Getting a divorce and feeling lost? Here’s how a psychologist can steer you toward the right path.
Reprinted from NEXT: Moving Beyond Your Ex, June 2014
By: Andrew M. Gothard, Psy.D.
A recent advertisement for a company offering divorce-related services proclaims: “Divorce hurts, but it does not have to be painful.”
The unfortunate reality for many families involved in the divorce process is that divorce both hurts and can be very painful. It is painful for the couple whose marriage has failed, for the children who are losing the opportunity to grow up living with both parents under one roof, and for many others who are close to the family and are affected by the dissolution of the marriage.
Grandparents, whose feelings and disappointments often are neglected in the process, suffer collateral damage as well. When child custody is in dispute, the painful consequences of divorce are usually exponentially magnified.
Nobody is hurt more by divorce than the children involved, with far reaching effects, both immediately and over the long term. Their schoolwork can suffer, they might experience physical problems (such as headaches or stomach aches), they can act out behaviorally, and they can exhibit signs of more serious ailments, such as depression.
The depth of these negative manifestations is related to a number of variables, such as the degree to which the parents can shield them from their animosity, any preexisting adjustment problems the children might already be suffering from, their age at the time of the divorce, and each individual child’s level of resiliency. Often, to address these issues and handle them in a controllable way, the help and judiciousness of a psychologist is sought.
The good news is that there are a number of different roles and services that psychologists can provide in minimizing the many negative consequences of divorce.
These benefits usually fall into one of two different categories: therapeutic interventions and evaluation services. These interventions are available during the three distinct time periods of the divorce process: before, during, and after.
Before Litigation Begins
It is at this stage that psychologists can be most helpful in limiting the negative impacts of divorce on parents and children. A psychologist’s services at this point can aid in limiting the ultimate negative emotional harm.
While hurt, anger, depression, fear, and anxiety, among so many other emotions, are often inevitable, for the parents and children alike, therapeutic services can limit the severity of these emotions. These services can take a variety of forms:
Marital therapy - Many couples think about divorce, and many might even believe that they are certain that their marriage is over. However, after undergoing marital therapy facilitated by a skilled and experienced psychologist, they often discover that their marriage is not irreconcilable. They learn that through better communication, the forgiveness of old grudges and resentments, and other therapeutic techniques, the marriage can be saved.
Many people opt for staying together “only for the children’s sake.” But when couples genuinely engage in marital therapy, in good faith, they discover that even if their motivation for trying is just for the children, they can heal and recapture enough of the enjoyment in being together that divorce is not necessary.
Individual therapy for parents - Quite often, the degradation of the marriage is not caused solely by the relationship problems of the couple. Rather, many other factors often play a role, such as personal mental health issues that need to be treated, financial issues, and work-related stress that a parent can’t seem to keep out of the home.
When one starts caring for one’s individual emotional and mental health with effective therapy, this is often enough to jump-start healing in the marriage.
Individual therapy and/or family therapy with the children - Children don’t come with instructions, but they do come with a wide variety of personal temperaments and differing levels of ability to adjust to their own life stressors.
When children are exhibiting behavioral problems, seem to be non-responsive to discipline, are doing very poorly in school, or start suffering from depression, ADHD, or other mental health issues, this takes a toll on the parents.
Parents can resort to blaming each other rather than coming together as a parenting team to help deal with their children’s struggles in the best possible manner. Therapy, either individual or family, can foster a better sense of control in the parents and decrease these tremendous stressors on the marriage.
Here are the ways a psychologist can be invaluable while the divorce is unfolding:
Divorce counseling - Even when some marriages are truly doomed and irreconcilable, it is fortunate that not all couples choose to enter into a full-fledged battle mode. Many parents truly understand that although their children will suffer even under the best of circumstances, the parents’ actions are the single most important factor in limiting the impact of their impending divorce on the children.
When parents are committed to navigating the process with as little hostility and animosity as possible, therapy with a psychologist can assist them in navigating the many pitfalls. As but one example, the psychologist can assist these parents in how to discuss the divorce with the children, even bringing the children into those sessions as needed. The psychologist can work with the children individually to assist them in processing the information and coping with their raw emotions.
Evaluation services - There are many different types of evaluations that psychologists are often asked to perform as the litigation moves forward. This can range from fully involved custody evaluations to more limited and circumscribed evaluations of just one of the parents, or even one or more of the children.
The issues that psychologists are asked to investigate during the divorce can be wide ranging, including assessing for general mental health issues, parental fitness, domestic violence, substance abuse, psychosexual evaluations, and other types of evaluations. In the most contentious cases, the evaluating psychologist can assess for all allegations of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
After the Divorce
Despite how chaotic, stressful, and emotionally draining the divorce may be, the most difficult times often lie ahead. The parents and children now must negotiate changing family constellations, adjust to new homes (with the children adjusting to multiple homes), adapt to different roles that the parents would now find themselves in, get used to perhaps a change of schools for the children, and deal with the new financial strains that one (or both) of the parents now must face.
It is at this time that psychologists often can be the most useful in helping families. Individual therapy for parents or children can be a vital resource in assisting them to cope with these various new changes and stressors.
In the most extreme circumstances, such as where parental alienation has been perpetrated by a parent (which is believed by many to constitute nothing less than emotional abuse of the children), the therapy needed for the children really is akin to deprogramming. This is a vital process to assist in the re-establishment of healthy relationships among the children and the parent who has been the target of the alienation.
It is important to distinguish between therapeutic versus evaluative services, as they differ in any number of ways, and the expectations of the psychologist should be accordingly different.
A therapist, by design, enters into an intimate therapeutic relationship with his or her clients. In that context, understanding the client’s perspective often is more important than the absolute “truth.” The psychologist’s role is to help the client with regard to the client’s best interest. The psychologist truly works for the client.
However, when involved in an evaluative role, the psychologist generally does not perceive the individuals being evaluated as his or her “client.” When an evaluation is court-ordered, for example, the court is the client, and the psychologist’s primary mandate is to serve the court by providing information, opinions, and recommendations. In contrast to the therapy client’s best interest, the psychologist’s overarching concern is the child/children’s best interest when performing evaluations in the context of a divorce.
In present times, with divorce rates expected to rise as the economy improves, attorneys will increasingly be called on to assist clients in navigating the emotional and financial challenges of divorce. Psychologists can be valuable assets in helping attorneys and their client’s progress toward their goals.
In fact, one dares to hope that psychological counseling can prevent some divorces altogether, leading to happy families and a healthier, more stable generation.
This article is for informational purposes only. Information provided on this website is not intended to be used in place of professional psychological or medical advice, diagnosis, and/or treatment. If you are seeking mental health treatment, we welcome a call to this office at 770-457-5577. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911.