Divorce is a Family Process: Finding the Right Professional Support

Toddler sitting on orange swing, with arms of both parents in frame swinging her forward“And what’s romance? Usually, a nice little tale where you are everything as you like it, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose and it’s always daisy-time.”

– D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence reminds us that “romance” isn’t what we live with day to day. Marriages often end because fantasies did not become realities and attempts to maintain the marriage were not successful.

So, what is divorce? Is it a legal construct? Is it a financial puzzle to unravel? Is it a psychological event? It generally includes some or all of the above. It starts out as an emotional experience, perhaps involving feelings of anger, betrayal, fear, and anxiety.

Most often, when someone is faced with the ending of a marriage or relationship, their first thought might be to find a lawyer to help them through the process. Depending on the nature of the dissolution, this may sometimes be an appropriate path. It is also possible to start this process by working with a mental health professional (MHP) who has an expertise in divorce. This road could help keep the divorce process from becoming highly conflictual and entrenched in the court system. By focusing on the emotional content of the process first, it makes it possible to address the difficult challenges facing the family without escalating them.

Divorce is a reshaping of the family. At the same time that parents are having to manage their own feelings of loss and grief about the end of their primary relationship, they are also pressed to make difficult decisions about what their newly-constituted family will look like. The family does not cease to exist, but it is faced with moving from the familiar to the new, from the all-in-one-house version to the two-residence version. The family is being reshaped—it is not ending. Seeing the family as being in transition is a useful beginning point in the divorce process.

A family specialist works with the family as a whole system. Family specialists are mental health professionals who can help parents address their differences, develop goals, and make the decisions necessary for a transition from the pre-divorce to the post-divorce family. They sometimes do this by working with parents to create a mission statement that serves as the guiding mechanism in their divorce. They are trained in observing alignments that form and shift between family members, how emotions are experienced and expressed, and the family dynamics that emerge as everyone tries to find their way through the divorce experience.

Family specialists work with parents to explore the difficulties they may have in coming to agreements and helping with their communication breakdowns. They aid the parties in talking through co-parenting decisions and help them find mutually satisfactory arrangements. For example, a mother who insisted she get the family home in the divorce “knew” this was the “right” thing to happen, yet had difficulty expressing why. Through talking, it eventually became clear that when her parents divorced, her mother kept the family home with no questions asked. As a result, she assumed “mothers get the house.” Once she became aware of this belief, her conversations with the father changed dramatically.

Family specialists will also work with the children to ensure their needs and concerns are given a clear “voice” and do not get lost in the enormity of the transition. While children do not “make decisions,” their lives are greatly impacted by the paths taken by their parents, and they benefit from having clear and strong representation with the help of a neutral person. Children often have a difficult time telling parents what they are thinking and feeling if they believe it will hurt one of them.

Models of Divorce

  • Individual practitioner: An individual practitioner works with all members of the family and will make appropriate referrals to legal and financial services as needed.
  • Dual practitioners: A mental health professional and an attorney work with the family in tandem as neutral mediators, in order to help make the decisions required from both legal and emotional perspectives.
  • Collaborative Divorce: Mental health professionals, lawyers, and financial specialists work as a team to help parents resolve disputes respectfully, with the intent of finding a win/win situation for all rather than the winner-loser model offered through the judicial system.

New models continue to emerge. This is a short list that is not necessarily representative of all jurisdictions.

Remember, divorce is an emotional event with legal and financial ramifications, not a legal decision with emotional consequences.

© Copyright 2010 by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Carter H.

    Carter H.

    May 6th, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    I think you are right.A divorce need not always have to be through a lawyer…because the very reasons behind a divorce are not legal…

    I have been divorced for more than five years now and I just cannot tell how bad it is to let the kids be split between us…to be able to meet them only on designated dates…to see them growing up away from myself.

  • Amy

    Amy

    May 7th, 2010 at 2:35 AM

    ugghh I hope that I never have to go through it

  • kilner

    kilner

    May 7th, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    divorce affects not only the two individuals getting separated but also the kids,if there are any.it affects the kids a lot and may even bring about a change in their outlook of life and their personality.why,it can also affects their grades and bring about a total disaster for them!

  • Sandra

    Sandra

    May 10th, 2010 at 3:05 AM

    My sis in law got a divorce from her husband and the father of her children without ever really addressing to the kids what was goignon. I don’t know that the two of them have ever really talked with the boys about the different things thta caused them to leave the marriage or the ways that they can all still find to work together as a family. I hope that if this ever happens to me that my husband and I can do it amicably and still remain partners in raising our children. Too many times the importance of this factor is all but forgotten.

  • Shendl Tuchman

    Shendl Tuchman

    May 17th, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    Thank you for your comments. Yes, the impact on the children is of great importance. If there were no children to consider, the dissolution of the marriage could be less tumultuous. The parties could go their separate ways more easily even if there were financial issues to resolve. They would more likely need the financial assistance and not the family assistance. From talking with adults who were children when their parents divorced, we have been able to garner some excellent evidence of the stress divorces have on children when there is conflict between the parents. Children are narcissistic by nature and will often assume that whatever is going on is their fault. There are so many ways we have learned to help children thrive when their parents divorce.

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