How a Therapist Can Ease Your Separation or Divorce

Aside from Ice-T and Coco (who will always hold a special place in my heart as she and I were both stalked by the same strange man), I seem to be encountering so many breakups, separations, and divorces these days in my personal and professional spheres, not to mention the readers I hear from on a regular basis. Some of these endings are going fairly smoothly. Ohers have taken ugly turns. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When a marriage or committed partnership (especially one that’s involved two or more people living or raising children together) comes to an end, it’s common for people to call an attorney. After all, if you’ve been legally joined by marriage, home ownership, bank accounts, retirement savings, or bound together by children, there are certainly legal things to work out. It’s appropriate to, at some point, involve legal counsel.

That said, I sometimes think people reach too quickly for, or do too much through, attorneys when it comes to ending their relationship. I often find that many breakup/separation/divorce issues can be eased by meeting as a couple with a (good) counselor or therapist (find one through aamft.org or sstarnet.org).

If meeting with a therapist to end things seems like an odd choice to you, perhaps it’s because you think of counselors and therapists as professionals who keep people together – and often they do help couples stay together and/or weather difficult times. Sometimes, however, those difficult times involve helping a couple to un-couple themselves. After all: if this is someone you care about, feel close to (even if only as a friend), love, and/or have shared a life with, wouldn’t it be preferable to end things amicably?

Counselors and therapists are trained to help people communicate and work through conflict together. Counseling isn’t just about personal growth. If you and your partner are ending things, or separating for a bit, then meeting with a counselor/therapist can help you manage some of the difficulties. For example, he or she can:

- help you two talk about why your relationship is ending in ways that help you to share what you mean rather then end up fighting

- help clarify for both people that it is, indeed, over; sometimes one person holds out too much hope and the therapist helps her or him to hear their partner clearly that the relationship is over

- facilitate discussions about where each of you will live, how you might share time with your children, and/or how you will tell your children what’s happening

- support you as you try to honor the good months or years that you had together while helping you each to navigate the separate roads you’re about to take

- help make sure you talk about the things that need to be talked about. Counselors/therapists have often been through countless breakups/divorces with their clients, so they know – perhaps better than you – about the laundry list of things that need discussing (e.g., who gets the kids/pets for holidays? who will pay insurance? how will you share home equity? who moves out, and when? how will you divide up furniture and belongings? how will you create stability for your children? how will you tell your friends and family members, and when? what will you tell people about why you’re splitting, and what will you keep private among just the two of you? and so on)

When you first meet with a counselor/therapist to work on your relationship dissolution, it’s important to be clear about your goals and why you are there, lest they be unclear about why they’re being hired (to keep you two together? or to help you navigate your separate lives?).

It’s also important to remember that you are indeed hiring the therapist for a task. It’s a concrete task and it’s helpful to set boundaries – to agree, for example, to 2 or 3 or 4 sessions (or a period of time) during which she or he will help the two of you.

Some people choose to meet only as a couple with the therapist/counselor whereas others also request individual sessions. Neither is better or worse; they are just different options that you can discuss and work your way around.

When all is said and done, you will still need to work with an attorney if there are legal things that need to be done (e.g., changing one’s name; changing titles on a house; etc). But hopefully, when all is said and done, you will also be able to walk away from the relationship knowing that you two did the best you could to end it with the love, care, respect, and honor that your time together deserves. Breakups, separations, and divorces are fairly common throughout the world. After all, every relationship ends until you come to find the one that doesn’t (or, until one of you dies, I suppose). Better to honor it with a decent ending than hurt each other even more.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.