By Dessa Rosman Stone, Ph.D.
"Divorce therapy" is a fairly new concept in the mental health field. Divorce, like marriage, is one of life's toughest transitions. "For better or for worse" reflects the contemporary view among mental health professionals that divorce, like marriage, involves a commitment to a positive adjustment. As with marital therapy, divorce therapy focusses on helping partners strengthen their ability to communicate and negotiate. Unlike marital therapy that aims to preserve the marital relationship, divorce therapy works toward dissolution of the relationship. Broadly speaking, treatment goals are designed to assist in coping with change and achieving the most successful family restructuring possible.
The specialty of divorce therapy formed in response to the growing number of divorces in recent years. Experts predict that half of all marriages that occur this year will end in divorce. Surveys have indicated that approximately 75 - 80 percent remarry and 60 percent of second marriages fail. These numbers explain the gradual shift in public consciousness regarding divorce from a deviant to a mainstream phenomenon. The stigma associated with divorce has gradually lifted as people get more comfortable calling it quits. The mental health profession, once regarding "divorce therapy" as an oxymoron or a subspecialty (or failure) of marital therapy, has embraced the concept as a legitimate therapeutic entity.
The field of divorce therapy is still in its infancy, and literature scarce compared to marriage and family literature. Most authors agree that the divorce process has a unique set of stages and objectives. Douglas H. Sprenkle, Ph.D. in his scholarly article "The Clinical Practice of Divorce Therapy" (in The Divorce and Divorce Therapy Handbook, Martin Textor, Ed., Jason Aranson, Inc., 1994) divides the divorce process into three stages: (1) predivorce decision making; (2) divorce restructuring; and (3) postdivorce recovery. He offers a list of treatment goals which is both comprehensive and consistent in its essence with other writers on the subject:
- Accept the end of the marriage. The cornerstone of long-term adjustment is accepting that one is not, and will no longer be, married to one's ex-spouse (Fisher, 1981).
- Achieve a functional postdivorce relationship with the exspouse. This entails "making peace" with the exspouse, deally both within one's self and between one's former mate. While an ongoing relationship is unnecessary if there are no children, parents must be capable of separating parental and spousal roles.
- Achieve a reasonable emotional adjustment. While divorce inevitably entails negative emotional consequences, it is important that divorcees not get stuck in long-term self-blame, guilt, or anger.
- Develop an understanding of their own contributions to the dysfunctional behavior that led to the failure of the marriage. Awareness of personal responsibility, ways in which the marital struggle may be linked to family-of-origin issues, and reasons for choice of mate are issues that are fruitfully pursued.
- Find sources of social support. The divorcee needs to develop formal and informal contacts with individuals and groups who provide emotional support or material resources while escaping the temptationnnnnnn to deny stress by developing another (premature) intimate relationship.
- Feel competent and comfortable in posstdivorce parenting roles. Parents need to be concerned and attentive without becoming overly emotionally dependent on their children.
- Help their children adjust to the loss without triangulating them or nourishing unrealistic expectations. Teaching partners the "dos" and "don'ts" of child management at this time is among the therapist's most important roles.
- Use the "crisis" of divorce as an opportunity for learning and personal growth. Divorce often "shakes up the system" and forces people to clarify values and revise priorities. Establishing a new identity for oneself, setting new goals, or developing new roles or activities may be entailed.
- Negotiate the legal process in a way both feel is reasonably equitable. It is most constructive when divorcees believe they neither gave nor took too much and are satisfied with the terms of custody and visitationn (Sutton and Sprenkle 1985).
- Develop physical, health, and personal habits consistent with adjustment for anyone. This includes issues related to dealing with alcohol and drugs,sleep, eating habits, hygiene and grooming, decision making, job performance, and financial management."
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