An Open Letter To Divorce Therapists

Do you think you are "helping" clients by working to keep them together when it's obvious that their relationship is irreparable? Do you believe that if you learn more about divorce, that means you condone divorce?
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Dear Colleague,

If you are a therapist who has ever had a client who was contemplating divorce, smack in the middle of a divorce, or still reeling from post-divorce issues, please answer these important questions:

1. Do you believe that if you "help" couples get divorced, that constitutes "aiding and abetting" them to break up their family?

2. Do you think you are "helping" clients by working to keep them together when it's obvious that their relationship is irreparable?

3. Do you believe that if you learn more about divorce, that means you condone divorce?

4. Have you ever seen a course offered specifically on the subject of divorce and thought, "I don't need to take a class on that?!"

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions (even if you'd never admit it to anyone else), then I highly recommend you get more educated about divorce -- and take a serious look at your own unconscious beliefs about marital dissolution.

Whenever I give a class or workshop to therapists on the subject, the first question I ask participants is how they feel about divorce. The answers vary from, "I think it's wrong," to, "It's no big deal." But far too many therapists believe that it is their job to keep couples together and that if they can't, that they have failed. But why?

The answer is simple, yet disheartening: Because divorce "isn't supposed to happen," we don't get adequately educated about it. We are taught all kinds of skills in graduate school to help clients with communication, intimacy, cooperation -- we can even help people improve their sex lives -- but we don't see it as helping a couple client if the relationship ultimately "fails," (a term I hate using). If they fail, we have failed.

Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth and if you are more invested in keeping your clients in an unhealthy and unworkable relationship, then you should know that you are unknowingly perpetuating our shame-based marital (and dissolution) system.

The fact that courses specifically addressing divorce are not taught in our graduate and undergraduate programs implies that we are "not supposed to go there." The fact that many therapists are licensed as "Marriage, Family Therapists," implies that divorce should not enter into the picture. Otherwise, why wouldn't they just be called, "Family Therapists" or simply, "Licensed Therapists?"

Just about one in two marriages ends in divorce and many more marriages languish behind closed doors. Given how prevalent marital discord and divorce are in all of our society, I believe it's incumbent on all therapists to learn as much as possible about the inner workings of a divorcing person and family so we know what is truly helpful to clients (be they adults, children, couples or families).

Is There a Solution?

There are at least two organizations, The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), and the International Academy of Divorce Professionals, that are dedicated to helping divorce professionals learn about how dissolution impacts families, individuals and children.

While these are helpful, the reality is that only those therapists who truly specialize in dissolution will attend. I believe more needs to be done to make education about divorce accessible to the mainstream clinician. Rather than asking therapists to travel miles to attend a weekend conference, I'd like to see more on-line or in-person, day-long classes.

I'm happy to report that I have been able to present on the subject to my local therapist organizations and school (my next class will be at JFK University, Berkeley, CA campus), but I will also tell you that I've had to cancel a handful of classes due to lack of enrollment.

I know divorce isn't juicy or sexy. Nor is it a happy or "desirable outcome" for anyone, but it happens and we therapists need to face that fact.

There are important considerations when dealing with someone contemplation divorce just as there are for those as any other place in the divorce continuum. There are also two cutting edge divorce models that involve mental health professionals (Collaborative Divorce and Integrative Mediation).

If you are a therapist who would like to learn about divorce from a professional vantage point (not from your own personal experience or by learning through your divorcing clients!), please contact me and I'll see if I can help you locate an educational program in your area.

If you are a client who was guided to stay in a bad marriage by a therapist who you felt clearly had an agenda, please forgive them. They are shaped by society just as we all are. Write a letter to your local University and tell them that you'd like to see a course offered in the mental health curriculum specifically on divorce.

We must address the elephant in the living room, people!

Sincerely, Susan Pease Gadoua

(A version of this article was previously posted on Susan's blog, "Contemplating Divorce.")

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