Relationship Therapy or a Painful Divorce – You Have a Choice

One might have expected that the longevity of marriage would have been seriously threatened by the pressures of wartime, given the pains of prolonged separation faced by the both the combatants and the loved ones left behind, and the temptation in the face of loneliness and fear to seek comfort in the arms of another. Despite all, though, it seems that either our grandparents were made of stronger stuff or that absence really does make the heart grow fonder, as the majority of those reunited once the hostilities had ceased went on to enjoy the remainder of their lives together. Since then, however, the number of married couples that are willing or able to go the distance has been declining steadily.

A spiralling divorce rate has seen fewer people willing to take the plunge, and although South Africa’s rate is relatively low compared to others, both trends are growing. There are many factors cited as contributing to these failed partnerships, yet for those couples who are willing to pause a while before reaching for the phone to contact an attorney, a course of relationship therapy could save the pain, the expense and, in many cases, the ongoing hardship that result when dissolving a marriage.

Many of those who eschew such help and opt to end it all do so because they have little understanding of the counselling process. Often, friends or relatives with only a one-sided view of a couple’s problems will simply urge a wife or husband to make a clean break and make a new start. In practice, these are precisely the goals of a marriage counsellor, although his or her interpretation of “clean break” and “new start” are markedly different, applying not to the legal or even informal union itself, but to the perceptions, attitudes and behaviours of its members. It is in these human attributes that both the underlying problems and their solutions are to be found with the help of a psychologist who is trained and experienced in the principles of relationship therapy.

It takes at least two to differ and while differing views provide a basis for consensus, too often, entrenched behaviours, misconceptions and misunderstandings lead to knee-jerk reactions and conflict. In addition, underlying emotional triggers, such as money worries, concerns about children and job-related stress, all act to intensify any dissent.

The role of the therapist is not, as many mistakenly believe, to chastise, to direct or even to provide advice. Instead, it is to encourage the parties to personally explore their individual behaviours and recognise their effects, encouraging those that are constructive and the need to modify those that are not. The process is achieved through questioning designed to encourage self-examination, as the preliminary to opening a meaningful and mutually understanding dialogue between the parties.

Relationship therapy is not only for the partners. Often, their conflict affects the lives of children or parents, with whom they may share a home, and thus all may be affected by the conflict or even contribute to it.

Dr Tienie Maritz is a Pretoria-based, experienced psychologist and a specialist in this field. An excellent track-record, tariffs accepted by all major medical aids and an easy-payment plan for non-members could certainly make relationship therapy preferable to legal advice.