Sitting in the afternoon light of my therapy office, I observe the faces of the couple across the coffee table. They are restricted, tense, and in pain. Hans* explains in a small voice that they have decided to end the relationship. His wife, Mary*, cries quietly while avoiding eye contact. This is their first visit, and there is a sense of shame in their presentation. I listen to their story, and offer some affirmation: many couples would not dare to engage in the process of couples counseling after deciding to separate. Something about it just feels like failure. But here they are, showing up, attending, and prioritizing their relationship, even as they are bringing it to an end. I offer appreciation for their courage, and hope for how this process can help.
Separation is arguably the most painful of human experiences and it comes in many forms. We are built to self-protect from loss, so everything in us, including our biological systems, protests when loss feels imminent. Still, as with Hans and Mary, there are many reasons we may choose to uncouple, and there are ways to move through the process with grace and dignity.
I explain to Hans and Mary the objectives of couples counseling when the overall goal is to separate gracefully.
Track how they have gotten stuck in a pattern that pushes them apart, and to take responsibility for the understandable, but unhelpful ways they have coped with their relationship insecurities.
In this case, Hans recognizes that he has long been the pursuing partner, often criticizing Mary for her perceived lack of romantic effort. He sees now that this was born out of a fear that Mary would decide one day she didn’t want to be close to him, and he can acknowledge how he was inadvertently pushing her away with his criticism and pursuit. Eventually, Hans burned out, and stopped trying to feel closer with Mary, due to his sense of hopelessness at her lack of response. For her part, Mary acknowledges that she increasingly withdrew emotionally, in an effort to cope with her feelings of anger, inadequacy, and fear of disappointing Hans.
When Hans and Mary are able to see their negative pattern, and take ownership of their problematic action tendencies, something begins to happen. They experience greater understanding of each other’s emotional experience within this cycle, and are therefore more able to validate their own and each other’s pain. This non-judgement contributes to increased emotional safety. Seeing their negative pattern also helps Hans and Mary to develop a clear narrative of how they got to this point in their relationship, which will help them to move forward in separation with an increased sense of clarity, and hopefully, closure.
Provide the opportunity to offer forgiveness
As Hans and Mary are increasingly able to see how their pattern of interaction has resulted in hurt and disconnection, they come to a place of softening where forgiveness feels possible. Forgiveness means replacing an overly negative narrative about each other and the marriage with a more neutral, flexible narrative. While each partner still experiences some pain over the loss of their marriage, it is less acute, and they are better able to reframe their perspectives. They are better able to release one another from paying for the hurt that was caused. Because of this, Mary and Hans grow in their ability to lower their own self-protective mechanisms, and by extension, it feels easier to trust in other relationships, too.
Honor the good that came from their relationship and express appreciation for what they gave to each other
Emotional safety and forgiveness create capacity for Mary and Hans to recognize and honor the healthy, edifying parts of their relationship. In our counseling, we are able to distinguish many ways that they have acted in each other’s best interest, helped each other grow as people, and supported one another’s dreams. For this couple, their biggest sense of gratitude for their marriage centers around what they were able to create in their two children.
Grieve the loss of the relationship
Sharing sadness over the ending of a relationship can be a major contribution towards closure and healing. Hans expresses his remorse for his part in the disconnection once again, and allows his tears to fall while Mary sits beside him, listening. He tells her that even though they both know it is time to separate, this loss still feels so big, like someone important has passed away. He shows her how sad he is to be ending this chapter. Mary is able to hear about his grief, and allows her own tears to fall in response. She tells him that she feels the same way, and that the loss of their relationship feels significant to her, too. They each experience a kind of reassurance, just knowing that they share this grief. I encourage them to continue making space for their grief, and tell them that, if it feels right, they can continue to show each other their sadness in the months, or even years, to come.
Gain a sense of confidence in moving forward, apart
When Hans and Mary each express a sense of hope and confidence for their separated lives ahead, I know that therapy has been effective – not because they “saved their marriage,” but because they have a clearer narrative and gained an emotional awareness of how this marriage came to an end; thus, each one feels more confident about entering into a future relationship. They can better articulate their needs and desires, and they are more aware of their own blindspots and relational tendencies. Hans and Mary are also empowered by their emotional risk-taking and increased trust.
Couples counseling can be helpful for healing and building a future, both as a couple, and when separating. It can help to create a narrative, provide forgiveness, express appreciation, share in the grief, and gain confidence for a future apart. Although separation can be one of the most painful human experiences, it can also provide growth and healing, and hope for a new chapter in life.
Need a bit more help?
Working towards separation with grace and dignity can feel like an overwhelming process. A therapist can help to curate safety along the way.
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