Dr. Colleen Mullen, Psy.D., LMFT is the founder of the “Coaching Through Chaos” private practice in San Diego, California. She is also the host of “The Coaching through Chaos Podcast.” You can find the podcast on her website and on iTunes at chaos.tips/iTunes. Dr. Mullen specializes in outpatient addiction treatment, relationships in conflict, treating symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, and enjoys helping her clients work through transitions in their lives. Her podcast presents twice monthly interviews with guest experts designed to inspire, motivate and empower you! You can interact with Colleen on Twitter @DrColleenMullen or you can contact her through her website: CoachingThroughChaos.com.

colleen mullen marriage family therapist communication article web.jpg

How soon after realizing they're having problems should couples pursue therapy?

Couples who have been together a while often wait 7 years before seeking therapy for their problems.  We know, however, that many relationships don’t even last that long if there are problems.  Why do they wait? Hopefulness that the problem will just not appear again, shame of needing assistance, pride (“I can fix my own problems – I don’t need some therapist to fix my marriage!”), lack of understanding of what takes place in therapy – lots of reasons prevent people from seeking help.  

What are the benefits of couples’ therapy?  

Couples counseling, as with any other counseling, can have multiple benefits for those engaged in the process.  The self-discovery of each individual’s role in the struggles of the relationship can shift things greatly.  However, the real change happens through the work of taking that awareness and applying new strategies for communicating more effectively (this is both in and out of arguments).  When both parties of a couple take responsibility for their part and work on managing their own personal stress, understanding their emotional triggers, decreasing their reactivity and expressing themselves more effectively, the relationship transforms.

Do you ever suggest individual therapy instead of couples’ therapy?

Absolutely.  There are often situations for which it is prudent for a person to work through some things individually before engaging in the process of couples’ therapy. Some of the mitigating factors influencing this recommendation would be: how much past trauma or individual struggles such as depression, anxiety or addictions are showing up in their daily functioning.  Another situation which would require individual therapy in lieu of couples’ therapy in the immediate would be in the case of an ongoing extramarital affair.  

Even more common than referring them to individual therapy before couples’ therapy, is to refer each party to individual therapy while engaged in couples’ therapy.  This way, the person who has some emotional struggles outside of the couple problems can have a safe place to work them through conjointly with their own personal therapist.  When couples’ therapy is not indicated at all would be a situation in which there is active or recent domestic violence in which the therapist cannot be confident the parties would not continue to engage in dangerous behaviors between session.  Additionally, when addictions are not being treated also presents another situation in which couples’ therapy would not be indicated. 

Is it ever too late to save a marriage?

I like to tell my couples that, although some of therapists may be talented at what we do, we do not make magic happen.  The work of therapy happens outside of the therapy room.  In the case of couples’ therapy, these couples have been in conflict, or the opposite – conflict avoidant, or have not expressed themselves to each other, or haven’t been intimate, or what have you that caused them to seek therapy, for much longer than they should have.  Resolving long-standing conflict, or getting 2 people who are conflict-avoidant to effectively discuss what’s bothering them, is tough work.  It’s work the therapist cannot do for them.  The couple must take what they learned and apply it at home.  I do believe that the majority of couples who want their relationship to last, can learn the tools necessary to improve their situation.  Their commitment to doing the work and practicing what they learn will be the key to sustaining their relationship  in a happier, more satisfying fashion.

Do you have tips for couples whose marriage seems destined to end in divorce?

Seek therapy.  If your partner doesn’t want to join you, seek individual therapy.  If you have kids, try to limit your negative interaction in front of them.  

What's the best time to tell children? What's the best way to share the bad news?  

Tell the kids before they have to guess and make up stories in their head.  Very often, I’ll meet with couples who have been living separately and the kids are shifting between two homes, but the parents have not actually had a conversation with the kids about what is taking place.

The best way to share the new is together.  You went into this together, and except in the cases of domestic violence and/or active addictions, you should tell the kids together.  However, I am realistic enough to know that this doesn’t actually happen very often.  One person is frequently left with the burden of responsibility to tell the kids and get them acclimated to the change.  It will be important to use age appropriate language and tell them what they need to know, rather than everything they want to know.  Kids will often ask questions out of their own curiosity about their perception of what’s gone on, but it’s important to limit the information to a need to know basis.  For instance, your teenager may ask you, “Did you catch Dad cheating?” Even if the answer is “Yes and I want the jerk to burn in Hell”, the answer your child needs is, “Why we are splitting up is between your Father and I. Do you have any questions about the changes we are facing ahead? We are happy to answer anything about where you’ll stay, how we want to keep your routine as regular as possible”.  Self-restraint will be the key in communicating with your child, particularly with teens who may be able to have figured out things for themselves.  It will still be important to hold the boundary, limiting their information as Parent-child, versus Parent-peer.

Whatever you do, don’t tell them, “Nothing is going to change” or “You won’t even notice the change”.  They definitely will.  Even if you live next door to each other, you child will now divide their time in 2 houses, with different rooms, with different things in them and will most often only interact with one of you from here on out.  Their life is absolutely changing.  This, however, does not have to be a negative experience.  Change is often positive and in the case of a set of parents who don’t want to be together any longer, when handled in front of the kids in positive manner, this often teaches them great things about adaptability and how sometimes relationships morph and change over time.  This change does not have to negative or scary.

What can parents do to help children deal with the post-divorce transition? 

Let your child have their feelings.  You may think your future ex-spouse is a horrific human being, but your child doesn’t.  Even if your child sees that Mom & Dad shouldn’t be together because they are always arguing, it’s imperative to let your child experience their emotions.  Divorce is the death of a relationship and there is current research demonstrating that a divorce can cause grief as if for a true death.  If you are in a situation in which one parent abandoned the other with the kids, the kids are even more so mourning the loss of the abandoning parent.  It is important for you to process your emotions with other adults out of the earshot of your kids.  Kids may be confused, sad, angry, depressed, or even become extra emotionally clingy to you during the transition.  Just allow them a safe space to talk about how they are feeling.  You don’t have to solve their problem, but you do have to validate that it’s O.K. for them to feel as they are feeling.

Keep in mind that no matter how poor the quality of your marriage might have gotten to by the end of it, your child ultimately just wanted his/her parents to work it out and be happy.  That is what you are helping them work through- the loss of their dream of Mom & Dad being happy together.

What's is co-parenting? How can people plan a successful co-parenting arrangement?

Co-parenting is just what it sounds like: having a decisive plan and agreement of how you will both parent your child/ren now that you are no longer together.  Co-parenting entails discussing things like: 1. When a child has a consequence at one parent’s home, the other parent carries the consequence out at their home if the child visits during that time, 2. What consequences are appropriate for what behaviors, 3. Keeping a consistent schedule no matter which parent’s home the child is at.  It is so important for parents who are splitting custody of their children to co-parent.  When they don’t, you get situations in which a child may act out right before they leave Dad’s house because they know that Mom won’t follow the consequence Dad sets. Children can get far behind in school if every other week when they are their father’s home, Dad doesn’t check to see if they did any homework because the sitter was watching them after school and the kids just said they didn’t have any.  Failure to co-parent effectively causes discord between the two adults who already couldn’t live with each other and impacts the kids negatively.

Parents struggling with how to co-parent effectively can take a co-parenting course or seek out a therapist who has experience with co-parenting or collaborative divorce.  Again, even if you find yourself alone in the situation because your ex won’t take the course or see the therapist with you, seek the help for yourself.  A therapist can help you strategize how to most effectively communicate with your ex so that you have the best chance for mending some of the hurt that often leads to resentment and lack of co-participation when it comes to parenting after separation or divorce.