Counselling that Supports Collaborative Law: An Existential Approach


“Suicide? Well, I thought about it briefly, then I considered murder … I still like the idea but it doesn’t seem worth going to prison … and the children would be upset”. My client, whose partner of 25 years had left home to live with someone else, wasn’t altogether joking.

Divorce is a form of bereavement and it entails crisis and loss even where anger and blame hide this. It means losing a way of life and launching off into new, uncertain territory. It may necessitate a return to work and ditching of early retirement plans. Clients are often fearful and anxious though they may express this in different ways. It is important to remember that they tend to bring their ‘worst’ selves into the divorce process.

Collaborative divorce process

I support a local pod of family lawyers through the provision of individual life and work counselling alongside the collaborative divorce process. This is a professional service where emotional issues and personal, practical concerns about the future can be aired and explored. My aim is to facilitate the process by encouraging clients to accept what has happened, own their part in it and move on in a positive way. My approach is based on existential philosophy, which focuses on the present and the future and key themes are freedom, choice and responsibility.

People are invariably demoralised by divorce and may lose awareness of themselves as potent individuals with strengths and skills, focusing instead on their misery, weakness and failure. Yet, no matter how ‘down’ they are, people can be roused by questions like ‘what have they enjoyed?’ or ‘what enables them to get out of bed today?’, and gradually a whole person emerges with whom I can work productively. If all goes well a calmer, more realistic client appears in the collaborative meetings.

The crisis of divorce

Precisely because it is a crisis, divorce is also an opportunity – to review the way you have been living and choose a new life. But people arriving in my consulting room in a state of grief, agitation and tearfulness do not want to hear that this is a terrific occasion to re-evaluate their lives. Initially I focus on listening, to settle the client and enable me to get to know them. It may be the first time in years that they have felt really listened to and respected.

No matter how wrong-headed their view of things may sound, my respect is genuine because it is based on my assumption that their story is real for them, it is how they see things and the basis on which they have shaped their life. This is the starting point for our work. I cannot help until they commit and they cannot do this unless they trust me and believe it will be useful. So establishing a good working relationship is essential. Appropriate encouragement and challenge flow naturally from this position.

My role is not to judge but to help them to see their part in their predicament more clearly. Rather than focus on their behaviour in relation to the marriage breakdown, I look for opportunities in other areas of their current life. If they are habitually passive, dependent or aggressive this will show up in how they relate to work, colleagues, friends and me. Exploring these areas is immediately helpful as it is relevant to the future life they are creating right now. When they are ready they will make their own connections between their way of being and their divorce.

Exploring strengths and talents

Spending time exploring strengths and talents is a vital part of the work. As clients remember and re-connect with their ‘better’ selves they alter from an angry or self-protective stance into a more relaxed state, and as sleeping patterns improve their difficulties seem less daunting. Perspectives gradually change too. One client says her husband seems older and less powerful, whereas she is beginning to feel more vigorous and capable. She has wanted him to feel guilty but it doesn’t seem so important now.

For clients returning to work or changing jobs, our work may include career counselling. Alongside identification of their skills and aptitudes we can discuss practical aspects of employment and interviews. Typically this applies to women returning to full-time work but divorce is often contemporaneous with redundancy, business failure and other life events, and anyone can feel lost and unsure of themselves in such circumstances.

There are several aspects to any crisis. Something irrevocable happens and we must choose a response. How we deal with adversity affects our future health and well-being much more than the adversity itself. Crises throw up a lot of ‘stuff’ to deal with and in divorce this includes financial settlements, childcare, housing and work, which can feel overwhelming. And crises leave loss and grief in their wake. Notwithstanding how happy a client says they are to ‘get shot of him/her’, a marriage with its hopes and dreams has ended and the new beginning requires acknowledgement of the ending.

Crisis as an opening of possibilities

Existential theorists view crisis as an opening of possibilities, no matter how seriously one is affected. Like a crack appearing in the ground during an earthquake, there is a temporary fissure in the fabric of everyday life, allowing us to look deeply into our being from a new perspective. What was taken for granted can no longer be relied on. The inherent mutability of existence is exposed and a reckoning with life is demanded. For this reason crisis may result in a personal turning point.

Unfortunately the path to new possibilities is via apprehending painful truths. I try to guide clients towards a more realistic engagement with their situation, particularly to see how their own actions have influenced what has happened to them. This liberates them when they realise that, if they have made their own difficulties, then they also have the power to change things for the better. When clients say “if I chose this way of being then I can also un-choose it” they take back the responsibility and power they had given away, which had been burdensome to others, and begin to live less rigidly and more fully.

Equally important is to help clients identify and accept the limits that really do exist for them. Divorce itself is a limit situation, a hard fact that has happened and cannot be reversed. If reconciliation were achieved the pieces would never go back to where they were. A new life has to be forged from what is actually possible.

In a collaborative situation I work with the assumption that the divorce is proceeding but questions like ‘would you take him/her back?’ or ‘how do you imagine things will be?’ are still relevant to help clients clarify their position. Some don’t want to discuss their decision to divorce as they may claim it has nothing to do with them, a decision foisted on them. But when we explore more deeply this is never really so.

Existential counselling

Existential counselling considers more than the individual perspective and immediate needs. It encourages clients to consider their relationships and responsibilities to others. It reminds the client that we exist in time, and over the course of a life-span the choices we have made begin to show themselves in our health, our relationships and our capacity for happiness. What makes us happy now may not be conducive to well-being later on. Revenge can turn sour and in resentment we can throw our lives away.

Clients can be helped to face things honestly, learn to live more bravely, rebuild a meaningful life and regain well-being. This involves accepting that life is a wonderful gift, which includes not only happiness but also crises, disappointments and finally our own death because they are all part of the deal. It is not in my power to make clients happy but I can help them take possession of their lives afresh, without their spouse but fortified with their insights and new perspectives.

Existential philosophy

Existential philosophy evolved from the work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre, whose common concern was to explore existence and what it means to live well. Kierkegaard insisted anxiety is to be welcomed as an inevitable aspect of life and our guide to well-being. Nietzsche recommended engaging joyfully with destiny rather than aiming for mere happiness. Heidegger said we must live authentically in the face of death. Sartre emphasised that we are free and must use this.

Existential freedom is not about pleasing oneself but the anxiety provoking realisation that we are responsible for our lives and the world we construct. It entails accepting the freedom of others, our responsibility to them and the world we co-create. So it matters what we do and how we do it. We often pretend we are not free where we are, as when we say: ‘I couldn’t help myself I was in love’ or ‘I had to do it otherwise I might lose my job’. Sometimes we do the opposite and pretend we are free where we are not. To be challenged on these attitudes is tough, but a life of such pretence inevitably becomes a frustrated and diminished one.

Our lives are inevitably circumscribed by personal limits (this place and time, these parents, this body) and universal limits (we exist in time and space, we occupy this bit and see thus far and eventually we die). This can be hard to accept without feeling life is absurd and pointless. Yet for well-being we must engage realistically with the freedom we do have and strive to reach our potential in the face of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimate extinction. This requires courage, generosity and letting go of self-limiting habits.

Published in the Resolution Journal ‘Review’ (for family lawyers), September 2006.

Diana Pringle is an existential psychotherapist in a private practice in South West London. She holds an MA in existential philosophy and psychotherapy, and UKCP professional accreditation. In her earlier career she was a management consultant and non-executive chairman of a City IT company.

Diana Pringle, MA UKCP Reg’d
Existential Therapist & Family Consultant
55 Spencer Road, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, TW2 5TG
020 8894 1623, m: 07985 613059