New Ways For Families Article
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2008 High Conflict Institute
One of the biggest problems in separation and divorce cases is the focus on finding "Who is to Blame?" And "What did he or she do wrong?" Except for obviously extreme behavior (severe abuse or blatant lies), these are very subjective questions with few clear answers. In many cases, the parties (married or not, children or not) spend years in court attacking each other and defending themselves.
Sometimes one or both parties are ordered or encouraged to get counseling. However, the goal of the counseling is usually unclear. In many cases, counselors get caught up in the court battle and little progress is made. There is pressure on counselors to write letters or declarations on behalf of their clients, and sometimes to recommend solutions to the court-which often feeds the conflict rather than the solution.
The end result is that any chance for learning new, positive skills in counseling is often lost in the battle. I have seen this over and over again in my 15 years as a family law attorney, and 12 years before that as a therapist. Therefore, in this article I propose a new approach for counseling orders (or voluntary agreements for counseling) which focuses on helping people learn "new ways" of thinking, feeling and behavior, rather than focusing on the past or blaming each other. While this approach could be used in any family law case, I focus here on using this approach with parents in conflict over their children.
COURT ORDERS OR AGREEMENTS
A judge in California can order one or both parents into counseling for up to a year under Family Code Section 3190, if the court finds:
"(1) The dispute between the parents ... poses a substantial danger to the best interest of the child" and "(2) The counseling is in the best interest of the child." Some other states have a similar law, although many do not. Regardless, a judge could encourage parents to get counseling, and the results of the counseling could affect the court's parenting decisions. I recommend that both parents participate in New Ways Counseling. This avoids the usual battle over who has acted badly, and these skills will benefit both parents and their children.
ORDER/AGREEMENT FOR "NEW WAYS" COUNSELING
Each parent will discuss the following four issues with his or her individual therapist:
A. New Ways of Thinking about your spouse and yourself:
Overcoming all-or-nothing thinking. This can involve recognizing the strengths and weaknesses that each of you has. This also can involve all-or-nothing thinking about responsibility for the divorce, and about your view of the future. Learning skills for overcoming all-or-nothing thinking can be a tremendous help for all areas of life in our modern, rapidly changing world.
Recognizing emotional reasoning. Divorce can be a very stressful time and our emotions often influence our thinking. Learning skills for recognizing when our emotions are driving our thinking can help a lot.
Avoiding jumping to conclusions. It is common to jump to conclusions in a divorce. Learning skills to recognize and techniques for managing this tendency can relieve a lot of pressure and miscommunications.
Just discussing these and other new ways of thinking can help people become more self-aware and feel better too. This puts the realistic gray areas of life into perspective, rather than trying to fit them into all-or-nothing results, such as the court process reinforces.
B. New Ways of Managing Your Emotions
Many people in divorce feel driven by their emotions, and helpless to manage them. They don't know where their feelings come from and don't know that they can significantly predict, understand, and change their moods.
It can be very empowering to learn your triggers for experiencing overwhelming emotions, and how to manage them. You can gain more power and respect by learning how to calm yourself down in a crisis-which can help in many areas of your life.
It also helps to learn how to reduce the intensity of your responses to different problems, while still respecting your feelings. Then, you can be more able to address the problems successfully.
Sorting out mixed feelings is an important process in divorce and separation. A counselor can help you look at each feeling and its importance in making your decisions. You can learn skills for managing feelings that seem to drive your decisions, so you can think things through more easily, which can help in all areas of your life.
C. New Ways of Behaving toward your spouse and your child/ren
This can include new ways of talking to your spouse and children, to be more effective at setting limits and solving problems peacefully. Building confidence in yourself is often the first step in becoming more assertive, rather than being passive or aggressive.
After a divorce, it helps to become more effective at limiting issues you will discuss with your former spouse, as well as limiting when, where and how you will communicate. Learning new ways of supporting your children in divorce is extremely important in determining how they will handle future events in their own lives. This can include problem-solving strategies for their future relationships as adults, as well as handling their relationship with the other parent.
In divorce, many parents become too flexible or too rigid in their behavior toward the other parent. You can learn new ways of determining when to be flexible and when to be more firm, without encouraging a frustrating battle. This can include when to consider voluntary changes to the parenting schedule and arrangements for special events, and when to say No.
D. Recognizing Your Positive Behaviors and Qualities
During a divorce, many people lose track of their own positive qualities. It is much harder to adopt new ways of thinking, feeling and acting, when you are focused on the negative and what you have done "wrong." It is much more effective to build on the positive, and recognize your strengths and your successes.
It's easy to get overwhelmed as those around you criticize you and/or the other parent, or give you endless suggestions of you should run your life now. It's just a fact of human nature that it's much easier to build on the positive.
Many people have numerous effective techniques for solving problems, but don't use them during a divorce because their methods don't feel powerful enough or they are afraid that the other person won't respect them enough. Then they get in trouble for using less effective techniques that "feel strong" but really make them look bad. Respecting the effective techniques you already have helps make it possible to learn new techniques more easily.
An essential part of New Ways Counseling is that it is confidential. The therapist would not write a letter, declaration, or report to the court. Instead, the client would report back to the court what he or she has learned in each of the four areas-without having to disclose what was said in the therapy sessions. At most, the therapist would confirm the dates of therapy sessions, to show that the client participated in the counseling.
The benefit of this approach is that the therapist can focus on helping the client learn new skills, rather than focusing on the past, the client's negative feelings about the other party, or the court battle. The therapeutic alliance would be built around learning new skills.
Further, the therapist would only be guided in the goals of the therapy, not the methods. This way the therapist would use his or her own style and skills to accomplish these goals, rather than being told how to do this by the court.
COURT (OR OTHER PROFESSIONAL) FOLLOW UP
After some specified period of time, such as three months, six months, or 12 months, the parties would return to court and the judge can ask each party to say what he or she has learned in each of the four areas above. Ideally, the court will be familiar with the case from reading the file (or frequent memories!) and can tell whether each party has learned anything of importance relative to his or her parenting, communicating, etc. Ideally, this would be done verbally, but if necessary this could be done in writing. If so, ideally the client would be asked to hand-write his or her own statement, so that it is a personal exercise, rather than one that's heavily edited by an attorney or other adviser. Based on this personal report, the court can determine whether more individual New Ways Counseling will be necessary, and for which party. If a party can demonstrate that he or she has learned a lot, then they might not need more.
As an alternative to reporting back to the court, the parties could report back to a Parenting Coordinator, a Collaborative Team, or other divorce professional. This could be a very positive process of supportive self-reflection and change.
In domestic violence cases and substance abuse cases, this counseling would be in addition to other mandated group treatment programs. These group programs have been demonstrated to be effective and often necessary for these specific problems. However, these programs often do not have as substantial an impact without the addition of individual counseling which would be offered by New Ways Counseling.
A NEW APPROACH
At this time, this is a totally new approach. Courts, attorneys, counselors, and parents are encouraged to try it and to revise it to be as successful as possible. We just know that the current approach of court-mandated counseling which remains in the middle of a court battle has not been very successful - and has mostly reinforced "old ways" of dealing with problems that just do not work.
The feedback we have received about this idea has been very encouraging.
High Conflict Institute provides training and consultations regarding High Conflict People (HCPs) to individuals and professionals dealing with legal, workplace, educational, and healthcare disputes. Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the author of “It’s All Your Fault!” He is an attorney, mediator, and therapist. Bill has presented seminars to attorneys, judges, mediators, ombudspersons, human resource professionals, employee assistance professionals, managers, and administrators in 25 states, several provinces in Canada, France, and Australia. For more information about High Conflict Institute, our seminars and consultations, or Bill Eddy and his books go to: www.HighConflictInstitute.com or call 619-221-9108.