Jeff Guenther on Dec 15, 2019
My wife and I have decided to get a divorce. After 7 years, it’s time to end the marriage. The decision was really tough. There were a lot of heavy conversations leading up to it. The couple months that preceded the separation were especially emotional. We went back and forth for a while. It reminded me of that Seinfeld joke when he says, “Breaking up is like knocking over a vending machine. You’ve got to rock it back and forth a bit before it goes down.” That’s exactly what we did. Luckily we didn’t drag it on longer than it needed to be.
I have a lot of feelings about the divorce. Some of those feelings have to do with my role as a therapist and how my clients will feel when or if they find out about the split. I dig into these feelings on this week’s episode of Say More About That. In the episode, I have a candid and vulnerable conversation with one of my closet therapist friends (who has also gotten a divorce) about what it’s been like to be a therapist while feeling emotionally upset and mentally preoccupied. We talk about how I’ve handled it so far, what I could have done better, and how hard it can be to be present for your clients when you’re not feeling grounded. Click play below to listen to the episode or listen on Spotify.
One of the things that I keep ruminating on is whether or not I should be upfront and tell my clients outright that I’m getting a divorce. Some of these reasons are clinically appropriate and some of them are self-serving. You should know that I have not acted in an unethical way with my clients; they don’t know I’m getting divorce. I’m just aiming to be real about all the reasons I feel compelled to talk to them about it. Maybe you can relate?
Here are the 10 reasons why I want to tell my clients.
If you know me then you know I like to use self-disclosure a little more than the average therapist. (I even recorded a podcast episode about it.) So, at the very least almost all of my clients know that I am married to a woman named Kate and we have a dog named Josh. Sometimes clients ask me how Kate is doing. Sometimes they ask me if I’ll be spending time with her family during the holidays. Sometimes they ask me if I ever get into arguments with Kate. Kate isn’t a main topic of conversation but she comes up every now and then. I don’t want clients to innocently ask about her and then be forced to learn about the split when they may not be ready to hear it. I’d rather deliberately tell my clients about my separation instead of waiting for them to bring it up. I’d have a lot more control over how the conversations and avoid catching them totally off guard.
Some of my clients will be sad, confused, alarmed, worried or maybe ambivalent. If they have an emotional reaction, I want to have the appropriate amount of time to process it with them. I’d like to start the session with it and then leave space for them to ask questions. I might not feel comfortable answering all the questions, but I’d like them to feel encouraged to bring up anything they want. If for whatever reason their perception of me changes, I feel like it’s important to hold space and unpack it with them so we can figure out what’s bothering them and how they might be triggered.
Okay, I may be making too big of a deal out of this one but I feel very strongly about it. When I saw my clients this week, they all assumed everything was the same on my end. They think I’m still married and I’ll be spending the holidays with my wife and in-laws. That’s not happening. Allowing them to keep believing this makes me feel like I am not being upfront and honest about my relationship. I feel close to all my clients. I want to be truthful with them. If I allow this secret to go on for a while they might feel deceived if they find out about it 6 months down the line. I don’t want to lose their trust or make them think that I felt so ashamed of the split, I needed to hide it from them.
While I don’t plan to sign up for dating apps anytime soon, I will probably give it a go eventually. I feel like I missed out on the dating app revolution so I’m looking forward to finding out if it’s just as horrible as everyone says it is. So what if a client, who thinks I’m married and in a monogamous relationship, sees my handsome face on a dating app? It might be weird. I’d rather warn them about that possibility before they stumble upon it themselves. Right?
Even worse, what if they see me flirting with a date in real life? Clients have a hard enough time randomly seeing me grocery shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes it blows their mind that I’m a regular person doing regular stuff just like them. If they saw me being cute with a date they might lose their shit.
Deciding to divorce is still fresh but it feels like the right thing to do. Kate and I have been talking about what it’s been like to be married and now we’re questioning whether we’ll ever do it again. Sure, this could be a reaction to the breakup, but I feel myself changing my views on marriage in general. When my clients talked about their relationships this week I caught myself thinking they should all just break up and relationships don’t last forever and nothing matters and we’re born alone and we die alone so who cares about anything. (Sigh.) If that narrative keeps rattling through my head, it might be best to clue clients into the breakup I’m going through so they have context for my shifting perspective.
As you can tell from the previous reason, my emotions could be up and down for a while. I might not be as steady and grounded as usual. Clients are perceptive, more perceptive than they know at times, and if they sense a shift in my attitude, they could take it personally. It feels like I have a responsibility to tell them what’s going on so they don’t misinterpret my fluctuating moods.
I’m all for role-modeling being a flawed human, and this is a great time to show that I go through tough times too. It’s a great time to show that sometimes it’s hard to get through the day, and a lot of times I need to tell people around me that I’m struggling and I might be all over the place emotionally at times. It can be powerful when a therapist shares their vulnerability with a client. Some of my clients think I have a perfect marriage because I’m a couples counselor. If they knew that couples counselors get divorced too it could help normalize their relationship troubles.
Even though it’s been a rough couple of months, I’ve taken really good care of myself. I’ve never gone through this big of a break up before so I’ve felt really lost at times. But I’ve leaned on friends, I’ve gotten good therapy, and I’m proud of how much I’ve reached out to people. It was hard to do at times but I’ve really grown, and I want to use this time as a good example of getting emotional needs met.
Some clients chose me because they knew I was married. They felt like it was important to see a counselor that was married, just like they were. It allowed them to trust me and have a shared experience. Now that we’ve established a solid rapport it could be a growing opportunity for them to hear about my divorce. Can they trust someone who has been in a failed marriage? I think they can. But if they’re biased against folks that are divorced then it’s important to dig in and see where that belief is coming from. If they lose trust in me, I still believe we can build it back up and continue to work together.
I’m not quite sure how I’m going to handle it, but I’m leaning towards having a direct conversation with my clients about it. This whole experience has been incredibly illuminating for me. I’m looking forward to figuring out if I can use my life experience to help my clients grow, and I’m looking forward to finding out what my relationship future is going to look like.
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.