Just like marriage counseling is designed to get you through rough spots in your marriage, divorce counseling does the exact same thing, except that it helps you get through the rough spots after you’ve already decided to divorce.
If you need help getting through your divorce (and who doesn’t), here’s what you need to know.
- What exactly is divorce counseling?
- The emotional stages of divorce
- What are the benefits of divorce counseling?
- Signs that you would benefit from counseling
- Tips to help find a good divorce counselor
- Self-care habits to practice in the meantime
What exactly is divorce counseling?
Divorce counseling can help on many levels, helping people sort out complicated feelings, legal issues and financial challenges that a majority of people face during and after a divorce.
Overall, the goal of divorce counseling is to find constructive insights to lessen the stress and anxiety for all parties, including children, relatives, friends, and others.
This doesn’t mean they’ll go through counseling, it simply means you’ll be given tools and strategies to more effectively deal with situations and people you will encounter in both the short and long term.
You may be thinking that a divorce counselor will try to push you back into marriage by solving the issues that led to the break-up in the first place. You may also be hesitant to go to a divorce counselor, especially if much of the blame can be placed on you for the split.
Both of those things will not happen.
A divorce counselor is trained to be non-judgmental and empathetic. Their goal is to help you succeed in your goals going forward, not reliving past chapters of your life. You won’t be forced to do anything you don’t want to do, including getting back into a relationship you’ve already decided to end.
From a practical point of view, a divorce counselor can provide guidance on logistics, legal issues, decision-making, and helping you redefine your relationship with your ex, which is critical if children are involved. You’ll also learn how to function independently, perhaps for the first time in your life.
Divorce counseling is generally divided into either pre-divorce counseling or post-divorce counseling. The goals and types of assistance you’ll get are driven in large part, by where you’re at in the process.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Pre-divorce counseling vs. post-divorce counseling
Pre-divorce counseling can be used to help couples lay a more positive framework for the details of their divorce.
It’s similar to mediation in that a counselor will help both parties discuss what they want, maintaining a sense of decorum and civility. It can also set the tone and rules for how couples will communicate during and after their divorce. Finding ways to deescalate conflict is often a primary focus.
Pre-divorce counseling is especially helpful for couples with children.
Pre-divorce counseling is especially helpful for couples with children. Children are often the biggest victims of divorce and are the least capable of handling fear, emotions, and fallout when their parents split.
Heightened sensitivity to what children are going through, how to talk to them, and strategies for lessening the trauma are all reasons to consider counseling at this stage.
Developing consistent ways to tell family members, friends, co-workers, and others can also be a big help. Anger and frustration are inevitable in most splits, but to avoid doing irreparable damage to yourself and others, you’ll also learn how to pick your spots to vent and with whom.
Ideally, if you’re in need, pre-counseling and post-counseling can work together to minimize impacts from a divorce. But many people may tough it out during a divorce, only to cave in after the fact.
Redefining yourself as a single person, or how your new relationship works with somebody you divorced can be rough. There are no real rules, simply because every marriage and every relationship is different.
You may also figure out that even though you thought you were moving forward, your emotions have stopped your forward progress. There are a lot of feelings to sort through, and sometimes, it’s impossible to get there on your own.
Post-divorce counseling is extremely helpful if you’ve encountered problems with a co-parenting arrangement.
Some parents may be taking advantage of or pushing the window when it comes to holding up their end of the agreement. You can always take legal actions, but sometimes, a more gentle touch is all that’s needed. A timeout with a third party can work wonders to improve communication, respect and years of future interactions.
Both pre-divorce and post-divorce counseling can take place either individually or as a couple. Both make sense in different contexts.
You need to do what’s comfortable based on your situation. At times, you may want space to vent and discuss issues confidentially. At other times, if you’re trying to reach an agreement with an ex, it’s better to go through sessions together.
The emotional stages of divorce
The emotional stages of divorce are pretty much the same as the emotional stages you’ll go through when somebody you love passes away. It is the death of a relationship, after all.
You’ll move through these stages at your own speed and in your own time. And your experience is going to be unique to you, but probably within the same kind of pattern.
You may get hung up feeling a certain way, and while that’s common, it’s also not healthy if you can’t move on. That’s where divorce counseling can help, along with more traditional therapy.
Here are the emotional stages of divorce and some of the feelings you can expect.
Denial. If you didn’t see it coming, you’ll have a hard time accepting the reality of what has happened. You’ll rationalize, make yourself try to believe that things will be fixed and that the relationship will have a chance to continue. Trying to ignore what is happening is also common in this stage.
Pain and Uncertainty. When you come to terms that you’re going through a divorce, you could either feel crushed on oddly liberated. Try as you might, you won’t be able to escape a certain amount of pain, even if you bury it deep inside. You’ve been rejected and that’s going to take a bite out of you every time.
If you’re on shaky financial ground or tend to be highly emotional, uncertainty is going to hit especially hard. Be afraid and anxious are normal as well.
Anger. You might be difficult to be around when your anger flares. At this point, you’re looking for somebody to blame. You’re headhunting. You may not be able to take it out on your ex, so other family members, your kids, co-workers, and friends could become unwilling victims.
Important: Getting the anger that’s inside of you to come out is actually healthy. It does signal progress. Controlling that anger is the key.
Bargaining. That “let’s make a deal” stage is actually a sign of regret and a signal you want to try and change an outcome when you can’t.
Guilt. Marriage is one of the great institutions of society, and when you get a divorce, you could feel a lot of guilt at having failed in this part of your life. You’ll feel shame as your anger subsides.
This will be even more the case if you have children. You may also talk yourself into believing that you didn’t do everything you could to save your marriage. Guilt can be crippling and can be a real roadblock to getting through divorce.
Depression. Guilt can lead to sadness. Prolonged sadness can lead to depression. You may experience thoughts of suicide in extreme cases. If you do, get help ASAP. You may feel sluggish, uninspired, without purpose, or have problems sleeping or overeating. The funk can last a long time, but as it is with most things in life, time will heal you.
Acceptance. You may still have remnants of these other emotions that you carry around, but at some point, you’ll reach a point of acceptance and decide its time to move on with your life. This phase is characterized by finding a new level of peace in your life as you make carve out a new reality for yourself.
What are the benefits of divorce counseling?
We’ve already touched on several of the benefits divorce counseling can offer. Let’s add a few more.
You’re not alone. One of the crappy things about divorce is that it can leave you feeling like it’s you against the world.
Some people have support systems that are wonderful but many people do not. With a divorce counselor, you have a partner who you can share and offload feelings to so that you don’t have to take on all your problems all by yourself.
Objectivity. A divorce counselor can put the brakes on destructive thoughts and behaviors to help you more clearly understand the reality of your situation. You may not always like what you hear, but there’s a really good chance you’re always going to hear the truth.
A shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, you’ve just got to cut loose, have a good cry, and get all the bad stuff out of you. While this isn’t normally what a counselor will do, I’m sure you’ll find a box of tissues in every counselor’s office, just in case.
A divorce counselor can provide closure. You can’t go forward with open wounds and a counselor can identify what the issues are in your divorce blocking you so that you can address them, stitch them up, begin healing, and moving forward.
Introspection. You may find it easy to lash out at others, but part of your healing has to be taking a good look at your part in your marriage and figuring out what you could have done differently. That way, next time (if there is a next time), you’ll be better equipped to invest in a healthy and permanent marriage.
Shifting your perspective. Once you understand that divorce is not a battle to be won, but a negotiation to work through, you’ll find things will go a lot smoother. A counselor can help remove those anger barriers and replace them with cooperation to help you get through things as quickly and as least costly as possible.
Being sensitive to the needs of others. You’re not the only victim in a divorce. Two families, your social eco-system and especially your children are impacted as well. You’ll need to stop wallowing in your own muck and mire, and realize you have other people who depend on you.
Money issues. You’ve got to be practical with your new financial realities. If your spouse always handled the money, you could be in for a rude awakening. A counselor can help you make smart decisions about how to budget and start saving for a rainy day when no one else is around.
Signs that you would benefit from divorce counseling
A lot of people figure out a divorce on their own. In less contentious divorces, that’s often the case. But in other divorces, one or both spouses are completely overmatched emotionally and in practical matters and could make serious mistakes that will cost them dearly down the road.
You might benefit from counseling during any one of the emotional stages we mentioned above, but the benefits are even more pronounced if you’re having trouble with guilt or depression.
Here are some signs that you could benefit from working with a divorce counselor:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor concentration
- Disinterest in activities
- Pulling back from relationships
- Uncontrolled anger
- Low appetite
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- A sense of self-loathing
- Repeated concerns about the future
- Thoughts of suicide
- Isolating or withdrawing
- Finding no joy in hobbies or activities
- Feeling unworthy
- Strong or limited emotions
- Debilitating depression
- Excessive anxiety
Any of these can range from mild to severe. Pay attention if you are experiencing them. Be honest with yourself and if you need help, GET HELP.
Tips to help find a good divorce counselor
You can find the right divorce counselor in several ways. First, you probably need to figure out what kinds of issues you most need help with before finding someone.
A good place to start is with friends or family members who have gone through divorce and used a counselor. Not only can you get the name of a qualified professional, you can also quiz them on what to expect and how they’re dealing with a post-divorce life.
Your attorney is also going to have resources you can tap into. Chances are they have developed close working relationships with divorce counselors over the years and may know several. If so, you can be matched more closely to exactly the kind of counselor that you need.
Of course, the Internet is always an interesting place to find these kinds of resources. Be careful with only relying on reviews. Some are honest and some may be stilted either positively or negatively.
Ask several questions. Find out a therapist’s general approach. Another consideration is cost, which may or may not be an issue in your particular case.
Finally, use your intuition. If there is a “connection” between you and the therapist when you first talk, chances are they’re going to help you derive more benefits in a shorter period of time. The sooner you can feel comfortable and develop a high level of trust, the better.
Self-care habits to practice in the meantime
The old saying “charity starts at home,” also applies to divorce.
A divorce therapist can make a world of difference in your life, but you also have to be an active partner in the process as well.
Here are some self-love strategies to consider:
- Eat the right foods, in the right proportions at the right times.
- Get regular exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk to get some fresh air.
- Spend time with people you like being around. Don’t wall yourself off.
- Pursue the activities you enjoy. Play tennis, read that book, take a cooking class, paint (not your house…pictures!)
- Get enough sleep. 8 hours is a goal, but let’s be real, few people achieve that on a regular basis. Catnaps are acceptable too.
- Go to church. Join a non-profit. Donate your time and skills to a charitable cause.
- Call old friends.
- Make new friends.
- Practice positive thinking. You are what you think, and the greatest battles are often those waged inside your own head.