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Helping clients rebuild after separation or divorce

Jennifer Meyer, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice in Fort Collins, Colorado, had a client who, after 30-plus years of marriage, discovered that her husband had been embezzling money from their joint business. This infidelity, along with his recent verbal abuse, prompted the woman to get a divorce. The client was hurt, shattered, ashamed, lost and confused about her future, Meyer says. For the previous 30 years, she had shared friends, children, family and a business all with the same partner. How would she be able to start all over again now?

Clients such as this one often find that they have to rebuild their lives because, in some ways, divorce is the “death” of a relationship. Meyer tries to help clients accept that divorce is a big loss — one often accompanied by feelings of betrayal and trauma. To overcome this loss, she works with clients on processing their emotions (which often include anger, shame and blame), communicating their needs, establishing healthy boundaries with their ex-partner and rebuilding their lives.

The stages of divorce

Meyer, a member of the American Counseling Association and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (an ACA division), specializes in divorce coaching and recovery. She has noticed that her clients often exhibit signs of grief, such as feeling unmotivated and having trouble sleeping. In fact, going through a divorce can be similar to going through grief, but it can be further complicated by layers of legal issues, financial strain, individual mental health challenges, the experience of parental alienation, the challenges of co-parenting, and the realities of dividing assets, Meyer says.

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Meyer gives clients a handout of the seven stages of divorce, created by Jamie Williamson, a family mediator certified by the Florida Supreme Court. Williamson draws on the well-known “stages” of grief, but her model ends with rebuilding — a stage when a person’s acceptance deepens, they let go of the past and they find a way forward.

Meyer, who presents on the emotional journey of divorce at an ongoing national women’s workshop in northern Colorado, adapted Williamson’s model to illustrate the complexities of grieving a divorce, which she likens to climbing Mount Everest — a climb they didn’t sign up for. In this metaphor, she pairs six stages of divorce with sample thoughts of what clients may be feeling:

  • Denial: “This climb is a complete waste of time. I should be home trying to save my marriage”
  • Anger: “This divorce is expensive. Why is this happening to me? I didn’t plan for this.”
  • Bargaining: “I would do anything to turn back and make things right with my spouse. What if I don’t make it? Will my kids be OK?”
  • Depression: “I’ve lost my spouse and some mutual friends. I can’t sleep. I feel so lonely.”
  • Acceptance: “I no longer idealize my past. This process taught me how strong I am.”
  • Rebuilding: “I’m excited to close this chapter and begin creating a happy future.”

In between these stages, she says, clients are growing and learning. They start to learn who their true friends are, and they learn more about themselves, their boundaries and their expectations.

Meyer’s metaphor also highlights that the stages of divorce are not sequential. For example, someone might move from being angry at the financial cost of divorcing to wondering if they should get back together with their ex out of a fear that their kids won’t be OK to being angry again that this experience is happening to them.

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Processing emotions

Meyer uses emotionally focused therapies to help clients turn inward to process their feelings about the separation or divorce. One of Meyer’s clients was frustrated because she felt her ex-spouse was never emotionally available. So, Meyer had the client close her eyes and picture the ex’s face. Then, she asked the client, “What would you say to your ex from an angry perspective? What would you say to your ex from a hurt perspective? And what do you imagine your ex would say back to you?”

This role-play exercise helps clients not only process their feelings and find a way to move forward from their hurt and anger, but also recognize their own part in the marital problems, Meyer explains. She cautions counselors not to focus on the self-responsibility part too early but says that as clients move through the stages of divorce, counselors can gently encourage them to look at what part might have been theirs.

Meyer has also noticed that women often want to take all of the responsibility for a relationship ending, so she tries to help them realize that both partners played a role. To do this, she might say, “There’s 100 percent blame out there. What percentage of that would you claim, and what percentage is your ex-partner’s?”

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Owning their responsibility can also be empowering for clients, Meyer adds. They often feel like everything was done to them, so realizing the role they played and how they would handle that differently in the future helps them move forward, she explains.

Meyer also has clients write goodbye letters to their exes (or any family members or friends they have lost in the divorce). In the letters, they name all the things they will miss (e.g., “I will miss your hugs,” “I will miss your excitement to go to concerts”) and the things they won’t miss (e.g., “Goodbye to your smelly socks on the floor all the time,” “Goodbye to the fact that you never prioritized me”). This exercise allows clients to express their hurt, anger and sadness and helps them let go of the relationship, she says.

Developing healthy communication and boundaries

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Some of Meyer’s clients also have a difficult time knowing how to act around the other partner after deciding to divorce. They may feel guilty for setting boundaries on someone who used to be their partner, but Meyer reminds them that the relationship has changed. “The communication that you wanted and needed while you were married or together is … very different, so you’re going to need to each have boundaries around your communication,” Meyer says.

Meyer helps clients figure out the source of their distress with their ex-partner and guides them in establishing better boundaries. For instance, if a client was upset because their ex-partner kept showing up to their child’s soccer games and hounding them about renegotiating a part of the divorce, Meyer would help the client communicate new boundaries by coming up with phrases such as “Let’s talk about this in mediation” or “If you call me names or raise your voice, I’m going to end this conversation.”

Gabrielle Usatynski, an LPC and the founder of Power Couples Counseling (a private practice with offices in Boulder and Louisville, Colorado), also focuses on the way the couple communicate and behave around each other. “One of the points [of divorce counseling] is to help them develop the capacities they need in order to engage in fruitful conversations that do not get scary and dangerous,” Usatynski explains. To do this, she teaches couples about the value of treating each other with fairness, justice and sensitivity, even in the midst of divorce. She also helps couples learn to negotiate and bargain with each other so they can create win-win solutions for divorce and co-parenting.

A psychobiological approach to couple therapy (PACT), developed by Stan Tatkin, acknowledges that there is a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do, Usatynski says. People’s narratives are subject to inaccuracies that can throw the therapist off track in terms of understanding what is really happening with the couple, she explains.

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A couple’s attitudes and problems, as well as their ability to engage with one another, are largely driven by the state of their autonomic nervous systems, Usatynski continues. “Therapists should facilitate these nervous system states in session and intervene while the couple is in those particular states,” she says. “The goal is to collect and bring to bear as much raw, unedited information [as possible] from the body, brainstem and limbic brain.”

For this reason, Usatynski uses a technique called staging, which targets the body and deep brain structures. Couples act out problematic moments in their relationship in front of the therapist. Because people have different perspectives, finding out exactly what happened is not Usatynski’s goal. Instead, she wants to find situations that created distress for the couple and see for herself the mistakes the couple made in their interaction.

So, if a couple going through a divorce had a heated exchanged when the father dropped the children off at the mother’s house, Usatynski would ask for them to act out that exchange in her office. When the father says, “Your music is way too loud. The kids don’t need to hear the music that loud,” the mother responds, “Stop yelling at me in front of the kids, and don’t tell me what to do.”

Usatynski notices this is a point of distress for the couple, so when they finish acting out the scenario, she discusses this misstep with them. For example, to help the father understand that he came across as demanding and made his wife look bad in front of the kids, Usatynski might ask him, “Did you say, ‘Please turn down the radio?’”

After discussing each of the missteps, Usatynski has the clients re-enact the scenario. This time, however, they have to come up with ways of relating to one another that are nonthreatening, fair and sensitive. “When we allow our clients to stumble along, the solutions they find on their own are going to be way more powerful, creative and effective than anything we could offer them,” Usatynski says. “The process of discovering their own solutions also gives them a greater sense of empowerment and competency that they really can do this on their own.” That is ultimately the goal of counseling, she adds. Only when a couple is really struggling to come up with viable solutions on their own will Usatynski provide suggestions.

Acting out the scenario in the brain state they were in at the time of conflict and then learning a better way to handle the situation helps clients react differently the next time they find themselves in a heated exchange, Usatynski notes.

Starting over

After clients have gone through the emotional journey of divorce, they need to start rebuilding their lives and hoping for a better future. To help clients start this process, Meyer returns to the letter writing exercise, but this time she has them write a “hello” letter to their new life and the aspects they will enjoy most. For example, clients could write, “Hello to traveling by myself without someone who gets impatient,” “Hello to being able to decorate my bedroom the way I want to,” “Hello to time with friends again” or “Hello to the stronger, more confident me.”

One of Meyer’s clients brought in items that represented her divorce, including the goodbye letter she had written in a previous session. She then went outside with Meyer and burned it all. This act symbolized her letting go of that relationship and taking a step forward.

Meyer has also had clients go outside and use nature as a metaphor for their progress and healing. For example, one client said that an old tree that had been chopped down represented her at the beginning of her divorce, but by the end of it, she identified with a stronger, healthier tree.

Divorce is a devastating event that no one wants to experience. In fact, according to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale developed in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, divorce is the second most stressful life event for adults (behind only the death of a spouse). But clients can rebuild their lives and have a hopeful future.

“When you work on [what happened in the relationship] and you figure out what your part was and what was going on with the partner that you didn’t think was healthy, you can really find the good part of you and salvage the rest of this to the point where you’re in better spot than you ever were,” Meyer asserts.

Meyer watched her client who divorced after 30-plus years of marriage undergo an incredible transformation throughout their sessions. The client realized how often she had done what was asked of her (by her ex-spouse, her kids and her employers) without considering her own needs. She began to slow down, set boundaries and say “no.” She realized what she deserved in a relationship, and she learned how to select and be a better partner in the future.

By processing her emotions about the divorce and betrayal and letting go of the blame, shame and anger that had become such a heavy burden for her, the client began to feel younger in her body and make healthier life choices. And with Meyer’s guidance, she realized she didn’t have to be afraid to start over.

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For more on this topic, look for an in-depth feature article on helping clients cope with divorce or infidelity in the upcoming April issue of Counseling Today.

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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