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
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 inloving 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.
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