How Can Therapy Help Couples Divorce or Stay Together?


Therapy is a process of looking at oneself, oftentimes challenging the agenda one may have had when walking in the door. It’s common in marriages for one spouse to feel ready to divorce before the other. Sometimes this happens when the couple is already in therapy; sometimes it’s a motivating factor for a couple to seek therapy. Either way, the therapist can be a helpful resource.

Things a therapist should do:

  1.  Be objective in the room and be able to help support both spouses as they look at themselves and their marriage. 
  2. Be able to help one of the spouses to say, “I don’t want to be in this marriage” or “I’m unhappy in this marriage.” Those are incredibly scary statements to put out into the world.
  3. Help couples that are hoping to find out if they can make their marriage better, or if they really do need to separate. Either way, it’s comforting to know that there’s a third party present who can give both spouses the support they need to make and navigate such difficult decisions.
  4. Help explore with each party, clarify the goals, determine what each wants and determine whether these desires are best served together or apart. 

The process of marriage counseling or couples therapy (whatever you choose to call it), though never easy, is necessary to reach a mutually satisfactory result for the couple, and for the family. Our romantic relationships and current family dynamics are formed by our earlier relationships in our family of origin. What we observed, what we felt, what was modeled for us – all of that shapes much of our current interactions. Many of us repeat the relationship our parents had, even though we consciously may not want to. 

I classify myself as a “family and couples” therapist because, even when I work with an individual, I look at the whole family, trying to elicit and understand how these early relationships are internalized and repeated through the generations, much of it unconsciously. Much of the work of therapy, whether individual or as couples, is to bring the unconscious to consciousness, often revealing that the real conflict and dissatisfactions are largely internal, and carried from the respective pasts into the current marriage.

Challenges for the couple and therapist to navigate:

  1. Identifying differences, and determining which are resolvable and which are not, is a necessary first step to conflict resolution. Sometimes this would appear easy, as when one partner insists on an “open” marriage, and the other cannot tolerate the idea. 
  2. Harder is when couples are disagreeing on finances or distribution of household duties. Either way, tempers can flair, and the couples therapist can be invited to take sides or participate in the blowup. This invitation must always be declined, and the therapist must help the couple to calm down. As important as it is to express anger, and not suppress and carry it, it must be remembered that it must be done in a manner that the other can take in. This never happens when one or both parties are, as the neuropsychologists say, “flipping your lid.” When the lid is flipped, rational thought and reason are suspended, and pure impulse reigns. It becomes the couples therapist’s job to calm both down, and remind them that attacking or feeling attacked never leads to understanding, compromise, and resolution.
  3. Difficult as it is to separate and divorce in any instance, the presence of children implies a duty to look ahead, and to figure out how to co-parent in a conflict-free way that avoids making the couple’s conflicts a part of the co-parenting dynamics. My goal is to guide the couple to end the marriage in a thoughtful and reasonable manner that best allows the children to avoid the further generational transmission of the interpersonal conflicts that caused the parents to divorce. The couple may no longer love, or even like, each other, but can still work together in a parentally loving way. If none of this sounds easy, it’s not! I like the therapist joke (there are so many) that asks, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” with the obvious answer, “Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change!”

Even with best intentions, therapists can bring their own biases into the room. Sometimes a therapist’s agenda is to keep the marriage together, even when two people can’t be together. And so it goes, on and on, and one or both spouses feel stuck. As a member of a couple who’s ready to leave and feels that the therapy’s not working and not changing, you need to speak up and say, “something isn’t right here, this isn’t working for me, and I’ll tell you why.”  It takes courage to do that. It’s crucial that the therapist is able to hold both partners in a  neutral and caring way in this struggle to coexist amicably, whether together or apart.

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