An Open Letter to Therapists About Your Divorcing Clients

Do you really know about divorce, or are you learning on the job?

Posted Oct 03, 2017

Dear Mainstream Therapist,

January is just around the corner. Are you prepared?

If you’re like me, you get an onslaught of new referrals after the New Year. Many of these new referrals are men and women who come to see because me want out of their marriages. They’ve held out to get through the holidays and now they are ready to have a new lease on life—unhitched.

Family Law Attorneys experience the same phenomenon. According to one lawyer, there’s approximately a 30 percent increase in the volume of calls in January compared to other times of the year. The first business day in January has actually been dubbed "Divorce Monday," and January overall is known as, "Divorce Month."

At the risk of offending your senses like the major department stores that display holiday decorations right after Labor Day, I am writing this article because I want you to be ready for the post-holiday boom—not just emotionally (our work can be draining sometimes), but intellectually as well.

So, I ask you: What do you know about divorce? How do you know it? Is it from your own personal experience, have you learned about it through your clients, or did you take a class? If you took a class, what class did you take? Other than the ones I teach, I know of NO classes on the subject. Whenever I teach a class or give a talk, I ask for a raise of hands of anyone who has taken a divorce education course and, so far, not one hand has gone up.

We therapists go through our four years or so of undergrad Psychology (or some social science degree program) and all of our graduate schooling without one class on divorce. How can that be???

Divorce is one of the most dysregulating life events our clients will face and we get ZERO education about it?

I’m no different than you. When I set out to work with the divorcing population, I wasn’t even married yet, never mind experienced with divorce. Fortunately for me (said a little facetiously), I was a child of divorce so I could draw on that experience but, other than that, I was as green as they come.

I’m happy to say that, 17 years later, I have a hefty list of books and resources that I can share with my clients. I’ve run dozens of groups and programs through the years. I also have a really good sense of what clients need most as they navigate the legal and emotional morass.

My clients come in scared out of their minds and many—if not all—have some level of trauma either going into it or coming out of their dissolution.

As my friend and colleague, Mark Ressa, says, “divorce is like throwing a hand grenade into a couple’s life, blowing apart their home and family, their finances and their social lives." Sometimes work is impacted, too. In fact, there’s almost no area of a person’s life that isn’t impacted to some degree.

Others I know have likened divorce to an earthquake. Either way, divorce is a destructive process that may take years to recover from. On top of that, these poor people have to pay mightily for the experience! And, often, the less they know, the more they pay.

Clients Who Know More Do Better and Spend Less.

Therapists can play a key role in helping clients feel supported and get educated. Unlike attorneys, who are often biased about what divorce modality they want their clients to use, we therapists have a unique vantage point: We have no agenda whether they go through mediation, collaborative or litigation or what attorney they use. What we look at is how clients handle their emotions. We look at how our clients’ experience of divorce is impacting them and their kids. We look at the level of fallout that is happening and much of our job is to help them clean it up.

So, again, I ask, how much can you provide your clients when it comes to resources, information, and support? Do you know what kind of attorney is best for your client (bulldog vs. hand-holder, or collaborative vs. mediator, for example)? Do you have good books to recommend or lend your clients? Do you run a divorce support group to help your clients feel less alone and isolated?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, I urge you to change that, or refer your clients to another therapist who does know more on the topic.

I’ve actually seen secondary trauma perpetrated on clients by therapists who didn’t know how to help. Don’t be one of those clinicians!

If you’re a therapist who is interested in learning how to treat divorcing clients, I’m happy to send you a Suggested Reading list that I give to my clients. I’m happy to help you put together a list of what resources you will need. I’m also happy to include you in any trainings I conduct. Contact me at changingmarriage.com.

Please understand that divorce is not just a “tough time” that clients must endure. It is a pivotal and sometimes devastating passage.

I believe you have a responsibility to be as fortified with knowledge as you can be.

Sincerely,

Susan Pease Gadoua