Untying the Knots | Episode 4 | Good Support Systems

Dawn Smith and Kristen Files, partners at Atlanta-based family law firm Smith & Files, host “Untying the Knots.” Season 1 offers practical advice and resources to families navigating crisis and covers such themes as co-parenting, intimate partner violence, myths about marriage and divorce, support systems, and financial safety after divorce. The 10-episode series launched July 1 with new episodes weekly through September 2 and includes special guests Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stolarski, and Historian and Marriage Expert Stephanie Coontz.

Below is a transcript of Episode 4: Good Support Systems.

“Untying the Knots” is available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To learn more, visit www.smithfileslaw.com/podcast.

DS: Dawn Smith | KF: Kristen Files | TM: Tracy McConaghie | AM: Andrew McConaghie

DS

I’m Dawn Smith.

KF

And I’m Kristin Files.

DS

This is Untying the Knots, a podcast about family crisis.

KF

And what it takes to survive the tangles and strengthen the ties.

KF

Welcome to Untying the Knots. So happy that you all are here listening with us today. We’ll be talking about support systems. Support system is defined as a network of people who provide an individual with practical or emotional support. Not only will Dawn and I be giving your personal experiences about support systems, we have two really knowledgeable experts that will be on our show today as well. Dr. Tracy and Andrew McConaghie. Support systems are important because they allow people to be vulnerable, themselves, without judgment, and to basically help hold you up while you’re going through a hard time. And even when you’re not going through a hard time, we all need that.

DS

So Kristen, I can’t tell you how important support systems have been in my life as an adult, particularly, they would have been much more important in my life as a teen or even earlier, I just did not have that many of them. But what I found when I was facing separation and divorce was sort of an infrastructure that as I look back on it, gave me the support that I needed. And you know, at the bottom of sort of that infrastructure was just the pragmatic support I needed on a day to day basis. I was a single working mom with two children under three. So the incredible school that my three year old was in, that had the school counselor who was incredible. Certainly I needed the support of my employer, because let me tell you, I was not 100%. I did a whole bunch of crying. I was a whole bunch of ineffective, but the real meat of the support that I think, got me through it that I had the wherewithal to get was therapeutic support. I saw a therapist who actually had seen my husband and I in couples counseling, so he was able to keep seeing me, and he had context. And he wasn’t a touchy feely, I’m going to tell you everything you want, he could really push back on me some and hear me and talk to me about my grief, but also talk about next steps. And that was so essential. I had part of my support system, I would have said at the time and now as I look back on it, I’m not so sure, were the friends and family that were really angry for me. Right?

KF

Right.

DS

That would listen to me and be as angry and indignant as I was. But you know, my feelings were so big that most of those friends couldn’t really push back against them, or when I kept just holding on to them or ruminating on them in a way that was not healthy, did not push back. The friends that have stayed in my life from that time, are the ones who did not engage in righteous indignation with me. They were sad with me. They would let me go to their house and sit on their sofas and cry, but they didn’t engage and that feeding my fire. And then finally, my family. My family was so important. My father, I love him. He was so angry for me and I needed my daddy to be mad for me. And that served a purpose. But at the same time, I had a mother who had also lived through it. And I would call her in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. And I was so sad. And she wouldn’t like, “Ergh, I hate him,” or any of that, that she would just pick up the phone and she would listen to me. And that was so important. That was really, really important. So it was an amalgam; it was a lot of things together. And I’m so glad that I didn’t become a turtle and go inside myself and put my shell on and not reach out. I mean, that certainly is a defense mechanism. And there are times when that works, right, particularly when the predator is right on ya.

KF

What’s really beautiful listening to you talk about your support systems is I was trying to keep count of them as you were talking and you had such an array of different types of support systems, even mentioned the school counselor at your child’s school, which is a support for your child and able to be one for you in helping to know what’s going on with your child. So I don’t think it can be overstated how important it is to have many different types of support while we go through crisis and trauma.

DS

Well, and let me be clear, you know, I didn’t stop seeing my therapist after the crisis.

KF

Actually, just all the time. We need support, even when you’re in a good place.

DS

Right. And, I think as our guests will talk about, is having those before the crisis hits means it’s a little bit softer of a landing into that support. If you’ve already been there. It’s one of the reasons why, you know, I talk to people about getting a counselor for their kids. It’s if they don’t need it exactly right now, that’s fine, but you don’t want it to be a foreign experience when they do need it, because it makes it easier.

KF

Absolutely. Absolutely. We’ve obviously talked about the different types of support systems and why support systems are important. I want to just note that in the research that we looked at, and that we just know from our own personal experience and from our clients, divorce can often be the most traumatic period in a person’s life, and that emotional impact of divorce can extend many years into the future. The more that you are able to seek support for yourself and separately for your children and then perhaps another place for you all together, the better served I think your family will be as a result. And I really want to note that when I say divorce, I don’t mean literally just marriages ending; a family separating can cause trauma and can look very different. One parent may become deceased, and that changes the family dynamic. One parent may become incarcerated, a parent may become disabled. All of these are significant changes in ways that can cause families to be separated even when two parents have never been married. All of those either voluntary choices to change the family dynamic or involuntary choices like death and incarceration to change the family dynamic have long lasting effects.

DS

Great point. So let me ask you a question. What do you think a bad support system looks like?

KF

I don’t know if I would characterize what I’m about to describe as bad per se, but it’s certainly inadequate. When marginalized people in this country, people of color, poor people, seek resources for support, just don’t have the same access as wealthy white individuals. And I see that in my practice. I’ve had that personal experience also. So, you know, an inadequate support system is a bad one, because you’re not going to have the same access to professionals, the same social circles with bandwidth to support you in the same way if you’re marginalized and the state systems that are created are inadequate also. Specialized therapists, counselors, support groups, most of them are expensive, require insurance, and if they don’t require insurance, are looking for private pay from people, so those spaces keep certain people out. And that’s, that’s bad. And I don’t know where this could fit in. But something that I have noticed in the recent climate as I’m seeing so many more virtual support groups, virtual counseling, virtual mediations, particularly for people of color, particularly for people who are marginalized and have less access because of resources. And so that’s making me really happy because I think you can really find community in all types of places even virtually, but it requires more creativity when you have less resources.

DS

And I will add in sort of what not to do and as it relates to support systems. So your lawyer is not your support system. It is tempting to use your lawyer for emotional and therapeutic support. And while they call us counselors at law, we are just the law part.

KF

Right!

DS

We are not the counselor part, and we will and good lawyers will frequently say, and I believe this with my whole heart, you deserve support.

KF

Right!

DS

From your pastor, your rabbi, your imam, your therapists, everybody, but let’s get you there. And I’m going to work on the legal part of it.

KF

Right.

DS

So we’re going to explore lots of different support systems, but today we have some great guests on. We have Tracy and Andrew McConaghie, who are a husband and wife who for over 30 years have been counselors and have their own counseling practice where they treat children, pre adolescents, adolescents, adults going through all types of life changes. And they’ve got some great advice for us and our listeners today.

KF

Yeah, I’m really excited about it. I’ll be taking notes as if I’m in my own counseling session. It’ll be great.

DS

Tracy and Andrew, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Could you please introduce yourselves to the listener starting with Tracy?

TM

Sure. Hi, everybody. I’m Tracy McConaghie. I’m a clinical social worker and a registered play therapists. So basically, I’m a counselor, a psycho therapist in Alpharetta, Georgia. practicing with my husband, Andrew.

AM

Hello, my name is Andrew McConaghie. I’m a therapist at the practice McConaghie Counseling with my wife Tracy. And we’ve had our practice for 20 years, we just had a 20 year anniversary a couple months ago. I’ve been working as a therapist for almost 30 years. And my specialty is couples counseling in all different stages of couples development.

DS

Great. I know you also have many other therapists in your practice as well, correct?

TM

That’s correct. We have seven others. We’re a wonderful, caring, collaborative community. They’re some of my favorite people to work with. And so we have specialists in childhood and adolescence and adulthood, mindfulness, anxiety, divorce, of course, various specialties.

DS

Great. So I guess I was gonna ask you to describe the work that you do, but it sounds like you’re really you cover the gamut for individuals as well as families, correct?

TM

Yes, we work with families and all different types of situations. We work with children as young as maybe three years old, and all ages of adults and adolescence, families who are divorced families or families who are having difficulties at home. When I work with couples, I work with couples from all stages of their relationship, anywhere from when they’re dating or when they’re engaged or married or getting divorced or post-divorce, and they’re trying to co-parent. So we work with all kinds of different situations with families.

KF

As you know, we’ve been talking today on this show about the importance of having support systems for our listeners. I know from my personal life, I have really had a huge support system with counseling services, and found that to be really important.

TM

Yes.

KF

Can you talk to our listeners and us about what you consider to be support systems, what your opinion on support systems are?

TM

Sure. Well, gosh, I don’t — you’re right. I don’t think anyone can, any of us can make it through this life happily and successfully without support. We’re just not designed to get through the trials of life on our own. We’re wired for connection. Failure is a normal part of life. And because of that we need people, professional and otherwise, to be there with us.

AM

Yes, I think it’s also important to remember to have support systems kind of already in place that you’ve been developing over the years before the crisis comes. Because it’s hard to kind of just develop a support system in sort of an emergency situation. So I think that not only is it important to have support throughout our lives in all kinds of different situations in our life, but also to have those things in place when there’s more traumatic events that occur in our lives.

DS

Right, so that it’s not foreign for us to go to that support system in the midst of a crisis.

TM

Right, exactly.

DS

So let me ask you a question about first children and your experience of children being in a family that may either be in crisis or the midst of a dispute. In your experience, what are some of the basic needs of kids when their parents are in the middle of argument, conflict, divorce, a breakup.

TM

It’s okay for children to know that there are problems in a family, that that people are hurting or having a hard time. But they need to have a basic sense of stability that parents can communicate with them: “This is a hard time we’re having some difficult feelings. And we’ve got this, we know what to do to take care of this family,” and parents should know a big part of that is taking care of themselves. So parents getting support within themselves and from the other people in their life is a trickle down a support system for children. So they need space for their own feelings as they get through it. Also, sometimes I think parents want because it’s our instincts to protect our children, we want to erase all of their suffering and all of their pain and sometimes the way we do that is to try to talk children out of their difficult feelings or make them disappear, and really what children need is validation wherever they are. “You’re mad, you’re scared, I can handle that,” is the message when we allow children to talk about it. And we can get through this by allowing these feelings and again, them just seeing that their parents are taking care of themselves and, and have some sense of stability even when they’re hurting.

KF

Tracy, what you just said really resonated with me as well. And we’ve talked a little earlier on the show about this. The idea that when you are okay, as a parent, as you said that trickles down to your children. And then there are some parents who may have the belief that they are the only support system that their child needs as they’re going through this process. That’s a lot to carry. As a parent, they’re going through their own trauma. What is your professional opinion on advantages of children having other support systems outside of just their parents.

TM

I think it’s so important. It’s true: We are the most important for our children most of the time. But when you’re going through a crisis, you just don’t have your full self with you. When you’re going through a crisis or a trauma.

KF

Of course.

TM

You don’t have everything to offer. And even when you’re not going through a crisis or a trauma, there’s no way to be everything to the people in your family. So children thrive when they have other family members, teachers, coaches, religious personnel, it’s a wonderful gift for them to have those kind of people to talk to, and also for the same reason that talking to a therapist has so many different advantages than just talking to a friend –

KF

Right.

TM

Your therapist doesn’t have emotional baggage or strong personal reactions to who you are. Your coach isn’t scared about how you’re going to turn out, you know, for example, or other family members don’t have the residual pressure and anger of dealing with somebody behavior problems. So those other people in life are in a unique position to offer. Just this, “AhhGood Support Systems, I can kind of take a breath with you, I don’t have these other family dynamics to worry about. And you can be someone I can talk to or have fun with and have a break with.”

AM

I want to add a couple things also. I would say, it’s important, I think, especially when parents are being a support system, that they realize that a support system is not the same thing as a rescue system. And I think a lot of times parents kind of conflate the two and maybe in their mind, they don’t want their children to have any discomfort in their lives. So they try to rescue them from any discomfort. And that really isn’t necessarily long term, the healthiest support for children because you want them to kind of learn their own resilience too. So like Tracy said, it’s more being there, being able to handle their child’s emotions, being able to empathize and sit with their child’s emotions, rather than trying to dismiss them or rescue them or keep them from having them, i think is the important thing that maybe parents can do to support their kids. The other thing I would say about in terms of the advantage of a therapist, I think as children get older, there’s even a greater advantage of having a therapist because developmentally as children get older into pre adolescence and adolescence, their job as adolescents is to break away from their parents. So a lot of times adolescence will have a much more difficult time sharing and opening up with their parents. Whereas with a therapist, you know, they have a safe space to open up and express, hey, I did this I had this girlfriend problem or boyfriend problem, I really messed up here without having to worry, a concern or r a judgment from their parents or their parents are going to be upset with them or they’re going to get in trouble or, so I think that as children get older, it’s even more important to have a kind of an objective person out there that they can talk to.

KF

Are there any books or resources or apps that you recommend to patients, or that you use in your life

DS

Well Tracy’s got a great new book out I want to plug. Tell us about your book, Tracy.

TM

That’s nice of you. It’s a little workbook for young children whose parents are getting divorced. It’s called My Family is Changing. It’s just for like five to eight year olds and introduces them to other children at various phases of a divorce process. And weaves in some ways of coping and ways of getting support actually are kind of built in there also.

DS

Are there any books that you direct the grownups to, either that are experiencing problems in their relationship like Andrew spoke of or going through a divorce. Any books or apps or resources y’all have found particularly helpful?

TM

I sometimes refer to a book called The Good Divorce by Constance Aarons. I really liked that one because, well, I Andrew can speak a lot to this too. He. He thinks a lot about this, about our stigma about divorce and our culture and our assumption that it’s an automatic devastation that’s never to be recovered from, you know, for children and adults and in our experience, although of course, it’s a sad and painful process. It deserves care and compassion and assistance to get through. When done in a healthy way, everyone can still thrive, children included. And I think this book makes a good point of debunking some of those myths and offering the ways that parents can walk their family through a divorce and end up at a happy healthy place on the other side. I know Andrew and I are very invested in that.

DS

Andrew, tell us more about your concern about the stigma that we have placed on people whose relationships are breaking apart?

AM

Absolutely. I actually have a book in my head that one day I’ll get on paper about this that is about the just the shame and the stigma associated with divorce and it really saddens me because I see the effect on people in a lot of different ways. One is because of the shame in our culture around divorce. So sometimes people stay in marriages and they’re miserable. And I think that, you know, my perspective of life is that life is short. I’m not suggesting that people just throw away their marriages. I think there is this idea out there that, at least in my experience is actually wrong. I think that there’s many, many less people just tossing the marriages away, and many more people staying with situations that are just extremely toxic and unhealthy for everyone involved. So I’m obviously all for marriage. I mean, I’ve been married over 30 years, and I think it can be great, but it is the most difficult relationship you’re ever going to have in your life is marriage. And I think that, my hope is that we would de stigmatize when a relationship gets divorced. The other the other time it really hurts people is when they are feeling shame around divorce, they tend to not act their best and so they act worse. Whenever we’re feeling shame, we’re acting out towards other people around us, which could include our current spouse or ex-spouse or our children. Even though there’s a lot of people divorced out there, I think it’s still kind of an almost scarlet letter D on the front of everybody, that nobody really wants to say that because somehow there’s a stigmatize of, you know, I’ve failed. And, you know, this relationship is hard. And it’s also the one that we expect to last the longest in our lives. We’ve now expected the last 50 or 60 years and I just think that a lot of times that’s unrealistic.

DS

Right? And a better message would be, “I gave it a really good try. We worked really hard.” And I think that that shame that you say people feel, even in this modern age that they’re still wearing, the Scarlet D is a reason for support. You know, we have people that come to us that really feel like they want to go it alone. And that involves the anger the grieving and the shame that they feel that can really trickle down to everybody in the family without getting that support.

AM

Yeah I mean divorce is a you know, divorce is a significant loss and people are going to need to grieve the loss, the loss of their dreams, the loss of their family, the loss of they, they thought their life was about. And so anytime we lose something significant and need to grieve, it’s really, really helpful to have support systems around us to be able to kind of be there for us through those stages of grief.

TM

You know, relating what Andrew was saying to your topic of support systems and how much they are needed if you’re going through a divorce. Andrew and I often reflect on and talk with our clients about really being intentional, who you choose to rely on for support when you’re going through divorce, because of the fact that there are a lot of judgments and opinions out there about relationships and marriage and divorce itself and you need the people that you share your deepest, darkest times with to be those you can count on to be there for you without judging you. If you have a friend who’s decided, “divorce is wrong, no matter what the circumstance and you think it might be right for you,” they might not be the person that you go to, they might, you might use them for other kinds of support, or someone who you’re going to share a challenge that you’re going through and they’re going to throw right out there, you should never stay with someone who would treat you that way. When in reality, you might be able to find a therapist who can help you get more of what you want, or at least investigate it. So take care with the most tender items that you’re choosing people who have built up some, some nonjudgmental trust in your life and they’re going to be your best support.

DS

I think that’s a really great point. I am forever thankful to my mother, who said to me when she could have gotten on my bandwagon of sadness and grief during my divorce –

AM

And anger.

DS

And anger, lots of anger. When she said to me, he is the father of my grandchildren. He will always be the father of my grandchildren. And I will honor him in that way. What it took for her to do that was just tremendous. And it helped me. I think a little get through it a little faster.

TM

That’s really nice. Good mom.

DS

So this could be a full day podcast retreat with you all. We have so much to talk to you about. We’re hopeful that you’ll join us again.

TM

We’d love to Yes –

AM

Absolutely.

TM

Love to.

KF

Thank you so much for being here.

TM

Thank you so much for having us. We really appreciate it.

DS

So this concludes today’s episode. We hope that it has been as full of useful information for everyone listening as it has been for us. I’ve learned a lot today, both from Kristen and Tracy and Andrew. Most importantly, what I hope our listeners take away is get a support system. You deserve it. Don’t go at this alone. Connection is important and you have a lot that you can learn from all of those around you while you’re going through hard times.

KF

Thank you all so much for joining us today on this episode. We hope it was impactful for you. We’ll see you next time.

KF

If you would like to know more about Tracy and Andrews practice, you can visit their website at McConaghie. That’s mcconaghiecounseling.com Tracy’s children’s book, My Family is Changing, is available to purchase on Amazon and to search for support systems in your area. You can go to psychologytoday.org. If you would like to know more about the topic we discussed today, you can find show notes and resources on our website which will be linked in the episode description.

DS

Untying the Knots is a production made in partnership with FRQNCY media. I’m your host Dawn Smith.

KF

And I’m Kristin Files Enna Garkusha is our producer.

DS

Peter LoPinto is our editor. Episode research is by Jessica Olivier, Becca Godwin and Vincent Mitchell.

KF

We are recording in Atlanta, Georgia during the pandemic.

DS

We want to thank all essential workers and those who are doing their best to keep us healthy and safe.