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.”
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|Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021