At some point, for a significant minority of couples, one or both partners conclude that the strategies of acceptance and change no longer work. At that juncture, the goal of living a healthier, happier, more productive life shifts from working to resolve marital difficulties to focusing on a “Good Divorce”. But how do you make it work if your former spouse doesn’t want to make it work? How do you make it better for your children and yourself? What are the rules of engagement when former partners are no longer intimate or romantic but remain co-parents for life? How does the Family Forest analogy apply post-divorce with an even more complicated range of ambiguities, acrimony and cooperation?
Divorce is a process, not an event. After the legal documents are signed and filed, after the custody and financial arrangements are agreed to, after the marital residence is sold or title changed, after one or both former partners have invested in establishing a new home and a new life, how do you relate to each other for the rest of your life? In this post I am referencing couples with children, as they remain a family forever, inseparably bound by the bond of co-parenting. Former spouses without children have a much wider range of options.
Divorce ends a relationship but not a family. “Family psychotherapy with one motivated family member” is still a valuable, viable and productive enterprise. This exercise in self-differentiation works no matter what anyone else does and cannot be sabotaged. It is at times of major family life cycle transitions (and divorce is the archetypical unplanned crisis) that the family and the individual are both most vulnerable and accessible. Bowen believed that “the shock waves of anxiety” make a family more available for change.
For those of you struggling with this dilemma, do not despair. First and foremost be kind and empathic with yourself. This is an incredibly stressful and anxiety-producing situation. Blame, bitterness, anger, and recriminations are detrimental to emotional well-being and sabotage the opportunity for positive emotional growth. The good news is that you can succeed in self-differentiation, learning new, more productive behaviors that are in the entire family’s best interest, regardless of whether or not anyone else in your family joins with you in the process. It takes only one thoughtful, committed, family member to improve the functioning of new family relationships. When all else fails, consulting with a well-trained family systems therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.
An addendum for therapists who choose to work with divorcing and post-divorce couples. I would make the case that when a couple comes to the realization of “unresolvable difficulties” and makes the painful decision to divorce, our work as Marital and Family Therapists has just begun. Betty Carter taught, “Therapy with divorcing families is a challenging and difficult process for both the therapist and the family. Working with a family and taking them through the process, helping them to emerge as a healthy, functional binuclear family is a goal worth striving for.”
Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning post-divorce relationships in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. I look forward to hearing what’s on your mind.
|Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
Comments & Replies from Social Media
Thank you for this thoughtful and encouraging post. So many families can actually help their children and themselves by deciding to separate and constructively re-invent how they parent their children and support each other.
Kathleen (Kate) Bar-Tur
I completely agree with the importance of maintaining perspective on the various systems people are connected to through their relationships. Part of my work is therapy with women who have been in power/control relationships. I approach this from a client-centered, feminist perspective, which affords me the therapeutic luxury of looking at the women in front of me as whole beings. In therapy we explore the various pieces that contribute and prevent her from being in healthy relationship(s). With the dissolution of marriage as the most frequent outcome of these types of relationships, my role then becomes supporting a safe co-parenting relationship through one half of the parent dyad. Essentially, whatever work is done in the individual context will affect the various connections throughout the woman’s relational network as well. This point is actually one that I frequently verbalize to help women understand how valuable and powerful they actually are to the people in their lives. Very often they want their ex to receive help, but can’t recognize that this help can not come from them. When this is realized it creates a release of responsibility, that can enable the former partner to reach out for his own support, thereby improving the separated co-parenting relationship.
Kimberly DeMunck, M.Ed. Counselling Psych, CCC
Owner/Therapist at Inspired Minds Therapy
I am not a professional, I am a Mom who had the benefit of a Bowen Family professional life coach, when I lost 2 of my children to suicide. Previously, I had had family therapy without the benefit of Bowen Family therapy. There is a marked difference in the two forms of family councilling. Understanding the entire family history and how it affects one was much more beneficial to my recovery. I highly recommend Bowen Family for anyone in recovery. Treating my own issues of depression and grief through loss of my children would have been much more difficult had my therapist not presented me with the Bowen Family method of the “big picture” regarding my family history.
retired NAMI volunteer at National Alliance on Mental Illness
Ronald, thank you for your invite. I will gladly recommend Bowen family theory to anyone in mental health crises. We are all a product of our family dynamics, whether we like it or not. To council an individual without taking into consideration family history is to do that individual a great disservice.
retired NAMI volunteer at National Alliance on Mental Illness