Helping Couples Separate with Dignity and Grace

Sometimes there is no “happily ever after” for the couples we work with.

By the time they make it to our office, the “water under the bridge” is no longer flowing, leaving no way back to harmony and reconciliation.

Only festering wounds and growing resentments.

With that said, there is still so much a skilled couples therapist can do to help partners separate in a way that honors what they once had together, provided they are both willing.

That was true for Jane and Jack, a couple I saw recently. After several decades of marriage, there were too many unresolved hurt feelings swept under the carpet, too much conflict chronically avoided, resulting in too much emotional distance.

Intimacy had long been put to rest. They had drifted too far apart emotionally.

As is predictable with long-term conflict-avoidant couples, one partner had started an emotional affair, leaving the other feeling betrayed and enraged.

That’s understandable as no one wants to be replaced after investing a huge chunk of her/his adult life with somebody.

The challenge for me was twofold.

Getting Focused

First, I had to get clear on where each of them stood vis-a-vis their marriage.

Secondly, I had to help Jane reign in her anger and hostility and instead access and express the more vulnerable feelings underneath – her grief and loss.

Good therapy can provide an environment where couples are able to get past their defenses enough to propel them forward. It can end on a positive note if each partner accepts accountability for the breakdown and will mourn the loss of the dream they once held.

There was no taking sides or room for judgment on my part with this couple. I understood they both had contributed to this outcome and were caring about each other, despite their pain.

Containing Destructive Emotions

Jane quickly began to escalate and use her anger to name-call, blame, and hurl accusations. I had to quickly jump in and set up clear boundaries on what was and wasn’t going to transpire in the room.

While I empathized with her feelings, I told her that neither of them would be given a green light to take down the other person no matter how hurt they were.

The problem was that neither of them had the developmental capacity to discuss the grievances in their relationship long enough and calm enough to get to any resolution.

Clarifying Issues

What Jane wanted to know was how invested he was in the other woman and where he stood in terms of their marriage. Both had been avoiding this discussion.

It was impossible for her to ask him directly, because she was too fearful of the truth.

He wouldn’t initiate his position to her because he feared her wrath.

I knew that my task was to help him articulate an answer to these two questions in a clear and direct way.

After he explained his position to her, I asked if she could recap what she had heard; she summed it all up with a simple statement.

Jane: “I heard you say that you are in love with another person and don’t want to get back with me.” 

Jack: “Yes, you got that right.” 

As difficult as that was, they both finally had clarity. There was no more dancing around the truth or walking on eggshells and trying to avoid the pain of loss. It was now out in the open.

We could move forward from there.

Supporting the Grief Process

I went over the stages of couples’ relationships and reminded them that they had gotten stuck on the “dark side of a honeymoon.” I knew that each of them had done their best to create something together. I explained how that had worked for both of them for many years.

I refused to collude with how she saw herself as the victim for much of the relationship. Instead, I continued to approach it from different angles to help her see that she was making choices all along the way.

The biggest personal cost to her was that she never pursued her own interests or developed her own unique self, but instead put her energy into making him happy, believing that then she could be happy, too.

They both cried openly at the new reality of the loss of the relationship.

Each time Jane wanted to defend with anger, I gently helped her come back to her more vulnerable feelings.

With my consistent encouragement, she was able to separate herself from his actions in order to not take them personally. She was able to stay connected with him and the memory of what they had together in a way that was extremely important and very moving to be a part of.

Jack connected to his sadness and loss and was able to express and validate how much she had put up with him and how much he understood her pain. This was clearly important to her. He was able to show her that this process was not easy for him either.

Separation Reconciliation

The importance of staying in the vulnerability of grief and loss is revealed in what Jane said to Jack next.

“You have to admit we really do have something. We have loved and cared for each other from the day we met.” 

This opened a well of grief in him.

I wondered out loud if they would be able to hold onto that special something, despite walking through a difficult time separating their lives.

Friendship is one of the four main components of marriage, and that was something they had done very well.

Both of them had tremendous early childhood trauma, so they had good historical reasons for wanting to stay in self-protective modes throughout their marriage. Despite this, there was the care and a commitment to one another and their children.

The Rewards of What We Do

Knowing that this marriage had ended with positive feelings as they left the office gave me a feeling of deep gratitude and satisfaction. It’s not always easy to be the container for emotions that seem overwhelming to partners.

When done effectively, it can be an act of extreme service to a couple like this. Rather than end up in the courts tearing each other apart, they can accept that there are good reasons why they started to move away from one another.

They don’t have to blame each other for where they ended up. They waited too long and it was simply time to move on.

They both agreed to leave the door open for any possibility in the future. This is the best outcome based on their commitment to walk through this time with respect and compassion for themselves and one another.

They left thanking me for the help I provided in reframing their future and setting a trajectory for them to move forward without bitterness and hatred. I had so much respect for both of them because I know this is not an easy task for anyone.

Outcomes like this make what we do as couples therapists so rewarding. We are making the world a better place, one couple at a time – whether together or apart.

Do you believe in coincidences?

These are hard times for many of us. And the worst part is – it’s been going on far too long, and we don’t know when it will be over.

It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees some days with so many of our usual comforts, rituals, and routines gone out the window.

And yet, our attitude and attention to the things that hold meaning allow us to swim rather than tread water. While we can’t always control circumstances that negatively influence our lives, like COVID-19, we can control our response to it.

We can chose to focus on our difficulties – and there are many for some of us – or we can focus on the unexpected gifts that are given to us when we least expect them.

I’d like to share a gift I received recently. It was completely unexpected and had a profound effect on me. Here is what happened:

I left my downtown office building after a long day seeing clients. I was tired and looking forward to getting home, eating my dinner, and having a quiet evening.

I took a few steps out the door and a woman approached me. She was very soft-spoken and tentatively said, “Maybe you’re somebody I could ask?”

“OK,” I said, and she began to tell me her story. She said she worked in a community office in the Downtown Eastside and that her wallet was stolen that day because someone forgot to lock the filing cabinet. I used to work in the Downtown Eastside, so it seemed plausible to me.

I asked her what she was looking for. “All I need is $3.00 to get the transit back home.” She kept talking as I removed my backpack and began to fish my purse out from it.

She went on to tell me that she had $27 in her wallet and all of her credit cards. She contacted the transit office with her card number but to no avail. She was distraught, wondering how in the world she would even get home.

As I listened, I thought to myself, “Of course I’m going to give her $3.00 – or $5.00 to make sure she has enough.”

She went on to reassure me that she wasn’t a drug addict, and she wasn’t trying to solicit money for any nefarious reasons. She didn’t really need to do that because it was evident, to me anyway, that it wasn’t the case.

By the time I took my wallet out, I’d been listening to her speak in her gentle, soft-spoken manner, and I felt compelled to help her even more.

There was no resistance in my mind whatsoever. I reached into my wallet and gave her a $20 bill, trying in some small way to make her day a little lighter.

She began to cry. She took my hands in hers (not great due to COVID, but I understand that she needed to do that) and thanked me profusely.

She said, “Now I’ll be able to buy some eggs and bread for dinner.”

We parted, going our separate ways, and I found myself moved to tears. I wondered to myself why this was happening.

You see, I don’t believe in coincidences.

She may have thought I was her angel that day, helping her out and not judging her or walking away like I didn’t have time for her. And yes, that is true.

But what she doesn’t know is that she was my angel.

She brought me a gift in that moment that was worth much more than the $20 I gave her.

She reminded me there were times when I was that woman. When I struggled to make ends meet and felt too ashamed to ask anyone for a handout. When I was alone and didn’t know how to invite anyone to help.

She reminded me that random acts of kindness can have a big effect on both parties involved.

All I did was stay open and receptive to another human being in need.

It brought into focus what brings value and meaning to my life – being of service, in whatever way that presents itself in my life.

She showed me it’s always about love.

And, we all need more of that – especially right now.

Stay open to the “coincidences“ that the universe is putting in your path…things you can stay open to and responsive to…

that allow you to tap into yourself in a deep and meaningful way…

that might help you feel just a little bit more positive about human kind.

Remember, Mahatma Gandhi said that “the future depends on what you do today.” Small acts of kindness add up.

They fill our bucket with good feelings and encourage positive self-esteem.

So, stay open and stay positive.

We will get through this, hopefully sooner than later.

Let’s do it with more care for ourselves and one another.

Day 12: Cultivate Peace Within & Live in the Moment

Day 12 of 12 Days of Emotional Sobriety

There is no better time than the holidays to cultivate a feeling of peace within. Most people these days are increasingly busy making it a challenge to stay mindful and present to our lives. Peace is defined as “freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety or obsession; a state of tranquility or serenity.” This is a must for addicts who are vulnerable to relapse when ‘restless, irritable and discontent.”

Being peaceful doesn’t mean you have to stay sitting still. Instead, I think of it as an inner shift in the face of our busyness. It’s the way we stay connected to our Highest self, which in turn is connected to the Higher source of knowledge, peace, and power. Becoming skilled at doing this, especially when our lives are full, is what helps us maintain a sense of serenity. For me, it is my daily meditation practice which keeps me centered and calm and ready for each new (busy) day ahead, with all its many challenges.

Living in the moment allows us to generate peace through our attentiveness and acceptance of whatever life is presenting to us. I recently had a friend pass away in a kite surfing accident. He was only 49 years old with a 9-year-old son. It was such an unexpected tragedy. It reminded me, once more, that life is a precious gift that we cannot take for granted. Living each day as if it is our last, reminds us to let go of unnecessary stresses and focus instead on what is most important. Our commitment to pray and/or meditate regularly changes brain patterns which in turn, change our personality patterns – for the better.  We learn to show up, even during stressful events and maintain a sense of calm, level-headedness.

Tip for Today

Set aside 5-15 minutes to connect with your inner self. Give yourself permission to put out of your mind all the tasks and stressors for this time. Start by following your breath and imagine it is a calming presence that expands into each of your cells. Imagine that your breath is connecting you with the Source of all power, peace, and knowledge and letting it fill you up, You might notice a sense of “I am connected” or “I am safe”.  Let yourself enjoy this state of being for as long as possible.  Silently chant ‘I feel peace’ as you continue to feel into your calm state. When finished, go about your day, taking breaks as often as possible to remember to use your chant, ‘I feel peace’, to bring awareness to the calm inner state.  Experiment with this process repeatedly to build a new pathway for peace within.

It has been a pleasure to share these 12 tips towards Emotional Sobriety with you over the past 2 weeks. I hope they have been beneficial to you, your loved ones or those who might need them most this holiday season. If you missed a few or would like to read/share them again, you can find them here. 

On behalf of The Good Life Therapy Center, I wish you a joyful, peaceful and merry Christmas & New Year.


Day 11: Be of Service to Others

Day 11 of 12 Days of Emotional Sobriety

The third pillar of recovery, after personal recovery and unity with the fellowship, are

acts of service. This takes us out beyond our own self-interest and allows us to, often for the first time in our lives, feel like we have found meaning in life. It’s critical because most people in the throe

s of addiction are ‘takers’. In early recovery, they think that doing things for others “sucks”. I was once told that “if it’s not inconvenient, it’s not service”, and that has helped me adjust my attitude over the years.

There is an undeniable spiritual alchemy that occurs when we give from our hearts without looking for something in return. It’s difficult to put into words. If we pay attention, we’ll notice that we feel uplifted. We feel as though we finally belong because we have something of value to offer. We have discovered a key to happiness.

Saint Frances said it best: “…it is by giving that we receive.”

Acts of service can be large or small. I know a couple who every Christmas anonymously buy other people’s groceries when they are checking out. They watch to see who looks in need, then they let the cashier know they will pay the bill. They set a budget and give in this way. There are also so many ways we can make a difference that don’t cost a cent.

Tip for Today

Think about the days ahead and ask yourself what type of service you could accomplish. Sit quietly and let yourself sense into what feels meaningful to you. Perhaps you want to volunteer your time at a shelter; cook a holiday meal for someone; help a neighbour or friend; or reach out to someone struggling with their recovery. Create a plan to make it happen and follow through. Remember showing up for life and being accountable means taking action. It will result in a sense of emotional maturity and well-being.

Don’t forget to share this with your friends and family who could benefit from 12 tips to keep you emotionally sober this holiday season. See you tomorrow for tip #12!


Day 10: Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt

Day 10 of 12 Days of Emotional Sobriety

Sometimes people’s intentions are malicious – but most of the time they are not. Most people do not set out to intentionally hurt others.  And yet, it’s impossible to be close to other human beings and not get hurt, from time to time. This is especially true for alcoholics/addicts who tend to be particularly sensitive emotionally. Our sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it allows us to connect deeply with the world (when we allow ourselves to feel). It’s a curse because it often underlies the need to use our drug of choice to completely numb out.

Emotional sobriety means you can handle the normal emotions of everyday life. Building resilience in this area is important for your own emotional well-being. I love how Dr. Ellyn Bader describes it in the work she does with couples. She explains how crucial it is to build “emotional muscle” to be able to show up in life and in your close relationships. One way is by giving others the benefit of the doubt. That means we don’t have to attack everyone who disappoints or frustrates us, nor do we need to ‘ghost’ them.

There is no possible way to build healthy, long term, reciprocal relationships if you are not able to manage your emotional triggers and reactions to what others say and do. There is a very important perspective in the recovery literature that states: “Whenever I am disturbed, there is something wrong with me.”  It’s a harsh truth because it demands 100% responsibility. No one to blame. No one to shame. Emotional growth means that you can tell the difference between everyday hurts and serious abuse, (which does not apply here). It means you are being both kind to yourself, but also to others. Most of us are doing our level best each day. Can you see that in yourself and others?

Tip for Today

Remember a recent event when someone said or did something hurtful to you. Or think of an upcoming holiday event where you must be around someone who you find difficult. Imagine yourself giving that person the benefit of the doubt.  You might think, “Sounds like they are struggling”; or “I’m really glad I don’t live in their skin, it must be hard”.  Giving someone the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It doesn’t even mean sticking around them. It simply means allowing yourself to find some compassion for their suffering. By doing so, you shift out of being a victim and avoid a downward emotional spiral that makes you vulnerable to relapse.

Don’t forget to share this with your friends and family who could benefit from 12 tips to keep you emotionally sober this holiday season. See you tomorrow for tip #11!