Monday, October 28, 2019
Often the starting point for my clinical work with struggling couples is their desire to remain together. Other times, it is with couples where one or both of them are not sure if they want to stay together. Or, the clinical work begins with couples that have made the decision to move their relationships toward divorce. In any of these scenarios, I am interested to assess what marriage cycle the presenting couple is in. And how their “previous marriages” evolved. Even if they were to each other.
Based on my years of practice, in most long-term relationships spouses generally marry each other 3 times. The 1st marriage usually occurs pre-children (“pre-children”). The 2nd one during the years of co-parenting and work (“children and work”), and their last marriage once their children are leaving/have left the home and retirement looms (“post-children”). Many of us mark our 1st marriage with a formal celebration of some kind. It is the other 2 that quietly occur without any conscious awareness of any remarriage taking place. It is in the adjusting to this next marriage that problems sometimes occur. In my post-graduate training I was taught to identify challenges within “developmental milestones.” This meant pinpointing events that forced a family to change the way they related to one another. Many of these events are normative, like the birth of a child, or the adding of another one. Other times they are unexpected and traumatic like a death or a fire. For couples, I consider the transition from “1 marriage to the next” to be a developmental milestone. A couple has to re-adjust to a changing relationship between them. It is this unaware experience that can breed resentments.
The pre-children marriage typically occurs in relative youth. A couple is more emotionally and sexually agile because they carry less responsibilities. Even if they don’t realize it there is more time! There are fewer distractions and they are able to focus more fully on one other. In contrast, the children and work marriage is a different and distinct marriage. A couple must now manage the multiple stressors of juggling a marital relationship alongside a co-parenting relationship. A couple cannot focus on each other the way they used to. Men can feel ignored and women can feel stressed by being everything to everyone. The post-children marriage is in part a return to the original marriage. A couple must now figure out how to re-focus on each other without the distractions of their busy family and work lives. They must now figure out if they still like each other and if they still want to be together in retirement and for the duration of their lives.
It is not uncommon for me to hear couples discussing anger and hurt from their current post-children marriage that occurred years ago in their pre-children marriage. A husband, for example, realizing that he had been “grieving” a time when he felt noticed by his spouse. Or that same time when a wife felt like her husband wanted only her. Marital transformation regardless of the starting point in my work occurs when a couple becomes more conscious about their various marital life cycles. And its impact on who they were, and who they are, both individually and as a couple.
Thursday, November 29, 2018
Children will choose. Sometimes I sit with couples attempting to strengthen their marriages. Other times I sit with high conflict couples who are attempting to salvage them. And still other times I sit with couples who have decided to divorce and are seeking a path forward for their family, which involves a co-parenting plan. In any of these scenarios, our children are usually aware on some level that things in their home are not entirely harmonious. Children crave harmony and safety, emotional and physical. Somewhere along an invisible emotional continuum, it happens that a child will make a choice between aligning himself or herself with one parent or the other.
Cloe Madanes, a pioneering Strategic Family Therapist, has spoken about human relationships in the context of threes. 2 parents and a child, a couple and an affair, 3 siblings. She encouraged family and couples therapists to assess the “triads” within a family from a perspective of who is in and who is out. The in pair (i.e. a parent and a child) would be described as “in an alliance” and the out person, the other parent, on the periphery. It is fairly common for sons to align themselves with their fathers, and vice versa, or daughters with their mothers. Gender can be a powerful parent-child magnet. If not careful, struggling partners will consciously or unconsciously recruit their children to aid and abet in their fight against each other. Other times children will consciously or unconsciously choose a side.
Yet, how do children end up choosing? Perhaps an evolutionary instinct to survive is baked into all of us and as such a child will pick the parent who will best assure him/her of this. It would be most interesting to ask a professor of geography like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) or else a historian of world history like Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) to weigh in on this idea. Intellectuals like Diamond and Harari describe how humans developed through time and how some lived on and thrived while others did not. When children are faced with parents and a home environment that does not feel emotionally safe, they will perhaps on some primitive level-honed by our species for over 2 million years- choose the parent they think will best “save them.”
Alternatively, we as a society are living in what some have described as an age of political tribalism. Regardless of one’s political views, our culture in this regard has pushed us to choose sides. And to choose from an “us or them” mentality. In family systems terms, the president, congress, along with the judiciary, a triad, metaphorically can be seen as our country’s parental/executive subsystem. They are often in disagreement over policy and as such set the tone for how they will interact with each other. Like children in a family the rest of us look to our government family system to model appropriate behavior, especially during their moments of conflict. We are living in an age where we are choosing sides politically while castigating the other, and I wonder if our children are being socialized to do the same. To choose a side, a parent, and by association to hold contempt for the other.
I am in the business of assisting couples. Some who are making a go at staying together and others who are making a go at divorcing while remaining a family. Along this continuum, if couples are not intentional about how they manage their often-strong negative feelings for the other, their children will become emotionally frightened and pick a side. They will do this either out of a primitive instinct or out of what they are learning from our broader culture. Either way, if not careful children will choose.
Monday, November 5, 2018
High conflict couples. Some seek my services attempting to salvage their marriage. Others have decided to divorce and request my services as a “co-parenting communication expert.” In this latter scenario, I am called upon to help high conflict couples co-parent their children. Usually these couple’s assumption about co-parenting is something akin to working together as parents. This is a tall order if the couple hardly agrees on much, gets into arguments over big and small issues, and carries too much anger and not enough indifference toward the other. While co-parenting in principle is the ideal, sometimes it is beyond a high conflict couple’s reach. In these cases, parallel parenting, while in my view less preferred, is probably a better, more tenable option.
Co-parenting is a framework that suggests 2 cooperative parents working together to make decisions on behalf of their children. If the children live in a 2-home configuration (i.e. part of the week with one parent and the other part of the week with the other), co-parenting would reflect a similar “culture” in both homes. This might include similar rules and expectations related to bedtimes, curfews, screen time limits, and general behavior. In essence, there would be a seamless 2-home experience for the children, with 2 parents who have dissolved their marital relationship yet still value their ability to work together as parents. These parents would be able to communicate with each other through direct dialogue, telephone, email or text messaging. They would be able to agree and more importantly be able to disagree without tensions rising or conflicts between them intensifying. Within a 2-home co-parenting arrangement, children generally do well related to depression, anxiety and other psychological issues.
If there is too much emotional conflict between parents however, co-parenting is not realistic. Alternatively, parallel parenting (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201309/parallel-parenting-after-divorce)
is probably the better option. Given the similar circumstances of a 2-home environment, parallel parenting suggests more of an “invisible wall” between the 2 homes. Each parent sets his or her own culture, rules and expectations, with limited to no contact between each other. The children live their lives with mom on pre-arranged days and holidays and with dad on certain others. The advantage of this arrangement is that high conflict parents don’t have the opportunity to communicate and thus get into conflicts with each other. This inevitably allows both parents to “cool off” and potentially down the road move toward a co-parenting relationship. The disadvantage of parallel parenting is that children are often stressed (i.e. anxious or depressed) as they must accept that their parents carry negative feelings towards one other and are not able or willing to resolve them.
Commonly, I am asked to assist divorcing couples with co-parenting needs. The beginning assumption made by many couples is that they can feud and yet parent together at the same time. Usually I can help high conflict couples recognize that this dynamic will not work if they want to constructively parent together. Some couples are able to rise above their strong feelings for the other. Others however are too entrenched in thoughts and feelings and in these cases need to fall back to parallel parenting. My experience is that parallel parenting over a short period of time does not create deep psychological damage for children. Over longer periods of time however, it can. Sounds like an interesting dissertation project for anyone reading this who might be looking into a PhD/PsyD topic.
Friday, October 19, 2018
Sometimes couples come to see me to save their marriage. Other times they come seeking assistance in navigating the complicated process of divorce. They have come to this difficult decision, sometimes mutually, sometimes initiated by one or the other. At this juncture, I am called upon to act not as the couple’s therapist, but as their “divorce coach.” When a couple seeking divorce contacts me, they often want to know what to expect during their first session, often called an “intake session.”
There are several important topics I cover during this first session though all are done within the context of assessing the emotional intensity between the couple. In simple terms this assessment is done on a scale of low to high emotional intensity. As a divorce coach, assessing the various “trigger topics” (i.e. where the blame is hiding) and managing the emotional intensity is my primary job. This ultimately clears a path for the mediating or collaborative attorneys to move their clients through their divorce process as expeditiously and as emotionally pain-free as possible.
Beyond assessing intensity and the associated triggers, an additional topic of exploration is what we call the couple’s “interests and concerns.” This is shorthand for what each client hopes will occur through their divorce process and what each is worried might happen instead. Common interests cited by my clients may be, “a divorce that puts the needs of our children first,” or “a divorce where we can come out and still be on speaking terms.” Concerns mentioned might be, “everyone will like my husband better than me and as a result he will get more of what he wants,” or “since I initiated the divorce my husband will attempt to punish me financially or with the time share of our children.” Interests and concerns help to highlight potential triggers and they also begin to provide, particularly the interests, a road map for how the couple wants to travel their divorce path.
Another important area, borrowed from the Discernment Counseling work of Dr. William Doherty, is a discussion about the couple’s “divorce narrative.” Whether the couple agrees or not on the details, it is vital that each has the opportunity to describe in their own words how a divorce decision was reached. As a colleague once said to me, we are a story-making people and without a coherent story, we cannot heal. Beyond the divorce narrative, I also want to know about any substance abuse, abuse in general, and any trauma histories. Additionally, I want to know about the couple’s divorce plan so far. Have they hired attorneys yet, consulting attorneys, and/or a neutral accountant? Is either in their own individual therapies? And if I have an opportunity at this point I will help couples steer toward non-litigating professionals. The last part of an intake session relates to assessing “divorce ambivalence.” To use Dr. Dougherty’s Discernment Counseling language again, are both partners leaning out, or are either or both still leaning in? This is an intake assessment about the couple’s readiness for divorce. Or either’s desire to return to working on their marriage before taking additional steps towards divorce.
An intake session for couples seeking marital therapy is similar and in many ways different to an intake session for couples seeking divorce. In the latter scenario, assessing and containing fear and worry about divorce, about how their family will change, and whether their children will be OK is the first order of business. Beyond that, several topics including an assessment of emotional intensity, trigger issues, and others need to be identified. A structured yet free flowing first session will help guide the couple, with my assistance, through a smooth divorce process.
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
I am often asked what to expect by couples coming to see me for their 1st couples therapy session. There are several areas I set out to cover during this meeting also referred to as an “intake session.” A productive intake balances a couple’s need to speak about what brought them in to see me with a structured and emotionally safe conversation. By the end of this meeting, a couple should experience some interplay of spontaneity and an organization of the information discussed.
One important aspect to the intake session is a conversation about what led the couple to contact me. How have they reached this particular point where they decided to address some important, often critical aspects of themselves and their relationship? From the clinician’s point of view, how this narrative is articulated is as important, perhaps even more so, that what is actually said. For example, is the presenting problem(s) described in victim-villain terminology? Is there blaming and shaming or instead some shared understanding of the problem(s)? And, does each partner conceptualize “how they got here” in a similar, somewhat different, or entirely different way? Another part of the intake is the couple’s description of what solution-focused couples therapists call their “attempted solutions.” This includes any past or present individual and/or couples therapies. This information serves to inform the clinician about what has been helpful, to potentially build upon, as well as what was not, in order to avoid. It also provides a beginning assessment of the couple’s general attitude toward therapy, each other, and their sense hopefulness at this point in time.
Another area of the intake conversation is what Dr. William Doherty, terms “the best of times” assessment. This question asks each partner to describe a memory of connection or joy during his or her relationship. Dr. Doherty uses this assessment tool as part of his “discernment” counseling protocol. I believe this also fits with the couple therapy intake process. The response to this question provides 2 things: it can signal a positive feeling in the room which counter balances the weight of the moment. The couple is offered the opportunity to “look back” to a nostalgic place and by association perhaps look forward to possibilities. It also provides a quick assessment of any ambivalence related to the request for services at this time. If either or both partners are reluctant to answer or remember “a best of times” then there is usually some ambivalence towards couple therapy. This might lead me to pivot towards assessing for discernment counseling instead of couples therapy as the starting point. Both partners need to have made a clear decision to pursue their couple’s work in order to ensure some success in their couple’s therapy.
Other aspects of the intake session include the noting of any substance abuse, addictions, and/or trauma histories. Additionally, as a trained systemically oriented couples therapist I inquire about the 5-common stressors that influence couple satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Usually the more of these stressors present the greater the emotional turmoil between the couple. And this starting point needs to be determined at intake.
The emphasis of an intake session is to get a struggling couple off to a productive and meaningful therapeutic start. A first couple’s first therapy session is a balance between allowing a couple to speak freely about what brought them in. And about experiencing a trained therapist who can make sure there is some semblance of order to a difficult beginning conversation.