Counselling before divorce or separation – why you need it
- April 7, 2018
- Jennifer Hetherington
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As a family lawyer I see many separating couples every week. One of the questions I always ask is whether or not they have been to counselling, whether individually or as a couple. It always astounds me the number of people who are clearly struggling with the breakdown of their relationship and have not yet sought counselling, but equally the number of people who say that their partner just refused to attended counselling. I admit that in my more than 20 years of family law, I still am baffled by this. If there was a chance to save your relationship, then surely a few counselling sessions would be preferable to a divorce?
Why don’t people go to counselling before they separate?
I’ve asked around to try to get to the bottom of this and think that the reason for not attending counselling maybe based in fear or prior bad experiences, whether their own or that of a friend. We tend to trust what people say to us. If a friend attended counselling and found it a horrible experience, then that is likely to colour our opinion of whether or not to attend.
Is there a stigma around counselling?
I also think there is still a stigma surrounding mental health in Australia and that some people equate couples counselling or marriage counselling with mental health therapy when, in reality, they are very different.
You’re the one who needs counselling, not me!
I also commonly hear people tell me that when they broach the subject, their partner told them that they were the one with the problem, so they should go and get the counselling to fix themselves. Surely we are all adult enough now to know that it takes two to tango and if there are problems in a relationship, they usually do not reside with the one person. Both parties have a part to play in any marriage difficulties and blame really does not help solve problems.
Why not get out of your usual environment and talk with a neutral party?
Why is counselling important?
I recently engaged in a conversation with someone who was considering ending their marriage because they were frustrated with the behaviour of their partner not helping out with the kids, too much time spent out socialising without the family, and not really understanding the struggles that their partner was experiencing. I think of this as a misalignment of values. Sometimes when people have children, it takes one party a little bit longer to catch up to realise that life changes after kids.
Fear of losing identity
Sometimes people who have been the primary financial provider while the other person takes a greater role as homemaker and parent, struggle to understand what life is like for the stay at home parent. However, they might also struggle with finding balance between working long hours, trying to maintain some semblance of an identity outside of their marriage and as a parent, and the fact that their work takes them away from their children.
It might seem contradictory to them to spend more time away from the family but some people don’t have the level of emotional intelligence to recognise what’s really going on for them and that their actions are self-defeating.
The epiphany or lightbulb moment
The irony is that post-separation any family lawyer could tell you it is not at all uncommon for a parent who has traditionally been the main financial provider, who may not have spent a lot of time with the children, to have something of an epiphany and increase the time they spend with the kids after separation or divorce.
When a couple separate, children divide their time between their parents. That might be the children living predominantly with one parent and having contact with the other parent on weekends or it could be closer to the children spending 50/50 or equal time with each parent. There’s no way of knowing what your situation will be if you separate. It’s not a good idea to make assumptions.
With the changes to the family law system that will come about as a result of the government’s review of the family law system, we have no idea what the future might look like in terms of division of children’s time between parents.
I’ve acted for frustrated parents who were the stay at home parent who find it infuriating that the other parent has ‘suddenly’ decided to take an active role and interest in the children’s lives when that didn’t happen during the marriage. Equally, I’ve acted for the parent who has had the epiphany, who realises that they lost out on so much time with their children because they were working, which contributed to the breakdown of their marriage and breakup of their family unit and they feel like they have to make up for lost time. There’s no right or wrong answer here but it would be wonderful if these epiphanies could happen before people separated – and perhaps avoid the separation in the first place.
Counselling means less work for family lawyers
If more people went to couples counselling, we family lawyers would have less work. Counselling can be very effective. And even if it does not result in a relationship or marriage being saved, it can lay the groundwork for parents to have a far better co-parenting relationship moving forward, with less conflict between them. It’s not divorce that harms children, conflict harms kids – whether a couple are still together or separated.
What is your most likely alternative to counselling?
If you are considering separating because of frustration of the lack of involvement by your working spouse, consider this:
What if your co-parent is the one who has an epiphany? You might not like their lack of involvement with the children now, but are you prepared to be separated from your children for days, perhaps weeks at a time both during the school term and school holidays? Would it be preferable to work on the issues in your relationship before you separate, so that you have your kids around you all the time? Are you prepared for any empty house every second weekend?
Ultimately, not every marriage can (or should) be saved. Some relationships are toxic or violent. Relationships where there is conflict can be harmful to children and parents. Some parents are happier and co-parent better apart than they did when they’re together. But provided safety is not a factor, isn’t it worth giving counselling a shot to see if the issues you’re experiencing can be resolved?
My partner won’t agree to go to counselling
If you’re having trouble getting your partner to go to counselling or think you will experience resistance, here is an article, which can help start the discussion and respond to objections.
If your partner refuses to attend counselling, then your next steps are to obtain counsellinfor yourself and seek legal advice so that you can develop a pathway through your separation with the assistance of a family lawyer and other professionals such as financial advisors and accountants. Make sure your wellbeing is a priority.