Counselling Couples Who Are Separating

Ed McHale of the Clanwilliam Institute was interviewed by Mary Montaut

Separation and Bereavement

The process of bereavement with separation compares with the most difficult forms of bereavement with death of a partner. It includes all those factors which contribute to complicated grief – a relationship factor, ambiguity about the loss, the multiple loss dimension (usually it includes loss for children, in-laws, and so forth) and then all the social factors. Like suicide, it’s one of the socially unspeakables. Very often people don’t know how to talk about it or it’s negated, so it could be compared with some forms of loss like abortion or the death of a pet which can be a source of serious grief for a person but that’s often negated by others. And following separation, if somebody continues to acknowledge the loss and to speak about it, others often don’t want to listen. There’s an absence of social support network, an absence of ritual. Often separated people find themselves socially isolated, and the source of comfort that a religious framework can provide may be denied them. The effect often is lack of resolution, expressed in chronic grief or sometimes legal recidivism – going back again and again to court over minor issues.

Counselling Early

Separation occurs over a long period of time and can be arbitrarily divided into different stages, so the counselling response to couples will depend on what stage they are at. If they come early when there are serious difficulties within the relationship, I think that the focus at this point is to help the individuals be clear with themselves about where they stand, what their expectations and needs are in relation to the other person, and to be clear with one another. A successful outcome can mean either a shift in their evaluation of the relationship or coming to an agreement about how they proceed, whether that is to separate or to stay together. Often at that point there is a conflict of views. It is usually the case that one person is seriously thinking about leaving the relationship and the other doesn’t want to do that. That is a very challenging stage for a counsellor. If we are working with more than one individual and we have a common goal, it’s easy enough to work towards that goal and to facilitate the couple to make progress in that direction; but when we don’t have a common goal, then it’s a lot more difficult. It’s a more subtle process, and it requires counsellors to maintain an openness and a tolerance for huge ambiguity. They have to be able to hold all the possibilities, and many times these are very conflicting.

Counselling the Couple

We strongly advocate that couples attend to issues in the relationship as a couple. It is quite common for individuals to seek counselling at the point where they’re questioning their commitment to the relationship, and counselling certainly can be useful to individuals. But I think the counsellor who is working with one partner around relationship issues is really working with half the system, and they’re working with that client’s perception of the other half. It’s so much easier if both people are in the room, dealing with the issues and acknowledging their doubts and their disenchantment and their hurt and so forth, in the presence of the other person, difficult though that may be. One individual’s perception of the relationship will be very different – mechanisms come into force like projection and splitting. I think it’s an inherent and essential aspect of a long-term intimate relationship that our very identity becomes infused in that relationship and it’s very difficult for us to be clear about the boundary between self and other. In the counselling room, if we can create a context where couples can safely explore their issues and listen to and acknowledge the other person’s point of view, I think counselling can be invaluable at that point.

Post-Separation Counselling

If the separation has already occurred and they come along not having been in counselling before then, I think that the process can be even more difficult. Usually the separation at that point is a fait accompli, so it’s a question of coming to terms with it. The decision has been made. If they come prior to that, a lot may be accomplished by facilitating them to move from very polarized positions where their choices are all or nothing (a commitment to marriage for the rest of one’s life, or a separation now). If they can be moved towards less polarized positions, they may explore the possibility of improvement in the relationship in the short term. If sufficient of the practical difficulties can be resolved, that may enable them to perceive the possibility of something further in the relationship, to see if the spark of attraction is still alight, as it were, underneath all the debris. Another course is to explore by way of temporary separation and that also can be useful, but I think it affords less possibility because when people are apart, they don’t have the opportunity to deal with the conflict and to learn to communicate their needs and wishes more effectively.

Moving On

We have an open agenda, of course, but I suppose I would have to acknow­ledge that I think that if a relationship can work, if there is the possibility at all of it working, then that would be my preferred outcome. The process of separation is such a difficult one. I think that even if people do separate, five years later they can look back and say, I know I tried, even at that time when I’d given up on it, I did give it that one last effort and I know I did all I could possibly do. But I would always respect the client’s wish and choice. The issue for the counsellor is not in the client convincing the counsellor but in the client convincing the partner, either to attempt another shot at the relationship or that it’s time to let go … But I think that, for a lot of people there may be more hope in separation than in the relationship, and then separation can contribute to all members of the family moving on in their lives if it’s handled appropriately.

Need for Mediation

Where couples have already separated, and if the partner who has been left has come to terms with the separation and accepted that the marriage is over, then both can be assisted to move on. If not, then I think a lot of work has to be done in terms of reality testing and also just accompanying the client through this very difficult emotional process – just being there, being supportive. Very often it doesn’t call for any active intervention, but it requires somebody there who can contain the grief and the rage and the anger and the sense of loss and help them to come out. There is an important aspect with regard to pacing at this point. We do strongly advocate media­tion as the appropriate process for dealing with the practical aspects of separation. In fact, we would see that coming to an agreement about accom­modation and possessions and care of children and so forth, is putting in place a structure within which they can continue with their own emotional process. But if people are introduced to the mediation too early, they won’t be able to cope with the judgement, analysis and decision-making that is required.

Stress of Separating

Very often the emotional process for the couple separating is that one may deliberate for a long time and only then bring it to the attention of the other. Now in that period of deliberation, they will go through a process of increas­ing stress, up to the point at which they make their decision and commit themselves to it by making it public and informing the other, and then very often their stress dips a bit. But strangely enough in a lot of situations, if it’s not talked about openly, the other partner often goes through a period of denial where they are unwilling to look at difficulties in the relationship. So when they are told about the decision to separate, it comes as a great shock to them. They say it has come completely out of the blue, and it is at that point that their anxiety levels start to soar. Their first reaction is one of shock – they go through denial, bargaining, arguing – and that process is often interspersed with periods of numbness, a sense of unreality, not knowing where they are and dissociation. That is often followed by a period of very strong emotions, a roller-coaster phase, in which they are likely to behave in a very uncharacteristic fashion. There can be violence, there can be extreme threats, like those in Ingmar Bergman’s film, Scenes from a Marriage, which I thought captured it well – where an otherwise very rational, articulate couple became quite violent towards one another. And I think the person has to be enabled to come to terms with those strong emotions sufficiently then to be able to face the end of the relationship, accept the end – and then engage in the process of mediation.

Threat to Identity

Essentially I think separation is experienced as a threat to one’s very identity. Even for the person who has deliberated and made the decision to separate, there is usually considerable anxiety and considerable loss. But for the other party, if they feel the decision has been taken from them, there can be a huge sense of threat. In such circumstances, we naturally respond biologically, we respond with ‘fight or flight’ – but there is no flight from separation, so that the threat to one’s own identity can be perceived as life having no meaning – then they can’t even perceive how they could live beyond the separation, which is often experienced as a psychic death. Even if their solicitor does recommend mediation, they very often won’t see that as an option. They respond instead with the ‘fight’, with the struggle – the best defence being offence – and either attempt to make the other person pay, or treat them so harshly that they will regret the course they are taking.

Legal Process Inappropriate

I feel quite strongly that the legal process is very inappropriate to the resolu­tion of domestic conflict and difficulties. It is essentially an adversarial process, and it still tends to be focused more on the material aspects, with each legal team fighting for the advantage of their particular clients. Often people are advised that they must not leave the home or relinquish their rights, and they then may have to live together in great acrimony, whereas a little distance at this time does allow for some healing. It allows the couple to cope with their strong emotions, but when they are constantly rubbing up against one another it is very difficult.

Forthcoming Referendum on Divorce

With regard to the forthcoming Referendum on Divorce, I am actually quite dismayed. I think the Government have gone to a lot of trouble to correct the legal anomalies so that divorce can be introduced, but they really haven’t looked at the process involved for the couple. There is now a wealth of research information demonstrating the effectiveness of mediation over the legal process, in terms of the maintenance of agreements and in terms of the adjustment of children and parents. [The Government has provided a dramatically underfunded token service – it is outrageously underpaid. They are now establishing grades for mediators which are, I think, an insult to the people who work in that area. And in terms of budget provisions, last year (1994) they put aside £6.6 million for legal services to respond to marital separations, but three quarters of a million for marriage counselling (and that was distributed in a very willy-nilly fashion) and less than a third of a million to mediation.] I think we can learn a lot from other countries who have been dealing with divorce for many years, and where they have had the tradition of attempted resolution through the legal process which demonstrably does not work – that is becoming clearer and clearer in the US and Britain. The Association of Family Therapy in Britain are strongly advocating now that couples who apply for separation should not only be recommended to mediate, but should be required to attend an information giving session in which they learn at first hand what mediation is about, and only then decide whether they want to proceed with mediation or to take the legal route. So although we did not recommend it at the last Referendum, we would now strongly recommend, not compulsory mediation, but the compulsory attendance at one session where it would be discussed and couples would be given full information about the process.

Right to Remarry

Of course, as the Government quite rightly keeps emphasising, the Referen­dum is about the right to remarry, and we already have an increased incid­ence of marital separation. I think there is a lot more that we can do in support­ing couples to deal with the process of separating constructively, whether the Referendum is passed or not. If the right to remarry is introduced – and I think it should be introduced because I think it is an individual right – then I think a lot of people can benefit by it. For one thing, it would provide a socially and legally approved ritual, that is a milestone, a marking-point – and I think the absence of that today may lead people to enter into second relationships without due consideration. They either now tend to enter into a second relationship thinking that it doesn’t matter very much because they can’t marry, and then they may find themselves more deeply committed; or they avoid a commitment in a relationship because they can’t marry, and that also can result in many unhappy experiences. The tendency is towards smaller and smaller family units within society, not just through separation, and the option to remarry provides the possibility of larger units coalescing again, with the economic and emotional benefits that accrue. Second relationships can work to the benefit of the parties who remarry and the children involved and also their ex-partners. Obviously there are economic advantages, but likewise there can be emotional and social advantages. It can be an enormous imposition if they are not allowed the choice, and it carries with it a social stigma. They have to carry the burden of a relationship which has ended, but which remains legally unfinished so there is a lack of closure.

Letting Go

I think for couples separating, the mourning process is a very difficult one and it can be quite prolonged. Even in ideal situations it tends to be a long process. Usually there is the first wave of aspects that we talked about – the shock, denial, anger and rage, sense of desolation and loss – but it goes on. The actual separation may occur at one moment in time, but the emotional disengagement goes on over a longer period. And even when couples are separated, it takes time to let go. No matter how one may anticipate these experiences, they still carry with them that process of loss. But I think that loss is such an inherent aspect of family life – of life altogether indeed. Every life stage transition involves grieving a loss before we can move on to the next stage.

Ed McHale, Psychologist and Family Therapist, is a practising counsellor at the Clanwilliam Institute, Personal, Marriage and Family Consultants, 18 Clanwilliam Terrace, Grand Canal Quay, D2, Phone 01 676 1363; 01 676 2881.