The Emotional Divorce

The Emotional Divorce

Coaching for a good emotional divorce: disconnecting from the marriage in a functional way

Divorce is a detour on the road map of the family career, an unexpected and off schedule process of family change. 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. It takes a minimum of two to three years for a family to adjust to its new structure, and that’s if there are no cut-offs and all the adults are working at it full time. The decision, the announcement and the separation form the core of the emotional divorce.

In the initial stages of the emotional separation process there is often a loss of credibility, debilitating emotional turmoil and a superabundance of projected anger making it exceedingly difficult for people to maintain self-focus. To complete the emotional divorce and disconnect from the marriage in a functional way, it is necessary for each partner to lower his or her level of reactivity and decrease the mutual acrimony. The crisis of divorce is an opportunity to advance the process of differentiation by helping each spouse understand how his or her own limitations have contributed to the failure of the marriage.

The necessary tasks of the emotional divorce include helping the family remain a family, minimizing the negative effects on the children and coaching both spouses on how to integrate the divorce into their lives in a healthy way. This in turn will help the former spouses:

  • 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

One issue that makes the emotional divorce difficult is unresolved grief and bereavement. Both spouses need to mourn the loss of the intact family in order to go forward. Divorce is also the loss of the fantasy of what marriage and marital life might have been regardless of whether the separation was amicable or vindictive.

Another significant impediment is the lack of appropriate, healthy, productive role models of a non-adversarial divorce. A common misconception about divorce is that it needs to be bitter and contentious. External resources are few and far between. The possibility that divorced spouses can actually cooperatively co-parent is for many people, a novel one.

Application of family systems theory provides the opportunity to heal and grow, reframing divorce as a cooperative effort to mobilize resilience and hope, relearn how to be effective in the world, and foster communion with others.

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Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
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  1. Zoe Reyes on October 30, 2012 at 3:48 am said:

    Great article! I work with a lot of couples in developing healthy co-parenting skills and I actually use family systems theory in my work with them. It’s a hard road, I find that couples do need time to mourn the loss of the dream they had.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on October 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm said:

      Hi Zoe,

      Thank you for the positive comment. Tasks of the divorce role transition include giving up the spouse role, developing other primary relationships, learning to communicate about children and money with minimal reactivity, facilitating positive emotional expression, acquiring new skills to live as a single parent/adult, identifying positive aspects of the new role, and functionally connecting to families of origin and other social networks.

      Application of family systems theory offers practical solutions. Coaching for a good emotional divorce helps former spouses gain sufficient objectivity about the relationship to reduce bitterness and make it possible to achieve personal goals.



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