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Maria Shriver: Asked and Answered

July 11, 2011

In a YouTube video on March 28, 2011, Maria Shriver asked for advice from people going through transitions in their lives. Specifically, she wanted to hear how people got through the transition of moving from one phase of life into the next. Since that time, Ms. Shriver and her husband of 25 years, Arnold Schwarzenneger, have announced their decision to separate, and just today, the announcement that Schwarzenneger fathered a child with a member of the household staff, no doubt is making this transition in the former First Lady of California’s life that much more difficult. Separation from one’s spouse after more than two decades of marriage and four children is a very specific type of transition, though it certainly shares some common characteristics with all other transitions including, an uncertainty about the future characterized by a sense of being in limbo, and a need to be attentive to things that were automatic and seamlessly decided before the transition began. But separation from a long term marriage has some very specific characteristics that differentiate it from other transitions; namely, it involves another person, and the disentangling of two lives from one another. So, Ms. Shriver, you asked about transitions, and as a psychotherapist and collaborative divorce coach, I’m going to answer in regards to the transition I feel I have the most insight into: the transition from one household into two.

As you begin to figure out your future, look back over the last 25 years and see what went wrong along the way that contributed to you and your husband being where you are today, specifically in regards to your relationship. It’s easy for everybody–friends, family, the media, and the public–to make assumptions about what went wrong–but truly , only the two of you have the capacity to figure out what really happened, perhaps with assistance from a professional skilled in this type of work. To really understand what went wrong would require observing life from both of your perspectives–the thoughts and feelings you each had tied to events in the relationship that are important to one or both of you; in other words, how both of your behaviors have impacted and affected the other from the beginning of the marriage to the present. I’m not suggesting that you go through 25 years of events, but rather, it would be effective to look back and figure out the events that contributed most to your decision to separate. I suggest that you go down a road together in which the goal is emotional honesty, honesty to both yourselves and to one another, with a willingness to admit mistakes and take responsibility for errors you each have made along the way which eventually led to your current separation. (I have previously written about this process in my article entitled New Beginnings.)

This journey will not be an easy one, and will most likely require the assistance of someone skilled at facilitating such a journey. The outcome however, will be well worth the hard work. This process will either begin the emotional divorce from one another or provide a game plan towards beginning a more successful marital relationship. The concrete goals of such an endeavor are:

1) to learn from mistakes made and thus allow for better choices in the future

2) the decision of whether or not to walk away from a 25 year marriage will be much easier to make after you are in agreement about what really went wrong in the marriage—you may decide the mistakes are fixable, or not

3) should you continue on the road to divorce, the legal and financial divorce can more readily be done with mutual respect, and

4) should you decide to divorce, you both can join together more strongly, and in a new way, with a focus towards the best of your relationship–your four children.

And who really knows where this process will lead? Others who have gone through this journey actually came out of it renewing their vows with new understanding of how to avoid old mistakes as they look towards the future together. Others, if not most, come out of it respecting what they once had together while looking at what they still share with one another as they move forward along separate paths. And should this be the case, the lessons learned from this exercise will be lessons to be applied by both of you as you form new relationships. This process removes the need for blame, and in its place, it allows you to transition into a new relationship with one another, focusing on more important common concerns.

Should you find yourself moving towards divorce, I recommend obtaining more information about the three different options currently available, before retaining an attorney. The traditional divorce is adversarial in nature. This process does not take into account the emotional aspects of a divorce and thus usually exacerbates the conflicts between the couple, leaving them more frustrated and angry as they try to establish a co-parenting relationship once the divorce is finalized. There are two consensual dispute resolution ways to divorce: mediation and collaborative divorce. I strongly recommend choosing a collaborative divorce as this process allows for each of you to have the support of your own attorney present to facilitate problem solving and provide expert legal advice within a mutually respectful environment. Anyone interested in learning more about collaborative divorce can visit the website of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

So Ms. Shriver, in closing, I know that you know you are a very strong, capable and intelligent woman. You will get through this transition. I hope you and the former Governor both learn from the mistakes that were made in the past. In the Chinese language, there are two characters that when written together, symbolize the word for crisis. The first character, when it stands alone, means danger and the second, when it stands alone, means opportunity. In every crisis, there is both danger and opportunity. Take the opportunity that exists here to get beneath any anger and resentment, and try to build a bridge to a new and better relationship with the father of your children. I truly wish you and your family all the best.

Susan F. Schwartz, L.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been in private practice in Torrance, California for more than 23 years. She received her Masters of Social Work from UCLA in 1982 and subsequently completed a three year post-graduate fellowship in family therapy. During her years in practice, Ms. Schwartz has assisted numerous families throughout all stages of the divorce process, and has always been particularly interested in trying to help children traverse the challenges of being caught in the crossfire of parents who dont get along. When she learned about collaborative divorce, a groundbreaking methodology for helping families through divorce, she saw it as a new and exciting way to make a difference in peoples lives. Since 2000, Ms Schwartz has been involved in the practice and teaching of collaborative divorce and is a proud member of A Better Divorce: A Group of Collaborative Professionals.
published on HuffPost Divorce May 2011

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