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High Conflict Divorce

divorce children

Divorce is a life-altering decision, often a gut-wrenching one. Even when the reasons for ending the relationship are compelling and it is handled collaboratively, it ends a dream, and in the words of author Pat Conroy, “it marks the death of a small civilization”.

However, being or becoming, committed to a collaborative divorce rarely comes easily given the hurt and disillusionment experienced by one or both partners. All too often this hurt spills out in high degrees of anger and mistrust, frequent verbal abuse, a breakdown in communication, and an inability to focus on the solutions, especially with regards to the well-fare of their children.

And In today’s social media world, angry and distressed couples may both play out their resentments on Facebook, Twitter and the like, laying the ground for a very public parting involving family, friends, solicitors, and even distant acquaintances Better to privately work through the emotional and practical hurdles of divorce with a seasoned therapist who can provide a framework and solutions-focus, rather than through friends and the uncontrollable social media, which these days can remain online for months or years. (see my Blog Article A Friend is Not a Therapist)

High conflict couples may also take unreasonably extreme stands at the beginning of divorce proceedings, such as filing numerous petitions, or pushing for litigation, especially if their solicitors favor an adversarial approach to divorce. There is often mistrust about one spouse’s parenting skills, and difficulty in communicating about, and cooperating over, the care of their children, the distribution of assets, spousal and child support.

When the value of effective communication is appreciated, it can be taught fairly easily. It involves teaching couples to listen respectfully, to avoid the impulse to be critical, defensive, or dismissive of the others ideas, to work toward win-win agreements by brainstorming potential solutions, and by learning to compromise. I once heard a nice definition of compromise; “Where neither party gets exactly what they want, and both are satisfied with the result”.

Another aspect of communication skills is the ability to fight fair. Fighting fair involves learning to abandon verbal aggression, accusations, contemptuous looks, stonewalling, or side-stepping focused discussion by shifting topics, or rehashing unresolved issues from the past. Instead couples learn to acknowledge the needs, interests, and concerns of each other, and endeavor to negotiate solutions in a non-adversarial, collaborative manner. (see Fighting Fair)

Helping couples to become aware of the build-up of emotional flooding and setting up ‘time-outs’ in advance to control, d-escalate, and diminish their emotional tension is a further beneficial aspect of such training.

Children often bear the brunt of parental conflict, witnessing their fighting, being put in the middle of such conflict, and being forced to take sides. One or both parents may have difficulty separating their child’s needs from their own, and therefore do not shield their children from their emotional distress and frustrations. Children too often overhear one parent’s tearful accusations to, or about the other on the phone, as well as in person, and live in a home saturated with stress and conflict.

Ineffectively managed couples conflict leading up to and throughout the divorce, and post-divorce, is associated with adverse adjustment in both adults and children. So although a moderate degree of conflict is to be expected in a divorcing couple, intense parental conflict is associated with a child’s increased risk of depression, conduct disorders, poor social competence, decreased academic performance, and substance abuse in teens.

The good news is that most former partners will eventually interact in ways that reduce their conflicts. But during the process of their divorce and involvement with the court system, high conflict couples are particularly vulnerable to escalating conflict, as their failed dreams are brought into bold relief. This nightmare is often shared with their children as well.

In contrast the collaborative divorce focuses on resolving conflict, working with, rather than against, each person’s needs and interests, and enhancing decision-making in ways that can lead to a sense of empowerment and completion for each partner, and effective and flexible co-parenting going forward.

Have questions or wish to make an appointment ? Contact Dr Melanie

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