Friday, September 21, 2018

Speaking With Your Child About Divorce: 3 Things To Remember

I spend a lot of my time working with couples.  Full disclosure, I prefer to help them stay together.  Long-term relationships are not easy and they require continual care and attention.  There are times however when a couple decides to divorce.  When this decision is reached, some of the clinical work must turn toward telling the children.  This conversation often brings up parent’s anticipatory fear and worry.

The major areas that make up this conversation are “the when, the where and the what.”  Parents preparing themselves for this conversation usually believe that they need to have their divorce plan fully organized.  They think their answers need to be well thought out and what they say need to both comfort and sooth their children.  Parents want their children to know, “it wasn’t your fault.”  Phew.  This is a lot of pressure!  The first thing I offer parents is permission to slow down and calm their own nervous systems.  If they are calm, “emotionally anchored,” this will be the bigger gift they bring to this conversation than anything they might actually say. 

Back to the when issue.  It is a good idea to help couples think through some aspects of how they visualize their post-divorce family life.  Will they continue to co-habitate in the family home?  Will one parent move into a new home?  Will they “nest” (the children remain in the family home while each parent take turns leaving during their non-custodial time)?  I help parents discuss in general terms who will take care of their children on given days even if a full “parenting plan” has not yet been crafted.  Some additional thoughts on the when part of this discussion: it is best to speak at the beginning of a weekend so there is time for children to absorb the information.  It is also important to avoid having this conversation on important holidays or birthdays.

And now the “where.”  It is generally a good idea to speak with children in a familiar yet neutral place.  Familiar can be the local park or the beach where the family often spends time.  It can be in the family home though not in anyone’s bedroom.  Bedrooms are not considered neutral spaces; they are safe, nurturing spaces that need to be emotionally protected.  Lastly, the “what.”  Children regardless of age want to know 2 basic things:  am I going to be safe, emotionally and physically, and will this change lead to more family harmony.  Parents will want to have this 1st conversation together and will want to keep it short.  This is not a “1 and done” but rather the beginning of many conversations to come as their children will inevitably have more questions and concerns.  Parents may say something like, “mom and I have been working on our marriage and things just haven’t worked out.  We’ve decided to end our relationship as husband and wife but we will continue forever to be mom and dad.  We are still a family and always will be.  You guys are safe and we hope our decision will bring much more calm and peace to all of us.”  Parents can tear up; modeling emotions is fine as long as it is not excessive.  Questions may be asked and the key is to thank children for asking, and then answer honestly and age appropriately.  Don’t disparage the other parent.  And if whatever they are asking has not yet been figured out let your children know that they will be told as soon as it is figured out. 

Telling children about divorce is not an easy conversation yet it can be managed with guidance and planning.  Feeling anxiety about this discussion, how a child will experience it, and how it will affect their life is normal.  Projecting calm however and emotional stability is paramount.  Like many things, our children take their cues from us.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Couples Take Note

Couples with children take note.  It is easy to lose your marital relationship in pursuit of your child’s needs.  It is common for me to receive an initial phone call from a parent asking for assistance with their child.  The common presenting concerns are mood-related issues such as depression and anxiety, or behavioral concerns such as oppositionality and rule following, or others such as ADHD or some form of a thought disorder.  Parents making this initial call have been battling these issues (and their children) sometimes for years.  They have been their child’s advocate in the schools and in their community.  They have even relocated to other states so their children could attend certain schools in hopes of meeting their child’s challenges.  Usually one of the parents somewhere along the line becomes the default “primary parent ” toward this end.  The other parent, especially if they are the primary wage earner usually takes the peripheral-support position.  The common presenting therapeutic dynamic is to have one parent “married” to their child and their child’s needs, and the other parent “married” to their work, or some other distraction.

Inadvertently, this child has become overly empowered.  They are usually “kid-gloved” by their other family member.  If there are siblings, the siblings as well as the peripheral-support parent are usually consciously or unconsciously resentful; the child of concern has taken “all of the oxygen” in the family system.  The rebalance then becomes supporting the needs of this child while also leaving time and energy for the other family members.  This is especially true for the couple’s relationship.  Time and again I can assess a couple that is functioning as a mother-father (or partner-partner) dyad yet has lost hold of their marital dyad.  Sometimes the child with needs is sleeping in their parent’s bed.  I might hear, “they are calmer when they get a good night’s sleep.”  Sometimes the primary parent and child are co-sleeping while the other parent sleeps in a separate room.  I ask these couple when they were last out together, just the 2 of them.  Crickets.  I will ask them when they last kissed or had sex.  Awkward looks around the room. 


There is great therapeutic power in taking back one’s couple relationship.  It serves to refuel parents who need to continue to advocate for their children.  Feeling attractive and noticed by your spouse generates positive momentum.  Taking back the marital relationship also sends an important message to the child of concern (and any child) that the family does not entirely revolve around them.  In family therapy terms, this describes “emotionally growing a child up.”  The idea is that the child with needs has been “emotionally grown down” by their needs and yet is too grown up by all of the attention and power they have garnered.  Appropriately growing this child up means letting them recognize that family and marital life goes on and they need to do their part to manage their needs.  This often translates into positive behavioral changes on their part and within the family environment.  So parents take note.  Don’t’ give up on your child who has needs.  Just don’t give up on your marriage either.  Prioritize your marital relationship.  Even at times above what your child seems to need.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Mediation and Couples Therapy

Colleagues and clients have sometimes asked me if I do mediation.  Or if I consider myself a mediator.  Early in my post-graduate training in Family Systems and Couples Therapy, I observed the now deceased mediation pioneer, John Haynes, conduct a live interview.  I, along with other trainees, watched his mediation meeting behind what is called “a one-way mirror.”  This was my first time observing mediation live and I remember thinking how similar his work seemed to the work I was learning to do.

I distinctly remember watching Haynes intentionally place himself in the mediation conversation as a neutral professional.  As a couples therapist then and now, and whether I am helping couples reconcile or divorce, I am doing the same thing.  Any skilled mediator or couples therapist needs to be experienced by the party (aka the couple) as if he is on everyone’s side and no ones side at the same time.  At one point, I watched John challenge one party during his interview and then later make sure to challenge the other.  By the end of his meeting, both partners seemed to leave feeling equally supported and challenged by him.  This is good mediation and this is also good couples therapy.

I also remember John meeting with the parties together and apart.  Though less common, productive couples therapy is also sometimes conducted in this way.  There are times when a person’s behavior needs to be confronted or explored.  Doing so in front of their spouse however can feel shaming to the individual and can create a defensive response.  Alone, this person can be more open to receiving the feedback, specially, if it is delivered by a mediator or a couples therapist in a skillful and disarming way.  Moving back and forth between the parties-together and individually-is part of the scaffolding of successful mediation and couples therapy.

I watched John early in his interview establish goals for his mediation.  He also set an agenda for the meeting I was observing.  Expert couples work needs to do the same.  Within the 1st few meetings, I too will have developed goals with the couple that are as specific and tangible as possible.  “Communicating better” is fine yet it is not specific enough.  Assisting a couple to describe what this would look like is better.  Two such examples might be, “I would say something and feel like he is listening and understands me,” or “she would speak with me, not at me.”  Alternatively, “we would love each other more” is not specific enough.  “I would wake up and want to hug my spouse,” or “I would want to have sex with him” is better. 

Likewise, any couples therapy that does not have a session-by-session agenda (that also leaves room for spontaneity) is sloppy couples therapy.  It was immediately apparent to me that John Haynes would not allow his mediation sessions to organically unfold.  This would leave too much room for the meetings to potentially spin out of control, and for parties to go off on tangents or impulsively say hurtful or counterproductive things.  At the beginning of each session, I am careful to ask my client-couples, “what do you want to work on today?”  And in the spirit of neutrality I make sure to ask both partners the same question.  We spend a bit of time prioritizing our items for discussion and I make sure we all understand what specifically we are working towards.


Mediation and Couples Therapy are similar processes.  The skill set of each largely overlap.  They are both short-term in nature and goal directed.  They are spontaneous and yet carefully choreographed.  Couples therapy is often about mediating discussions between couples where they can come to shared new understandings and agreements.  They are similar and perhaps different at the same time.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Couples Therapy: "How Did I Get Here?"

“How did I get here?” is a phrase I often hear at the beginning of my couples work.  It is usually said out loud by one of the partners in front of me.  If it is not explicitly stated, it is conveyed.  This phrase references a marriage that is buried under the pressures of job, children, mortgages, multiple cars, expensive meals and extravagant holidays.  It is short hand for people who feel trapped in a life that they have actively and mutually participated in building, and now feel blindsided by how it turned out.  By the time they see me, they are stuck between the difficult options of either dialing back their lifestyle choices.  Or going forward and continuing to feel overwhelmed.  Usually the couple has been functioning for some time as “Co-CEO parents” of their family corporation instead of nurturing (in part) the intimacy of their husband-wife relationship.  One or both of them is carrying resentments toward the other.  They are emotionally isolated, disinterested in sex with the other, and there is palpable “grief” for the couple relationship they used to share.  Each in their own way just want the partner they used to have back!

In Narrative Therapy, which is a well-known form of psychotherapy, there is a concept referred to as “negative (and positive) identity conclusions.”   These are the beliefs we carry about ourselves and about our partners.  Examples of negative identity conclusions as they relate to relationships might be, “she is a narcissist who only thinks about herself,” or “he is lazy and doesn’t do anything during the day.”  Others identity conclusions that I sometimes hear are, “she is a complainer,” or “he is a party boy who never grew up.”  Negative identity conclusions are corrosive.  They create emotional isolation in a marriage and pull people apart.  They are the doom and gloom of marriage.  In Discernment Counseling there is a concept called “hard and soft reasons for considering divorce.”  They are decent predictors for whether a couple stands a chance of regrouping and setting their marriage on a healing path.  Examples of hard reasons for considering divorce are substance abuse and infidelity.  Examples of soft reasons are, “ we don’t communicate anymore,” or “we have fallen out of love.” 


In couples therapy one of the early tasks at hand is assessing how hard or soft the negative identity conclusions have become.  If a person has “married” their conclusions about the other then in Discernment language I consider them hard.  The more entrenched (i.e. hard) the conclusions are, the poorer the prognosis for salvaging the marital relationship.  If instead I can assist a partner to “flirt” with their conclusions then we are in a soft realm.  And the marital prognosis is better. When negative identity conclusions are verbalized impulsively in front of the other they are damaging and I can almost literally see a partner’s heart closing toward the other.  When said to me privately as part of the therapy, while important, they can perpetuate a negative feedback loop that points the speaker in the direction of divorce.  “How did I get here” is a cumulative effect that occurs over time.  Its building blocks are stored up resentments.  These resentments calcify into negative conclusions.  The challenge lies in counterbalancing these negative conclusions about the other with more positive ones.  These are called in Narrative terms, positive identity conclusions.  These types of conclusions hold the other person in a more favorable, more loving light.  In the light that used to exist before one or both presumably “got here.”

Friday, July 20, 2018

Leaning In and Out of Couples Therapy

Usually in Discernment counseling a couple presents where one of them is “leaning in” and the other is “leaning out.”  The former wants the marriage to work and is invested in anything that will help.  The latter is ambivalent and somewhere along a continuum of being done with the marriage to considering reconciliation if some major changes were to take place.  The beginning point of couples therapy is not dissimilar.  It is rare for a couple to arrive for a 1st session in agreement about saving (or dissolving) their marriage.  The ideal trajectory of couples therapy is that 2 people come to therapy equally motivated to “communicate better” and get their relationship back on track.  Before I learned about discernment counseling I used to start my couples therapy work from this assumption.  The couple wanted to work on their marriage because they said so.  And I would eagerly get to work with them with this shared goal in mind.   

As I learned to deconstruct my work however I realized that if one person said they wanted assistance I assumed both did.   I allowed the quieter person to hang back in the shadows of our therapy. I didn’t clearly explore their motivation for seeking my services.  As I have previously mentioned in other posts, discernment counseling research has shown that approximately 30% of couples approach divorce with some amount of ambivalence.  I am not aware of the percentage of couples that approach couples therapy in some similar state of ambivalence.  I suspect that a similar percentage of couples approach couples therapy with ambivalence.  Currently as a practicing discernment counselor and a couples therapist, I now assume in both that I am sitting in front of a leaning in/leaning out couple.  I conduct the early part of my couples therapy work from this starting point.  I believe to do so in any other way would be a mistake that is commonly committed by well-meaning couples therapists--I used to be one of them!


The early stage of couples therapy (and Discernment Counseling) looks like this:  the leaning in person needs to be calmed and encouraged to give their partner space so their partner doesn’t feel emotionally suffocated.  The leaning in person is usually ready to accept their faults and reluctant to challenge their partner to accept any of theirs.  They have been “walking on thin ice” and continue to do so in my office.  This person is easy to spot.  This leaning in person needs to signal an understanding of their part in the problem, a desire for their partner to perhaps do the same, and a direct and clear signal about their own desire to change regardless.  On the other hand, the leaning out person needs to be acknowledged as ambivalent.  Exploration also needs to occur with this person about whether they are here to work on their marriage or to “check a box.”  Or in some cases whether they plan to leave their spouse with me to take care of them after they leave. The leaning out person who is usually standing on “more solid ice” also has to be encouraged to take a systemic understanding of the problem.  This is a technical way of saying they need to look at their part in how they both consciously and unconsciously collaborated to get to where they are now.  If the leaning out person can accept their part, even somewhat, and can be moved away from finger pointing then the couple is better poised for a productive couples therapy experience.  If the leaning in person remains urgent to fix things and the leaning out person remains unsure, then the couple will probably drift in half hearted couples therapy until they drop out.