Moving forward with a divorce is a very difficult decision. While FWW can't make it for you, we can offer information on alternatives to filing. We'd like to emphasize that none of the options below are right or wrong — but one might be right for you and your partner, depending on your situation. Here, a brief primer on marriage counseling, marriage mediation, and long-term separation.
Is Marriage Counseling for Us?
"Marriage counseling or therapy can be thought of like physical therapy," explains Lee Crespi, a New York City psychotherapist with more than 30 years of professional experience in relationships and marital conflict. "You know, you have an accident or an injury, and then you need a professional to guide you in healing, through exercises that you could do on your own, but somehow it works better when that professional pushes you and structures you and doesn't let you avoid the hard work."
"And if you don't go for PT, you find that the injury isn't healing properly and the joint or muscle is stiffening up and not returning to full mobility. And eventually that becomes irreversible," she adds. "So it is with couples counseling."
Crespi says that couples who face issues such as money conflicts, sexual conflicts, or jealousy and mistrust can benefit from counseling — and the relationship may be salvaged. "These issues are ones that with honest reflection and discussion can be resolved in ways that lead to greater closeness and appreciation of each other thereby improving the quality of the marriage," she says.
Ignoring the problems or hoping they'll go away, however, is the last thing to do. "This can lead to withdrawal from each other, depression, bitterness and sometimes infidelity which can be much harder to heal from," adds Crespi.
Crespi says many couples wait too long to seek help — or give up before they find the right therapist or therapy. "There are a number of approaches that utilize specific techniques and are very effective such as Imago Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, Collaborative Couples Therapy, etc. These approaches have web sites and some offer referrals to specially trained therapists," she says.
Crespi suggest taking the time to find the right fit — and not to be scared off by others' stories. "Maybe they've heard of couples who broke up after going for counseling," she explains. "Most of the time that's because these couples waited too long and let the problems build and compound until they were too far along to repair."
Is Marital Mediation for Us?
"Marital mediation is designed to develop concrete solutions in a defined period of time," says Susan K. Boardman, a Connecticut-based psychologist and mediator and founding partner of The Family Mediation Practice, a private practice specializing in divorce and marital mediation in Connecticut and New York.
"It offers a professional alternative to both marriage counseling (which may require extensive time to develop therapeutic insights) and to the religious orientation of pastoral counseling," she adds. Marital mediation (not to be confused with divorce mediation) uses techniques developed over decades in the field of dispute resolution. "A mediator experienced in psychology and communication helps couples resolve family conflicts that could lead to separation if left unattended," explains Boardman.
Mediation appears to best resolve communication issues that have reached a standstill — conflicts such as financial disputes, parenting responsibilities, allocation of household tasks, communication stalemates, career conflicts, living arrangement conflicts, and family/friend relationship conflicts. (Although addressing intimacy issues, extramarital affairs, and conflicts in religious practices is also common.)
So how do you know when to choose mediation over counseling?
"Mediation works well when traditional marriage counseling would feel uncomfortable or inappropriate, time limitations require immediate solutions rather than in-depth explorations, and/or success in future interactions depends on learning more effective negotiation skills in the present," says Boardman.
Behind Door Number Three: Separation
There is, of course, a third option — a separation. A couple has two choices: a trial separation and a legal separation. Either can go on indefinitely. If you have no plans for remarriage, separation could work for you and your partner. A trial separation does not require paperwork, and rules are devised by the couple to hash out living arrangements, child support and custody, and the general ins and outs of living apart — yet still loosely tied to one another.
A legal separation, on the other hand, is processed by the court. Paperwork must be filed, and depending on the complexity of your situation and state, a lawyer may be required. Legal separation protects one or both parties from the other's actions post-filing. For example, if your partner takes out a loan, you would not be responsible to repay any of it.
Plus, a legal separation does not have a time limit or expire, and if a couple reconciles, separation papers may be withdrawn at any time.
Credentials: What To Look For
If you and your partner opt for counseling or mediation, finding the right therapist is essential to success. Consult with more than one professional to decide who is the right fit for your situation.
"Most important is that the therapist should convey that he/she is truly neutral and does not side with either of you," says Crespi. "A good couples therapist believes that every relationship is a two way endeavor and that each member of the couple contributes to the problem as well as the solution."
A good couples therapist or mediator is committed to working to save the relationship — but only as much as you are. "Alternatively," adds Crespi, "if you are looking for help separating then it's important to be clear about that as well."
But what should you look for, professionally speaking? Depending on the state you live in, the credentials for therapists may vary. The therapist or mediator should have professional training, whether PHD, MSW, or MFT, as well as experience working with couples.