Therapists: 7 Ways You Can Help a Divorcing Client

divorcing client

When someone goes through a divorce, they are often in crisis mode. They are angry and sad about the end of their marriage and they’re extremely worried about their kids and their own future. All of this can be a recipe for stress, anxiety and depression. And that’s where you come in! Here’s how to help ease your clients’ stress load as they navigate the divorce process. 

Teach your divorcing client about the stages of grief. Divorcing clients must let go of the vision they had for their lives: an intact family, a certain lifestyle, growing old with the same person. When people are chronically sad and angry about their divorce, they are stuck because they haven’t properly grieved the end of their marriage. Help clients understand where they are in the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) so they can normalize their experience and realize when they’re stuck in a particular stage.

Help your divorcing client master the developmental task of divorce. Clients who are entrenched in anger and self-pity haven’t mastered the developmental task of divorce: moving from blame to accountability. While anger and self-pity are common reactions to the trauma of divorce, these emotions will keep people from moving forward with their lives. The more clients can shift from fixating on their ex to taking responsibility for their part in problems, the more empowered they’ll feel.

Teach effective communication strategies. Poor communication – especially via email and texts — fuels high-conflict divorces. Teach clients how to minimize conflict by utilizing an effective communication protocol: be concise, informative (no opinions and feelings), neutral in tone, and firm (no negotiating). Another important tip: never send a response when feeling triggered.

Be realistic about co-parenting in high-conflict divorce. Individuals with high-conflict personalities often lack the flexibility and emotional regulation skills to co-parent effectively. In many high-conflict divorces, the amount of communication that co-parenting requires just creates more drama. Validate your client’s experience by acknowledging that co-parenting may not be viable and advise parallel parenting instead: limited contact, separate birthday parties and parent-teacher conferences, different rules in different houses. It’s a workable solution until the relationship improves AND this type of set up can better protect kids from the trauma.

Help you divorcing client manage emotional reactivity. Divorce trauma can make people hypervigilant and highly reactive. Being in a near-constant state of hyperarousal can make it difficult to negotiate a divorce settlement, co-parent effectively, and function normally. Teach clients coping skills to regulate emotional reactivity: mindfulness, meditation, journaling, exercise. If high conflict stands in the way of effective co-parenting, teach parents the skill of parallel parenting.

Teach divorcing clients that they can’t control their ex. Your client will not be able to accept divorce and move on if she tries to control what her ex does. Being preoccupied with a former spouse is a way to avoid personal responsibility and deal with present circumstances. When your client obsesses about her ex in session, validate her feelings of helplessness while helping her identify what she can actually control: her own behaviors.

Help clients create a new identity and life plan. Divorce is inherently destabilizing and can trigger an identity crisis: who am I now that I’m not part of a couple and an intact family? Help clients form a solid post-divorce identity by facilitating their grieving process, articulating values, and setting new goals.

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