Sunday, June 17, 2018

Infidelity and Discernment Counseling

A bit more about my last post on the issue of infidelity and what makes it a “hard reason” for considering divorce” as opposed to a soft one.  To catch those readers up on terminology, I am writing about Discernment Counseling and hard versus soft reasons for considering divorce.  Hard reasons are considered the more challenging issues often leading to a divorce decision, as opposed to soft ones, which are presumed to be more “workable.”  Again the research has shown that approximately 30% of couples approach divorce with ambivalence.  As such these are the couples that could benefit from Discernment Counseling, a structured process for couples to explore their options before making a final decision about staying together and working on their marriage or pursuing divorce. 

In graduate school as part of my couple’s therapy training, the standard of care was that a therapist would not put himself in a position of “being a holder of secrets.”  That meant he would tell the couple at the outset of therapy that anything either of them told him “in confidence” would be shared with the other partner.  The rationale for this approach was to make sure the therapist did not become “triangulated” into the couple’s relationship by ending up in an alliance with one by having information that both did not have.  On its face this made sense.  As I progressed as a couple’s therapist I realized that in the case of infidelity (as well as in other scenarios), this framework left the cheating partner carrying important information without any therapeutic space to examine and explore the meaning behind it.  As a result I sometimes found myself doing couples therapy while one of the partners maintained a relationship on the side and never mentioned it or knew how to bring it into the therapy room for fear of risking turmoil.  It was after several of these cases that I decided that my therapeutic framework needed to change; I decided to break with tradition.

As I wrote in my last post, enter Discernment Counseling.  As part of this work, couples are seen together at the beginning of each session to “check in” and log any thoughts or feeling that have come up since the prior meeting.  Then each partner is seen individually while the other sits in the waiting room.  During this phase, the conversations with each individual are confidential between him/her and me, the therapist.  It is during this time that issues such as infidelity are given the necessary space to be acknowledged and discussed.  The cheating partner is given the opportunity to examine their decision(s), what they may be receiving in this other relationship, and what it might mean for them to pause or end the affair while they consider turning their attention towards working on their marriage.  The affair might be about sex and/or about emotional connection.  The cheating partner may even love this other person.  The idea of giving any or all of this up in order to try and salvage a marriage that may already be over also needs exploration and all of this is part and parcel of marital ambivalence.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Discernment: Reasons Couples Consider Divorce

I see a lot of couples in my practice.  Sometimes though rarely do both partners show up at the 1st appointment ready and interested in working on their relationship.  More often, 1 or both are ambivalent, are tired out, and are weighing the high stakes of dismantling the life they have built together.  They are not sure if they want to do the therapy work necessary to get back on track, whatever that might mean.  Enter Discernment Counseling.  More information about this process is offered on my website so I will only briefly describe it here.  Discernment Counseling is a structured process for couples to look at their options before making a final decision about staying together and working on their marriage or pursuing divorce.  It is most appropriate for couples where one partner wants to preserve and repair the relationship, and the other is leaning towards ending it. Dr. William Doherty, who developed this approach out of the University of Minnesota, highlights the research showing that this “mixed agenda” scenario exists among approximately 30% of couples approaching divorce. 

Generally speaking, clients usually present with descriptions of their marriage that can predict whether they will move towards working on their relationship or ending it.  In Discernment language we refer to these descriptions as “hard versus soft reasons for considering divorce.”  Soft reasons include: feeling emotionally-sexually disconnected, loving the other person yet not in love anymore, and/or not communicating.  Hard reasons include: substance abuse, affairs-infidelity, and/or sexual-emotional abuse.  The former group frequently leads to a mutual desire to work on the relationship.  The later group generally doesn’t.  That is not to say that a hard reason like infidelity can’t lead to a desire to work on the relationship.  It can as long as, for example, the “cheating” partner is willing to cease the behavior and/or give up the adulterous relationship at least during the course of the couple’s therapy.

Yet what about the soft reasons?  These are usually workable.  Find me a long-term relationship where there isn’t some form of emotional or sexual breakdown (this is different to abuse), or where partners are communicating poorly.  Or where a couple who has been raising children over time somewhere started to interact like “Co-CEO parents” of their family corporation instead of husband and wife. 

The CEO rut can bleed a couple’s relationship of its erotic, of its romantic life-blood.  When couples come to see me, I attempt to normalize their descriptions of growing apart, assuming the hard reasons are also not present.  These couples need a solid dose of hopefulness.  They are tired out and also brave enough to contact me in the spirit of possibly doing something different.  They are open enough to challenge their familiar even if their familiar has travelled a well-worn path.  There are other factors as well that can influence the likely success of tackling soft (and sometimes hard) reasons for divorce like how long these corrosive patterns have been going on.  A couple who presents in my office with soft reasons over say, a year or 2 will look, sound and feel very different to me than a couple where these patterns have been going on for years and years.  I have found that Discernment Counseling can help.  It is a useful starting point that acknowledges the ambivalence “in the room”