Couple Counselling and Ending a Relationship when there are children

‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity/Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.’ [W.B.Yeats]

Sometimes relationships come to an end.
And sometimes couple counselling is not about resolving issues, repairing the relationship, or reconnecting the couple.
Sometimes a couple starts therapy in order to manage their separation. Endings of any kind can unsettle, disturb and be profoundly upsetting. Couples seek counselling aware that they need to steady themselves and find a new equilibrium. They hope to uncover a different way of relating that will be as respectful and as amicable as possible. Recently Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were open about their commitment to the ‘conscious uncoupling’ of their relationship.

The old order has gone. Lives are different in so many ways and the repercussions ripple out. Moving out of ‘home’; dealing with the wider family and in-laws; managing old and shared friendships; stress; lack of sleep; health issues – all have an impact.
Lawyers will deal with the legalities. Mediators can help with finances. But the hurt and emotional disturbance needs to be addressed too.
In the face of the upheaval and feelings of vulnerability, there can be a preference for individual therapy. But, particularly when there are children involved, couple counselling can also be an important resource.

There is always a risk that children can get caught in the crossfire of unpleasant hostilities if a couple become adversaries. Frequently children overhear arguments when anger, frustration and resentment erupt and spill over. There are untold benefits in taking the time to communicate more calmly and effectively in front of them. Counselling can offer strategies for avoiding the open negative conflicts that have the potential to frighten a child.

Pulls of divided loyalties, feelings that they have to choose sides, can distress a child already confused and upset at the splintering of the family; and they certainly should not feel any responsibility to repair or be an intermediary.
Committing to keep in mind the best interests of the children, and to control any urges to score points, inflict hurt, or gain revenge, can be important agreed aims in the counselling when the future organisation of the family is being decided.

‘The point is not to end a marriage in some ideal or virtuous way… When breaking up… you need to do it in the best way you can. It is not in your interests to be still caught up in bitterness and anger ten years after breaking up, nor in passiveness and hopelessness… The more you can digest the emotional impact of a break-up, the freer you will be to move on… and it will leave you more emotionally open to help your children.’ [‘Breaking Up Blues – A Guide to Survival and Growth’ Denise Cullington]

The counselling room can be the ‘safe space’ where difficult conversations are contained so children are not overwhelmed by a fraught tension. They love both parents and it is frightening to witness parental hate and attack and difficult for children to evaluate and process adult rage. The separation may have already rocked the foundation of their world, they may feel shattered by the loss of the usual security, but they should not feel everything is out of control. Both parents have a role in supporting and guiding the children to manage the unavoidable grief and loss, and to navigate the changes in their lives as they know it.

However lives are organised after a separation, and however much the couple continues to see each other, their parental role means they will forever remain interconnected. It takes courage and resilience but, along with supportive couple counselling, the couple can find the resources to engage their adult parts in order to make that as flexible and as constructive a connection as possible.

Kathy Rees

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