Looking back at our recent blogs it’s no surprise that COVID and its consequences have dominated so much of our thinking and therapeutic practice at Coupleworks. Along with most therapists we have been finding that lockdown, WFH, social distancing and everything else we have all been experiencing have played a significant role in reshaping our clients’ closest relationships.
For some this reshaping has been positive. Having more time together has resulted in better communication and appreciation of one another. But for many more the pressures have told and the enquiries for counselling and ‘divorcing kits’ have been rising. Even relationships that have lasted for many years are coming apart at the seams. Some, with the help of therapy, are being rebuilt in new ways, but for others the ending is in sight and it is at that point that every couple involved in a breakdown of their relationship needs to work hard to make that ending as good as it can be, both for present and future benefit.
Of course much will depend on the circumstances of the breakdown. Were both partners anticipating it? Or has it come as a complete shock to one of them? Are there children involved and what ages are they? Has the breakdown been at the same time as other life-changing events such as a bereavement or an illness or redundancy? What are the financial consequences of what is being proposed? Is there another person involved – even if an affair is more often, at least in my experience, symptomatic of relational difficulties rather than the direct cause of a marital breakdown?
With so many issues needing to be explored it is very rare that it is a good idea to stop therapy at the point where a divorce is going ahead. Most individuals and some couples see the wisdom of that since they want to make the ending as good as it can be – they sense that a bitter divorce does no good in the long term, but some, sadly, choose to leave therapy just at a point when it could be making a significant contribution to their future well-being.
So how can you work at making a good ending, even when the odds seem stacked against it? Well, here are some questions which I have found help couples explore the past to provide greater possibilities for the future and for new beginnings.
- If communication has been a problem in the past, how can we ensure we are as good at it as possible during the process of getting a divorce? This is going to involve not making accusations and assumptions about your partner but only talking with ‘I’ statements about your own perspective. It will also mean being able to accept that your partner may believe a different reality, however hard that is to bear.
- What are the good things that we have appreciated about each other both early in our relationship and more recently? It is very often much easier to leave a relationship by making it ‘all bad’ – our partner is the bad one doing this or that wrong. It is more painful but more beneficial in the long run to be in touch with the loss of the things we have valued. It is a challenge to get to a position where we can see the things that are good whilst still holding the things that haven’t worked as well, but that will help us to avoid the trap of falling into a very black and white understanding of life.
- How can we avoid bad-mouthing and criticizing each other even when there’s a lot of pain around? This is particularly important and relevant where children are involved. It is really damaging for them to listen to one of their parents denigrating the other parent. It’s vital for the sake of the children that each parent finds a way of holding their angry feelings and processing them elsewhere. In that context it is important therefore to explore what other adult support they have particularly as they can no longer supply that support to each other.
- What part have I played in the breakdown of our relationship? It is always much easier to blame one’s partner/spouse than to look at our own contribution to the breakdown of the relationship. But to take some responsibility for how a couple have got to the place of wanting/needing to separate will mean that the path to a less contentious divorce is more possible.
- How have they managed, both individually and as a couple the experience of loss in the past? The breakdown of a relationship often triggers other feelings of loss and bereavement, sometimes from deep in the past, and it can be very helpful if people can examine what belongs to the present and what is being replayed from past experience.
Even if these are addressed they cannot guarantee a lack of pain. Breakdowns are extremely painful, both for the couple themselves and their wider friends and families, because they involve loss. The hope of a pain-free divorce is wishful thinking. However by working with these and similar questions some issues can be addressed that have the chance of benefitting those involved both in the present and in the years to come.