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Marriages On The Cusp

By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

There are three general scenarios that bring couples to counseling. There are those couples that are jointly committed to the relationship and are seeking improvement. There are those couples that are jointly seeking to dissolve the relationship and are seeking to manage the process of change. There are those couples where one is committed to the relationship and the other is not.

It is this latter scenario that can be fraught with the greatest difficulty in managing feelings and determining the direction of the relationship. In this last scenario, it is not uncommon to see one partner present as committed and the other as ambivalent. Underneath the ambivalence may be a desire to attend therapy, not to maintain the relationship, but to find a safe place to end it. Hence there may be contrary goals where the outcome is the inevitable end of the relationship despite interventions aimed at improvement or reconciliation.

Counseling in this scenario can still be of benefit.

Ending a relationship through counseling provides opportunity to manage the process in a manner that can reduce hostility and conflict. The parties have the opportunity to receive guidance and direction prior to anger and upset taking over as a driving force in their judgment or decision-making. By virtue of both persons working with the same person, settlements may be achieved. Counselors understand the nature of conflict and distress and help couples work through their differences.

Alternately, when couples see individual counselors or respective lawyers, greater conflict may result. By each party seeing their own respective support person (therapeutic or legal) it can increase the likelihood of having their version of events and position reinforced and differences magnified. The support person is only privy to the one side and does not have the opportunity to develop a balanced view. Also the opportunity to help parties resolve matters between themselves together is non-existent when each goes off in different directions.

Hence couples entering counseling due to conflict have the opportunity to work their relationship through the entire counseling process. Even though feelings may be high and persons upset or even feeling betrayed, remaining with the counselor can provide for a better outcome in terms of untangling the relationship and matters arising – particularly where children are concerned.

Depending on the level of conflict and in ending a relationship, parties may feel exposed without a lawyer to advise them along the way. In these situations, legal input can be helpful. A reasonable lawyer can provide input to assure that the direction of settlement is appropriate and that certain rights or expectations are addressed. Final agreements can be set in writing and made contractual.

In terms of what is best for children, it tends to be less what the agreement is, than how it was achieved and the degree of conflict between the parties.

A good counseling outcome then, when the relationship doesn’t work, is where the parties can dissolve the relationship amicably and reasonably and transition as smoothly as possible to a new way of life that balances competing needs and wants.

This approach is not necessarily available to everyone and often is unworkable in situations of outright abuse or serious mental illness. However, counseling may be the best first start to the situation, particularly for a marriage on the cusp.