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.