High Conflict Divorce “HOW IT IS!”

"As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be you can’t see how it is." — Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher

I woke up this morning and eventually, as I usually do, checked my email. There in one of the emails was this inspirational quote of the day.

The notion that our desires overshadow my ability to actually see what is right in front of me is somehow surprisingly revolutionary.

I thought how appropriate this quote is as it pertains to the area of high conflict divorce and custody cases. It seems to me that the family law community, the courts and the professionals that support the clients are having a difficult time getting away from the way they think the parents in high conflict cases should behave and what the reality of their plight actually is.

What I hear all too frequently is that the courts want these parents to co-parent, to ‘figure it out and find a way to get along for the sake of the children’. By not looking at what is (the fact that these people refuse or are unable to co-parent) or understanding the realities of this population and what drives their behaviors, they continually make the situation worse. By not creating structure for these parents in the form of a strong parenting plan, but allowing the parents to engage in the high conflict cycle with drawn out cases and without the existence of a plan, makes it nearly impossible to stop or slow down the high conflict train.

This is how I observe ‘HOW IT IS.’ I see very few couples that split up that can agree with the other parent about parenting or most anything at all. In the beginning, most of what I see is arguing over almost everything and anything. They haven’t completed the separation process and the emotions are raw. Every time these parents are in contact with one another a squirmish brakes out and often escalates into a full on argument. This behavior is often an extension of the differences and arguments they had as a couple.  To think these differences are going to stop because they have separated isn’t a realistic expectation.

At the very least, the structure of this kind of behavior needs to be broken down before a new structure can be built on a healthy foundation. At the very worst, this behavior has to have strong boundaries instilled around it so it doesn’t leak out and constantly affect the children caught in the middle of the warring parent.

Telling someone to do something they can’t or won’t do is likely to cause that something not to get done. According to research in the area of high conflict divorce and custody cases, thirty percent (30%) of the families dealing with these issues will find themselves in a high conflict case and that as much as sixty percent (60%) will be in a moderate to high conflict case[1]. The high percentage of the couples caught in the untenable situation of the high conflict group will never find their way completely out of it and without early intervention with the remaining moderate to high conflict couples the time spent in the conflict will be greatly protracted. The ‘HOW IT IS’, is that many, if not most, of the high conflict parents will stay in the high conflict cycle for several years if not until the children are grown.

This continued conflict is a sentence of psychological instability and constant pain for the children in these cases and it doesn’t have to happen this way. The children of these warring parents are often happy to see their parents split up because they believe the fighting will stop. The problem is the fighting doesn’t stop it simply takes on a new venue (Family Court), with the children caught in the middle.

Here is some more of ‘HOW IT IS’. Resent studies show that one in five people in the US have a diagnosable Personality Disorder (PD)[2]. These PDs are frequently the core of the personalities found in family court and that drive the high conflict cases. The study of this population indicates that as much as 20% of the high conflict cases involve a PD in one or both parents or some form of addiction (frequently these two go hand in hand).[3] Here in lies the problem, most court officials (Judges and Attorneys) don’t understand PDs, how they behave or what is the core of the behavior. The second problem is that many mental health professionals don’t understand this either because they haven’t spent a lot of time working with this population.  The reason is that most of this population doesn’t self refer. The truth of the matter is that this population is not going to change their behavior and co-parent under any situation.  They will constantly break rules or stretch them to a point that they may as well have been broken. This behavior will keep the parents and children in constant chaos and turmoil.

What to do? The good news is given proper structure, disengagement boundaries and consequences for improper behavior, these cases can be managed, especially when the interventions happen early.

‘HOW IT IS’: These high conflict couples CAN’T co-parent and when forced to try the concept of co-parenting only makes the situation worse. There is however an answer.  The concept that is gaining recognition as a viable alternative to the co-parenting model is called Parallel Parenting. Parallel Parenting creates the structure and boundaries needed to stop or manage the high conflict cycle. This model of parenting gives each parent autonomy over their respective homes. The children adapt to different rules in each house. Each parent leaves the other to parent the way that parent wants whether or not they agree with that parenting style. The lines of communication via telephone or face to face meeting are eliminated; the only forms of communication are written via email, text (in emergency), or fax. This keeps the possibility of misunderstanding or miscommunication to a minimum. Phone calls to the children when with the other are minimized giving the parents a greater sense of autonomy. The number for exchanges or transitions are minimized so the children have an opportunity to settle in to one home while keeping the contact of exchanges between the parents to a minimum. Exchanges are done at school/daycare or with a third party neutral. Add with this a precise and well written parenting plan and you have the beginning of a stabilizing management plan for the high conflict couple.

The interesting thing about parallel parenting is that the model works very well with the parents that are in moderate to low conflict as well. Space needs to be created in order to move on with their lives and process their anger or disappointment over the break up. If given that space, the healing happens quicker and the parents in this group are able to come into a co-parenting relationship, which is the optimum for the children.

  • [1] Amato, Paul R, and Alan A. Booth. A Generation at Risk; Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997. (page: 220)
  • [2] Wave II Study
  • [3] Janet Johnson “Future of Family’s”

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