Article Published: 4/20/2023
For many people, divorce is a life-changing and traumatic event that causes pain, anger, sadness, and uncertainty about the future; however, it is possible for couples and their children to navigate the process, better understand their feelings, learn to communicate more effectively, and adjust to their new lives moving forward with help from a competent and experienced couples and family counselor.
Jenn Birch, EdS, NCC, ACS, RPT, LCMHC, recently shared her insights into the effects of divorce on health and well-being, her experience working with clients to foster a healthier outcome, and how counselors can help them ease this difficult transition.
How can divorce affect a person’s mental health and well-being?
Divorce can be a very stressful season of changes, grieving the hurt from the past and the inevitable changes in the future. There can be increased short-term symptoms of depression and anxiety when going through a major life transition such as divorce. There can also be physical symptoms of stress, such as changes in eating and sleeping habits and digestive issues. Clients typically go through a grieving process as they face the death of the marriage. There is a grief that often goes unnoticed by society and so many more moments of grief, or “hidden griefs,” little reminders. These are often associated with death, and divorce is very much a death of that relationship and a loss similar to death.
What common concerns do divorcing or divorced couples have when they attend counseling sessions? What challenges do you see when working with them?
If children are involved, I think one common concern is making sure the kids will be alright in the midst of the changes. Assurance of that comes from the healthiness of the co-parenting relationship and the parents’ skillset. It is oftentimes a very heightened emotional time with lots of pain.
Another common concern in divorce is one of identity—who am I post-divorce?
What are the special considerations when working with couples who have decided to divorce or have recently divorced?
Common considerations include communicating the separation and divorce to family and friends. Also, how to make decisions as a united front to avoid any of the children being in the middle of the conflict.
Counselors should encourage individual counseling and have very good and clear boundaries regarding communication and ethical issues, and be mindful of the grief work that is necessary. There is so much negative cultural messaging around divorce, especially in certain religious circles, so offering a non-judgmental presence is very important.
Who may benefit from divorce counseling? Can couples who have mutually agreed to divorce still benefit? If so, how can counselors help these clients?
Counseling is beneficial to all parties, especially when conflict resolution is needed by a nonbiased third party. Counselors can help set the family system up for success with an agreed-upon plan on how to move forward.
Anyone can benefit from divorce counseling if both parties are open and willing. Couples who have mutually agreed to divorce can absolutely benefit, especially when there are children within the partnership. Counselors can help these clients work on effective communication, boundaries, and co-parenting planning. Counselors can also help guide the couple with steps to separate mentally and emotionally, which is an important aspect of the divorce process.
How can divorce affect a person’s ability to build and maintain healthy relationships later? How can counselors help these clients to heal from trauma they may be experiencing?
Divorce is a life-changing experience, and the individual is a very different person post-divorce in relationships. Very often, trust is broken post-divorce, making it difficult to be emotionally intimate with others. Trust can be rebuilt with consistency in healthy relationships and time.
For individuals who are committed to healing, the ending of any relationship, especially a marriage, can provide an invitation into further healing, which can lead to expansion and becoming clearer about relational needs and desires moving forward. It can be a very transformative time in a person’s life and an opportunity to face previous losses. Divorce can negatively affect a person’s ability to build healthy relationships later if an individual chooses to avoid processing the emotions that come with it.
What are some common actions you recommend for fostering and maintaining a “healthy” divorce?
Are there any related resources you’d recommend for counselors who are doing this kind of work?
If you are working with families of divorce, the Center for Cooperative Parenting is a nonprofit organization providing excellent training and resources for professionals—counselors and attorneys—in best helping these clients.
Additionally, a therapist colleague has created A League of Divorced Women, a safe and supportive divorce processing group for women to offer connection, resources, and tools. I recommend counselors and clients seek out support groups for anyone interested.
Jenn Birch, EdS, NCC, ACS, RPT, LCMHC, received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and religion from Meredith College and her master’s and educational specialist degrees from the University of Alabama. She is the owner of Birch Therapy, with locations in Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina. She is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, National Certified Counselor, Registered Play Therapist, and Approved Clinical Supervisor, and has counseled children, adolescents, and families since 2008.
Copyright ©2023 National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc. and Affiliates | All rights reserved.