Action Plan

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COUNSELING COUPLES THROUGH SEPARATION
A DEVELOPMENTAL APPROACH
By Terry Levy and Wendy Joffe
The goal of this paper is to present a conceptual model of what occurs on psychological, emotional and interpersonal levels during and following the termination of a close relationship. A close relationship is defined as ongoing, emotionally and/or sexually intimate, and involving feelings of commitment and attachment. This paper is to be a guide for the therapist who endeavors to understand and help people during these difficult and complex times. It will not include a discussion of the myriad causes of separation, nor will it deal with issues associated with children caught in the painful web of family disintegration. Rather, it will emphasize the dynamics of adult behavior as viewed from a developmental perspective, and provide recommendations as to the role of the therapist. Typically, when a marriage or any close relationship comes to an end, a person experiences a sequence of reactions which occur developmentally, characterized by three major phases; separation, individuation and reconnection. Each phase involves a unique matrix of needs, anxieties and potentials for personal growth. This sequence is referred to as a developmental process; it occurs over a period of time, the reactions of one stage provide a foundation for and interact with the following stage, and it is a dynamic and volatile situation. The therapist who understands the characteristics of each phase can better understand the client seeking help. They can then provide that client with a roadmap, which may serve to provide direction and alleviate some of the uncertainty and despair associated with this difficult but seemingly necessary journey. SEPARATION

Separation involves letting go. Despite the psychological pain associated with an unhappy relationship, it is rarely easy to let go. The partners' psychological worlds are enmeshed to the point that the experience of separating is analogous to tearing apart a piece of fabric, a jolting experience leaving rough and raw edges. Intense ambivalence is natural, for there is a strong desire to end the difficult relationship and, simultaneously, anxiety and fear associated with the unknown territory ahead (Weiss, 1975, pp. 36-46). Powerful feelings are aroused during the separation phase. There is a sense of failure and guilt, with the end of the relationship often perceived as being caused by personal incompetency and fault. The person becomes self-deprecatory and often compensates for the inner-directed negative feelings by blaming the partner. A hallmark of the separation phase is confusion and disorganization, which creates considerable anxiety. Clients report that their world is collapsing and they do not know how to cope. There is a fear of loneliness and isolation, which emerges as the person begins to think about living as an individual rather than as a couple. The most common emotion expressed toward the partner at this time is anger. The intense resentment felt towards the partner is partly a way of avoiding self-responsibility and partly an accumulation of the many previous hurts and disappointments. Lastly, the separation phase provokes a series of reactions associated with loss, similar to the stages of dying as noted by Kubler-Ross (1969) denial (withdrawal and avoidance); anger (blame partner, act-out hostility); bargaining (hopes of reconciliation), depression (self-pity, despair, fear of unknown) and acceptance (dealing with reality). The therapist who is aware of the foregoing reactions to separation will realize that the client needs both support and clarity. Therapeutic support in the form of empathy, acceptance, and allowing for temporary reliance on the therapist's strength, is crucial during this difficult time. The therapist provides clarity and order by helping the client understand what is occurring and what might be expected in the near...
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