A wealth of research has been conducted into the common predictors or causes of divorce and the impact of divorce on families and children. However, there has been little formal research into the specific approaches couples think of divorce and how they ultimately decide to take that step or to stay married and work on the issues that led to the conflict in the first place.
To address this, and to take a closer look at the decision-making process around divorce, a group of researchers have been conducting various studies as part of a larger project called The National Divorce Decision-Making Project. The project is a collaborative effort by researchers at six universities in the United States and Canada, including family scientist and professor Adam Galovan at the University of Alberta.
In a study published recently in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Professor Galovan and his team conducted a survey of 745 married people who were in the process of considering divorce to gain a better understanding of the decision-making process. Each of the participants was interviewed at two separate times, one year apart, to measure how each person dealt with the process over a sustained period. They found that there are not many options in terms of formal support available for couples and individuals facing this decision.
Further, they identified four distinct patterns people can fall into concerning their approach to this decision. The vast majority of participants do not use any external support when considering this important step. Below, we will look at some key findings of the study and discuss a type of therapy developed by project leaders to help counsellors and married couples navigate the decision-making process regarding divorce.
One of the key pieces of information the researchers examined was the various relationship repair behaviours exhibited by the study participants to address the marital conflict that prompted them to consider divorce in the first place. The study categorized various approaches taken by the participants into three groups: personal behaviours, self-help behaviours, and professional-seeking behaviours.
These include having in-depth conversations with their spouse, forgiving their spouse and/or vowing to work harder to address conflicts in the marriage and correct their own problem behaviours.
Self-help behaviours include reading books and websites, talking with friends or family, and seeking out information independently to help address their marital strain.
These steps involve seeking assistance or guidance from an expert or someone with experience helping people with marital conflict. This may include seeing a marriage counsellor, seeing an individual therapist, and/or speaking with a religious leader or clergy member.
Based on their relationship repair behaviours, the study identified four distinct classes of decision-makers when it comes to contemplating whether or not to divorce and how they gather information and assess how to proceed. Looking at each person’s overall approach to contemplating divorce and the methods they used to repair the relationship, four types of decision-makers emerged:
This was the smallest of the classes, with only 5.6% of participants falling into this category. An intense seeker is characterized by a high volume of the three types of relationship-repair behaviours. Intense seekers also self-reported strong engagement with each of the behaviours at the start and the end of the study, demonstrating sustained efforts at relationship repair.
Moderate-fading seekers were the second smallest group, representing 14.3% of participants. Those in this group had modest participation in professional and personal behaviours and, in contrast, had a relatively high level of participation in self-help behaviours, limited mostly to reading books or searching for information online. However, by the second point of contact, most members of this group had drastically reduced all relationship repair behaviours.
The second-largest class, with 37.8% of respondents, were the private-sustained seekers. This group was highly involved in personal repair behaviours, moderately involved in self-help behaviours, and not very involved with professional options. This pattern which had been established at the first point of contact and was more or less sustained by the second point of contact a year later.
This class was the largest, representing 42.3% of the total participants. Minimal-private seekers are those who engage minimally with professional-seeking and personal behaviours. Additionally, there was almost zero participation in self-help behaviours. There was little change in behaviour between the first and second points of contact.
By far, the largest segment of participants (approximately 80%) was not likely to seek out professional help in trying to repair the relationship or to assist with determining whether they should proceed with the divorce. In addition, the study found that it was common for each person in a relationship to have different goals; one person may want to fix the relationship and lean more towards divorce. For these reasons, couples can encounter many conflicts and additional stress or uncertainty when contemplating this issue.
Speaking with the University of Alberta’s journalism website Folio, Professor Galovan said that professional intervention during the divorce contemplation process can help couples by providing “clarity, so they aren’t always looking back and worrying that they made the wrong decision.” The ability for each person to talk through their feelings can assist with bridging the gap in their goals and help them “get on the same page.”
However, he also notes that there can be a reluctance to seek out professional therapy due to stigma or mistrust of therapists in general. For this reason, he advocates that therapists who deal with clients making decisions about divorce take a low-key approach, such as the one promoted by discernment counselling.
Discernment counselling is a relatively recent concept created by family scientists, which refers to a short-term therapy specifically devoted to helping couples navigate the decision of whether to remain married or to get divorced. According to Professor Galovan, it is a more approachable and results-oriented option than traditional, long-term therapy:
It can help couples decide what path they will take, whereas traditional therapy sometimes assumes a path without having a meaningful discussion and getting clarity on what they want to do. We need an approach to help couples think through and support the decision-making process, rather than just helping them either make their marriage better or get a divorce.
He also advocates for making information used by discernment counsellors available in print and video form to provide resources to those who are unlikely to see a professional yet need help. As demonstrated by the study, this would apply to most people contemplating divorce.
In an article published by Brides magazine, a licensed discernment counsellor based in the United States, highlights the key differences between discernment counselling and traditional marriage counselling. Primarily, she characterizes the primary difference as the goals of the process. Marriage counselling is aimed at helping a couple develop tools to work through conflict and to better communicate with one another. It is often carried out over a long period, with no end date in sight. On the other hand, Discernment counselling has a specific goal: to help the couple reach a decision, rather than simply trying to maintain the status quo through better communication. It often consists of five or fewer sessions, which is attractive to many who otherwise may be resistant to formal therapy.
The first discernment counselling session often begins with a joint conversation and allows each person to speak individually with the counsellor. Unlike marriage counselling, the counsellor is not obligated to share information with each spouse; the topics discussed in individual sessions can remain private. The counsellor will go through several questions, including how a divorce might impact each person and their children, if applicable. After the individual conversations, the parties will regroup and debrief. At that point, the couple will determine if they are ready to make a decision or if they would like another session.
At the end of the sessions, the couple will make one of three choices:
This process can be a much more attractive option for couples where one person prefers separating because it does not suggest a commitment to “fixing” the problems. Instead, it can help align the goals of both people or help them focus on what makes the most sense for their family going forward in a relatively short period of time.
Whether a divorce is low-conflict or highly contentious, simple or complex, Mincher Koeman aims to ensure that our clients are steered towards the most efficient and amicable resolution possible. Our family lawyers are committed to treating your matter with empathy and skill, putting our considerable experience to work for you. We are highly experienced in all issues related to separation and divorce, including family property, child and spousal support, as well as parenting matters. Please contact our office to make an appointment to discuss your matter with one of our divorce lawyers today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or by contacting us online.
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