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Divorce Counseling: Getting Help Making a Clean Break

Most of us imagine that marriages will last forever, and the end of such a union can be intensely distressing for everyone involved. This article explores the idea of divorce counseling. We start by talking about the common causes of divorce and then talk about the various forms of divorce counseling that exist. While the issue of divorce is inevitably going to be challenging for whoever experiences or contemplates it, speaking to the right therapist can provide you with the tools and support needed to navigate this process. Read on to learn more.

Why Do Couples Get Divorced

All individuals are unique, which means that most relationships – and their dissolution – are complex. Often, divorces come about as a result of a myriad of compounding factors; at other times, it might be single issue or event that ends a relationship. What are some of the common reasons for why a couple might divorce?

Common Reasons

What makes people divorce? Survey research suggests that a “lack of commitment” is the factor that ends most marriages. Statistics suggest that other common issues include conflict, domestic violence, addiction, cheating or one person feeling that the other does not contribute enough – this may be a matter of money, household matters of emotional input.

At times, however, couples simply find that they were ill-matched from the start; some grow apart with the passage of time. Most often, divorces don’t happen overnight and need to be considered as the result of multiple, complex and interacting factors. But divorce is not just about the relationship issues – which every relationship will have. It’s also about how these issues are addressed. Problematic styles of communication underlie nearly every breakup, according to Gottman’s Theory.

Gottman’s Theory

The famed relationship therapist and founder of the Gottman Institute, John Gottman describes the ‘four horsemen’. These are problematic patterns of communication and interaction which are thought to predict relationship dissolution. Why are they referred to as ‘horsemen’? This is a reference to the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, which is mentioned in the New Testament regarding apocalypse and endings. So, what exactly are the four horsemen?

1. Criticism

“You don’t care about anyone but yourself.” “It’s your fault that things have ended up this way.” “You’re not doing anything to try to save this relationship.” These statements are characteristic of criticism because they seek to attack or degrade the very essence of who their partner is as a person.

Now, we’ve all made negative comments about our partner at some point. But notice how the following statement is different to those listed above: “When you did that, it made me feel like you didn’t care about me”. In this statement, it’s the action that’s being criticized, rather than the person. This is a more constructive form of communication. Criticism, by contrast, harms the person being addressed and does not create space for healthy dialogue. Often, criticism paves the road for contempt.

2. Contempt

This is when things can get really ugly. Have you ever been in an extremely heated argument, where you lose control and say things bitter and nasty enough to make you instantly regret having said them? Contempt is a communication style that seeks to cut-down your partner – to make them feel inferior, insignificant and worthless. Contempt can be expressed in various forms – from a subtle roll of your eyes or sarcastic comment to a bitter expression of anger or hate. Contempt can cause real emotional wounds that may fester between couples when left unaddressed.

3. Defensiveness

It hurts to admit personal flaws, mistakes and shortcomings. A natural response that many of us have when we’re confronted with our own faults is to try to avoid feeling that discomfort entirely. Denial is a common form of defensiveness, where you reject the idea (whether to your partner or yourself) that you’re in any way at fault. Blame and anger are other forms of defensiveness, where it feels easier to castigate your partner as a way of avoiding personal responsibility. While it’s normal to become defensive from time to time, someone who relates this way repeatedly and consistently shuts down opportunities for compromise and the healing of relationship fractures.

4. Stonewalling

Gottman’s fourth horseman, stonewalling, is aptly named: this happens when you build a figurative wall between you and your partner. You may find yourself storming out of the room, engrossing yourself in your phone or silently retreating into your own thoughts. Whatever form it takes, stonewalling is the epitome of disconnection and the enemy of constructive communication.

It should be noted that people tend to stonewall when they’re overwhelmed by intense emotions.  If you’re feeling very hurt or angry, it’s often a good idea to take a break and cool off before having a constructive discussion about the situation. However, if this is happening all the time and without any reparation afterwards, this can be extremely harmful for the relationship.

So, you’ve recognized that one or more of the four horsemen are present in your relationship. Does that mean that you’re destined for divorce? Not necessarily – these sorts of communication styles can be addressed and changed through the process of divorce counseling. But if your relationship is marked by these horsemen, it’s vital that they are addressed in one way or another.

Why Get Counseling for Divorce?

Divorce is a complex and challenging experience that can have a potentially devastating emotional impact, even when it’s ultimately for the best. When a divorce is imminent, possible or has happened already, one of the following forms of divorce counseling might be recommended.

Individual Counseling

Divorce – just like any other potentially traumatic life adjustment – can leave a person with significant mental health concerns. These might manifest in the form of, for example, stress and anxiety; or signs of depression; including ongoing sadness, changed patterns of sleep and appetite, social withdrawal and suicidal thoughts. A person who has gone through a divorce may be left with feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, and abandonment.

Therapy provides a person with an opportunity to process and make meaning from all of the difficult complexity that comes along with divorce. Furthermore, through therapy, coping skills, and emotional regulation techniques may be learned, along with the development of insight as to what went wrong and how things might be done differently the next time.

Divorce Counseling

Does individual counseling only happen following a divorce? Not necessarily: at times it might appear that one person has an ‘issue’ that they need to work on in personal therapy and often this can be incredibly helpful for the relationship. Frequently, however, the cliche’ – it takes two to tango – is apt and couples’ therapy may reveal how both parties are contributing to the difficulty.

Couples Counseling

Generally, couples seek out therapy in order to process the experience of divorce in the healthiest way possible. While some couples use therapy as an attempt to resolve their issues and avoid the divorce, others use divorce counseling to facilitate the process of separating amicably. It can also be helpful to fully understand how and why the relationship rift came about.

Couples counseling in the context of divorce might also address practical matters, including issues related to finances and (co)habitation. Finally, couples counseling may also take the form of mediation or discernment counseling, which we describe in more detail below.

Family Counseling

When it comes to families, divorce is much more complex than simply the ending of a relationship between two people. Multiple relationships are involved and often, these will not simply end, but will need to change form. Family counseling can help the family to maintain healthy relationships with one-another even in the context of a divorce.

Divorce counseling that’s focused on the whole family is likely to delve into the emotional impact that the divorce will have on the children, ensuring that they are adequately supported throughout the process. Often, however, children are left to navigate a complex mixture of thoughts, feelings and logistical challenges, including shame, guilt, separation anxiety, acting out and a sense of fault or responsibility for the divorce. Naturally, when a child has to choose which parent to live with, this can be an incredibly complex and sensitive issue for which family therapy is advised.

Mediation

Many couples opt for mediation as a way of avoiding going to court. The issues which are addressed in this form of divorce counseling are practical. They typically relate to custody, visiting schedules and the division of finances and assets. Settling such issues in court can be an incredibly costly and time-consuming affair; and many couples choose mediation as a way of coming to an agreement about such practical matters without having to engage in a legal battle.

Discernment Counseling

We know that the relationship isn’t working, but what do we actually want to do? Many couples are unsure about whether they want to call it off or try to make it work. In some cases, one partner wants a divorce while the other wants to resolve the issues. Discernment counseling helps couples to consider their options and make a decision about the future of their marriage. In this form of counseling, the therapist will help the couple to think through their options and come to a decision about whether to end the relationship or attempt to find a way to make it work.

Challenges of Divorce Counseling

In divorce counseling, one partner may feel that they have been coerced into attending. Typically, it’s the one that wants to save the marriage who coerces the other who is wanting a divorce. This is a considerable challenge faced by those thinking about divorce counseling because therapy can only seek to heal the relationship if both parties are motivated and willing to be there.

Divorce Counseling vs Last Ditch Effort Marriage Counseling

Research suggests that most couples wait approximately 6 years before approaching a therapist to address issues in their relationship. Often, therapy is a last resort – a final attempt to make things work before moving on. In such cases, divorce counseling is unlikely to save the marriage. This is because often the couple is not genuinely motivated to work on the relationship. Instead, they are often seeking to assuage their guilt about choosing divorce. They want to be able to tell themselves they tried all possible avenues before walking away.

Divorce Counseling Online

Fortunately, given that more and more therapists today are providing their services online, getting the support that you need is far easier than it once was. Why? Divorce counseling is a specific skill that not all psychologists have experience with. For this reason – and especially if you live in a remote or rural area – you may find an absence of qualified professionals in your immediate vicinity. Beyond that, it can be challenging to find a therapist who is available at the same time as the two of you. Coordinating three schedules to find an appropriate session time can be exceptionally challenging!

With divorce counseling online, however, you have a broader pool of therapists to choose from. You’re more likely to be able to find someone whose schedule matches yours, and you’ll be able to consult with an appropriately qualified professional no matter where you live.

Thrive Talk

Divorce is inevitably difficult – unfortunately, so is finding the right therapist. Thrive Talk, however, is an online platform that connects people with the right mental health professional for their needs. All of our therapists are fully qualified and licensed; many are specifically trained and have years of experience in the field of divorce counseling. Thrive Talk provides an effective, affordable and accessible option for individuals, couples, and families who are going through a difficult time. So, when it comes to divorce – whether you’re considering it, going through it or recovering from it – click here to start the process of getting the support that you deserve.

About The Author Daniel Sher
 

Hi there, my name is Daniel. I’m a clinical psychologist, registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. My professional interests as a therapist include long-term psychodynamic work, as well as cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness-based interventions. In my practice, I work as a sex therapist with men who struggle with sexual dysfunction. I also work closely with people who have diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Finally, I have a keen interest in neuropsychology and neuropsychoanalysis. When I’m not practicing, I enjoy writing on the topic of psychology, surfing, hiking and practicing martial arts.

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