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In the Turmoil of Family Transition

March 15, 2013

Therapy for separating parents in dispute: Facilitating transition from family as we knew it to a new and different structure….

Working with separated parents where conflict reigns is in and of itself a challenge for the therapist. The therapist must manage the expectations and agendas of both parents, children and at times extended kin and even lawyers.

The initial stage of therapy is engagement – keeping the conflicted family participants involved in a process that turns the spotlight from the conflict to a process of self-examination without blame.

When so embroiled in the conflict the participants to therapy believe the process is aimed at producing a winner and pronouncing who is right and who is wrong. The challenge for the therapist is to be able to walk within the muck and carnage of conflict yet still be apart from it.

The therapist can’t be invested in the clients’ superficial need for a determination of who is better or worse. The therapist must be a witness to distress and enter with wonderment for the experience of the children in this transitional situation.  The therapist wants this wonderment to be contagious and affect the parents causing them to better appreciate their children’s circumstance and their role therein.

That is therapy and this is distinguished from a custody/access evaluator’s role or even a mediator’s role.

The custody evaluator’s role is to offer their own insights with regard to the family turmoil and best interests of the children, independent from the views of either parent. This by structure may produce in the eyes of the parents a winner and a loser. Indeed, this may contribute to an escalation of conflict. Here, change may come about by social amputation; clear cuts and divisions and cleaving of relationships creating lengthy healing periods or ongoing socio-familial handicaps.

The mediator’s role is typically one of neutrality with regard to the outcome, yet is solution focused with regard to a particular problem. As such the participants subject to the mediation are not necessarily focused on self-enlightenment or an understanding of their role with regard to the conflict, but fixed on a preferred outcome. As they negotiate, compromise figures predominantly in their minds and that signals losing something to gain something. Problem is, no one ever wants to lose anything.

Hopefully the skilled mediator helps the participants achieve a mutually desirable outcome, but as for learning anything, not necessarily.

The mediator may facilitate a separation yet a child is part of a whole. The child is part of a larger more geographically and social complex family which the parents may deny as still being family. Psycho-dynamically as the parents are split so too is the child’s internal representation of self. One parent good; one parent bad and I the child am a product of both. Now I am half good and I am half bad. This is a terrible psycho-dynamic internal representation of the parents in that now I am structurally half bad.

Therapy is a whole different animal. Process is king of this jungle. Outcome at least in terms of a pronouncement and right or wrong or settlement of a particular issue is not the goal, yet a settlement may paradoxically be achieved. The sought outcome of therapy is more often an ability to get along at least in general terms; to free children from parental triangulation; and to facilitate peaceful co-existence in the context of a newly shaped family system where there is an acceptance of geographic and social diversity.

Thus with therapy as opposed to a custody evaluation or mediation, the child can have an intact representation of a whole, albeit diverse family and hence remain psycho-dynamically intact. This is the winning trifecta. If this can be achieved, solutions to presenting problems usually take care of themselves.

There is not only a challenge to bring parents into the process of therapy, but sometimes their lawyers too.

Sometimes therapy is sought as a backdoor assessment. The lawyer strategically encourages therapy to draw out the foibles of the opposing client and then ensnare the therapist as a witness to pathology. This bait and switch tactic is a landmine for therapists, particularly the uninitiated. While we want to assume other helping professionals as allies to the cause of therapy, this is not always the case. In the hands of a naive or lesser experienced therapist, this can spell disaster.

In other circumstances, the lawyer may be invested in their client’s preferred outcome and as such also meddle with the therapy process or more inadvertently, not hold their own client accountable to the process when the client resists engagement in favor of seeking a quick solution.

If you are sending a couple or family for therapy to facilitate their otherwise tumultuous transition from one family structure to another or if you are that family, be prepared to sit back and hang on for the ride. It can be fraught with ups and downs in the initial stages. The family participants may try to jockey for position and some may try to subvert the process. This is normal in the initial stages.

However, as you round the clubhouse turn, very often a new vista emerges. The finish line you thought you were aiming for tends to disappear and new paths emerge. You don’t have to take this on faith. You only need to allow it to take place. Therapy is about entering the unknown while in disarray and coming out the other side newly organized often in ways unimaginable. It doesn’t work for everyone, but when it does, it is magical. Kids deserve that chance.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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One Comment
  1. Yvette Emmanuel permalink

    So well presented! The engagement stage is very challenging when parents are facing a divorce. As therapist one has to maintain a balance and objectivity.

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