Because the process of separation and divorce leads to the end of a nuclear family, family therapy for divorcing families strikes many as an oxymoron. What would be the purpose of helping a family communicate and function better if the family is ending? But while loss and endings are inherent in separation and divorce, the process is also one in which families families reorganize, establish new patterns of relating, and find new roles and tasks for individual family members. Family therapy can be a powerful tool for families to attend to these tasks.
Increasing economic mobility, cultural changes, and the rise of no-fault divorce led to a steep rise in divorce about 40 years ago. A child who is born today into an intact family has over a 1/3rd chance of experiencing a family separation. Although most children who endure a family separation do not develop mental health problems, they are at higher risk for mood and conduct problems, and are more likely to experience relationship problems as adults. Children whose families plan separations carefully, and whose parents focus on cooperating and communicating effectively, are much better able to manage the separation, and are at far less risk of developing emotional or behavioral difficulties.
Divorce therapy can help families manage the many tasks of divorce and point the way towards a healthier future for all family members. Divorce therapists help couples clarify the status of their relationships, and if they choose separation, they assist them in doing so in a way that minimizes disruption and lessens traumatic effects on the children. They work with divorcing couples to manage their legal divorce so that it proceeds in an orderly manner and maximizes the well-being of all family members. They help separating spouses to leave their old problematic communication patterns behind and become effective co-parents.
As families separate and divorce, divorce therapists address a number of important family needs. They typically work with individual “households” to establish order, harmony, and new norms and rituals. They take special care to make sure that both parents remain involved in a positive way with their children. They may work with siblings to lessen conflict, adjust to new circumstances, and increase their skills for supporting each other. Therapists may also work with individual children to adjust to their new lives, and assist individual adults as they build new relationships and embark on new endeavors.
Salvador Minuchin, one of the founders of family therapy, once famously said that divorce was “not the end of a family, but the reorganization of a family”. Family therapy can be a very valuable tool for such reorganization.
–Posted by Jonah Green