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New Beginnings

December 9, 2011

Image courtesy of Tom Curtis / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Susan F. Schwartz, L.C.S.W.  This article was previously posted on The Huffington Post Divorce at www.huffingtonpost.com.

As the New Year begins, it’s only natural for us to think about resolutions and changes. We reflect back on the year that has passed, attempt to weed out the things/behaviors/people that were not working for us, and make a commitment to something new for the coming year. Depending on your situation, divorce can be seen as a way of ending something that no longer works well, in the hopes of being subsequently given the opportunity of beginning something new and more fulfilling, perhaps in the form of a new marriage down the road. Yet, if we look at the statistics for second and third marriages, they are pretty bleak. According to two different sources, (Enrichment Journal, and Jennifer Baker, Forest Institute of Professional Psychology), the divorce rate for first marriages is between 41% and 50%, for second marriages, between 60% and 67%, and for third marriages, between 70% and 73%. So, statistically speaking, the third time around may not be a charm after all. One would think some learning from the first marriage would naturally occur, and thus it would follow that the divorce rate in subsequent marriages should go down instead of up. As the opposite is actually the case, it stands to reason that, many people are missing a step in figuring out how to make their second marriage better than their first.

It has been my experience that people decide to leave a marriage without really ever fully understanding what went wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that people in the process of a divorce don’t have a story to tell about why the divorce is occurring. However, rarely is there an honest exploration and assessment by divorcing couples, to attempt to figure out when and how they went astray. Self-examination, whether alone or in individual therapy, is only partially helpful as it is limited by one person’s perspective. Many believe that marital therapy prior to dissolution counts as a way of understanding what went wrong. The goals of marital therapy, however, are usually to save the marriage or at least help decide whether the marriage can be saved. What I’m suggesting is a process that would encourage the divorcing couple to get together in one room with a trained mental health professional to help the couple explore what mistakes each one made. I believe a process such as this would go very far in reducing divorce rates for second and third marriages.

Currently, however, once entering the divorce process, couples usually end up pointing fingers, and believing, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, to quote the title of a wonderful book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Traditional adversarial divorces often encourage feelings of self-righteousness and victimization. Rather than providing an opportunity to learn and accept responsibility for one’s part in a very sad conclusion to a marriage, divorces done in the traditional adversarial manner encourage self-deception to continue, (he or she is to blame and not me). On the other hand, however, collaborative divorce, which helps people divorce in a respectful way by utilizing a multi-disciplinary team and agreeing not to go to court, offers the opportunity for real learning to occur.

Throughout my practice, I have yet to meet a person who didn’t begin his or her marriage with the expectation of it lasting a lifetime. Some have said things like, “I should have known it wouldn’t work out the first time I heard him lose his temper, but I ignored the red flags” or “I loved how beautiful she always looked, but who knew how much money and time she actually spent on clothes, hair appointments, and skin treatments!” So how do couples get from marital bliss to retaining an attorney? It has been interesting for me to hear the answer to that question in the numerous divorce cases I have worked on over the last ten years as a collaborative divorce coach, in partnership with my colleague, Dr. Rob Rutman. In our role as divorce coaches, we each work individually with one half of the couple to learn their stories and prepare them for a very structured meeting with the four of us. It is in this meeting that there is tremendous opportunity for growth and learning as each person gets to tell the other what life has been like from their perspective for the length of the marriage.

This process is not a dialogue and is not about agreement. It is about listening and understanding life from the spouse’s point of view. Each party gets a chance to be both listener and speaker, and if done correctly, learns what life has been like for their partner, cognitively as well as emotionally. In this format, it is the listening spouse who has the most challenging task because listening without interrupting or engaging in a dialogue is so unnatural, especially for feuding spouses.

I wish I could convey to you how magical and transformational this meeting often is. For the first time in a long time, after both husband and wife each get a turn to speak and to listen, they end up being on the same page from an emotional point of view. They learn that emotionally they both feel the same feelings of hurt, sadness, disappointment at what could have been, as well as frustration and anger. However, the difference between them is that these feelings are usually connected to very different events. Perhaps she may have strong feelings of hurt because he made decisions unilaterally that affected both of them, whereas he may hurt because she never really understood the pressures he felt at his job. So, the events may be different, but the feelings of hurt are the same, and thus an emotional bridge connects the two of them, and understanding and respect can begin. And yes, very rarely, during this process, the couple learns new possibilities for transforming their own failed marriage into something workable, as was the case for Dan and Mary, a couple I wrote about in my previous post.

The goal of this four-way meeting is not reconciliation, however. The primary goal is to help divorcing couples understand the underlying emotional components that contributed to the end of their marriage. During a divorce, emotions often become distractions that interfere with the clear and logical thinking necessary to make good decisions about one’s future. Secondly, it’s to take the opportunity to learn about mistakes one has made, and incorporate them into better choices in future relationships, marriage or not. Thirdly, it helps divorcing couples co-parent more effectively because they can both take responsibility for their own mistakes that contributed to their failed marriage. As both husband and wife accept their own culpability, they no longer have to blame one another and point fingers. They are thus freed to look forward to the best part of their marriage, their children. “Yes, mistakes were made, and made by us both”, is a much healthier attitude and allows for transformation, growth, opportunity and hope for a stronger second marriage and thus no need for a third.

Susan Schwartz 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 don’t 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 people’s 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.

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