Inside a COPE Group -- Part 2: Working Toward Resolution
The challenge of high-conflict cases

Shonnie Brown, MFT

As participants begin to feel supported within a COPE group, they are likely to reveal more of the truth about their own issues. They are being challenged enormously by the legal system and the realities of divorce to do any emotional work necessary to avail themselves to the immediate needs of their children. There are two principles that I never let them forget: children have the right to love, idealize and be disappointed by both their parents, and the worst thing for kids is to see their parents in conflict.

Sarah's feelings of intimidation and manipulation by the other parent were discussed in Part One of this article. This is a tough one, for hurt and angry feelings linger and bleed over into the co-parenting relationship, especially when one partner has left unilaterally and/or betrayed the other. The person who has hurt you becomes an incredibly charged figure, and it is most difficult not to focus on the ways you perceive them as hurting your children as well. Sarah must disengage emotionally from the old relationship. Whenever continued engagement escalates conflict, time and distance are required. I suggest they "disengage" from conversation at this point and use e-mail only to conduct co-parenting business.

Sarah also participates in role plays to practice active listening skills. With Jason, her 14-year old, she begins reflecting his feelings, helping him access the anxiety over having no control in the divorce situation. Sarah begins to understand that she must maintain a tone of neutrality, consistency and appropriate parental boundaries. She also does active listening with her daughter, acknowledging, "You really don't want to go to Dad's house." This unbiased reflection increases the likelihood that Josie will tell her what's actually going on. It may be a scary or hurtful situation, it may be a loyalty bind, or she may feel unwanted by Dad or Dad's new girlfriend.

Can Sarah change the other parent's behavior? No. But she can decrease her emotional focus on it. A therapist, a neutral third party or a co-parenting class or group may succeed in awakening the other parent to the effects of his own behavior. And then again, perhaps the other parent will never change in the ways that Sarah would like.

Barney's situation is somewhat similar to Sarah's. Barney claims that "My ex is full of rage and screams at me every chance she gets!" A reality check for Barney is that cooperative co-parenting and high conflict divorce are incompatible. That's why this work is so difficult! People who are full of personal rage and hurt are required to have a "business relationship." So there must often be a period of disengagement before it feels manageable. It is better for your kids to not see you talking than to see you fighting. Necessary co-parenting business may be conducted through a neutral third party, a journal passed back and forth or by e-mail. Personal feelings should never be discussed because they cannot be worked out with each other at this point. And angry expressions and accusations place your children in a loyalty bind.

Here is a perfect example of how Mom, Dad and child all collude to create a loyalty bind:

Barney is irritated by another "nagging" phone call from the co-parent, Susan. Unthinkingly, he makes a remark about "that bitch" in front of his 5-year old, Jessica. Jessica, who loves her mommy, feels anxious. When she's at Mommy's house, she says, "Daddy called you a bad name." Mom reacts with fury. She has Jessica, who is now crying, call up Barney and tell him that "Mommy's mad." Barney now feels furious that Susan put Jessica in this position. And, without educational intervention, the cycle will repeat. So I ask Barney and the others to stop and place themselves in Jessica's shoes. They immediately feel the horrible predicament she is in—loving and wanting to please both parents, yet feeling pulled to be loyal to the one whose house she's at for fear of losing even more love.

Once Barney really understands the impact of putting Jessica in the middle by badmouthing from either parent, we discuss the approach he needs to take the next time.

Quoting Dr. Phil, I mention that "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." So Barney may predict that Susan will continue to badmouth and that he must be prepared in advance with a response that does not add to Jessica's hurt. The next time Jessica comes back with bad words from Mommy, Barney will use active listening and say: "It sounds really painful for you that your mom said that about me." This response is neutral, non reactive, non defensive and non escalating. And it is child focused. It takes the emphasis completely away from Barney's having to explain or defend to Jessica and focuses on the child's experience. It increases safety in the parent-child bond and does not contribute to a loyalty bind. By intervening in this fashion, Barney reduces the tension level with everyone.

Part Three


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