Stop the Train…I Want to Get Off!
How the divorce superhighway fails couples.
Speaking recently with one of America’s foremost family therapists, Dr Bill Doherty, we had a lively discussion on the divorce process. He noted that there are a significant proportion of couples who are ambivalent about their divorce, but once they file, it’s like they are on a superhighway with no exit ramps. Or to use another metaphor, the train has left the station and it’s too late to get off.
Once a couple initiates divorce proceedings, there’s often little opportunity for them to change tracks. Wanting to helpful and/or efficient, lawyers, judges, court officials, mediation officers, schools, carers, friends and family, all tend to work towards the goal of divorce; getting the kids settled, new homes set up, healing the emotional carnage. No one wants to aggravate either spouse or the children by holding onto the hope of saving the marriage if there really is no hope.
While everyone wants to make divorce less painful, sometimes we do a disservice to couples.
Many couples do have second thoughts about a decision to divorce. Often the realisation hits them that divorce isn’t going to release them from the requirement to interact with their spouse – if they have children, they will need to be even better communicators than they were when married to keep the family functioning as they coordinate across two households. Other times, divorce is initiated in the midst of a major crisis that only coincidentally pits the spouses against each other. It can definitely be ugly, but sometimes it’s not the marriage that’s causing them grief. With the passing of time, and the passing of the crisis, things spontaneously improve between them. In some cases, a period of controlled separation can be quite productive in breaking an entrenched conflict and giving the spouses the ‘space’ to deal with their own issues.
There’s a lot to be said for a cooling off period – it gives spouses the opportunity to let things settle before terminating the marriage. According to Bill Doherty’s study*, around 25% of parents attending a compulsory parent course for divorcing couples indicated that they believed the marriage could be saved. 11% of these were matched pairs (both the husband and wife). Roughly a third of individuals indicated interest in reconciliation services.
It begs the question: what are we, as a community and as a Church invested in marriage and family, doing to help couples reconcile?
Given that ‘reconciliation’ is a supreme value in the Catholic community, it’s surprising how poorly equipped we are to do it. And it’s not just about reconciliation for couples on the brink. It’s also teaching couples in solid marriages how to reconcile the everyday bumps and bruises of life. After all, it’s these accumulated ‘bumps and bruises’ that eventually cause the ‘last straw’ – the offense that is just one too many to take.
*Interest in marital Reconciliation among Divorcing Parents. Doherty, W.J., Willoughby B.J., Peterson, B. Family Court Review, Vol 49 No. 2 April 2011, 313-321