The Intentional Divorce

Helping Couples Let Go with Dignity

Tammy Nelson

I’ve always made it my primary goal to save the marriage, if at all possible; however, I’ve often felt that I was working harder at it than either of the partners involved, especially with the couples who come to my office only to check off an imaginary box—“tried couples therapy”—before heading off to consult their respective lawyers. Of course, even among these last-ditch efforts, some unhappy couples do find new and better ways of relating to each other during therapy and decide to stick together. But what I’ve come to realize is that once a marriage has sufficiently unraveled, therapy often hits an impasse, and divorce becomes an inevitable reality.

At one time in my career, I’d have considered divorce as an outcome of therapy to be a failure—by the couple and by me. But over the years, I’ve learned to think of it as another opportunity to help. I’ve come to realize that I can support divorcing couples by helping them explore viable alternatives to the often wounding and adversarial legal process that normally ends marriages—a process that can make what’s already a bad situation for the couple, their children, and their extended families incalculably worse. I’ve learned that I can help couples end their union in as thoughtful and pragmatic a way as possible. In other words, both partners can come through the experience with their dignity intact, their sanity whole, and in a greater spirit of cooperation and goodwill—attributes they’ll need as they continue to share responsibilities for their investments, their interests and their children.

Thus, when couples clearly intend to divorce, I often guide them through what I call an intentional divorce, which I reframe as not the end but the completion of their marriage. The framework I’ve developed for the intentional divorce comprises three phases. The first is the crisis phase, when both partners have concluded that they’re heading for divorce, and the reality and finality of their decision triggers a state of shock, disbelief, and devastation. Even though each partner may have known divorce was coming, acknowledging it in therapy often provokes intense emotional upheaval. Managing this psychological disequilibrium in sessions is one of my clinical priorities.

Once the couple has begun to calm down and show signs that they can live with this huge, new decision in their lives, I begin a more strictly practical course of educating them on the legal and lifestyle choices that can make the process of divorce healthier and less traumatic. This educational part of the crisis phase helps the couple handle the overwhelming, myriad choices in front of them without sending them back to an emotionally reactive state, in which decision making is impossible.

Next comes the insight phase, when the partners do the deeper work of letting go of the marriage and their own identities as spouses, and begin moving into their new roles as single people, who are still coparents and possibly even friends. Afterward, with my help, they embark on the vision phase by completing their relationship with a ritual or a goodbye that helps them move forward in their post-divorce lives.

The Crisis Phase

I recently worked with Pam and John, a couple who were both stockbrokers and parents of young children. Pam had given up her job to stay home with both kids after they’d moved from the city to the suburbs. At some point, she began cheating on her husband. Although she ended the affair when he found out, and they sought me out ostensibly to help them heal their relationship, it became clear after eight or nine sessions that Pam didn’t really want to restore the marriage: she wanted out. In fact, she’d begun the affair because, in her mind, the marriage was already over.

As she put it to me in an individual session at the beginning of our couples therapy process, “I was committed to the marriage for years, but John was never home. We never made love, and he never called me. He was at work all the time. I felt like he didn’t really want to be with me. In fact, he rented an apartment in the city where he slept five nights a week. He never even answered my texts! When he was home, the kids barely knew how to deal with him. He was a stranger to us.” Pam said she’d asked him if he was having an affair, and he’d sworn that he wasn’t. “Maybe his mistress was the stock market. I don’t know,” she said. “But I tried for years to get him to come to therapy. He refused, saying he didn’t have time.”

In the couples therapy, we worked to help Pam determine whether or not she’d been having the affair to get John to notice her again. But it turned out, her affair was what I call a can opener—a way to get out of the marriage and end things, a message to her husband that she was done with the current arrangement. What seemed unfair to John was that she hadn’t told him first. Now he was just catching up, easing into the realization that the relationship was ending and Pam had known this for some time.

This common circumstance, with one partner way ahead of the other in the decision to divorce, can confuse therapists, who, seeing hope for reconciliation in this divergence, may align with the more reluctant partner. Yet in my experience, the reluctant partner not only catches up relatively quickly, but often admits to having known on some level that the marriage was over. John, for example, said, “The moment I signed a lease for that apartment in the city, I think I realized in some way that the marriage was over. I should have owned up to it myself and definitely should have been more direct with Pam.”

After several sessions of processing the anger and betrayal that they both felt—her for being abandoned and him for feeling blindsided by her affair—they agreed that the marriage was, indeed, over. In fact, John announced in one session that he thought he might be gay and wanted to explore his feelings for men, something he’d never done.

Topic: Couples

Tags: amicable divorce | couples | divorce counseling | divorces | marriage | Tammy Nelson

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