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Therapist’s Conundrum: Wife Wants Out, Husband Refuses to Divorce

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I am a therapist and am seeing a couple where the woman wants out but the man just refuses to accept the marriage is over. Any suggestions? He also has some mild limited cognitive abilities secondary to a brain trauma. - Confused Colleague

Dear Confused Colleague,

I understand your dilemma. She wants to leave; he can’t understand that she is leaving and can’t let go. This is a painful situation for couples. It leaves both in anguish; she feeling responsible for hurting her mate, he in disbelief as if he’s living a nightmare and he can’t wake up.

Here is what I recommend:

  1. Be present and help the couple to become aware of the difficulty of this situation. Create an awareness that helps them understand that there are no bad guys in this situation and there is a lot of pain. There is likely a reservoir of some compatibility between the two that could include kindness and caring. This is what you focus on as you remind the couple that they can be good to each other even as they separate.
  2. I often see one or both of the people in the couple individually to work on certain issues that come up during counseling. I would see the man individually. During the sessions I would work on helping him identify his support network outside the marriage. This could include work, extended family or friends. I would investigate how he functions without his wife. Get him to identify his hobbies, vocations, sports, exercise, clubs and interests.
  3. I would prepare the husband to talk with his wife again about her leaving. I would have a session where each says what they need to say. If ending the marriage is the preferred outcome I would help move the separation along gently with a soft questioning of what the wife intends to do. This must be done with love and care, delivered with the utmost of respect. No judgment, no opinion, no expression other than total positive regard during this session. Allow time for the couple to grieve together during the session. No need to involve yourself when this occurs.
  4. I would continue to see the man as he begins to refocus on helping himself during the transition.

All the best,

Linda Nusbaum Biography

 
Comments
  • Jess June 19th, 2012 at 3:15 PM #1

    that just makes me sad, we have to deal with so much in life and then to know that you need to leave a loved one with some damaged cognitive ability. How does one do that and still survive themselves? how does a normal function person not drift into serious doubts and concerns? I do not even want to even try to put myself in your shoes. God be with you and all that you do and undertake in handling this set of patients. please keep us informed of how it goes and the direction that you have taken.

  • Linda Miller-deBerard, LCSW August 6th, 2013 at 9:35 PM #2

    Dear Confused Colleague, It’s always a difficult (but common) situation for one person to decide to end the relationship when the other person has not worked through the stages of grief or gotten to acceptance. Keep in mind the client that wants to leave can most likely begin the divorce process regardless of how her husband feels. I am a therapist and a divorce mediator. I strongly recommend that your couple find an early mediation process that will give the husband guidance and time to accept the wife’s decision in a way that is most healthy for both of them.

  • candy July 7th, 2014 at 7:48 AM #3

    I went to a councilor and told my husband it was over. He refused to accept it and the councilor advised him to continue therapy so he could come to terms with the relationship ending. He discontinued all his therapy even for his depression which is based on his medical issues although he claims lack of sex as the issue. He still refuses to believe it’s over even though we now live in separate bedrooms. He is constantly violating my privacy and grabbing my rear or touching me even though I tell him no it’s over. I am now volunteering to get work history after being a stay at home mom. It will take at least 6 months before a job will even look at me. I have no idea what to do any more he’s out now picking up a Viagra prescription despite his heart issues and I fear he will force sex on me.

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