During separation and divorce, you can become your own worst enemy if you allow the stress of the situation to change who you are and how you present. It can be difficult to make important legal decisions that may impact the rest of your life if you are not managing your stress. In this episode, host Jaime Davis discusses the benefits of seeking individual therapy while going through the divorce process with Michelle Chiaramonte, LCSW and owner of Lumina Counseling Associates.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode 4 of Season 4 of “A Year and a Day.” I’m your host, Jamie Davis. Today, I will be speaking with Michelle Chiaramonte. Michelle is owner of Lumina Counseling Associates located in downtown Raleigh. She attended the University of Chicago for graduate school and is a licensed clinical social worker in both North Carolina and Georgia. Michelle has been in private practice for 14 years in Cary and Raleigh.
Hi Michelle. Thanks for joining me today.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Thank you for having me.
Jaime Davis: So tell our listeners a little bit about your practice.
Michelle Chiaramonte: The focus of my practice is, as a family therapist, is working with couples and individuals to me and age, mood disturbances, relationship challenges. I often work with postpartum moms, families, and life transitions.
Um, I utilize a number of interventions ranging from cognitive behavioral therapies to mindfulness-based stress reduction, and also do a little bit of Eneagram work with my clients.
Jaime Davis: Well, you sound like the perfect guest for this episode. This season, the podcast is focusing on self care, emotional health, and learning how to do more than just survive your separation and divorce. In your work with individuals going through divorce, what are some common issues that you have seen?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Many of the common issues involve emotional dysregulation in various forms. I think a lot of the clients that I work with, it’s a lot of, uh, fear. It’s a lot of fear of the unknown, fear of being alone, fear of the impacts that their separation and divorce are going to have on many aspects of their life, primarily their children. Um, I see a lot of folks that may or may not have had anxiety and depression in the past. Uh, but now it really is showing itself with the amount of stress that that happens and is associated with separations.
And those stress reactions can be really significant. They can, they can take a multitude of forms, but managing stress, as we all know is a very important piece in, in this. This is one of the most stressful things families can go through.
I think there’s also a lot of anger and frustration. Um, they’re usually typically 12 to 15 motions that underlie anger and often those are hurts and anxiety and embarrassment and guilt and shame, and all of those feelings kind of come together in this moment when it’s an incredible loss, it’s an incredible point of change. And there’s so much emotion that is feeling a lot of what’s happening in the situation.
Jaime Davis: Would you say that for a person going through a separation and divorce, is the grieving process similar to that, of a death?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes, absolutely. And I do a lot of work with that with people in individual therapy, focused on honoring what you had in the relationship, good, bad and ugly, regardless of what’s happening in this moment, because typically you have a history with this partner. You have a history that involves having children, buying homes, building lives together, and that all doesn’t just come to an end just because the relationship is changing, or as I would like to say evolving.
And so, yes, it’s very much a loss. It’s a loss of an idea. It’s a loss of what I thought my future would be. It’s a loss of the, my family as the way that I have seen it. So very much so grief and loss are, are very much a process associated with separation and divorce.
Jaime Davis: Emotionally, how else can a separation affect a person?
Michelle Chiaramonte: It can affect all areas of your life. It, we know that stress and an emotion can affect our physical health and well-being. We often see changes in sleep, in appetite, in activity level. Um, it can impact your work. I’ve seen many clients struggle with their professional lives because the separation or divorce takes up so much emotional brain space that they’re not able to really stay focused and be as productive um, at work. We see a lot of it come out in a lack of clarity in decision-making or sometimes even a paralysis and inability to make decisions when, when our brains are emotionally overwhelmed and there’s a lot of, uh, neurotransmitters that are flooding our brain very frequently.
Your brain tends to shut down. It shuts down some of those circuits in a protective nature. And in there’s research that shows when your brain is stressed, uh, it cannot think clearly, you cannot think your way out of it. So there’s a very much a biophysical component to it, a professional component.
And then you see your ancillary relationships. Uh, divorce and separation inherently changes your support system. It changes your social group. Often it can impact extended family members. Um, so there’s, there’s, it really touches all areas of your life, including your parenting and having enough emotional availability for your children during such a time is also a stretch, right? So there’s, it’s that kind of adage of there’s only so much you can do, right? There’s so much you can handle and, and so if you’re not working through that or doing, taking a very active role in managing that on your end individual level, it’s very hard to give in all of these other areas of life.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, I really love that you shared that about there being the actual physical reaction and that sometimes your brain just really can’t even work and make decisions. I will say in my work with divorcing individuals, um, we see that quite a bit, that when folks first come to us, we say that they’re spinning. Um, they have a very difficult time navigating the process. Um, and so that’s when I usually refer those folks to people like you, so that can help them so that we can help them.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes, you have to. I think the spinning analogy is, is a good one because there’s so much upheaval in so much overwhelming emotion that, that lack of clarity, it’s activating your central nervous system on a very regular basis. And when our central nervous system is activated, we’re in fight, flight or freeze.
And that’s often I would imagine what you see, especially right after the moment, you know, the crisis has happened is you’re either ready to fight it off or you need to escape it, or you just freeze, and, and that makes it difficult to, to manage such a process.
Jaime Davis: Right. I mean, as a divorce lawyer, there are some decisions that I just can’t make for my client.
And I need my client to be in a healthy place where they can make those decisions. For example, um, if there’s a settlement proposal on the table, you know, I can’t tell my client to accept it or not accept it. I can talk to them about the pros and cons, but at the end of the day, I need them healthy so that they can make the best decision for themselves.
Michelle Chiaramonte: And I think that’s where the therapeutic piece becomes very important, because if we think about it, marriage was designed as a financial protection for women, you know, decades ago, it is clearly a legal and a business contract. And so when we’re bringing all of this level of emotion, this hurt and the embarrassment and the anger that comes from the disillusion of a relationship, and then we mesh those two things, that doesn’t typically work very well for people in the long run. It’s, it’s very easy then to just get caught up on that again, fight, flight or freeze, and then those are the decisions that people are making, you know, that have lasting impacts on themselves and their children and the relationship they’re going to have in the future with their ex partner.
Jaime Davis: In your experience, what will happen if the person does not find a way to manage this additional stress that has been brought about by the separation?
Michelle Chiaramonte: When we are not outletting emotion, when we’re not processing emotion, then it’s sitting inside of us, and it has to come out in, in one way or another. Even if we think that, oh, I’m just not going to deal with this, I’m going to set it aside for later, it’s still there. So what we often see is changes in behavior, changes in personality. So this is a little bit of the Enneagram personality work that it can show personality traits, change when we’re under enormous stress.
So that kind of space that somebody is going through a stressful moment and we say, wow, I would never have thought she’d say or do that, right? That’s that stress and emotion getting expressed. So it typically we see it in extremes. We see folks that are doing a lot of self-medicating, a lot of too much of everything, too much shopping, too much exercise, too much food, too much drinking, too much sex.
All of those kinds of behaviors are emotion-driven. It comes from meeting to outlet that emotion. If you think of emotion as an energy, that energy has to go somewhere. So typically we see self-medicating behaviors. As I mentioned before, that lack of clarity and thoughts or inability to make decisions. Uh, and then those personal personality and behavior changes, just not acting or doing things that are within our character, not really being in touch with our moral compass, with who we are as people, when versus we just get into a very reactionary mode when we’re, when we’re only dealing with unprocessed the motion.
Jaime Davis: So if a person is dealing with unprocessed emotion, how can therapy help?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Therapy is a lovely outlet because it can do several things. Therapy can help you focus on who you are, what your goals really are, what we think our goals are in the moment versus when we pull out that scope and look at the bigger perspective. It can help provide that clarity because in the therapy room you’re dealing with the therapist being an observer. The therapist is not connected to your situation, has no emotional investment in your outcome and is merely there to be a guide.
So on the one hand, many people use the therapeutic space as a venting space, right? As a emotional dump, I am safe. I am not judged. I can say all of these horrible things that I’m trying to keep inside and away from my children and away from the partners. So, so in one way, it’s it’s event in another way, it’s that clarity. It’s that reflection back to you that when you’re saying things out loud, they sound different. There’s a lot of research between technology and our tendency now to hold all of this information in our head, we used to write everything down. We used to have to go physically, you know, visit people. Now all of it’s in our mind and our minds are getting so overwhelmed and jumbled that they’re not able to, to function right at at good capacity.
So what the therapy room does is gives you somebody not connected to your situation to say, hey, did you hear how that sounded? What did that actually mean to you right? We, we can be very much in the moment and just reacting and not really connecting to what things mean to us. So, so I think there’s several levels that the therapeutic space can be helpful.
I think it can also be helpful in that point that we we were making earlier in trying to help people separate. This is your emotion, right? Versus these are the decisions that are going to affect you financially and affect your children. Right? I think the other pieces is that it can also help people work to get to a better place with their partner in the future.
If you work through some of that emotion in a lot of that animosity, then you are going to be better co-parents. You are going to be a better family. You are going to be a better employee. So there’s just a lot of benefit to it.
Jaime Davis: If individual therapy can help the person potentially work on their marriage, what if they’re already attending marriage counseling with their spouse? Should that person also consider individual therapy?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Individual therapy can be a lovely adjunct to marriage counseling. Typically, a lot of the issues that we have in marriages and long-term relationships go back to childhood, go back to the examples that we were raised with.
They go back to, uh, family rules and family roles that we then bring with us into the current relationship. So often I find if I’m working with a couple and we’re just kind of stuck. We’re just really not getting past a certain point. It’s often then a suggestion to say, okay, do one or both of you want to go do a little individual work and see if there’s something that maybe you’re bringing to the table that you don’t even realize that’s contributing to the blocks.
So the value of individual therapy is to be the best version of yourself and be the most self-aware version of yourself when you are then interacting with this other person in relationship.
Jaime Davis: If someone is participating in marriage counseling and they decide that they want to pursue individual therapy, does it ever happen that through the individual therapy, the person figures out that really marriage counseling may not be the best route to go?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes. I would completely agree with that. In that clarity, again, right, that’s a less stressful situation. When you are in your individual space, there’s a lot more freedom. There’s a lot more safety for you to visit those feelings that often you don’t want to bring into the relationship because it might be too painful or it might hurt the other person’s feelings or you, you don’t want to go there.
And so when you have that space to, to explore exactly what is really honestly going on for that person, sometimes that does provide the clarity that this is not the relationship that maybe they can make it into what they need it to be. And so the decision then to, to move on can be made.
Jaime Davis: I often, as I mentioned earlier, suggest individual therapy for them. And I do that because I understand that this may be one of the most stressful situations that they have ever dealt with in their life. But a lot of folks have never really even thought about going to therapy before much less ever, you know, have participated in it. And so, do you have any advice for folks who may be considering therapy, but aren’t sure that they’re ready just yet?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Therapy still has a stigma and it has a lot of mystique surrounding it. I think the biggest points that I discuss with my potential clients um, usually in the intake session is you know this is your process, this is, it it’s really should be a collaborative process where the therapist is offering you knowledge and offering guidance and offering support as the client walks down their path.
And so the client really is in the driver’s seat for what they want to get out of the therapeutic space, how deep they want to go into the therapeutic space, you know. There are different approaches, there’s different theoretical approaches, but not all of therapy has to be extremely deep, painful history work. There’s a lot of work that can be done in the present. There’s a lot of work that can be done with the client, really in control of how far they want to go with it.
I think the biggest thing I stress to my clients is is that you want to find a safe, nonjudgmental space where all of your feelings can exist. And then the therapist is merely a guide and a source of knowledge in helping you connect those dots, right? We often will in our day-to-day life, we’re on autopilot. So often that, you know, we’ll kind of have one data point and then we’ll have like overhear a couple days later, maybe another data point. And then next week, this other thing is bothering me and we fail to see the connection.
And once the connections become clear, people have a lot more self-awareness and a lot more choices in how they act and how they communicate and how they want to be with other people.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, I love the analogy of the therapist as a guide. I think that’s great. Um, and tell me if I’m wrong here, but in the context of a separation and divorce, do you ever feel like the therapist acts a bit like a coach?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I think quite often it is coaching. It very much is because when, when, especially in a couple of setting, a lot of it is communication. And a lot of that is skill based. A lot of it is emotional self-awareness. If, if we didn’t come from families that were highly verbal and really comfortable in the emotional space, that tends to be the roadblock. So often it is coaching. It is just, hey, let’s look at the skill and let’s take that a step further, or maybe let’s rephrase this or let’s talk about meaning. And I think, I think coaching is a very good analogy for it.
Jaime Davis: This season, I’m asking each guest the same final four questions so that our listeners can get to know a little bit more about the guests who were on the show. So the first question is, what are your self-care go tos?
Michelle Chiaramonte: My self-care go twos tend to fall in two categories. I really like activity. I like to be doing something. Um, I love to play tennis. I love to read. I like to cook. So very, just like individual or group activity based, uh, spaces. Those are all very relaxing and very, uh, fulfilling, uh, to me. My other place is very social. I tend to be a quality time person. So making, making time to just be with the people that you love. Be with the community that you’ve created. So lots of dinners, lots of evenings on the porch. Lots of, of just being together and enjoying, trying to be very mindful and present and enjoying other people’s company. Those tend to be the things I do the most.
Jaime Davis: What have you discovered about yourself during the pandemic?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I discovered, uh, somewhat begrudgingly that I can enjoy slowing down. I have never been a home body. I’ve never been someone who is relaxed if I may say. Um, vacation was the time for relaxing, not day-to-day. And so I think allowing myself to, to slow down and just really, again, be present and try to enjoy and be grateful for, for what I had been blessed with in life has, was probably the biggest takeaway.
Jaime Davis: Have you acquired any strange pandemic habits?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Uh, not a whole lot. Although I will say, especially over the course of the first part of maybe the first six, eight months of the shutdowns, I just found myself like seeking the sun out. And I was like a little, when your dog goes around the house, following the sun beam, you found myself rotating around our property in our driveway and my porches, just always needing the sun. So I think that was probably my strangest habit. My kids would find me like in the middle of the backyard and a lawn chair trying to find the sun.
Jaime Davis: I get that. I feel like I did that some too. Um, so when this is all over, where would you like to travel?
Michelle Chiaramonte: We love to travel. So that has definitely been one of the biggest things, um, I’ve missed. We typically love Central America, Costa Rica, Belize. We like to adventure. Um, I think our next trip hopefully will be kind of a Southern Europe. So maybe a Spain, Italy, France, Mediterranean kind of space.
Jaime Davis: Oh, very nice. That sounds lovely. Well, I hope for you that travel is just around the corner.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Me too.
Jaime Davis: Michelle, thank you for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Michelle Chiaramonte: The best way is to visit the website. That is luminacounseling.com. And you can find all kinds of information about myself. You can schedule appointments, you can see, you can learn a lot about how my approach in different specialties. There is a crisis resource page on that as well.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all found this episode of “A Year and a Day” to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice. The purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice, and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.