February 9, 2013

Ending Relationship Ambivalence. ~ Joe Elliott

An ambivalent state of mind.

During my first year as an intern in a Marriage and Family Therapy training program, I attended a conference by a renowned therapist who was achieving unprecendented results in helping to prevent divorce.

His approach was very simple: couples would have to agree to place all plans of marital dissolution on hold until they completed a required number of counseling sessions with him. Upon hearing his perspective and witnessing his approach, I encountered a tremendous struggle within myself.

Some of the questions that disturbed me at the time were: How could a counselor possibly understand the dynamics at play in the relationship and be assured there was enough safety to put plans for a divorce on hold? and How could the counselor create sufficient therapeutic space, after asserting such a strong position on what should happen in the short term? 

Since my initial contact with this approach, it has been rebranded as Discernment Counseling; whereby it is not recommended in cases of domestic violence, and in situations where one partner has already made the decision to pursue a legal separation.

Not only did this perspective smack against some painful aspects of my personal experience, it seemed to dispute what I had learned in my study of meditation and eastern philosophy.

In my prior training, I strove to find subtlety and nuance in every aspect of the human experience; I believed that some degree of ambivalence about important choices in life should be cherished and highly valued. I saw how delaying a major decision can invite insight, where someone can entertain the possibilities of a variety of choices and measure the consequences arising from each choice.

In that space, wisdom can emerge with a clear discernment of cause and effect and the path for right action can become more apparent. But ambivalence can also become a place of stagnation.

It’s easy to get lost in measuring the possibilities of each important decision that we have to make in life and miss out on the real experience of change that may be attained in moving forward.

When we are working towards changes in our lives, it seems much easier to try to take small steps, to change one or a few behaviors at a time, but I have seen that this approach is often unsatisfying for people. What most people seem to want is systemic change; a change in thoughts, feelings and action that will allow for a shift in their relationships and a new overall perspective about themselves and the people that they are connected to.

This cannot be achieved with an ambivalent state of mind.

Now, when I meet with couples who are contemplating divorce, I advocate for them to put their plans on hold by not taking action towards filing petitions or hiring an attorney, before they make a good faith effort to really see what they can achieve in couples counseling.

I continue to work to hold back my assumptions about the best path for couples to pursue and as time goes on I have a greater faith in the capacity for relationships to be healed.



Joe Elliott has been working to help families for the past 13 years. His specialties are in couples counseling, family therapy, death and dying, parenting, financial management and adoption. Joe received his undergraduate degree from Naropa University in Psychology and Religious Studies and his Masters in Counseling from Regis University in Denver. He completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Denver Family Institute and has also taught Family Therapy to students at Metro State University of Denver. Find out more here.



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Assist. Ed. Sarah Winner
Ed: Bryonie Wise



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