Life Transitions, Relationships, Uncategorized

A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.

Over the summer, I’ve begun to develop a working relationship with Colette Fortin of Fairway Divorce Solutions, wanting to better educate myself in alternatives to traditional separation and divorce litigation for couples ending their legal or common-law marriages. Her team provides mediation services as an alternative to both traditional litigation, and collaborative divorce services. Given that, before talking with her, I hadn’t realized there was a difference between little what I knew about the collaborative approach and mediation, I’m glad we’ve opened this educational channel. I feel a lot better having a clue, now, when I talk with clients in dissolving relationships about what their options look like, and depending on HOW the dissolution is occurring, being able to aim them at a process that seems a more tailored fit for their particular situations.

This post isn’t about Colette (but do check out the Fairway Mediation blog; it is a TREASURE TROVE of information about mediated separation and divorce), and it’s not even about divorce. It’s about the scenario of separations, even “relationship breaks”, in which intimate partners suddenly find themselves in a weirdly-disconnected limbo state, a liminal space between the relationship that WAS, and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

The end of a marriage is a difficult time, even under amiable circumstances; nebulous “breaks” from a relationship aren’t much better. Expectations and rules of engagement change, often dramatically and with little warning. Outcomes are uncertain, and often we don’t even have a shared understanding of the respective desired outcomes for each partner. Is this an ending? Is this a slow exit in lieu of a fast, clean break? What are we supposed to be doing within the parameters of this break? If I wasn’t the one who initiated it, why should I be doing anything in the first place??

When these breaks and separations happen, they raise a LOT of questions for the person receiving the news (we assume the person initiating the break has already been thinking about this change for a while). First question is, naturally, “WHY??” Then typically come a lot of panicked inquiries about who-did-what-wrong-and-how-can-we-fix-this. Once the dust settles, however, we get to the meat of the matter:

1. What is this break or separation FOR?
2. Is it permanent, or is reconciliation on the table?
3. What will each of us be doing during this break (or separation if reconciliation is in any way an option)?

That third question is, I find, the most problematic for relationships on hiatus. Unsurprisingly, relationship that are failing in any part because of poor communications anywhere in the system, will also fail at communicating intentions around these kinds of disengagements. What is the intention for this break? Are you:

  • just needing time out of the stress arena to relax and decompress?
  • planning to spend the time working on your own personal issues in order to work towards a specific goal of reconciliation or exit?
  • planning to take a step back until someone ELSE (namely, your partner) does something specific to fix something in themselves that is obstructing healthy relational engagement? And if so, have you communicated the expected for of work or expected outcome of that work, required for you to step back IN at some point? Have you clarified the expected window for this work, or is this ambiguous and indefinite?

It’s far less common that I get a consistent-to-all-parties answer when I pose the question, “What’s the purpose of this break?” Even in the case of separation, if one partner is keen on reconciliation and the other is keen on exit, we’re not generally going to be on the same page. Partners are disconnected about the essential whys, about the intent, about responsibility for either the problems or the (potential) solutions, and about the purpose of the disengagement.

So, how best to navigate this liminal space? Especially if doing so under the duress of having this sprung on you by your partner?

Step one: Breathe.
Seriously, take a breath. Heck, take several. The emotional chaos is going to be big enough and upsetting enough without trying to at least mitigate the instantaneous and default patterns of reactivity. Take a beat, then think about what can or needs to happen next. (Go have a cry if you need to.)

Step two: Seek clarity.
You may not be able to effectively address the “Why??” or “What went wrong?” questions at this stage of the game, tensions and fears will be running too high for reflection to be immediately to hand as tools. If you CAN get there, great; just don’t be surprised if the tide needs to recede a fair bit past the damage-control points before those conversations can even happen, let alone make sense. Instead, focus on determining what needs to happen next. Is this a permanent break, or a temporary one? What are the ground rules and expectations in either case? Contact, no contact, limited (in which case, what are the boundaries defining those limits)? If there are kids in the picture, what will you tell them, and when, and together or separately? If this is temporary, what is the intent or expectation each of you has for the separation period? What has to occur before reconnection or reconciliation topics are allowed on the table?

Step three: See step one.
No, really. Keep breathing. This probably came as a hell of a shock.

Step four: Figure out your own next steps.
You have a few options here. One is to wait passively for your partner to figure everything out so that you can react to it, rather than organize your own response to the situation (this is that pesky internal versus external locus of control issue again). Another is to shake of the fear paralysis, leverage your resources, and figure out what your options look like, both in terms of legally preparing for a lengthy separation or potential divorce, or financial preparation if someone has to move to different living arrangements and thus shared financial responsibilities must be divided. You can put your own needs and wants into the equation, and gauge whether or not you believe the partner is willing to work with you or not, whatever plan you both choose, by how they respond to those needs and wants. You could hound the partner for the answers to the questions that will be themselves chasing you all over the place, though the odds of that working you both towards closeness and intimacy if one of you is trying desperately to get away, seem pretty low.

Step five: Hold your partner accountable. Hold YOURSELF accountable.
If you make any kind of agreement about what is expected to happen in this liminal space, be it discussing a separation agreement for real, or working on changing personal understandings and behaviours through therapy or medication or something else, the DO THE WORK. If a partner says they will undertake something specific within the context if this break, HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE (clarity in understanding what that undertaking will look like, comes in very handy with this part.) If you need to change the agreements because you cannot in good faith deliver as stated, then SAY SO. Renegotiate if necessary, even if it is hard (pro tip: it will be).

Step six: Recognize that, in most cases, passively waiting for someone else to solve all the problems will only make you bitter.
You may not have initiated or desired the break, but here we are. Abjuring responsibility for looking after yourself and your own future, even when it becomes a different future than you had envisioned up until the moment of the break, isn’t going to solve the problems either. It’s typically only going to disempower you and feel like you’ve lost all your agency, and that way leads to resentment, despair, and bitterness aimed at your partner… and probably no little bit at yourself. At the very least, figure out your short-term survival needs while the chaos is raging. Give yourself enough time for the shock to settle, then work out a longer-term plan for yourself. Have options that include the partner should they return, but make sure you have something to fall back on, planwise, if they do not.

Step seven: REMEMBER TO BREATHE.
Seriously. Because you will likely have forgotten by now.

The liminal spaces are hardest simply because they are the worst of the unknown, that are-we-or-aren’t-we kind of uncertainty that is so upsetting to many of us. Fear, uncertainty, doubt–about ourselves, our partners, the relationship overall, our future as we thought we’d planned it–can rob us of our focus and direction like few other things can. They steal our agency and leave us feeling like we’re at the mercy of someone else’s choices and actions; to some extent, we are. But we don’t have to stay that way. We may not be able to affect the outcome of a separation or break if our partners are set on getting out when we don’t want that choice of ending, but we can choose how to face these uncertain times, and how to hold ourselves open to multiple options, with at least some degree of plan we can enact in the appropriate direct when we choose to execute said plan. Sometimes, Life is what happens to us when we least expect it. We can let it steamroll us, or we can learn how to roll as best we can with it, fears notwithstanding. We choose how to face what’s happening to us, even when we can’t CHANGE what’s happening to us.

And seriously: remember to breathe.

Relationships

Last week I wrote about some fundamentals of systems theory in psychotherapy; specifically, we looked at the overarching idea that to work systemically is to “hold space” for all the invisible factors we can identify as operating on the client(s) in front of us. There are a few less formal principles that many therapists will observe in our practice styles, and two of mine are:

  • Never work harder than the client, and
  • Sometimes we can ONLY work with what’s in the room.

As a Marriage & Family Therapist, sometimes the hardest thing we confront is the recognition that a relationship being presented to us isn’t in a place where we can effectively work. Normally we start from an assumption of reparation and reconciliation, working to restore damaged individual or relational aspects as best we can. We work with the native resilience inherent in the clients themselves, even if they’re not feeling it at the outset. But sometimes… sometimes what walks through the door is an intractable INTENT to end things, right then and there. It doesn’t happen so overtly a lot in my experience, but it has happened enough to note some common patterns.

The challenge to the therapist in those situations is recognizing that it’s not actually our job to save the relationship at that point, if one or both members of the relationship has announced that they are no longer going to work on repairing and rebuilding together. It’s heartbreaking to be a present witness to the pain if this comes as a surprise to either partner. We can explore the intractability as best we can and look for options to expand into some emotional damage control; it’s highly unlikely we can move into reconciliation in that immediate pain. Not impossible, but once the bomb has gone off, the receiving party needs time to process shock responses before we can do much of anything.

So the first issue to the therapist lies in understanding that we can’t draw the partner who is determined to leave back into relationship if they don’t want to be there. Sometimes we can’t even keep them in the literal room. It’s not our job to force the issue. We can’t work harder than the clients themselves in that moment; it’s not our work to do. Our role switches to damage control and emotional support, itself a hard thing to juggle with two suddenly-wildly-diverging intentions. But if what’s in the room with us is now a solid resistance to making change or doing the emotional labour of repartnering with the other half of the current relationship, then that, unfortunately, is what we have to work with.

It’s a long-held understanding in discussions about consent and power dynamics that the partner who says “No” is the one with the ultimate power in the relationship, or at least in any specific exchange. This remains true in situations when one partner says No to an entire relationship. The remaining partner can maintain denial, or bargaining, or rage, or hope, or whatever stance comes naturally to them in the moment, and we have to make space to work therapeutically to that as well… but without necessarily joining with either the bargaining partner or the defiant one. If our alliance was initially sought to work with and (theoretically) secure the relationship, then we as therapists are kind of in a stuck place should that alliance implode in our office.

And implosion does happen. The most common scene is a couple coming in with one intent to work on repair, and one intent to use the mediated discussion as a platform for announcing their exit (often as unbeknownst to the therapist as to the receiving partner). Once this kind of truth bomb gets dropped, in the immediate moment I’ve never had much success trying to entice the announcing partner to stay in an emotionally-focused space; by this point they’re just done and shut down and cutting the ties. Sometimes I can pose the question, “What would need to change for you to consider continuing the repair work?” but it’s extremely rare that we get useful answers from this state. If resistance is in the room, we get to work with resistance. Anger, fear, hurt… these are definitely in the room, and we have to work with that too (potentially more explosive on one side than the other by the time we reach implosions like this; one partner has had mental time to prepare for this, but the receiving partner is rarely in anything other than a purely reactive stance in this kind of situation).

It’s not unheard-of for therapists to end such sessions early. Sometimes it becomes apparent that we can’t effectively de-escalate the hostility in the room, especially if there’s too much shock or anger to allow either partner to engage with the available therapeutic alliance. We try to not leave either partner feeling unsupported, but on at least a couple of occasions within my own practice, it became apparent that the conversation most needing to happen was going to be with legal counsel, not therapeutic counsel. Forcing the clients to stay present in the flames of their own shock or grief is something we can do under some circumstances, but personally, I have yet to have that resolve into a useful or meaningful experience for the clients… or for myself as a therapist. And yes, sometimes we end such encounters as much to save ourselves as to release the clients; I’m human, I can admit that this is probably one of my least favourite experiences as a therapist. We often reach out to the clients for followup afterward, and it’s not uncommon to find one or both clients might reject the outreach if they feel we as therapists are also responsible for allowing the destructive breach to occur. We’re implicit in the destruction because we could not prevent it, and could not rescue one or both partners or the relationship as an entity unto itself.

That’s a hard thing as a relationship therapist to hear, but it has a kernel of truth. This is why it becomes important to understand that we should not be the ones working harder than the clients to save something at least one partner has reached a point of refusing to salvage. It’s the emotional labour equivalent of pushing on a brick wall and wondering why the wall is refusing to move for us. As much as our clients might want us to serve as the “big guns” to make movement happen, we’re only as effective as the willing engagement of BOTH parties to engage in a change process that has their own and each other’s best interests (as we understand them) at heart. Marriage therapists aren’t going to be much help if one partner shows up with a wrecking ball and the intent to demolish the relationship completely.

It’s important for clients (and therapists) to be honest about the limitations of our effectiveness. I’m sure there are miracle workers in the world, “relationship whisperers” who can chase and retrieve even the most intractable partners fro the brink of departure and destruction, who can de-escalate DefCon5 crises and bring all parties back into harmony. It’s a remarkable skillset we all work towards, but sometimes clients will still have their own ideas and agendas and escape plans. (As a side note, it’s terribly refreshing as a relational therapist to hear high-profile professional therapists like Terry Real or David Schnarch speak about their own therapeutic failures in the counselling room; there’s hope for the rest of us yet, perhaps.) There is a lot of good work we CAN do with engaged and willing clients, but once one member of a partner hits the hard limit of their engagement, we can only work with what they bring into the room — and if they don’t bring hope and that will to change, we can’t invent and install it for them, more often than not (most of us will try, though… and see previous note, re: cautioning against doing more emotional labour than the clients do).