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Monday, January 11, 2010

NYC Psychotherapist at the Movies: "It's Complicated" When a Divorced Couple Try to Decide Whether to Reconcile

Recently, I went to see the movie, "It's Complicated" starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin (http://www.itscomplicatedmovie.com). My post today is not intended to be a film review so much as an exploration, as a psychotherapist in NYC who works with individuals and couples, of some of the emotional issues faced by many formerly married couples who, sometimes, consider getting back together again.

The Basic Plot of "It's Complicated:"
Without giving too much away, the basic plot of this romantic comedy is that Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) have been divorced for about 10 years. We learn early on that Jake cheated on Jane while they were married, and he left her to be with a much younger woman, who is now his second wife. Both Jane and Jake are successful in their respective careers in Southern California. However, whereas Jake seems to have moved on with his life with his new wife, Jane has not entered into a new relationship since the divorce. She's a woman in her late 50s, and her last child is about to move out of the house, leaving her alone and feeling a little lonely.

Through a series of comical mishaps, which I'll leave for you to discover, Jane and Jake find themselves at the same hotel in Manhattan a day before their son is about to graduate from a NYC college. Each of them is about to dine alone at the hotel restaurant when they see each other and decide to dine together. Many drinks and reminiscences later, they begin to have an affair. This time Jane is the "other woman" and, although she has some misgivings, she's having a great time. They discover that there's still a lot of sexual chemistry between them, and they still care deeply for one another. And I think I'll leave it at that, so I don't spoil it for anyone who wants to see the movie.

It's Not Unusual for Divorced Couples to Still Love Each Other and Consider Getting Back Together Again:
What interested me most about "It's Complicated" is that it raises important psychological issues experienced by many couples who divorce and then later consider getting back together again. I think that most people would assume that once couples divorce, the feelings that they once had for each other just go. But just because two people get a divorce doesn't mean that, deep down, they might not still love each other. It might be buried under a lot of anger, sadness and resentment, but for many couples, the feelings are still there.

If you've never experienced this yourself or you've never heard of this happening before, I can tell you that, over the years, I've worked with a number of formerly married couples who have come to couples counseling to explore whether they should get married again.

As the movie title, "It's Complicated" implies, the emotional dynamics in these types of situations are complex and often confusing. Relationships end for all sorts of reasons. Once the dust has settled and the divorce papers have been signed, it's not unusual for one or both people to have second thoughts about the divorce.

The following vignette is an example of two people who were married for many years, divorced, and came to see me in my psychotherapy private practice for couples counseling to decide whether they should get back together or not. As always, this vignette is a composite of several different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Sally and George were in their mid-50s when they came to see me for couples counseling. After being married for 25 years and raising two children, they had divorced two years prior to their first visit with me. The divorce was precipitated by Sally's discovery that George was having an affair with a woman he met online.

Both of them agreed during the initial consultation with me that the marriage had been strained for more than 10 years. They were arguing a lot--mostly about money, and their sex life had been dead for the last five years of their marriage. After Sally discovered the affair, she threw George out of the house and consulted with a divorce attorney a week or so later. George wanted to try to save the marriage. He stopped seeing the other woman and tried to persuade Sally to go to marriage counseling with him, but Sally was too hurt and angry. Their divorce was bitter, and they were both unhappy immediately afterwards. The children, who were in their early 20s, sided with their mother and barely spoke to George.

Several months after the divorce was finalized, George began dating a couple of different women. Even though he missed his life with Sally and he felt sad that he was estranged from his children, he started to enjoy his new freedom. Sally had a much more difficult time adjusting to being single again and the thought of dating was very unappealing to her.

One day, Sally saw George shopping in the local grocery store. She said she was surprised that, rather than feeling angry and bitter when she saw him, she felt a mixture of love and pity for him as she watched him try to shop for himself. When George looked up and noticed her, he waved and soon they were chatting. They decided to go for coffee afterwards, and this was the start of their "dating" again. Their children were surprised, but they accepted the situation and they reconciled with George.

All of this sounded fine, except that Sally still had a lot of mixed feelings for George. On the one hand, she realized that she still loved him and enjoyed his company. Part of her wanted to get back together again. But, on the other hand, she still had a lot of pent up anger and resentment for George because of the affair. They were also still arguing and getting into power struggles about money, even though they were both doing very well financially in their careers.

George seemed genuinely remorseful for his infidelity. He was glad to be spending time with Sally again, and he was relieved to have reconciled with the children. However, at this point, he wasn't so sure he wanted to give up being a bachelor so quickly. Even though he was not dating anyone else, mostly not to hurt Sally, he wasn't sure that he wanted to be married any more. He was also concerned that, even though their sex life together was better than ever, they were still having many of the same arguments that they had before. So, from his point of view, he would've been happy to continue to date Sally but to maintain separate households and separate bank accounts.

George and Sally came to weekly couples counseling sessions, but after a few sessions, it became apparent that these sessions were not going anywhere because they were too contentious. Even though, as their couples counselor, I set certain basic guidelines and boundaries for the emotional safety of each of them, as I would with any couple (e.g., speak from your own experience, don't interrupt the other person, don't speak for the other person, and so on), they both constantly violated these boundaries so that nothing was accomplished in the couples sessions.

As a result, I met with each of them separately in individual sessions for a few weeks to work through each person's concerns. When it seemed that each of them was sufficiently calm to come together again for couples counseling, I suggested that we try it again with the understanding that they must adhere to the therapy guidelines in order to continue the couples counseling sessions. With some difficulty, gradually, they learned how to communicate with one another without shouting, finger pointing, accusations, or one of them walking out of the session.

Over time, as they came to their couples sessions, Sally forgave George for the infidelity. They also learned to compromise about the financial issues that had been so contentious. After Sally forgave George and they stopped arguing so much, George decided that he wanted to get remarried to Sally. Sally's friend tried to discourage her from doing it. They told her things like "Move on with your life and find someone else" and "Once a cheater, always a cheater." But Sally felt her friends didn't understand the strong bond between them, even though they were divorced. She regretted that she had not gone to marriage counseling with George when their problems first began when they were married.

A year after they came to couples counseling, Sally and George were planning their wedding. They left couples counseling with the understanding that my door was always open to them, and they could come back again if they started having problems again.

Not All Divorced Couples Who Still Love Each Other Can Reconcile:
No two couples are alike. Each couple is unique, with their own dynamic, their own set of issues, and their own history.

The composite vignette of Sally and George represents cases where both people still loved each other, worked hard in couples counseling, came regularly, and were, eventually, willing and able to make changes in themselves for the relationship to work.

However, over the years, I've worked with divorced couples who came to couples counseling to explore whether they should or shouldn't get back together where there was still too much resentment, an unwillingness on the part of one or both people to compromise and, in some cases, the realization that they were just not compatible, even though they still loved each other. In some cases, one or both people were still hoping, somewhat unrealistically, that the other person would change but, for a variety of reasons, that didn't happen.

What to Do if You and Your Former Spouse Are Considering a Reconciliation:
If you and your former spouse are considering reconciling, you might benefit from couples counseling. You can speak with close friends and family members, but often they don't know what to say or, if they do, they can't be objective and might give advice that is based on their own bias or based on being loyal to you as a friend and not seeing your former spouse's point of view.

Attending couples counseling is no guarantee that your relationship will work out. But if you attend couples counseling sessions with a licensed psychotherapist who has experience working with these types of issues and with whom you both feel a rapport, you will probably stand a better chance of finding out if you should get back together than if you both try to work it out on your own and continue to come up against the same obstacles.

I am a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. I have helped many couples in couples and marriage counseling.

To find out more about me, visit my website: http://www.josephine-ferraro.com

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.