Have you ever walked into a social situation where a divorced couple is there, perhaps with new partners or even new spouses, and the tension is palpable, stress and discord so apparent that it makes you want to leave immediately?
Or perhaps it’s a close friend or family member that has gone through a divorce so filled with anger and hostility that the two individuals have become people you no longer recognize.
When encountering or experiencing these angst-filled divorces, one quickly realizes that the marriage is over, but the relationship, however contentious, continues.
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) and other psychologists recommend divorce counseling or therapy, a relatively new therapeutic concept designed to re-structure relationships between partners and spouses. Professional counselors are trained to help couples shift their relationships from an emotional bloodbath to more of a non-emotional, practical relationship. These counselors or therapists are licensed mental health practitioners specializing in helping couples set ground rules for constructive ways to engage and get along – essential for creating a sense of peace and well being.
This is a type of peace that almost all professionals agree is imperative when children are involved. Children remember the pain and discord of acrimonious divorce battles long after the divorce - into their own adulthoods – sometimes necessitating later counseling or therapy to work through these troubling memories. And divorced parents who respect and treat each other well model a form of cooperation that teaches their children valuable life skills.
How a Divorce Counselor Helps
Some divorces appear to go on forever, with rounds of litigation. These divorces get expensive, and often seem ridiculous to those from the outside. Couples litigate over the big things, like houses, cars, and retirement funds, but things that seem inconsequential as well, things such as a specific dish or tools, family pictures, or the few minutes a spouse is late picking up kids.
Almost all the arguments, hefty and minute, are not about the house, or car, or the traffic jam – or even the kids. The arguments are lingering resentments and unresolved anger over the divorce itself.
The divorce counselor and the couple try and uncover the causes of the anger and resentment, clarifying the ongoing battles. In the safe, neutral environment of the counselor’s office, the couples are able to express themselves in nonthreatening, honest exchanges. Through this dialogue, the counselor works to move the couple from contention to negotiation.
The counselor also helps each partner understand grieving and loss, and guides them through this painful process. Divorce is only second to death in terms of one of life’s most stressful events.
Closure is another important aspect in divorce counseling, a concept that many who go through divorce never experience and which keeps them fighting for years. Therapists can help clients achieve closure, and move forward, emotionally, in their lives.
Divorce counselors and therapists mainly use behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for helping couples heal and move toward healthier relationships.
Behavioral therapies attempt to exemplify the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and how they can cause either negativity or more healthy responses. These types of therapies stray from rehashing old arguments and accusations, blaming, or revisiting traumatic childhoods that a client blames for inappropriate behavior. Divorce counseling does not require psychoanalysis, but it does require concrete plans to change current thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Behavioral therapies give each partner a set of tools to manage the relationship going forward. Tools such as ways to think differently so that distorted, unrealistic, and exaggerated thoughts, thoughts often not grounded in reality, change to reflect more positive approaches to solving problems. The couple may never become friends, but at least they’re no longer enemies.
How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works
CBT connects an event, situation, or circumstance with distorted thoughts and feelings, which in turn cause negative emotional responses. Sometimes these emotional responses lead to or influence hurtful behaviors.
Here’s an example of how a counselor or therapist will use CBT in working with divorced parents:
A Divorce Counseling Example
A divorce agreement states that a father will pick up his two children from the mother’s home at 5 p.m. every Tuesday.
The mother’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors
The mother has signed up for a class that starts at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday evenings, and she needs at least 25 minutes to drive to the class.
The father is repeatedly 10 to 15 minutes late picking up the children, causing the woman to be late. She thinks he is late on purpose because he never wanted her taking night classes while they were married. But she needs to go back to school to get a decent job to eventually support herself. She becomes enraged at his lateness, and when he gets to the house each Tuesday, a fight breaks out in front of the children, making her even more late for the class.
Once she became so angry when he was late, that she took the kids to a friend’s house and went to class. She left a note on the door telling him that because he was late, she had to make other plans, and he would have to pick up the kids on another day.
The father’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors
The father doesn’t get off of work until 5 p.m., and often it’s a stretch for him to leave at that time. The drive to her house means taking roads with a considerable amount of rush-hour traffic. He often has to cut off a sale just to be on time, and he already feels stressed over alimony and child support payments. He thinks that his wife signed up for the class just to annoy him, and that she doesn’t realize nor appreciate the financial strain he is under to make his monthly alimony and child support payments.
Once, after accusing him of trying to sabotage her efforts at bettering herself, he called her at 4:45 p.m. on the day of his next scheduled pickup, telling her that he was too sick to pick up the kids that day. He wasn’t sick, but reasoned with himself that he needed a “mental health” break from his ex-wife.
The CBT Therapist
The couple still has a lot of resentment and anger over the divorce, and over the terms of the divorce. Most CBTs would begin by getting the couple to discuss these issues, not telling them directly about these repressed resentments, but by asking questions, the therapist tries to get the couple to understand these unresolved feelings, and how they are affecting their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Through discussion and questioning, the therapist will also point out the negative effects on the children. They have to listen to heated arguments between their parents, probably dampening their excitement over spending time with their father, and their time with him is often curtailed or cut into by these unfortunate circumstances.
Depending on the CBT, some will have each parent write down what “outcome” they desire in this situation. CBT tends to be a therapy of written goals, outcomes, and measured scales, such as “how do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 about your husband showing up late to pick up the kids.” Some therapists use these scales and written documents extensively, others tend to accomplish some of the therapy by talking and discussing the goals and outcomes.
In this example, the therapist tries to get the mother to see how her thoughts about her husband’s lateness could be distorted, related to events that occurred during the marriage, and not about what’s currently taking place. Those thoughts adversely affect her emotions, setting off her temper, and even causing her at times to exhibit extreme behaviors, such as taking the kids to a friend’s house, saddening the children, and making the father even angrier.
The therapist also attempts to get the father to realize how his repeated lateness is affecting his wife’s future, possibly even her financial independence. Were it not for the fact that the mother had to be somewhere important on time, she would most likely still get angry over his lateness. She spends considerably more time with the children, and needs a break in order to make to re-charge her emotional and physical energies – so that she remains an effective and responsive mother.
The mother wants the children picked up on time without an argument. The father wants also to pick up the children without an argument, but also wants his former spouse to understand the work and traffic barriers.
The therapist needs to help the couple understand that a workable solution exists, that tempers don’t have to flare, that children must be spared from outbursts by their parents, and that extreme behaviors hurt everyone involved. The therapist teaches the couple how to change their thoughts about what “really” is going on to more practical, realistic scenarios – such as the father attempting to get to the house on time, but simply can’t because of traffic. And the mother actually has no control over when the class starts, and she’s not taking the class to irritate or “get back” at the father.
Solutions and compromises are considered. Perhaps the mother could drive the children to a drop off place in between the father’s work and her school. Or perhaps the father could talk to his boss about leaving 15 minutes early on days he has to pick up the children. Or, maybe a friend or grandparent could come and sit with the children for 15 minutes on Tuesdays until the father arrives.
There are probably several solutions to this problem, which isn’t uncommon, nor is the problems so difficult that it takes a team of lawyers to figure out. And probably the most advantageous outcome of this mediation is that the children are spared the fights and hostility between two people they love equally.
Explore a Career in Divorce Counseling
If you are interested in becoming a divorce counselor, request information from the schools offering degree programs in counseling.