By Stacy Notaras Murphy
For some counselors, helping their clients through a divorce may feel like accepting failure. After all, shouldn’t “good counseling” help couples avoid an unhappy end to marriage? But the reality, according to research released in March by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that half of all first marriages end in divorce, which means counseling services are equally necessary on the other side of couples therapy, where custody battles and complicated financial arrangements can act as stressors that contribute to depression, anxiety and trouble adjusting to a new post-marriage reality.
When working with couples trying to stay together, counselors have a choice of many models — emotionally focused couples therapy, imago relationship therapy, sex therapy and the religiously based Marriage Encounter programs, to name only a few. The options are less well-known when working with couples who have decided to divorce, but many counselors are using a variety of innovative techniques to help meet these clients where they are rather than dwelling on where they used to be.
David Carter is an American Counseling Association member in Omaha, Neb., whose private practice has evolved from working with individuals struggling with marital issues to working with couples actively pursuing divorce. He uses transactional analysis techniques to help these couples examine the ways they communicate and choose more effective strategies for moving through the divorce. Specifically, he teaches clients to identify which of the three ego states — Parent, Adult or Child — they inhabit to negotiate various transactions in their relationship with their spouse.
“While many of the other psychotherapies focus on the individual, this therapy provides a simple vocabulary for a common language between partners, as well as between individuals and their counselor,” Carter explains. “Divorcing couples often want to get along but repeatedly lock themselves in conflict. A troubled marriage usually has too much covert/crossed communication, much of it outside Adult awareness. One effective way to help them handle their differences is to teach them to negotiate from their Adult.”
If a couple chooses to pursue divorce while working with Carter, he often continues to meet with one or both spouses. The purpose is to help guide them through “unresolved issues that often sabotage future relationships,” he says.
Carter urges counselors working with couples to assess the underlying level of marital distress during the first session because this maps the proper treatment ahead. Carter has found that couples enter counseling during one of five stages: contemplation, commitment, divorce, recovery or rebuilding. During the contemplation stage, the couple is hoping the counselor can help change certain aspects of the behavior in the relationship to see if the relationship can be saved, he says.
“The commitment stage is when the relationship has ended in the mind of one of the partners, and the hope is that the counselor can develop a relationship with the other member and help him or her through the divorce,” says Carter, who is also a professor of counselor education at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.
The divorce stage involves emotions of anger, resentment and rage. Here, counseling helps the couple channel these emotions appropriately rather than turning to alcohol or acting-out behaviors in an attempt to cope. In the recovery stage, individuals may feel helpless, hopeless and abandoned by their partner. Counseling helps them survive and begin the journey of rebuilding. During this final stage, counseling assists the individual in exploring feelings and taking ownership over his or her own issues, Carter says.
Support for the individual
Counselors are taking various approaches, including coaching-type interventions, support groups and psychoeducation focused on co-parenting, to help individuals navigate the post-divorce recovery stage.
Laura Meyer, a counseling doctoral student and ACA member at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., entered the counseling profession specifically to work with divorcing populations. She started working with divorcing clients during her five-year stint as a life coach, maintaining a practice called Divorce Recovery Coaching Unlimited.
“As someone who had been divorced myself, I was drawn to this population,” she says. “I suggest using a client-directed, strength-based approach. Oftentimes, the behavior of these clients can seem dramatic, and if one is not careful, it would be easy to pathologize. Instead, I think it is essential to take an ecological view and understand how ‘crazy’ the circumstances for these [clients] have become.” These circumstances might include compromised finances, disrupted childhoods for any children involved, loss of social support, loss of a life partner and “the safety of what was and would have been,” Meyer says. She adds that these clients might also face legal battles, loss of libido, biological changes and an increased risk of substance abuse.
Meyer works predominately with middle-aged or older women who have been married for 10 or more years, and she asserts that age and length of marriage make a significant difference in the client’s ability to get through the divorce. “Many of the women I worked with had a significant drop in income, had very limited job skills due [to their] focus on child rearing, were left for younger women and did not have experience dating for over a decade or more,” she says. “Many experienced shock when attempting to return to the dating world and described a scene where they had little social capital as an ‘aging woman.’”
Meyer highly recommends assigning homework to divorcing clients as part of counseling. “These clients have great difficulty after the sun goes down and feel disconnected from the world,” she says. “Helping them create some structure of what to do during these ‘witching hours’ can be enormously helpful. Many are often in the same home they cohabited with their former partner, and at night the home becomes filled with ghosts of the past.” Meyer says counselors can collaborate with these clients to determine healthy coping behaviors, including positive nighttime routines, and provide or recommend bibliotherapy resources.
Percival Ricketts, an ACA member and author in private practice in Pembroke Pines, Fla., specializes in helping clients who are facing divorce and co-parenting issues. He warns counselors against expecting the same reactions from each divorcing client, noting that this complicated and life-changing process results in very different responses and emotions.
He adds that clients coming to counseling during divorce proceedings might also be searching for more than emotional support. They “might really be seeking guidance in terms of ascertaining how the process works, what they should reasonably expect as they go through the process, how their roles and expectations might change afterward and what they could do to make the process less painful and less traumatic for themselves and especially for their children,” Ricketts says. “Counselors should ensure, therefore, that they are knowledgeable about the divorce process so that they might be more adequately equipped to answer a wide variety of questions on the subject.”
Specifically, he advises counselors to become knowledgeable about options for legal support, financial guidance, mediation and parenting coordination.
Supporting clients through the end of a marriage might come naturally to most counselors, but even experienced professionals might be surprised at the need to support these same clients through the traumatic experience of the legal proceedings required to finalize that breakup. Rhonna Phillips, an ACA member and licensed professional counselor in Birmingham, Ala., has found that the legal system often creates additional topics to address in the counseling room.
“I was frustrated with the number of sessions that were needed to debrief my clients from their own frustration with their own lawyers — clients who recognized that their lawyers were making the conflicts worse but whom they felt trapped to work with after having spent thousands on a retainer,” she says. As a result, Phillips found herself drawn to collaborative practice (CP) and sought to work with like-minded family practice lawyers.
CP is a voluntary process that takes a team approach to divorce that includes mental health, legal and financial services. “We recognize that these people must go on to have some type of functional relationship in the future, especially those [couples] with children. The children’s needs are given special attention, and a parenting plan is mapped out in detail,” says Phillips, who adds that CP is a time-consuming process.
“This work requires much collaboration, communication and coordination. It’s a team approach,” she says. “If you are used to or prefer to work independently, this may not be a fit for you. If your orientation is to be a strong advocate for a select population, you may have difficulty adhering to this mission of mutually acceptable settlements and shared solutions. This could be work that could be higher risk for client complaints, especially by those clients who haven’t made the cognitive shift to solutions for the greater good.”
Despite the challenges, Phillips says she believes “this approach is the direction of the future. Counselors can be an important part of the solution because we can help foster healing and cooperation by the adults, who then model this for their children.”
Co-parenting is a common post-divorce struggle that can arrive as an afterthought following complicated legal proceedings. Custody arrangements typically do not stipulate parenting styles or conflict resolution strategies, so divorced parents are often left to sort these issues out with a reluctant or wounded ex-partner. In an effort to fill this gap, some counselors offer support and education concerning post-divorce co-parenting.
Ricketts was drawn to the divorced or separated parenting population during his initial counseling studies. As a counseling intern, he provided in-home services for a community mental health center in southern Florida and noticed that single women headed most of the families he visited. In many instances, fathers were absent from the lives of their children.
“Research consistently confirms that when children are raised without fathers or when fathers are not actively involved in their lives, they are at much greater risk for abuse, for academic failure, for ending up in jail, for using drugs and even for committing suicide,” Ricketts says. “These findings were pretty alarming to me. So, I decided then that this was an area in which I could probably make a significant difference.” Florida requires divorcing parents to take part in parenting classes, and Ricketts provides programs that meet those requirements, so he has come into contact with countless couples facing the challenges of parenting out of separate households.
Lori Frazier is an ACA member and licensed mental health counselor at Hope Haven Children’s Clinic and Family Center in Jacksonville, Fla. She leads a six-session class called “Co-Parenting Beyond Divorce” that aims to help parents improve communication, thus protecting their children from parental conflict. Frazier is firm in her assertion that parents must not place their children in the middle of their divorce. She explains that even “very good parents” can make painful mistakes such as letting the child choose when to see the other parent and giving children too much information under the guise of “being honest.” The course assists participants in understanding the basic expectations of co-parenting, learning to become “child-focused” and learning how to negotiate communication tools, including email and text messaging.
Frazier’s group is psychoeducational in nature and discourages therapeutic venting. “There is a lot of support for feelings and pain, but we are geared to practical problem-solving,” she says. “I would say one of the most difficult things is to help parents accept that despite their own hurt and anger, their child loves and needs the other parent, and that being healthily child-focused is by definition ‘not fair’ because the child-focused parent takes the high road and prioritizes the needs of the child.”
Ricketts also recommends same-sex therapy groups for divorcing couples on the basis of his observation that fathers in his parenting classes appear reserved when women are present. “When I facilitate fathers-only groups, I notice that men tend to be less reserved and … are more willing to express their views openly on a variety of feelings and beliefs,” he notes.
Children of divorce
Amy Adelman, a licensed professional counselor and ACA member in Laurel, Miss., runs the employee assistance program at a rural county hospital where she works with children, adolescents and adults from divorced families. She characterizes the counselor’s role when working with children of divorce as difficult. “Children of divorce are fragile and are suffering emotionally as they try to cope with the disruption of what in many cases was already an unstable environment,” she explains. “These children may believe the divorce is their fault, and they may lose not only their identity as a member of a family but also their sense of joy and playfulness. Many become the psychological caregiver of the mother.
“One young man told me that as he observes his parents moving from one partner to another, it looks to him like they just keep doing the same thing over and over again — just with different partners. I try to help these children appreciate both of their parents whenever possible and let them know it is OK to love both of them, even when each parent may tell them negative things about the other. I also tell them that one day they will be able to make their own decisions about spending time with their parents.”
According to Adelman, counselors would do well to dispel the myth that children can live life unaffected by their parents’ divorce. “Couples in trouble need to know how devastating divorce is on children,” she says. “Children of divorce are constantly trying to keep both of their parents happy and are unable to do so. This grieves these children deeply. It affects their schoolwork [because they are] frequently worrying about their parents.”
Adelman asserts that divorce is always a traumatic event. “Divorce has a lifetime effect on everyone in the family,” she says. “The couple may come from a divorced family setting themselves. If they do not, they may be the first marriage in their family to [end in] divorce. The words ‘I feel like a failure’ come up again and again. They desperately need all the emotional support a counselor can give them. Every facet of their lives is affected, from sleep to appetite to self-esteem.”
Her advice to counselors is to encourage these parents to engage in simple and joyful activities with their children. “Children need to feel cherished and loved, and divorce makes them question whether they are still loved and cherished,” Adelman says. “Family counseling where everyone gets a chance to say what’s working in this newly shaped family and what’s not [working] can be very supportive. Don’t underestimate the encouragement you as a counselor can give these grieving souls.”
Although many counselors would agree that getting couples into counseling earlier might be the key to keeping them out of divorce court altogether, that is easier said than done. “The sad reality is that counseling takes place years after the couple has divorced each other emotionally and physically,” Carter observes. “Prevention counseling has a much greater outcome than intervention counseling will ever have. Yet, many couples come for counseling in the hope that the counselor can fix the other partner and salvage a marriage that has deteriorated to the point of disrepair.”
Instead, what often results is that these couples wind up sitting on well-defended, opposite sides of the counseling room, with a counselor attempting to guide them toward the most useful topics, from how to humanely explain the divorce to their children to navigating the legal system. “It is critical that the couple seek an experienced counselor who provides honest and compassionate feedback, manages crises before more serious issues arise and will establish a clear, actionable counseling plan with accountability,” Carter says.
Ricketts agrees: “With the institution of marriage changing so rapidly, divorce has unfortunately become a very harsh reality that many families find themselves facing for one reason or another. Counselors will find it beneficial to recognize that divorce is a major traumatic event and one that affects the lives of Americans of various backgrounds, very often for generations. Increasing their knowledge about divorce and how individuals are often affected by it could prove very beneficial, both for counselors and for the clients they serve.”
This article ran in the June 2012 issue of Counseling Todaymagazine.