Inside a COPE Group -- Part 1: The Issues
Shonnie Brown, MFT

Many of our participants present fairly ordinary co-parenting scenarios—problems with communication, hurt feelings, different rules in different houses. But others come with high conflict situations which they've endured for years. They feel enormous relief to discover that others face similar problems. Though their situations are painful and disturbing, the solace they feel in knowing they're not alone adds significantly to the safety of a COPE group.

I always spend a few minutes on the phone with each person before the group begins. We want to know about their unique situation and we need to be certain they understand the group agreements. It is essential that everyone in a COPE group feel safe. Group safety encourages participants to acknowledge the problematic aspects of their role in the co-parenting relationship. During our first group meeting I encourage each person to tell some of their story. I often begin by asking, "What do you think your mediator saw between the two of you that was of concern?" I function as an advocate for participants in my class, but I am frank in telling them that they are responsible for asking for what they need and bringing their most challenging scenarios into the room.

Sarah begins by telling us that her ex-husband, who appears very likable to others, is intimidating and manipulative with her. She doesn't trust him and is fearful for their two children, ages 8 and 14. Her 14-year old son, Jason, is already displaying similar behavior and demanding the same freedoms he has at Dad's house. Her daughter, Josie, refuses to go to Dad's house. Sarah feels helpless and hurt by Jason and overly protective of Josie. She and her co-parent have been arguing custody in and out of court for years. And now he has a live-in girlfriend who Sarah says is verbally abusive to Josie. Sarah is hopeful that I and the others will offer her help.

Randy, on the other hand, barely sees his six year-old daughter, Maddie. He and Maddie's mom were never married. They were separated on and off for "mutual verbal and emotional abuse" for two years and now Randy has only supervised visitation every Saturday. He has taken "every parenting class there is" but is very discouraged, feeling he will forever have to prove to the courts that he is a fit parent. His self-esteem is low and he doesn't say much. I wonder if there are some things he's not telling us... And I know I must offer encouragement.

Maria speaks next. She has sole legal and physical custody of her two children. Their dad has been in and out of jail for selling drugs. He is now sober and in a group living arrangement but Maria "will never trust him." She doesn't want her kids to be exposed to his lifestyle, but she feels terribly sad because they "don't really have a father." She confides to the group: "I always build him up and say how much he loves them, but, in truth, he's a stranger to the kids."

It's Barney's turn. "Everything's cool between me and the kids. It's just her. She's so angry about my girlfriend that she's gone nuts! She makes up horrible stories about me. She even called the cops on me when Jessica had a fall at my house. I don't want to fight in front of my kids, but I have to defend myself against her accusations. The kids think I'm the bad guy, and every time they come back from her house I have to deal with more lies. I feel like she's brainwashing them to hate me."

Todd is next. "My wife left me for an aerobics instructor. I'm so angry and so depressed that I can't take care of the kids properly. I can't bare seeing her at the exchanges. She's kept the house and I live in a dingy apartment. I feel like I'll never get over this and move on. I love my kids, but I feel I have nothing to offer them."

And lastly, we have Sonia. After a long history of conflict, she has moved back into her ex-husband's house for financial reasons and to be with her son who is in Dad's custody. Hearing that the two parents don't speak and that the eight year-old son is a conduit, I am very worried. They are battling in court while the parentified eight year-old passes messages back and forth between them. He is subject to two different sets of rules in the same house with two people who don't even speak! This is truly a crazy making situation. Sonia needs a lot of education about appropriate boundaries.

It's a pretty typical first group meeting. Obviously these are not real names or the exact stories of our participants, but they are illustrative of the cases we deal with. The lack of skills and training in co-parenting is astounding. Often a few basic tools help enormously. How frequently our members say that they wish they'd taken this class before having children!

Part Two of Inside a COPE Group introduces the skills needed for resolution of these high conflict scenarios. We will explain and discuss the issues of loyalty binds, new partners, absent co-parents, putting the child in the middle and self-esteem loss during divorce.


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