“5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce Or Breakup”, With Tracy K. Ross
My movement would begin the conversation early, it might even be taught in schools. The lesson would be that this matters as much as grades or sports. What does it take to have successful relationships; romantic, friendship, family, school, work-place? Too many people muddle through without tools for conflict resolution, asking for what you need, or expressing disappointment. This movement would include interpersonal communication skills, conflict resolution, listening skills, repairing after ruptures, and being attuned to the needs of others. Relationship skills should be taught at a young age, both at home and at school. Learning the tools and skills for communication and handling emotions would be so much easier if we didn’t rely on what we picked up along the way. Some people grow up with parents who model all of these skills but many don’t see relationships go through challenges, take each person’s needs into account and ultimately come out on the other side with a positive outcome. Many of us grow up with adults who model avoidance, volatility, and in-direct communication. What would it be like if we learned another way at a young age?
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Survive And Thrive After A Divorce Or Breakup” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy K. Ross. Tracy is a couples and family therapist in NYC. For over 25 years, she has been working with couples at all phases of their relationships, including pre-marriage and post-divorce. Ms. Ross’ specialties include parenting issues, collaborative divorce, discernment counseling, sex therapy, and running optimal sexual experience groups for couples. Working with families and couples experiencing challenges throughout the life cycle, Ms. Ross came to realize that what she was doing was ‘redesigning relationships’. She identified different events and personal triggers that would disrupt relationships and came to view her role as facilitating a ‘redesign’. This unique method helps couples gain the connection and tools to go from volatility to versatility, distance to connection and avoidance to intimacy. Ms. Ross has a private practice in the West Village and also works as a faculty member on the Resilient Families/Special Needs Kids Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family. In that capacity, she designs and delivers workshops, trainings, and groups for families and professionals. She recently gave a webinar to a national NASW audience entitled: ‘Transform Your Couples Communication: Guiding Your Clients through Difficult Conversations’. With graduate degrees from Columbia University and Fordham University, Ms. Ross is a licensed clinical social worker, organizational psychologist, and collaborative divorce coach. She completed post-graduate training at the Ackerman Institute’s family & couples externship program. She lives in NYC with her family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a child of divorced parents I experienced firsthand the aftermath of a failed relationship; the turmoil and stress of growing up with two realities, the conflict, the loyalty binds, and the high level of responsibility thrust upon many children after divorce. While it’s not surprising that divorce would affect a child this way, what did surprise me was how having divorced parents continued to affect me as a young adult. As I approached situations with dread because of the looming presence of both parents, I began to wonder when the aftermath of my parents’ divorce would stop having such an impact on me in real time. At this time I was on my way to a career as a therapist but I wasn’t clear about a specialty. I remember my graduate school graduation and my wish to just avoid it so that I didn’t have to navigate between my two parents. In sorting through that experience I began to reflect on whether or not it had to be that way. What if my parents had handled their divorce more like adults and hadn’t put me in the position to be the adult in the room? And taking it even further, what if they hadn’t gotten divorced at all? What if there had been a way through the hard times that ended in the dissolution of their marriage. I grew increasingly interested in relationships, what makes them work and what makes them fall apart. Is it just about choosing the right person, finding your soulmate? Of course not, even the best of couples have conflicts that feel desperate and hopeless at times. Why do some couples manage to navigate these challenges while others split up? And then there is the dynamic of the whole family and how everyone is directly affected by the couple’s relationship. What allows some couples to emerge from the tough times intact, while others become distant and estranged? This curiosity and a desire to help people find a way through the challenges in all relationships led me to a career as a couples and family therapist.
Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about “divorce”?
As a couples and family therapist for over 25 years, divorce has been a large part of my practice. This is especially true since I’ve been practicing Discernment Counseling, a short term model that helps couples on the brink of divorce choose a direction for their relationship. Families come for therapy around the ramifications of divorce, the impact on the kids, the spouses’ new relationships, and the extended family. Other couples come for therapy and make the difficult decision to split up. Some couples come for help with how to handle the divorce in the best possible way and continue to use me as a resource as new issues arise. Divorce is painful and affects many more people than just the couple. I feel very strongly about not adding unnecessary pain and suffering through bitterness, pettiness, and vitriol. I am direct and clear about this with my clients and it gives them permission to contain or put aside the fight and work together.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
I find it endlessly fascinating that when you peel back the layers and defenses you often find a very different person than what you see on the surface. ‘I once worked with a couple where I had an especially negative reaction to the husband. I found the accounts of his behavior towards his wife and child so unacceptable that I doubted my ability to work with them fairly. In order to help a marriage I really need to feel empathy for both partners and truly not take sides. As part of couples’ therapy I routinely meet with each individual separately just to get to know them a bit better and establish a relationship. I met with the wife first and became even more aligned with her side of the story. I dreaded the upcoming meeting with the husband. How would I be able to align with him? To my great surprise, instead of the man who had shown up for the couples’ sessions, I had the experience of talking to an engaging, sympathetic, thoughtful person who was desperate to be understood. This was a completely unexpected turn of events. It caused me to rethink my approach to working with this couple. While it is not uncommon to have a different experience of someone when you meet with them alone vs with their spouse, the extreme nature of this instance really taught me a valuable lesson.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career I worked at an employee assistance program that provided counseling services to corporations. One of the company’s clients was a major television network. An actor whose show I had watched while growing up was referred to me for counseling. He had been drunk on the set during filming, and had received a disciplinary warning. I tried to play it cool but found myself completely distracted. I found it hard to separate the character from the actual person and couldn’t stop thinking about him as his TV character. The lesson learned was that everyone is human and vulnerable and in order to be an effective counselor I had to learn to separate any fame or glamour from what was bringing the person into my office.
If you had a close friend come to you for advice after a divorce, what are 5 things you would advise in order to survive and thrive after the divorce? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Accept that it’s over. You can’t move forward until you truly internalize the end. Often the animosity and protracted pain that accompanies divorce has to do with not accepting the finality. If there is even a small part of you that isn’t letting go, it gets in the way of surviving and thriving. If you can’t bridge that doubt I recommend discernment counseling, a new intervention that is designed to help couples find a path forward (more on that later.) I worked with a family five years post-divorce whose son was in crisis. The animosity and bitterness came up every time they had an interaction. The only reason they were willing to sit in the same room was because their son was on the verge of a breakdown. What emerged in our work together was the woman’s feelings about how the relationship ended, how she felt she never had a chance to address the issues before the decision to separate was made, and how she never fully accepted the rejection.
- Make the decision to move forward with grace. If you embrace a mindset that moving through the process with grace is your priority and decide to say no to pettiness, revenge, and the urge to inflict pain as retribution for your pain, you will be choosing a path that will create a post-divorce life full of possibility. I worked with a couple who came to the realization that being rigid about time with their kids and fighting over certain assets was leading to more pain and damage. They sat down at a very raw moment and said, ‘we see our kids suffering, help us get through this without dragging them through more trauma. We don’t want to come out of this process hating each other.’ That spirit became the guidepost for the rest of the process. Not to say there weren’t significant challenges, there were. But as they moved forward their primary motivation refocused on becoming the best co-parents they could be. In the end they were able to establish a new way of relating that enabled the whole family to thrive in the reality of post-divorce family life.
- Allow yourself time to grieve, to be sad, to be angry (not the same as self-blame) and know that feelings will hit you like waves, feel overwhelming and out of control but they will pass. You may not recognize yourself at times and it’s important to keep in mind that you will not always feel this way. Be kind to yourself and make an extra effort at self-care. I worked with one woman who found it so difficult to manage the roller coaster of emotions that every time she felt distraught she went “out on the town” with a vengeance. The level of alcohol and drug use combined with risky sexual encounters ended up being self-destructive rather than healing. It affected her ability to fulfill her professional and parenting responsibilities. She missed deadlines at work, slept through morning alarms and failed to get her kids ready for school and out the door to meet the bus. It wasn’t until her ex-husband stepped in that she began to acknowledge the need for better coping strategies.
- Don’t get stuck in the negative. Fantasies about hurting your spouse are normal but you have to find a productive outlet for that anger. The worst thing you can do is let it affect your kids. Don’t, under any circumstances, bad mouth your ex to your kids. Whatever satisfaction it may give you in the moment will be miniscule in comparison to the damage it will do to them. I worked with a woman who told her daughter they were going to see her father’s new apartment. They showed up on his doorstep on a week night and she demanded he let them in so they could talk. A public screaming match ensued and the police were called. This was awful for the daughter…she was so torn between her two parents and couldn’t express her feelings. She felt she would be perceived as being disloyal to her mother. She bottled up her emotions and acted as if the divorce didn’t bother her. Ultimately her anger and confusion came out and started to affect her friendships and school life. The normal challenges of adolescence she had previously managed without incident became triggers for angry outbursts, tears, and arguments with teachers, coaches and peers.
- Use your community, don’t isolate, and re-engage with people and things you love. Some people feel a deep sense of shame after divorce defining it as a failure. The antidote is to cut people off, and isolate from others in an attempt to combat the shame. In order to thrive after divorce it is critical to do the opposite and let people in. Isolation allows negative feelings to fester and regenerate. You feel bad so you isolate, you feel worse and you isolate more. There are endless resources available for divorced people. Take advantage of information and expert advice in the financial, emotional, parenting, dating, and socializing spheres. Use your community of friends and family…there are many people who want to be supportive. One of my clients felt lost and insecure as a newly single dad. He found enormous comfort and guidance in a support group for divorced dads. They ended up meeting weekly for years and supporting each other with parenting issues, introducing new relationships, navigating challenges with their exes and sharing a lot of laughs and camaraderie along the way. Rediscover who you are and what you love and make time for pursuits and interests that may have gone by the wayside. Ultimately you can emerge from your divorce re-engaged with the parts of yourself that bring you joy and fulfillment and your post-divorce life can be one of self-discovery, accomplishment and peace.
What are the most common mistakes people make after they go through a divorce? What can be done to avoid that?
In my experience when someone gets stuck in bitterness, anger, and revenge it ends up backfiring. Kids suffer immensely, the adults don’t move on, and no one fully adjusts to the new normal. There is a feeling of looming threat, at any time the conflict may re-appear.
The urge to go out, drink and hook up with new sexual partners, and recapture your youth is normal and can be temporarily self-affirming. However if it goes on too long and becomes impulsive and indiscriminate it can become self-destructive.
Fixating on feelings of shame or self-blame is also self-destructive. While it’s invaluable to do some deep self-reflection and go inward to understand your part in the breakdown of the marriage, if you get stuck on beating yourself up you will find it difficult to move on. The most dangerous part of not dealing with the painful emotions, causes, and outcomes of divorce is inadvertently repeating the same mistakes with a new partner. The way to avoid this is to spend time on self-reflection rather than blaming your ex. You have to acknowledge and process the painful feelings of shame, loss, and grief and work on being a better version of yourself.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources related to this topic that you would recommend to our readers?
- Goop podcast; because it’s all about self-care and self-discovery, especially the interview with Gwyneth Paltrow and Elena Brauer about ‘conscious uncoupling’
- Books: Divorce Poison by Dr. Richard A. Warshak
- Helping Your Child Cope With Divorce the Sandcastles Way by M. Gary Neuman
- UnTied.net, an organization for divorced women with resources for any and every aspect you can think of
- Divorceify, a website that provides personal roadmaps for navigating the divorce proces
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that helped you in this work? Can you share how that was relevant in your real life?
“Stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities. What we can imagine we can make real. Elevate your thinking and you’ll levitate to greater levels.” Lao Tzu
A life lesson for me has been to stop thinking about what isn’t possible and start thinking about what is — we all spend far too much time focusing on our limitations. Once you start to put energy into what may be possible, what you can do, doors begin to open. I have found this to be true in both my personal and professional lives. This mindset has allowed me to create a work/life balance that I never imagined years ago.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve very excited to be a certified Discernment Counselor. Discernment Counseling is a process that helps clarify a direction for relationships. When one person is leaning out, thinking the marriage is over and heading for divorce, and the other person is leaning in, still invested and trying to save the marriage, it’s likely that the couple is experiencing a standstill and feeling stuck. Discernment Counseling is a short-term process that helps couples decide on a path for moving forward, be it together or apart. Discernment Counseling can take anywhere from one to five sessions. At this stage of a relationship emotions may be very high. Discernment Counseling provides a safe, structured environment with three possible outcomes. Path one is the status quo, not moving towards divorce, not working on the relationship. That’s always an option. Path two is moving towards divorce, and Path three is a six-month effort to repair the relationship, taking divorce off the table for those six months. Regardless of which path is chosen, at the end of the Discernment Counseling process couples have more clarity and a roadmap for moving forward.
Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement to learn about relationships -
My movement would begin the conversation early, it might even be taught in schools. The lesson would be that this matters as much as grades or sports. What does it take to have successful relationships; romantic, friendship, family, school, work-place? Too many people muddle through without tools for conflict resolution, asking for what you need, or expressing disappointment. This movement would include interpersonal communication skills, conflict resolution, listening skills, repairing after ruptures, and being attuned to the needs of others.
Relationship skills should be taught at a young age, both at home and at school. Learning the tools and skills for communication and handling emotions would be so much easier if we didn’t rely on what we picked up along the way. Some people grow up with parents who model all of these skills but many don’t see relationships go through challenges, take each person’s needs into account and ultimately come out on the other side with a positive outcome. Many of us grow up with adults who model avoidance, volatility, and in-direct communication. What would it be like if we learned another way at a young age?