HCD8186 - SECTION 6: ANALYSIS OF HIGH-CONFLICT DIVORCE SCENARIOS
Scenario Number 1
The Smiths have been sent to you by their attorneys for some divorce counseling. They have been legally separated for 3 months and are fighting over the custody arrangement for their 9 year old son and 7 year old daughter. You have seen each parent separately for one session.
Mr. Smith has characterized his children’s mother as “a real nag” and talks to the children about how much more relaxed things will be in his household without her. Ms. Smith thinks the children’s father is “a lazy bum” and thinks it’s ridiculous that he would even want more than minimal visitation with the children. “He’s only doing it so he doesn’t have to pay so much child support,” she believes.
Both parents are upset that the judge has ordered a parenting plan giving the father every other weekend, half the summer and holidays. Ms. Smith feels that’s too much time, and Mr. Smith feels it’s not enough. How can you help these parents move from focusing on their anger at one another and address the children’s needs?
There are several issues to be addressed in this scenario. First, the judge has made a decree which will have to be followed, so your job is to get each parent to accept that reality. You may have to remind each parent about the realities of “after-marriage”—that neither parent gets to reside full-time with the children anymore. There may be some grief work to do regarding this hard truth.
Second, each of these parents is beginning with name-calling and denigrating the other parent, and the therapist should immediately model and promote a more respectful attitude. This would include explaining that badmouthing the other parent to the children is damaging to them. The therapist can also provide alternative explanations for behavior and help each parent unlock from his or her “understanding” of the former spouse.
The needs of these latency-age children should be fully explored in joint sessions so the parents can be kept focused on the needs of the children. Expectable behaviors at the time of exchanges should be addressed and ideas should be shared about how to create smooth transitions between households.
If Mr. Smith has moved out of the marital home (the usual scenario when the mother is given the majority of time with the children), then you may need to help him think of ways to create the feeling of “home” in his new dwelling. Often, finances dictate a small apartment, and sometimes the children don’t have their own bedroom(s).
It might be very helpful to discuss the living arrangement and, whether the children will have play space and playmates in the new situation. Of course, the single parenting routine must be established, and Mr. Smith may need help from relatives with pick-up and drop-offs, depending on his work schedule.
If Ms. Smith’s life is not similarly disrupted, she may, at the very least, need help understanding that the other household will have more adjustments to make.
Handouts and books can be recommended to both parents to reinforce the importance of the children having solid relationships with both parents.
Scenario Number 2
Ms. Weaver has been divorced for five years from her daughter’s father. She has come into counseling regarding her problems with her now 14-year old daughter, Jenny.
In the first session, Ms. Weaver explained that she never communicates with Jenny’s father and considers his phone calls and emails “harassment.” She allows Jenny to spend every other weekend with her father, but she discourages Jenny from ever mentioning his name or the things they do together.
Ms. Weaver has been very angry that her ex-husband remarried last year and that Jenny seems to like her new stepmother. Now Jenny is beginning to rebel against her mother’s discipline and Ms. Weaver is wondering if her ex-husband is “stirring things up just to get at me.”
In this scenario, a mother has come to see you about her daughter. It is important to determine who your client is. Does the mother wish to see you alone, or is she expecting you to work with her daughter? Does she have any objections to your contacting the father, if you are to work with Jenny?
If Ms. Weaver wishes to see you solely for her own therapy regarding her difficulties with Jenny, then a good place to start is to get the history of the marriage and divorce and help your client understand that her refusal to communicate with Jenny’s father may have something to do with Jenny’s anger. The concepts of “after-marriage” and “best interest of the child” will be important themes.
Also, since Jenny now has a stepmother, it will be important to help Ms. Weaver explore her feelings about motherhood and whether she feels her relationship with her daughter will be threatened by the stepmother. Ms. Weaver may have avoidant traits or other personality characteristics which make it difficult for her to handle these complicated relationships with her ex-husband and his new wife, and small changes in her behavior can be encouraged.
For example, Ms. Weaver considers Jenny’s father’s phone calls to be “harassment.” You should explore this issue by asking if his language is abusive or whether he calls multiple times. You may find that he is calling multiple times because Ms. Weaver refuses to pick up the phone or “forgets” to tell Jenny her father has called. Possibly the father IS abusive, and Ms. Weaver will need counseling on how to handle these calls if Jenny still wants to talk with her father despite his rudeness to the mother.
If Ms. Weaver will allow you to work with Jenny and her father as well, you may be able to work toward conjoint sessions to help the parents learn to communicate more effectively. If she is willing, Ms. Weaver might learn in sessions with Jenny’s father how to structure a business-like way to communicate about their child.
This might also reassure her that she is not being “replaced” by the new stepmother. Jenny’s needs as an adolescent will be the central issue, and the therapist can emphasize how vital it is for the parents to be able to work together during this crucial stage. Both parents can be reminded that children of divorce learn to “work the split” very effectively if the parents cannot get along.
The step-mother should not be included in the parenting sessions—at least at first-- but always referred to in a respectful manner. If you can ascertain over time that Jenny’s father and stepmother will indeed respect the mother’s role, conjoint sessions with the three adults might be possible.
However, it would be important to be sure that Ms. Weaver does not feel outnumbered and that Mr. Weaver is not letting his new wife speak for him.
The major benefit of such meetings would be the reassurance Jenny would get that all the adults are willing to cooperate out of their caring for her.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
The probability of remarriages among divorced American women was 54% within 5 years: 58% for Caucasian women, 44% for Hispanic women, and 32% for Afro-American women. —National Survey of Family Growth in “Cohabitation, Marriages, Divorces and Remarriages in the U.S., published by the CDC, Series 23, #22.
Scenario Number 3
Mr. Hardy is seeking your help after three years of high-conflict divorce.
He is the father of four pre-teen children whom he only gets to see “when my ex-wife lets me.” In the initial telephone conversation, you learn that the parents have joint custody and that the mother has domiciliary status. Mr. Hardy feels “lost” and doesn’t think that his ex-wife should be able to control his visitation, because the divorce decree granted him “reasonable visitation.”
This is a case of vague legal language. “Reasonable” visitation, if determined by a hostile domiciliary parent, may not be “reasonable” at all. In a first session, Mr. Hardy can be educated about his rights as a non-domiciliary parent, and encouraged to check with his attorney about changing the visitation to a more concrete schedule.
Be very careful that your client understands that you are not encouraging him to attempt a change in the custody arrangement. You are simply trying to clarify “what is.” If Mr. Hardy does wish to change the basic arrangement, refer him back to his attorney for legal counsel.
This father should be encouraged to exercise his parental rights regarding his children’s medical treatment and school. If he has been hesitant to attend school functions or other important activities, you can help explore his feelings about this and ways he can be appropriately involved. Some assertiveness training may be helpful if Mr. Hardy appears to be passive-dependent or avoidant.
Explore with your client whether he calls his ex-wife with questions he should be getting answered from the primary source (the school or doctors). Sometimes this is a form of unresolved dependency on the ex-spouse, and sometimes it is just done out of the belief that the non-domiciliary parent cannot get access to this information any other way.
If you learn that the children are avoiding Dad’s phone calls or don’t seem to want to be with him when he calls to see them, you might check with Mr. Hardy’s attorney to see whether you can have joint sessions with the father and children to repair the relationship. Since these four children are still pre-teens, there is a good chance that some relationship-building work will pay off before the more challenging years of adolescence begin.
If Mr. Hardy appears to be at a loss with how to communicate with his children, you may want to do some play therapy (with younger children) or play some games in the session with older ones. Encourage Mr. Hardy to learn more about the children’s interests and help participate in them.
If the children seem to be carrying out their mother’s hostility in a mild form of parental alienation, you can work on re-establishing the children’s relationship with their father by focusing on positive memories and building in a series of pleasant visits.
Mr. Hardy should be carefully coached before sessions not to “rush” his children past their comfort level. For example, they may be wary of hugging him or saying they love him lest they appear disloyal to their mother. Mr. Hardy may need coaching in remaining patient and positive during this time.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
“Competent loners” are parents who choose not to remarry, but the child(ren) may worry about leaving this parent alone, especially if the other parent remarries. If the other parent is not in the child’s life, the child may not develop a model of loving pairs in relationship.
Scenario Number 4
Ann Gascon is a fragile parent who has struggled to achieve autonomy after being dependent on her husband for many year. Frank Gascon was given domiciliary custody of the twin boys, age 5, when Ann was hospitalized for a suicide gesture shortly after he left the marriage. Since then, Ann has stayed on appropriate medications and has completed an out-patient therapy program to address her depression and anxiety.
She currently has supervised visitation every Saturday and Sunday, with no overnights. She has been referred to you by the outpatient program for further therapy. She reports to you that her ex-husband is very punitive and will paint her as “crazy” to anyone who will listen.
This scenario speaks to the issues faced by a mother whose mental health is a factor in the custody decision. As her therapist, you are faced with several tasks. First, you can get consent forms and consult with the outpatient clinic, psychiatrist, and any other treating physicians or therapists who have previously worked with your client.
You will need a solid understanding of Ms. Gascon’s history to determine whether or not this suicide gesture was based in a long-standing disorder. It may have been situational, due to the circumstances surrounding the breakup of the marriage. On the other hand, she may in fact suffer from chronic mental illness and/or personality disorder.
Ms. Gascon’s depression is also being exacerbated by the custody situation.
Any parent who has to endure supervision to be with their own children will feel humiliated, and possibly very angry. It is especially unusual for a mother to be placed in this situation, and much of your work with Ms. Gascon will doubtless be focused on helping her deal with the current situation as positively as possible.
If her underlying personality structure in unstable—for example, histrionic or borderline, she may formulate a dramatic story in which she has been severely victimized by her “evil” ex-spouse.
It will be very difficult, but necessary, to try to help Ms. Gascon separate feelings from facts. You may have to point out the elements of her own behavior that led to her current position. For example, if she had engaged in violent behavior, drunk driving, or other documented behavior before the suicide gesture, these should be thoroughly discussed. The suicide gesture then become part of a pattern of acting out.
If Ms. Gascon plans to litigate in order to try to change the custody arrangement, she may well expect you to testify on her behalf. Be sure you are very clear about your boundaries from the very beginning of your work in such a case. If you do not wish to be involved in litigation, you may wish to refer this case to someone else.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
Divorcing adults with early histories of loss and trauma tend to have more difficult with the separations required in divorce and custody matters.
(Johnston, 1994; McClenney et al., 1994) in Johnston and Roseby, p. 16).
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
There are literally millions of websites which teach parents “how to win the custody battle.” Many are hosted by attorney, private detectives and vindictive ex-partners. Many of your clients may be consulting these sites to learn how to “win.” Use a search engine yourself to see what tactics are being shared.
Scenario Number 5
Ellen Cannon and Jerry Stillwater have been divorced for 6 months. They were high-school sweethearts who had a tumultuous marriage for 12 years, initiated by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Each spouse had several affairs before the final separation. To this day, they vacillate between heated arguments and reconciliations which involve having sexual relations.
Their daughter, Gena, age 12, clearly sides with her mother and wants to live with her full-time. Their son, Gary, age 11, loves hunting and fishing with his dad and wants to live with him full time. Both parents are furious because they see their children’s preferences as an indication of “alienation” by the other parent.
The custody arrangement ordered by the judge is for 50/50 and each household reports trouble with disciplining the children. The court has referred both parents to you for parent education.
In this scenario, it is clear that the divorced couple is still emotionally enmeshed and will need much help in creating clearer emotional and physical boundaries. They each exhibit a great deal of dependency on one another, and each might benefit from individual therapy. They fit the pattern of the “operatic” relationship, which is fraught with drama, including breakups and reconciliations, jealousy, and rapid shifts in emotions.
However, you have been asked to work on parenting issues. Teaching these parents about consistency and discipline will be important, and this will be difficult because they are focused primarily on their own relationship rather than on parenting.
The first necessity will be to establish some workable boundaries, which cannot be done until both parents agree they are ready to “move on.” In other words, you will have to explore to see whether they harbor any fantasies about renewing their romance or marriage. Once they are able to separate out, you can help them establish a business-like parenting agreement.
It will also be necessary to address the theme of “favoritism” in this family. Perhaps each child is championing a parent to keep the balance even. Perhaps each child really does have a preference for the same sex parent.
You may want to look at the family system to determine whether the children are just adding to the drama by egging on their parents, since this is a high-drama scenario. If the parents can stop fighting, the children may also soften their own positions. If not, then each child may need to have some alone-time with the less-favored parent in order to improve that relationship.
However, if there are simply temperament issues and no real hostility, the favoring of one parent may not indicate a real problem. If this is the case, the less-favored parent needs to be coached to keep the lines of communication open and not to subtly punish the child by playing “favorites” with the other child.
Indications of true alienation will have to be explored. However, in this case, the parents’ own immature behavior will need to be addressed first. You might point out that the fact that their relationship goes back to their own adolescence might be part of the dynamics. Helping each parent think for him- or herself about separating out and moving on will be an important step in helping this family move forward.
High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:
Children exhibit preferences for same or opposite gender parents at various phases in their development. These normal shifts in preferences are often seen as crises in divorced families because they are interpreted as “alignments” instead of natural phases. (Johnston & Roseby, p. 195.)
This completes the course on High Conflict Divorce. You may now proceed forward to the bibliography and course test.