March 20, 2018

Episode 7: Talk it Out - Family Therapy with Colleen Kowal

This episode of the We Chat Divorce Podcast also serves as the debut of our new television program airing on WHHI-TV in Hilton Head, South Carolina. What you’ll hear is the audio from the episode, which you can watch here.

In today’s episode, we introduce ourselves to our Hilton Head audience and share our divorce stories. We’re also joined by Colleen Kowal, of Hilton Head Island Counseling. Colleen is a Licensed Professional Counselor with the State of South Carolina and a certified Imago Relationship Therapist. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

Karen: We were just talking in our last segment about how going through the divorce process is, sometimes people need to think about, "Am I emotionally ready?" They think they're ready, but they may not be. And we were saying we need to refer them to relationship experts sometimes. Your approach we find very intriguing so hopefully you can talk to us a little bit about that.

Colleen: I'd love to talk to you about that. I'd love to talk about Imago. Imago is about 30 years old, and it was developed by Doctor Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt and they wrote the book Getting the Love You Want. I was young and married and not doing very well in graduate school and fell in love with the work. And really decided then that this was the first thing that I had ever really read that made a lot of sense not just about marriage but about relationships in general. How to help manage conflict, and where conflict comes from. I really committed way back then to eventually study this work and I'm really excited now to be able to do this and I think I'm the only person in our area that provides Imago counseling.

Catherine: Is it actually a certain amount of sessions or is it an ongoing process?

Colleen: Well that's it, that's a good question because I think the answer is that it depends on the couple. I do a workshop four times a year where couples sometimes come and do the workshop and never really come to therapy. They actually learn a lot, and the purpose of my work is to help couples come in and be able to learn how to communicate. I see myself very much as a relationship coach, and if they can learn how to communicate safely and effectively then they can really develop a deeper connection, and once they know how to do it, they really don't need me anymore. 

Catherine: Wow that's interesting. You should probably take that before you get married.

Colleen: And some people say "Why would I do the workshop? My marriage is pretty good," and what I say is, "Would you like to deepen your relationship?"

Catherine: Yeah well you know a lot of people will ask me "What would you change about the divorce process because Karen and I are helping people get through this process. And my response is that I really wouldn't change anything about my divorce process because we negotiated it ourselves – my ex and I. But I would change things about my marriage, because we should have been in counseling the day we got engaged, honestly. Being a blended family is not an easy thing to do and being 23 and becoming a stepmother that quickly; really, I look at it now and I'm like "what? I look like a kid!" But our relationship went like this, and it worked, but the communication really wasn't there. So, really, it would have been nice to have that.

Colleen: The Imago process is based on a dialogical process that creates the safety of the conversations so that it doesn't go all over the place. You know, so you start talking about "Why don't you want my mother to come for Thanksgiving?" And before you know it you're talking about the last time that you know, you didn’t help clean the garage, and at the very end, you don't even know what you were fighting about. And so this process really helps keep it really safe, really tight, and it's actually a lot of fun.

Karen: Colleen, I noticed on your website that you have an entire page on your philosophy. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Colleen: Well, I mean, I was an educator for years, and so I taught first through seventh grade, and I was a school counselor, and I've been in private practice. For me and lots of friends and my own life, for me at the heart of every problem is a broken relationship. Whether it's a mother that's passed, something from childhood, a problem with your spouse, your brother, but at the heart it is really relationships. We're born into relationships, we're connected through relationships, and I really know that we can be healed through the relationship. And so that's the frame of the work that I use.

Karen: Wow! That's awesome. And I love seeing that one page dedicated to philosophy because I don't see that on a lot of websites, but I really appreciated that about yours. I know that one thing Catherine and I see a lot is someone coming in, thinking they're ready for divorce, because of infidelity. But when we ask them the question "Do you still love your spouse?", it becomes a little shaky. So how do you address that? Because some people want to work through it, for some people, that's a big line that someone crossed. How do you respond to that? And can some couples heal from that?

Colleen: They really can heal from infidelity. There's a lot of research about affairs really being a symptom of the problem, and not the problem itself. And, so, when we can help couples really identify what went wrong, and what did you really need, and what did you not get from a relationship that you were crying out for but maybe you didn’t know how to ask for it? And then for the other partner to not... it's really helpful for the partner who's been betrayed to realize that they really didn't do anything wrong, or that they were not enough.

Catherine: Which really frustrates me when I have someone in there that's heartbroken and blindsided, and they're told that if they would have only been better, "I wouldn't have cheated" or "If only you would have done this for me, I wouldn't have done that." So not only are they beaten down, but now they're taking all the blame for something that [really wasn't] their fault. There is no fault, I guess.

Colleen: Well no, I mean I think that people have to take personal responsibility for leaving the marriage to think they're getting what they need. What we know statistically is that second marriages fail to 60% divorce rate. People think that when they get in trouble in their marriage or that they fall out of love that It's over. And so then they start to seek that same feeling with someone else. Because when we fall in love, what we're actually in love with, is ourselves. We love the feeling that we have about ourselves. That we're vulnerable, wide-open, that I [want to] be with you all the time. There's so much freedom in falling in love. That period lasts between two and eighteen months, and all these great chemicals are released in our brain, which is the same chemicals that actually create the effects of ecstasy, the drug. So, we wonder why we're so in love with love, it's powerful. And then once those chemicals go away, and then we start seeing all the things that used to be cute, finding them annoying. We start to feel like "Ugh, maybe I really made a mistake". And that’s when I think people start to have affairs or find other ways to exit their relationship.

Karen: Wow. And we see financial infidelity a lot as well.

Catherine: Oh, wow yes, that's a whole other infidelity. And that is just spending, you know. Spending and hiding money from your spouse. And buying things and hiding things and that creates another level of tension.

Colleen: You brought up something really interesting thought that I do see a lot and that is that someone will come in and that is that they definitely want a divorce and as we explore it, sometimes we do make that decision, but I love to help them get really clear about it. Because it affects lots of people – their children. Divorce has this huge ripple effect. When you're that emotional and you've been hurt, or betrayed, we really are in a part of our brain and do not make great decisions. And it's really important for people to find a way to work through all of that and I know you both help so much with that too, so that they can really make logical choices that are going to have better outcomes long term for the bigger picture

Catherine: That brings me to, I want to share a story about someone, we do a lot of divorce management planning. That is mostly women who aren't ready, but have been thinking about it, we have the Great Divorce which is very big now. There is no reason for the divorce other than your kids are grown and you want to be on your own, you feel like you've fell out of love, or you found someone else that you think you're in love with because you're going through the phase that you call it. And we have sometimes met some people who do this for months, and then when it comes to the serious conversation with their spouse that you know, "I don't really love you and it's time for me to move on, our kids are grown", and the guilt sets in. And the trigger with the children, and then they decide to stay. And for us it's fine. We give them counselors names, we offer counselors for their children, for their spouses, whoever you need, go seek that help. But I hear often that "It's just easier I'm going to stay," "I'll just grin and bear it," "I have this big house," "I have this, I have that," or "I have everything taken care of." How long, if they don't get help, will that last?

Colleen: It can last a lifetime. I think what we're experiencing now in our culture is that we've left the marriage of need and moved to the marriage of want, because women can take care of themselves. So now we have a more lateral partnership and we don't know how to do it. So, that's one of the things taht I do, I teach people how.

Karen: Okay. And do you also coach divorcing couples through their divorce?

Colleen: Absolutely. We do co-parenting sessions where they can create a vision for what co-parenting looks like. So when they have that vision they can really say, "We created this together and this was our goal and this was our long term plan for our children, how can we support that goal?" And that's how the couples counseling works in that sense as far as parent support.

Catherine: And I love that. I really want to mention your workshop because I do think that you should take the workshop maybe before thinking of getting a divorce. I'm always about giving it your last hope, or even before you get married. That's great. So your workshop is...?

Colleen: It's March 23rd, 24th, and 25th, 2018. It's right here on the island so you don't have to travel. They have them all over the world, so you can go to a more exotic place if you want to go away from home, but we are having one right here at the Hampton inn and they can find out more about that on my website which is HiltonHeadIslandCounseling.com.

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