By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT
When I tell people that I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in ordinary conversation, I often get one of two responses; either that I must be analyzing them right then and there or that I am the person who will save their marriage when they are at the end of their ropes. Here is the truth. One, I am not analyzing you. I am a human first. In fact, I am most likely thinking about how I will get the sticky stuff that my two and six year olds got on the seats in my car off without ruining the leather. And two, no, I am not the person who will save your marriage. I am not a magician or a divine entity and I do not have a genie in a bottle that can grant you wishes. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist. I did not go to school to learn the formula for saving a bad marriage or how to mend broken relationships. I went to school to learn about communication and change; about human interaction and how to make sense of behaviors in any given context.
Marriage therapy is not always about saving marriages. In fact, what it should be about is helping the couple you are seeing achieve whatever goal it is they want to achieve at the end of your time together. And, it’s okay if that goal changes in the midst of therapy. Here are 10 important things to remember when working with couples that have divorce on the table:
- Keep your feelings and thoughts on divorce separate from your therapy: It is likely that you will have your own opinions on divorce, as it can be a rather controversial topic. But, whether you think it’s perfectly fine or not, it is not only unethical to carry your own personal thoughts over into therapy, but it is also very harmful to your clients. If you have particularly strong opinions and you feel like you can’t separate your personal feelings from the therapy room, the best thing to do is refer your clients somewhere else.
- Do not lead couples to believe that you can fix their marriage and make everything okay. As I mentioned above, we have not been to school to hone in on our magic skills nor have we been given a genie in a bottle for our clients to use. Always talk openly about the fact that the final outcome of therapy may not be them staying together. And, that staying together may not be what’s best for the couple anyway.
- Discuss the strengths within the relationship rather than focusing only on the difficulties. It’s easy to get caught up in the problems when a couple presents for therapy, but it is important to discuss the strengths within the relationship. Whether they remain married or their marriage ends in divorce, pointing out and magnifying the strengths can assist in many ways.
- Therapy requires work. Sometimes people assume that the therapists are supposed to do all of the work. But, that’s simply not the case. You don’t go home with your clients at night. You don’t live in their homes. In fact, you may only see them once or twice a week for about an hour at a time. Make it clear to your clients that therapy requires work on their part. They will ultimately be the ones responsible for the outcome of therapy.
- Never allow one spouse to feel like they are being singled out or ganged up on: Singling out individuals in therapy can only make them defensive. Having open conversations about what you see happening in their relationship is one thing, but you have to be very careful not to make either one feel that you are “taking sides” or advocating more for one person in the session than the other.
- It is okay to say the “D” word: If a split has been in their thoughts, it is perfectly fine to talk about it with the couple. A divorce does not mean a failure. And, it is important to talk with your clients about this. In fact, you may actually work with a couple that comes in ready for divorce, knowing that this is the best option for them.
- Help the couple weigh their options: Talk with the couple about what it will look like if they stay together or get divorced. Have them think about both scenarios and weigh out the benefits and risks to each scenario.
- If divorce is what they choose, help them make it as smooth and painless as possible. No matter what, divorce will be tough. But, you can assist them in learning ways to cope with the range of emotions and thoughts that may consume them over the next period of their lives. Just because they could not get along well enough to remain married does not mean that they can’t get along well enough to have an amicable divorce.
- If children are involved, talk about them, a lot. Always talk to your clients about their children and how much they know or don’t know about the situation. If divorce is inevitable, spend considerable amounts of time with the couple, helping them talk through their plans with the children. Offer them examples of scenarios that they may experience so that they can be prepared for dealing with them. Talk to them about co-parenting and assist them in becoming successful at utilizing this strategy to raise their children.
- Talk to couples about how divorce does not mean the end of a relationship. This is especially true, of course, when the couples have children together. Talk at length with your clients about the fact that the relationship will look very different and that it may take some adjusting at first. Learning how to interact with an ex can be very difficult. It is important for you to assist them in discussing what this relationship might look like to ease the transition a bit.
Of course, this list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it’s certainly a good place to start. And, while it is a good start when working with couples, always remember to consider their relationship issues within the context of their family system. For instance, your first couple of the day may be a same-sex couple married for 3 years, experiencing a variety of stressors including lack of family support, difficulty in adopting a child, and a recent death of a very close friend. The next couple you see may be coming up on their 21st year of marriage and experiencing a very difficult transition from military to civilian life after experiencing 8 deployments, the birth of 3 children, and 6 moves across the country in the 21 years they have been married. Obviously, sessions with these two couples would be very different from each other. The recommendations listed above can be used as a map to guide you in maneuvering your way through therapy with couples, but the details and the destinations may end up being vastly different.
This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the social media and webinar coordination specialist for the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.