Couples Seek Couples Therapy For Help Breaking Up Thoughtfully
In our NYC couples therapy practice, couples come to us for help breaking up. Sometimes, the breakup is known by both partners when they come in and other times, it’s a surprise. No matter how the breakup happens, however, we work to help couples break up thoughtfully or, to take a phrase from Gwyneth Paltrow, consciously uncouple.
Not only do we help people in couples therapy decide if they want to stay together, we also help couples make decisions around the breakup, whether about money and custody or managing feelings and wanting to remain friends. It’s important to note that there is a distinction between couples therapy and mediation. While mediation is about coming to a set of agreements, in couples therapy, we address emotional issues, as well as work so that certain emotional issues that get in the way can be set aside. However like mediation, no agreement made in couples therapy is binding unless the couple wants it to be.
Should We Or Shouldn’t We Break Up?
The question “Should we or shouldn’t we break up?” means very heavy lifting in couples therapy. With our experience helping couples, we know there is a series of important questions for a couple to ask:
- Are we happy?
- Is this getting better?
- Do we believe that with help things could get better?
- How do we weigh lack of happiness in some areas of the relationship against happiness (or contentment or stability) in other areas?
In our couples therapy practice, we don’t take sides on these issues and also remain neutral as to whether the relationship works (or not). The stand we take is less about breaking up versus staying together and more about advocating for the happiness of both partners and the potential for a solid relationship. In this, we see the couple as a whole as the patient more so than the individual partners that make up the couple. While not advocating for or against a breakup per se, we might say, “I want you to have a relationship with less conflict.” That is non-negotiable, but the more difficult question for the couple to answer is: Can you get there with this person?
A Note On Ambivalence In A Relationship
The period of time wherein one or both partners in a relationship are on the fence is really risky. It’s when hurtful things are most likely to be said, aggression is most likely to come out, and infidelity is most likely to happen. Finding ways to resist these things by being calm in a fight or walking away when you’re angry is harder to do when you’re ambivalent about the relationship, while under the stress of uncertainty. In nearly all cases, ambivalence is worse than breaking up. Sometimes it’s what’s necessary in the short-term, but it’s largely unsustainable.
We Help Couples Listen And Speak Honestly About Whether They Should (Or Shouldn’t) Break Up
When couples are deciding whether or not to break up, we work to help both partners tolerate hearing things that are painful. The list of items partners are contemplating about the relationship, as well as simply the question “should we or shouldn’t we,” are often tough for both partners to hear and say. There’s often a pull to hold back and be defensive, both of which get in the way of hearing the honest truth.
In couples therapy, we help couples speak honestly and listen honestly. In so many conversations in life–with partners, friends and even in the media, there’s a habit, often unarticulated, of not naming honestly what we see in front of us. For couples, they may avoid discussing something hurtful from the past like a lack of sex, overspending, lingering pain from a miscarriage, hurt feelings about the money he loaned his brother without talking about it with her years ago, how she always seems to put her mother first, or spoiling and favoring their youngest kid.
Speaking and listening honestly is not only important for the couple, but it’s also critical for us, as couples therapists. Part of how we do this is by resisting getting overly caught up in how much the couple doesn’t want to hear or acknowledge certain things. Couples often have a sort of shared denial. In breaking up, couples have to learn to give up whatever function ignoring what hasn’t been working has served for so long.
Couples Therapy For “We’re Breaking Up–Now What?”: Getting Everyone On The Same Page That The Relationship Is Over
In addition to helping couples that are deciding whether or not to stay together, we also help couples, who have already decided to break up, consciously uncouple. To start with, both partners have to be in agreement that the relationship is over. A couple doesn’t have to agree that they want it to be over, but at some point, hope has to give way to reality. If one person is done and not budging, then it’s over.
If that’s not resolved (as much as it can be in the short-term–obviously breakups can take years to grieve), then we can’t consciously uncouple. Instead, we can only uncouple in a unilateral way in which one person (the breaker-upper) dictates the terms as opposed to the mutuality implied in conscious uncoupling. It should be noted that for better or for worse, people sometimes bring a partner into couples therapy with the objective in mind to break up in the therapist’s office. That’s often a surprise to both the therapist and the would-be dumped. It’s hard to go from there to equal footing.
Part of the work in couples therapy is to get both partners on the same page, particularly helping the breaker-upper be more direct and honest. Sometimes the resistance to being straight about wanting to break up is ambivalence, but it’s also often about the desire not to hurt someone for whom there may (still) be tremendous love. Sometimes a partner who wants to break up needs his or her partner to take more action to be okay by entering therapy or leaning more on friends. Either way, the person doing the breaking up needs to make a move that he or she knows will cause pain and distress.
Couples Therapy Helps Couples Who Are Breaking Up Come To Agreements About Values And Emotional Questions
Once a couple comes to a sufficient agreement that they resolve to break up and want to do it thoughtfully, couples therapy becomes important for two reasons. First, a therapist can provide emotional guidance with communication and the tough feelings of grief, denial, anger and hurt that inevitably come up. Secondly, a therapist can navigate issues that aren’t the domain of a legal conversation. Because of our experience as couples therapists, we have a view on what issues and feelings are likely to come up in the midst of a breakup, even a conscious one.
In many instances when a couples comes into couples therapy for breaking up, certain sets of decisions have already been made–mostly about the kids or money, for example. In those cases, we spend time bringing clarity to be sure that what everyone believes is the agreement really is. This is also an area of work where our job is to ask the hard “What if” questions such as: What if there’s an unexpected expense or windfall? What if something changes with one of the children’s health or wishes about where he or she lives once he or she gets older?
Sometimes a therapist will recommend that these agreements get locked-in by an attorney. But some of the work we do is less about an agreement that can be translated into legal-ease and more about an agreement in spirit. There are emotional questions we help with that a lawyer wouldn’t touch like: How and when do we tell our families? How do we agree to handle things if or when one of us starts a new relationship? How might we deal with jealousy? What if we want to get back together? Or if one of the kids is angry? Some of the emotional questions aren’t easily definable and are less of an agreement in terms than an agreement in values.
Navigating Remaining Sexual Or Romantic Feelings In Couples Therapy
In working with couples who are breaking up, we know that sometimes sexual or romantic feelings increase as the separation gets closer. We see this. There’s something that can be really lovely about the process of thoughtfully separating or ending a relationship. It’s predicated on an agreement to stop fighting. If you’ve decided to end (or consented to end), these fights no longer make sense (and sometimes the therapy addresses accepting this and ceasing the fighting).
Not only can that feel good, but there’s also history together, of course. Sometimes sexual connection is easier than emotional connection. In any event, it’s usually not helpful to indulge these desires, and often we help one or both partners understand them and be better able to manage the intense feelings that come with them. It’s important to know that this desire is happening and have a witness or another person to say, “Hey, that’s probably not a good idea.” Breakups and the different feelings, including romantic and sexual ones, that come out of uncoupling are confusing (to everyone usually or at least to one person) and that can lead to more hurt.