Bowen Family Systems Coaching for the Post-Divorce Couple

Bowen Family Systems Coaching for the Post-Divorce Couple

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.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD of Family Focused Solutions (familyfocusedsolutions.com) discusses how the Bowen Family System approach can help divorced couples with children.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, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
RBCohenMD@FamilyFocusedSolutions.com

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14 comments

  1. Nancy Sebastian Meyer on August 29, 2013 at 8:16 am said:

    Yes, just one thoughtful, committed family member can make an incredible difference.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 3, 2013 at 9:38 am said:

      Hi Nancy,

      I too am fond of quoting Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”, and just came across another of her pithy aphorisms, “Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.”

      Regards,

      –Ron

    • Candice Francies on September 5, 2013 at 12:06 am said:

      Agreed.. very profound.

  2. Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT on September 2, 2013 at 2:23 am said:

    Please note, I have edited this comment, with the writer’s permission, to remove all of the family’s identifying personal content. –Ron

    Hi Ron……. I have a couple of clients who initially came to me as a married couple. They divorced two years ago and I am now working with each one individually. I have tried, to date unsuccessfully, to get them both in the room to process. They have two children who undoubtedly know and pick up on the negative energy between them. I don’t think they are hearing me when I describe the potential damage to the kids of ongoing parental anger, hostility and conflict. Ideas?

    Best,

    Kathy

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 10, 2013 at 6:02 pm said:

      Please note, I have edited my comments as well to remove all of the family’s identifying personal content. –Ron

      Hi Kathy,

      Kudos to you. A post-divorce binuclear family is still a family, and will benefit enormously from your ability to maintain a systemic non-blaming perspective.

      In many of these situations conjoint therapy is not possible. In high conflict situations I do couples therapy individually. That is I work with each partner separately on differentiation, self-focus, decision making and family of origin issues to help them reinvest in relationships and stay functionally connected with their families of origin and social networks. Resolving power struggles and deescalating anger helps to establish a cooperative co-parental relationship.

      Guerin & Fogarty suggest coaching former spouses on the following:

      • Focus on personal productivity and achievement.
      • Develop other primary relationships.
      • Communicate about money and the children with minimal reactivity.
      • Reinvest in relationships and stay functionally connected with their families of origin and social networks that they may have lost touch with during the marriage.
      • Focus on emotional and physical well-being.

      When divorce is highly conflictual, or cold and distant, children usually suffer and develop symptoms. Co-parents often fail to understand the importance of keeping the children out of the battle. Creating a crisis allows the couple to fight about whatever issue got raised in the crises, rather than dealing with the long-term issues of family reorganization. Former spouses need to be helped to give up as finished the hopes and dreams invested in their marriage and begin reinvesting in their own future course. Unresolved grieving for losses is a major deterrent to making a healthy adaptation to divorce.

      I am fond of quoting Betty Carter:

      “Working with divorce requires a complex multilevel approach. A therapist who chooses to work with divorcing families will need to tolerate a high level of conflicts and cope with complex painful emotions. 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.”

      I’ve expanded on much of the above in my blogs on:

      Fathers in Post-Divorce Families
      The Unbalanced System
      Detriangulating the Post-Divorce Binuclear Family
      The Vulnerability Cycle
      Divorced Parents – Intact Families
      We’re Still Family
      The Emotional Divorce

      Regards,

      —Ron

  3. Papa Doc Dwyer on September 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm said:

    Good article, and excellent topic to remind us all that it is a very worthwhile endeavor to attempt to maintain the Family when the Marriage has failed. Cut-off isn’t Differentiation, even under such circumstances as a “nasty” divorce. Anyone who has gone through a Divorce and has children, as I have, would say it isn’t the end of a Relationship; it is that the RELATIONSHIP has changed. Ideally, that would be the case even if there were no children. Whoever has the understanding of the value of this goal has to be willing to exert much effort, but the result even of just the effort benefits the entire Family.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm said:

      Hi Papa Doc (if I may be so forward & informal),

      Spot-on on so many levels.

      Maintain the family – A post-divorce family is still a family, one that has changed its configuration and established two secure bases, one maternal and one paternal, which then form the nuclei of the family for the children.
      Cut-off ISN’T differentiation – No differentiation without connection. No autonomy without healthy emotional interdependence.
      Change in relationship – In her book The Good Divorce, Constance Ahrons describes the process of the “Emotional Divorce” as “letting go while holding on”, that is terminating the intimate partner/marital relationship while redefining the ongoing lifelong co-parenting relationship.
      Necessity to ”do” the work – Someone has to do the work and it might as well start with you.
      • Benefit to the entire family system of one motivated family member changing

      I would add, “When all else fails, consulting with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Coach can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.” I will be publishing on the techniques of Bowen Family Systems Coaching next month.

      Regards,

      —Ron

  4. Candice Francies on September 5, 2013 at 12:10 am said:

    “It takes only one thoughtful, committed, family member to improve the functioning of new family relationships.”

    So many things come to mind. I’m assuming this one committed, thoughtful individual is further along than the other person in terms of his or her psychological and emotional state. I’m assuming the person serving as a catalyst for change happens in the middle and late stages of therapy, not in the beginning stages where the relationship is being repaired and catharsis like episodes are occurring.

    One willing participant and the other showing obvious resistance? I would love to see how this plays out in a session. Any videos you could recommend for a novice therapist?

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 8, 2013 at 8:38 am said:

      Hi Candice,

      Bowen defined the phrase “Family psychotherapy with one motivated family member” in his 1972 essay On the Differentiation of Self. Betty Carter & Monica McGoldrick subtitled their 2001 influential paper on Advances in Therapeutic Coaching “Family Therapy with One Person” (for more please see). The technical term “coaching” refers to preparing and acting for change in the individual’s natural system of relationships. Yes the emphasis is on the most motivated individual, as opposed to traditional therapy that focuses almost exclusively on the ”identified patient”, but this process begins day one. The ”identified patient” is after all just the negative leg of the triangle.

      Bowen Family Systems Coaching or Family Therapy with One Motivated Person is a process for making change in one’s family relationships even without the participation of other family members. Work on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely efficient and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by anyone else.

      Regards,

      —Ron

  5. Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT on September 12, 2013 at 3:28 am said:

    Hi Ron…. Thank you so much for your input. I find you to be such a rich resource for me in this particular area of doing therapy with couples and families. I appreciate and am grateful for the opportunity to benefit from your fabulous work with families!

    Best,

    Kathy

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 16, 2013 at 3:29 pm said:

      Hi Kathy,

      You are quite welcome. As I wrote to you in my private answer, “the purposeful tasks that comprise coaching post-divorce former spouses to establish a cooperative co-parenting relationship, and at the same time pursue an individual life include:

      • Helping both former spouses to give up as finished the hopes and dreams invested in the marriage, stop blaming the divorce or failed marriage on the ex-spouse, and to reinvest in their own future course.
      • Helping both parents gain the necessary skills to conduct their own relationships with their children.
      • Helping both parents to understand the importance of keeping the children out of the battle and the rewards to the entire family of minimizing destructive, vengeance-seeking behavior.
      • Helping both parents to understand the benefits of declaring a “unilateral disarmament”.
      • Helping both former spouses to examine closely their role in the marital distress and divorce and prevent future conflict and emotional cut-offs.

      Please let me know how the situation progresses.

      Regards,

      –Ron

  6. Avrum Nadigel on September 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm said:

    What a pleasure to find this website. It’s rare to find a Systems thinking psychiatrist these days! Good to know you’re out there.

    I’d be curious to hear what you think of D. Schnarch’s work. If it wasn’t for my introduction to Bowen (during graduate school) and Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage, I’d most likely be a single, commitment-phobe visiting bars (and therapists) well into my 60s!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on September 22, 2013 at 2:42 pm said:

      Hi Avrum,

      Glad to make your virtual acquaintance. As for Systems thinking psychiatrists, I aware of only one other. I haven’t read Schnarch in probably about ten years so my memory may be faulty but I remember having difficulty with his harshness and self-importance. Perhaps it’s time for a revisit.

      Regards,

      –Ron

  7. Mark B on October 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm said:

    I just love your statement “Divorce ends a relationship but not a family” – Fabulous really

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