© 2012 By Stephen Carter, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist
The end of many relationships can involve high emotions and hurt feelings but typically in time such feelings fade and the individuals are able to let go and move on. Such people realize that the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. However, a small percent of couples who have children cannot let go and exhibit intense hate by at least one of them towards the other and a desire to destroy that person. High conflict individuals exhibit narcissistic rage, they are so intent in retribution they justify any and all methods which unfortunately includes using their children as weapons. For high conflict cases it is irrelevant if these parents were married for years, together for weeks or produce the child after a one night meeting. High conflict is not the exclusive products of age of parents, socioeconomic status, gender or almost any other factor that would define the “family”. Bill Eddy of the High Conflict Institute would argue that the majority of high conflict parents would fit the diagnostic category of having a personality disorder.
Historical research on counseling methods would suggest “all roads lead to Rome”, although more recent push towards empirically-based practice tends to validate methods which are more conducive to experimental studies. Despite this, a multitude of practitioners use a great variety of methods of working with individuals and families. Many of these approaches, while being successful for individuals can be counterproductive for working with high conflict divorce. Here a distinction must be made as to whose needs take priority within the family: an impressionable, at times defenceless, child or a “mature” adult. This does not mean in any sense that children run families, it only means the children need to be protected from harm by adults.
As extended families increasingly become involved in the conflict, funding legal bills or engaging in the slander of high conflict, we not only have families with children in crisis, the parents have no elders to turn to as their moral compass. It is important that mental health professionals involved with high conflict divorced families do not also abstain from the role of elder with these people.
In a functional family (married, cohabitating or never married and living separately) parents make your children a priority. A parent will lose sleep at night to look after a sick child while another parent will forgo a new purchase in favor of utilizing limited resources for the children. Post-divorce counseling that tells one parent it is okay to be incapacitated for years from the grief of the breakup does not acknowledge it is their responsibility to return to a functional level as quick as possible in order to meet the needs of the children. Telling the parent they are so traumatized by the divorce that they should never have to hear the name of the other parent spoken aloud again does not make sense for successful child-rearing in a family of 6. Similarly focusing on the past and attributing blame as to who did what wrong will yield minimal success with the high conflict family. Sending a child to counseling, without working with high conflict parents to change their behaviors, is analogous to offering a Band-Aid to an individual whose parachute did not open.
Family Restructuring Therapy recommends an alternative philosophy and set of processes for working with the high conflict family. The inclusion of the word family is deliberate as from a child’s perspective they have their parents whether the parents are together, divorced or never married. Separation and divorce describes the relationship between 2 adults and divorce is not a concept that can realistically apply to an entire family from the perspective of the children.
Family Restructuring Therapy is an active, directive process that assists families in conflict to modify maladaptive interactions. It is future oriented and action focussed and can be effective in teaching parents to co-parent, in re-uniting parents with “alienated” children, and in developing concrete, practical parenting plans. The focus of therapy is the present and future individual behaviours of family members and their relationship interactions. Family restructuring therapy makes an explicit demand for change in observable behaviours. In a sense we are telling the clients “I expect you to change how you behave, not necessarily how you feel”.
Family Restructuring Therapy follows a systemic approach and looks to reorder the structure and dynamics of the family to assist it to find a new and more functional level of normal. The therapist working within this approach requires specialized knowledge in child development, family systems, communication, divorce, grief and loss, working with the legal system, child protection issues, personality and emotional difficulties. The therapist needs to be able to take charge of the family communication patterns while still empowering the parents to jointly develop new processes for raising their children. In this process the therapist needs to prescribe and teach functional skills, behaviours, and relationship transactions.
Family Restructuring Therapy can be utilized either pre-or post settlement and can be court ordered, lawyer initiated or parent initiated. More and more families are entering into lengthy and expensive custody battles, which are highly intrusive, only to reach recommendations of some form of shared parenting and the need for them to learn how to work together. Litigation, while necessary at times, serves to increase conflict and does little to encourage parents to work together. It is seen that much time and money can be saved, and conflict de-escalated, by entering directly into a process such as Family Restructuring Therapy.
The Process of Family Restructuring Therapy
Depending on the level of conflict and court involvement, the process either begins with a detailed retainer agreement being written or with a simple telephone discussion. The important points that must be covered up front is that the parents will not be allowed to fight or even be rude to one another within the office, they are definitely not allowed to make inappropriate comments to the children and that it is an open process, meaning that if necessary a report could be written and provided to the court. For extreme conflict which may have involved multiple restraining orders, physical violence or other protection factors a therapeutic team is required with one therapist working with each parent to be able to keep even tighter control of the session. For the remainder of this description, a single therapist model will be described.
After the initial agreement to enter into Family Restructuring Therapy is made, each parent is seen individually one time. This allows them to relate “their side of the story and to reinforce with them that in the future they will not be able to repeat this story again. The therapist helps the parent identify issues to be discussed in joint sessions and provides pointers or advice as to how the individual parent can act differently to try to obtain different results. The needs of the children are emphasized, confidentiality is again discussed and a description of the effect of conflict on children is provided to the parent.
In the first joint session the parents are again told of confidentiality, behavioral expectations and the effect of conflict on children. It is explained to the parents that high conflict is related to emotional, behavioral, physical health, social and learning difficulties. The children living in high conflict divorces are more likely to get into delinquent and self-destructive behaviors, less likely to graduate, less likely to go to postsecondary institutions, less likely to have successful relationships as an adult and even less likely to end up in a satisfactory employment as they may have had if not facing conflict. In short, ongoing conflict between parents is equated to child abuse.
It is reassuring that at times after the parents are educated as to the effect their behaviors are having on the children they make sudden, drastic and positive changes in their behavior to one another. However, unfortunately, this is rarely enough for most high conflict families as each parent is hearing the words but believing they only apply to the other parent’s behavior and not their own.
The therapist has the parents give one or two-word titles of topics they would like to address in the future such as “schedule”, “holidays”, “extracurricular activities”, “telephone contact” and many other issues. The therapist is in charge of which topic is dealt with when and is in charge of the agenda for subsequent sessions. It is important to teach parents how to problem solve and to emphasize that the first step in problem-solving is to break the problem down into as many sub-problems as possible and to just work on one sub-problem at a time.
Often my first instructions to the parents are to change how they communicate. In all cases, parents can accept ideas, disagree with ideas or take time to think about them. When both parents accept a given idea they are given copies of the decision in writing and are expected to follow those processes. An example could be that initially communication will only take place by e-mail following strict rules which are:
maximum one e-mail per day
maximum one topic per e-mail
maximum 40 words per e-mail-ideally less than 20 are preferable
you must respond within 24 hours but cannot respond within 3 hours (you need to stop and think about your response)
everything written must be child focused, future directed and polite
you cannot talk about the past, make accusations or call names
you must copy all e-mails to the therapist
As sessions progress the parents are both building their own parenting plan and learning how to communicate in a more effective manner. It is a happy time, for those parents who actually “get it” when their sessions switch from formal sessions in the counselor’s office to meeting each other at a coffee shop without a therapist to continue on their communication.
If needed, a second therapist will work with the children but it is seen that if one person tries to do too many roles within the family they tend to do a poor job of everything. In other cases the Family Restructuring Therapy approach can also be used for family reunification between parents and estranged children.
What is needed the most in high conflict situations are therapists (as well as the courts and legal counsel) who are not afraid to be directive, give advice and lead families into a more functional dynamic. It was the need for treating high conflict families differently that lead to the development of Family Restructuring Therapy, which originally started as an informal conversation between a Court of Queen’s Bench Judge and one of my practice partners, Psychologist Dr. Bonnie Haave. Fifteen years of working with such families lead me to write the book Family Restructuring Therapy (2011, High Conflict Institute Press) to share insights with mental health and legal professionals about alternate ways to work in this area.