Friday, October 19, 2018

4 Important Aspects Of A Divorce Coach's 1st Session

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

4 Important Aspects of A Couples Therapist's 1st Session

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.