Archive of ‘Divorce’ category

When Is It Time To Get a Divorce?

As a couples therapist, I see couples who are struggling to re-invigorate their sex life, they are struggling with finances, they have trouble raising their children, etc. Having these reasons in mind as to why many of my couples come in on the brink of divorce, researcher Dr. John Gottman says that the main reasons why couples divorce is due to sex, finances, and raising children. I must say that though Dr. Gottman has a point, I disagree—couples divorce due to lack of emotional connection. 

If you are not emotionally connected and engaged in your marriage, you will not be able to manage a sex life together, manage money together, or create a safe parenting space together. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of the dynamic Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, says that the erosion of an emotional bond between two partners is the beginning of the end to their relationship. As humans, we are wired to connect in a safe and emotionally healthy way. If we do not have this in a marriage, we will slowly disconnect and eventually divorce if no action for couples therapy is taken. 

Disconnection can look like many different things. Maybe you and your spouse keep arguing about household chores or who will walk the dog next. Perhaps a spouse can feel unsupported in their idea to switch careers. Maybe there is just an overall feeling of loneliness on both parts in the marriage. The main point to understand on a general disconnect in the marriage is that it can be understood and helped. Much of what we do in couples therapy at Austin Family Counseling is strengthen the emotional bond between partners as well as create a safe space for re-engagement and for couples to work on issues that have been reasons for feelings of disconnection in their marriage. Basically, a general feeling of disconnection is not a valid reason to divorce when there are many resources and tools to help build and strengthen your marriage. Rarely do couples come to me with the presenting problem of lack of engagement and leave the therapeutic process unhealed, reassured, and optimistic about their exciting new opportunities to re-spark their romantic life. 

Extreme cases, however, can absolutely be reasons to separate. In my years of practice, I have seen such reasons for a therapist to recommend separation as physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and active addiction.

Physical Abuse

This is perhaps the main reason that couples should divorce. Physical abuse of any kind is not acceptable in a marriage or any other kind of relationship. Physical abuse is seen in marriages where one partner has significant anger issues and has not managed their emotion to the point of it being unsafe to be close and vulnerable to this person. Women who stay married to physically aggressive men are very likely to have come from abusive households where they see abuse as a “natural” thing. 

According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, since the stay-at-home order has been put into effect in 2020, an alarming increase of domestic violence cases has occurred in the US. More partners are shut into their homes with their spouse, putting them more at risk of physical danger when the aggressive partner becomes triggered. Other effects that are brought on by the stay-at-home order are alcohol abuse, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, all VERY easy triggers of physical abuse. 

If you are involved in a physically abusive marriage, I urge you to reach out for help and escape from a dangerous situation as soon as possible within your boundaries of safety. If you are in Austin, the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children, the SAFE Children’s Center, and Casa Marianella are all places where women and families can go for refuge from a physically abuse situation. As a couples therapist who becomes aware of physical abuse, I am ethically bound to stop couples therapy immediately and let the abusive partner know they need to do their own counseling and anger management if couples therapy ever resumes. 

Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Aside from physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse is another form of abuse that is sadly much harder to spot. Physical wounds leave visible marks, but emotional wounds can go unseen for sometimes decades. Emotional abuse is defined as any form of emotionally manipulative behavior perpetrated by one person to another that can cause PTSD, stress, or anxiety. Some forms of it are below:

  • Gaslighting: making the partner being gaslit think something is different than they actually experienced it.
    Example: “Something must be wrong with your memory because I never said that!”
  • Minimizing: making someone feel inadequate or unworthy based merely on how they are feeling
    Example: “I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, you didn’t have it that bad!”
  • Intimidation: using threatening language to reinforce a sense of control by the partner through invoking fear.
    Example: “I will hit you if you say that to me one more time!”

Though no form of abuse is ever acceptable, there tends to be more hope for emotional abuse than physical abuse in the couples I see. Sometimes, separation is key for partners where verbal abuse is going on before they are able to come back together and make the decision to either stay together or divorce. However, in my sessions with couples, a hard boundary I hold is to have no gaslighting, minimizing, intimidation, or name-calling in session. If you believe your partner has narcissistic qualities in them, definitely seek help for mental health as these can have longlasting negative effects on someone’s sense of self.

Active Addiction

Though many treatment modalities indicate couples can survive an active or recovering addiction, in extreme cases a marriage cannot always survive. If a partner is currently abusing alcohol and becomes physically or emotionally abusive, it is in the other partner’s best interest to leave when the marriage becomes an unsafe place. Unless the addicted partner commits to going to AA or therapy to work on their addiction, the marriage will become an unsafe place for both people, triggering an abusive cycle that both partners will be feeding into. 

When a partner is addicted to an illegal substance (i.e. cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, etc.), the marriage is further complicated due to the unlawful possession of illegal substances in a household. Not only is the marriage riddled with addiction and addictive patterns, but this presents the marriage with far more dangers and reasons to divorce. Though only one partner is using, both spouses when living together are subject to legal ramifications that puts the non-addicted partner in a very precarious position. 

When couples come to me with an addiction present, I hold a firm boundary that the person who is addicted seek help through groups (i.e. AA, NA, SLAA, etc.), separate individual counseling, or in further cases checking into a detox and addictions treatment center for couples therapy to continue. It is unethical to do couples counseling while a noticeable addiction is going on due to the fact that the vulnerability needed in couples therapy can at times exacerbate the addicted spouse’s addiction. 

Written by: Ian Hammonds, LPC, LMFT

Supporting Kids Through Divorce: Informing the Kids (Part 2)

People get a divorce for a multitude of reasons–it’s a difficult decision that many people make, and unfortunately–there is a lot of judgment from others that comes with it–especially if children are involved.  

By: Julie Burke, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S

There isn’t a script about how to tell your kids or what exactly needs to be said, however, there are things that need to be taken into consideration when telling them.  Be mindful of what is age-appropriate, too.  10 Books for Kids Experiencing Divorce is a great resource for different age-appropriate books to help have the conversation and normalize what is going on.  

Tell Your Kids Together

  • No matter your differences, this is of utmost importance.  Despite the fact that things did not work out in the marriage, the fact of the matter is–you are both parents and will need to learn how to co-parent effectively for the sake of your children.  Being together and sharing the news with your children together will show them your ability to be teammates through this process.  It’s important to maintain a unified parental front.   

  • Additionally, kids may feel guilty and as if the divorce is their fault.  They will likely believe this to be true unless you tell them otherwise.  It’s important to show (and remind) them verbally and through your interactions that you love them very much and that this is not their fault.  

Take the Shame, Blame, and Criticism Out of the Decision to Split

  • There is NO need (ever) to place blame on one of the parents.  Refrain from name-calling and personal attacks both when telling your child about the divorce and in situations where the child may hear you.  This ultimately ends up confusing the child in an already confusing time and creates alliances where alliances should not exist.  

Let Your Kids Know What the Decision to Split Up Will Look Like for Everyone

  • Keep in mind what this divorce will mean for your family.  While a divorce generally means the splitting up of spouses, the details behind the split vary from household to household.  These things can include: who will be leaving the home, where the kids will stay (and when), what will change and how that will look like, what the parent’s relationships will look like, etc.  

Rehearse What You’ll Say Before You Say It

  • This conversation will likely be awkward and uncomfortable and highly emotional…and that’s okay.  You don’t have to be stone cold and emotionless when informing your children.  In fact, being emotional and showing your children that it’s okay to show emotion (and showing them how to appropriately and effectively cope is the exact kind of modeling they need).  Rehearsing what you will say will also make the likelihood of shaming & blaming decrease because you will have practiced the verbiage of what you will say.  

Remind Them at the End Where You Started

  • The biggest take-away from this is ensuring your children know that the decision to get divorced has absolutely nothing to do with anything they’ve done (or failed to do).  They need to know they are not at fault in any way.  They also need to know that they are loved and will continued to be loved…forever.    

Give Your Children Time to Adjust

  • Be attuned to your child’s emotions.  You should listen carefully to them, acknowledge and accept their feelings, and respond appropriately to them.  Give children the opportunity to process these big emotions and changes by bringing them to therapy.  They often need to communicate to you that they’re scared or unsure of what will happen, but do not have the language or awareness to do so.  They may communicate by acting out and/or showing regression in behavior.

  • When children ask questions (and it is likely they will)–be mindful of your answers.  For example, if a child asks “Why are you getting divorced?” you need to know how to answer that question without putting blame on the other parent.  Give your children the opportunity to ask questions, however, know that they don’t need to know every single detail about the decision itself.  

No matter what, it’s important to do what is in the best interest of your child.  The above tips all do that.  If you and your spouse feel like you are unable to communicate the decision to get divorced to your children effectively and appropriately, seek the help of a trained professional.  There are therapists who do discernment counseling specifically for couples who are ambivalent about getting divorced.  It may be uncomfortable and there will likely be big emotions related to these decisions, but at the end of the day, you have to do what, in your heart of hearts, is best for you…even if that means getting divorced.  

Supporting Kids Through Divorce: Making the Decision to Divorce (Part 1)

By: Julie Burke, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S

When thinking about marriage, people generally think of all of the happy aspects of it–a life together forever in pure bliss…which is everyone’s ultimate goal, right?  We can assume so.  But, what happens when things do not work out as planned?  According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, more than 90 percent of people marry by age 50 in Western cultures, however, approximately 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce.

I am not an advocate for divorce, but I also believe circumstances are situational and, at times, it may be right for certain couples.  This will help normalize some of the emotion, decision, and reason for divorce and how to make that decision when children are involved.  

When interacting with someone once about divorce, he reported he hoped his partner agreed (and understood) that they, as a couple, did not fail, however, their time together was done.  He said so with a certain sadness in his voice, however, certainty that things were good when they were good, however, they were hanging on to a dynamics of a relationship that no longer existed.  There is a lot of judgment and shame around getting divorced and so often, different phrases around the topic get thrown around, including:

  • “We love each other. Why can’t we make it work?”
  • “You’re the perfect couple. Why couldn’t you make it work?”
  • “Whose fault is it? Why are you getting divorced?”
  • “You’re breaking up our family. How could you do this?”

The list, unfortunately, could go on and on.

When these judgments get thrown around, people are making presumptions and are not taking into consideration the many variables people encounter in their own relationships.  I was interacting with another clinician once and when talking about her own divorce, she made the comment, “Nobody wants to get divorced…it’s like having a limb amputated.  Nobody wants it, but sometimes is inevitable.”  

There is a societal pressure for couples to obey the status quo and stay together forever–because that is what is expected of them and so that we have that expectation for ourselves when we get married to a partner.  In fact, the idea that marriage should (and always will) last forever, makes people feel safe and there is comfort in that.  I should reiterate that I’m not pro-divorce or anti-marriage, by any means, but I do believe more empathy and support should exist for those making the difficult decision for dissolution of marriage.  

Divorce is intrinsically hard, but our attitudes make it harder than it needs to be. Guilt, shame, and a sense of failure significantly raise the emotional cost of divorce” – A & D Teller

So…Why Do People Get Divorced?  

Things That Predict Divorce according to the Dr. John Gottman relationship blog.  

  • The tone of conversations regarding conflict resolution and marriage/divorce.
    • If these conversations have a harsh startup and begin with criticism and/or sarcasm, it is highly likely that the conversation will end on a negative note.  
  • “The Four Horseman”
    • Criticism of your partner.  
    • Communicating with contempt.  This can include treating your partner with disrespect, mocking them with sarcasm, ridicule, name-calling, mimicking, and/or body language (eg: eye rolling).
    • Defensiveness.  This is quite common when there is a lot of conflict or it feels like your relationship is on the rocks.  In the moment, it can make sense to be defensive over actions (and it’s the easier thing to do), but it ultimately can be a way to blame your partner for something.  
      • Partner A: “You said you would pay the insurance bill this morning.  Did you do it yet?”
      • Partner B: “I was extremely busy today and you knew that.  Why didn’t you just do it?”  

(as opposed to)

      • Partner A: “You said you would pay the insurance bill this morning.  Did you do it yet?”
      • Partner B: “I was extremely busy today and completely forgot.  I’m sorry.  I will pay it in a few minutes, unless you could help me?”  
    • Stonewalling–this occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction.  This can look like a variety of things (eg: tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors).  
  • Body Language/Responsiveness
    • Watch this video of Dr. Dan Siegel discussing brain biology and the idea of a “flipped lid”.  The video explains, neurologically, what is happening in your brain when you are angry and why people are unable to think logically in bouts of intense emotion.  Keep this in mind next time you and your partner are in conflict so you can know how what you need before you try to discuss (and resolve) the issue.    
    • Additionally, as mentioned above (when communicating with contempt)–be mindful of your body language and interactions with your partner.  Be aware of how you are communicating with your body–are you rolling your eyes or closing yourself off from your partner?
  • Failed Repair Attempts.  Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate the tensions during a discussion; the failure of these attempts is an accurate marker for an unhappy future.  
  • Memories of the Relationship
    • How do you reflect time spent together in the relationship?  Do you have fond memories?  How do you discuss former struggles experienced in the relationship?  Reflecting on emotions and interactions from “then to now” and seeing how things have changed (for better or worse) can be very telling of the connectivity of the relationship.  

Tips For Making a Decision That Feels Right For You

  • Surround yourself with people who will be supportive of you.  
    • You don’t want to be around people who are pushy and will antagonize you for not leaving soon enough, but you also should have people who can gently call you out when needed.  
      • You don’t want someone who repeatedly tells you “Leave your partner…they’re no good for you” but you also don’t want to live in denial and have your support system let you continue doing that.  You should be supported, but also held accountable.  
    • Similarly, you should part ways who are critical or judgmental of you and what you are going through.  
  • Get professional help.  
    • Going to therapy will help have an objective view of the situation.  Therapists will have no agenda on whether you stay or leave and may help you weigh out your options and think, hypothetically, about life in different scenarios.  
  • Be honest with your partner.  
    • These conversations can be difficult to have, but it’s imperative.  There is also a way to do this without being rude or angry and placing blame.  This will also be necessary, if you have children, for co-parenting purposes.  Communicating assertively allows people to be kind and firm at the same time and creates a setting for honest discussion and (ideally) decreases the opportunity for dismissive and/or passive aggressive responses.
    • Often, people appear to be seemingly happy; however, if one partner has been contemplating leaving for months and then they share that desire with their significant other, the significant other feels derailed, humiliated and completely caught off guard.  This happens more than people would like to admit for a variety of reasons.  Most often, one partner in the relationship is “conflict-avoidant” and will do everything necessary to avoid any kind of discord–and may even act as if everything is fine (and even to the extreme that they believe everything is fine).  But that dishonesty with yourself and your emotions can only go on for so long.  But because everything seems fine, people are inevitably confused when someone comes home and out of the blue states, “I want out of this marriage”.  It’s confusing and unfair and is a result of not being honest with your partner.  
  • Be gentle with yourself.  
    • Divorce is a sad, scary, and difficult decision.  When making this decision, take care of yourself in the process.  
    • Self-care can look like a number of things so you have to do what’s right for you–whether it’s journaling, exercising, meditating…anything that feels right and helps clear you mind (as much as possible).  

This decision will undoubtedly be a difficult one, so it’s best to make a decision that feels right for you.  

What About If We Have Kids? How Does That Work?

Many couples choose to stay together for the sake of their children and wanting to do what is best for their kids.  This leads to many other questions, then–if I want to stay for the sake of my children, when do we get divorced?  Do I wait till they’re a certain age?  How do I protect them from divorce?  What does that look like?  

The truth of the matter is, there is never really an “ideal” time for a divorce–with or without children.  Adult influence and parent interactions do impact a child’s well-being, however, the timing of a divorce isn’t necessarily the most significant factor.  I know someone whose parents got divorced when he was in middle school; he reported only having positive memories of his parent’s separation and feeling supported by both.  I also know someone whose parents waited until she was a young adult to get divorced; this left her confused and frustrated with her parents–believing what she knew about marriage and love her entire life were not authentic.  

Divorce will not damage children or leave them jaded when they think about love, however, that requires cohesiveness and teamwork from both parents–even if the divorce is not amicable.  Here are tips on how to help your children adjust and thrive during a divorce:

  • Strive for cooperative co-parenting and minimize conflict with their other parent
  • Establish stability and a reliable routine
  • Reassure your children that you both love them and will continue to be a family
  • Ensure your children know that it is not their fault
  • Get help to recuperate from your own sadness and/or anger  
  • Consult with professionals for help for your children, too, during the transition.  If nothing else, it will help them express their emotions and talk about the transition(s) and what that means

At the end of the day, making the decision to get a divorce will be emotional, difficult, and probably scary; making that decision when you have children likely amplifies any and all emotions that are being experienced.  It is important for you to take care of yourself and do what feels right (and what will be best) for you.  Know that children are resilient and, with proper parental support and co-parenting, you can help them navigate the various uncertainties and tasks of childhood–just as you would if you were married to your partner.  

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