In the previous two posts we considered the reasons for getting divorced as well as the ramifications. In this post we’ll take a look at the alternatives to getting divorced – i.e., options to consider if your marriage is on the rocks, but the thought of going through the often-grueling divorce process has got you panicking.
Even at the 11th hour, there may yet be options to turn things around, or at least to avoid a total disaster in the event that the marriage is going to end. The three approaches we’ll consider – marriage counseling, Controlled Separation, and Alternative Dispute Resolution – can go either way in terms of the final result; but in each case, the outcome will almost certainly be better than battling it out in court.
At this point you may feel you are beyond the help of couples counseling, but it is worth giving this serious thought before moving on.
A good marriage counselor can do a lot for a couple even when things seem dire. I have seen many couples pull back from the brink after we have put in the work to change the way they interact and really do things differently.
Sometimes people have misconceptions about what couples counseling actually is. And the truth is, it’s not one thing. There are a number of different approaches to couples counseling that have been proven to be very effective. But none of them is going to be about arguing in the therapy room about old hurts, jockeying to get the therapist to take sides, hitting each other with foam bats, or anything else that you might have seen on TV.
What you will do depends on the kind of therapy you’re doing and the therapist you’re doing it with. You may have to try a few therapists before you find one you like. This is normal. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if you have, or have had, a bad experience; marriage counseling works. That doesn’t mean that every marriage counselor you encounter is going to be the right fit for you.
Even if things in your marriage are really bad right now, it may be worth giving it a good faith effort to avoid having to walk away from something that perhaps does offer a lot of positives in your life.
If you’ve never tried it before, you may need to learn how to work smarter and not harder. If you’ve been trying to fix things in your marriage but have never had a professional guide you through proven methods for doing so, you may have been spinning your wheels.
And even if you’ve tried it before and it “didn’t work,” it is honestly worth giving it a second shot. As noted above, there are different therapists and different styles. If you really want to be sure that you’ve done everything you can to make your marriage work, it’s worthwhile exploring this avenue again in a different way.
At the same time, you may well come to realize in the context of marriage counseling that this relationship really isn’t right for you, or that it is beyond the point where you can or want to repair it. At that point, a marriage counselor can help you decide together how best to proceed, and how to part ways in the most compassionate and productive manner, which is helpful for your long-term well-being and that of your family.
A good counselor is not there to convince you one way or the other; they’re there to help you make the decisions that are best for you. If that means ending the marriage, they should ideally be able to help you along that path just as well as they can down the path of repair.
There is a formal process called Conscious Uncoupling (made semi-famous by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin) which was designed by a marriage and family therapist specifically for helping couples break up in a respectful and meaningful way. This is also a good option for ending a relationship with support from a professional who can ease the process.
For couples who are truly ready for a break – from the stress of the relationship, from the constant conflict, from each other – Controlled Separation is a mindful approach to exploring the future path of your marriage.
Controlled Separation doesn’t mean you just move out and see what happens. There is a lot of planning and discussion that goes into it. This is not the same thing as trying out being single again and seeing how you feel (hence, not just Separation but Controlled Separation).
The point is that the two of you decide together what the parameters of this interim stage will be. There needs to be a lot of clarity about what things will look like between you; leaving it to “we’ll play it by ear” is a recipe for ambiguity and discomfort. (This is not to say that things can’t change and be fluid; this just needs to happen with intentionality.)
For example, here are some topics you might want to hash out:
- Communication: How often will you speak to each other? Are you going incommunicado for a period of time? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, do you still want to speak every day? Likewise, how will you communicate? Will you see each other in person? Talk on the phone? Only text?
- Subject matter: What will you talk about? Will it get personal, or is it going to be purely practical to manage childrearing responsibilities?
- Finances: how will you be paying for the new expenses that come up from living separately (rent, utilities, transportation)? Will you keep a shared bank account, or use separate ones?
- Relationship boundaries: if you choose to meet in person, is sexual contact going to be part of the plan, or is that on hold for now? What about dating other people – yes or no?
This list is by no means exhaustive; make sure you both have total clarity about what things will look like when you separate. It is important not to assume any of these things – the more you can spell out, the better this will go. (It might be helpful here too to have a professional guide you through the process. This book is a can help you through the process as well.)
Recognize that there are no right and wrong answers here; it’s whatever feels right to the both of you. Of course, the odds are that you won’t agree on many of these questions, and it’s important to be able to recognize and assert your own boundaries; even if you don’t agree with your partner’s preferences, you can be aware of them, and hopefully respect them.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Alternative Dispute Resolution is what the courts call various approaches to resolving conflicts outside of a litigation framework. Generally it refers to one of the several styles of mediation, in which the parties are working together to come up with solutions rather than fighting against each other. It is obviously a much more collaborative approach to splitting up than fighting it out in court. It does take a measure of willingness on both sides to participate; if one or both parties aren’t interested in working together towards a better outcome, you may ultimately have to go through a court battle.
However, it is worthwhile for both parties to think long and hard before going that route. Mediation usually yields more satisfying outcomes for everyone involved, as opposed to winning some battles and losing others. You will both have more control over the end results instead of handing over decision-making power to a judge.
Mediation is also generally a faster process than litigation; you are not bound by the pace of court proceedings. And it is important to realize too that mediation is always far cheaper than hiring two lawyers!
A similar approach to avoiding a litigation war is Collaborative Divorce, which again assumes the will on the part of both of you to work together, rather than against each other, to find the best solutions. Collaborative Divorce usually involves a team of professionals, including a mediator, to help the family arrive at the best outcomes.
The team may also include a divorce coach, a child/family therapist, a financial specialist, or others. It is a holistic approach to making sure that the divorce process is as smooth as possible and takes into account all the factors that need to be considered.
Ultimately, mediation and collaborative divorce are both ways of ending a marriage once you’ve decided to do so. But even once you are at that point, it’s up to you and your soon-to-be-ex how you want the process to go.
If you’re still not sure whether divorce is the right path for you, counseling and Controlled Separation might be helpful options to explore. If you’ve made the decision that divorce is the best option, hopefully mediation or Collaborative Divorce are approaches you can take to minimize the wear and tear on yourself and your family.
And if you’re still not sure which way to go – which is certainly a normal place to be stuck – talk to a professional yourself and work together to figure out what decision is best for you.