Certainly there are things you would like to tell your ex in the structured environment of a therapist's office. Joint therapy sessions, much like mediation, can help establish rules and routines for going forward with your ex or soon-to-be ex. But if you're harboring a fantasy that a therapist will provide clarity and help convince your ex that you are right or that the therapist will help your ex understand why you feel the way you do and that consequently, you will stay together -- don't go. Some therapists take a neutral stance as to whether or not you should stay together as a couple or separate. And sometimes, joint counseling demonstrates to you or your partner why separating may be the best choice for one or both of you.
However, when you have children together, you have an important and compelling reason to sort out your issues, and a professional setting often sets a standard of mutual cooperation. But if your goal is to get your ex into therapy for his or her own good -- give up. The only person you can change is you. Finding a therapist or counselor for yourself will help you deal more effectively with the feelings that come up in connection with your ex.
If you're in the middle of a contentious divorce, working things out might be the last thing your ex wants to do. Unless again, you have children. If you really believe that your ex needs help, you might suggest joint counseling for "parenting issues" and ask the therapist to concentrate on that.
For some people, the thought of seeing a therapist or counselor evokes shame, but in reality, therapy and counseling are more like taking a course in "self." Think of therapy as a map to life. Most of us eventually find our way, but looking at a map or asking for directions makes the process much easier.
Other people hesitate to call a therapist or counselor because they feel that seeing one means they'll have to go for the rest of their life. The truth is that if you like the process (and the results), you can make it a long-term relationship. But if you prefer to set a time frame, most therapists or counselors are willing to work within it. Say, "I'm having a hard time with my ex right now and I'd like to spend three months (or six or twelve months) exploring what I can do to make this process easier." If the counselor or therapist you speak to doesn't like time frames, you can find someone else. It's also important to make sure that the therapist or counselor you choose is specifically trained in divorce and stepfamily dynamics and in communication skills.
Whether you decide to go into counseling is up to you. We do recommend, however, that you seek professional help immediately if you notice that your child is suffering. This may mean therapy for your child, for you, or for all of you. Signs that your child needs professional help include:
- Poor school performance when it was good before
- Unusually aggressive or lethargic behavior
- Excessive weight gain or loss
- Mood swings that range from extreme hostility to overt affection
- Uncharacteristic and intense tantrums and overreactions
- Negative changes in your child's behavior, such as lying, cheating, stealing, or drug or alcohol use are also signs that your child is having a hard time.
How each of your children handles the divorce may differ. A child's birth order, personality, age and gender can all play a part in how resilient they are. Someone once likened it to being in a car accident. How it affects you depends, in part, on where you were sitting. That being said, most of the time kids are flexible and can survive divorce, along with most other family crises, as long as they have a supportive home environment, a sense of structure in their lives, and genuine love and caring from at least one parent.
When the problem is so big that you need legal, professional or protective help, seek it immediately. If your ex continually abdicates his or her visitation responsibilities, regularly harasses you, constantly mistreats your child, or frequently misses child support payments, you may need to seek professional help. Notice that we use the words continually, regularly, constantly and frequently. Occasional behaviors may go away by themselves. But when occasional behaviors become commonplace, stricter measures must be employed. If you need a therapist, find one. If you need a lawyer (or a better lawyer than you have), get one. If you need the police, call them, now!
If it's your ex who needs the therapist, you can suggest seeing one together, but don't get your hopes up. Sometimes the most you can do is send him or her a copy of our book, Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, and hope he or she reads it. Or at least, gets a chuckle out of the title.
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