their children, but child welfare can be difficult to achieve without addressing the psychological issues of partners who may feel let down or cheated on. Helping individuals to come to terms with a new, painful reality is important in creating a pathway to manageable co-existence.

Unlocking resources

An important element in helping individuals through the separation process involves assisting them to identify and draw on their own internal resources. At a deep level people often know their own solutions, but need help to find them and to access their own resilience. Such self-discovery can be extremely healing in itself. Encouraging individuals to effectively use support networks, friends and family, can also be helpful. Coaching them on issues such as how they think they ‘ought’ to behave - feeling they have to ‘move on’ and not having time to grieve - can be liberating.

In a nutshell

Breaking up is hard. The legal process can make it harder. The interplay between the legal and emotional agenda can create a destructive and cumulative cycle of slow progress and painful feelings. Supportive, focused intervention can create understanding, change perception and break that cycle.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Brian Appleby, MA (Relationship Therapy), MA (Econ), MLitt (Econ), MBACP
London W1G & W4

Brian has a private practice in Harley Street where he provides individual and couple counselling on intimate, family and work relationships. He trained with Relate and has an MA with Distinction in Relationship Therapy. Before training as a therapist he worked in change management in international corporations.His approach is person-centred.

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