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When We Don’t Help Separated Parent Get Along

March 15, 2015

I receive emails from colleagues known and unknown whose work with separated parents leaves them flustered and flummoxed. Despite the worker’s best intentions, care and guidance; the parents are seemingly unable to change their course.

This is particularly the case in the world of separated parents whose conflict seems unremitting.

After what seems like a good session, where the parents appear to come on board with a plan, leave in good spirits, they call mere days later, each complaining about the unraveling of the plan attributed to the other.

Despite the platitudes, words of wisdom, our great advice, and efforts at helping them find common ground and solutions, the real truth is, there are people whose paths do not change, whose conflicts continue unresolved, whose lives remain in turmoil.

Not unlike the oncologist, who despite best intentions, cannot save every patient from the cancer that will take their body, we who work with separated parents in conflict cannot resolve all issues to facilitate their co-parenting such that their children may grow in peace with unrestricted inputs and relationships from and with both parents.

We cannot help all who we serve and this is not necessarily a reflection of the helper, but an outcome of the trials and tribulations of life. Not all cancers are treatable and not all separated parents can co-parent effectively despite our efforts.

The challenge in my helping those colleagues who send their email recounting miserable situations is to help the worker appreciate that there are limits to our help, that we who try so hard, cannot work harder than our clients, that no matter with what clarity we see, our client’s view may forever remain obscured by the hurt that came before our arrival.

Of all the posters, saying and words of wisdom, the one that makes most sense to me in this circumstance is the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

This applies to our work with separated parents.

Once we can accept that which we cannot change, then other options can appear. We work with what is in front of us, advise our clients of the limits of our effectiveness and hopefully help them to realistically appraise and find a way to live within their circumstance. While they opine it isn’t fair, we remind gently, this isn’t about fairness just as cancer doesn’t discriminate and the patient must learn to cope.

Solutions may require less the expectation of cooperation and collaboration and more the development of firm boundaries, limits and different spans of authority and residential schedules that at best allow for the continuation of a relationship although less than what a parent may have hoped for.

We who do this work must remember that our job is not to appease the parents, but to find or impose a solution (depending on our role) that best separates the child from unremitting conflict. It is this focus on the child that remains paramount in our work, sometimes to the consternation and even retribution of the parent.

Doing so is a tough job, but it is made easier when the view of the worker is the long term outcome of the child in the midst of challenging circumstances. We may not have to accept the limitations of our help for the parents, but we remain focused on preserving the best opportunity amidst the noise and confusion for the child so that the child may develop as best as possible.

With 33 years of work behind me, I have the pleasure of at times hearing from the now adult children of the parents I served a long time ago. They are grateful for the role I had in their lives at the time, only able to express it now, free from the binds of divided loyalties.

If you are a parent challenged in the care of a child with the other parent, it would be my pleasure to be of service to see to what degree I can help you improve matters.

If you are an adult child still shackled by the bind of divided loyalty, it would be my pleasure to help you find your adult voice to now take care of yourself in adulthood as you wished your parents would have done in your childhood.

If you are a worker, whose role it is to wade into the conflict of others and you are feeling overwhelmed, remember, the serenity prayer applies to us all.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. Thanks for reblogging.

    FYI – I received the following comment on Linked In:

    My question for you Gary, is how much effort on our part is our best effort?

    As a Family Lawyer who entered the profession with the ideal of helping to reconcile marriages, I often had the same problem of feeling deeply disappointed and frustrated when I see a marriage that is really “salvagable” being broken up. Took me more than 15 years in the profession before I learn that it is the parties’ own choice. But now, I come face to face with a “repeat case”, the same parties. And I guess I need to relearn this lesson on letting the parties to determine their own future? This case is very special to me for following reason.

    The parties first came to me with a 6 months old baby and with numerous sessions over a few months, they reconciled for 16 years. Now, the wife comes to me again, with a 16 year old child and asks for my help to divorce her husband.

    I have arranged for the 16 year old to receive some therapy – the child is the one who discovered the father’s adulterous relationship.

    The wife, she was double-minded about the divorce for the past 3 months. Now she is quite decided on the divorce.

    This is one case where I fear my judgement will be less than objective, because of my vested interest in helping this same family stay intact again, after my success 16 years ago.

    My reply:

    That is when we seek a consultation.

    There are limits to our knowledge, abilities and judgement. If in doubt, acknowledge such to the client. From my perspective it is OK to acknowledge our limitations and to also seek the guidance of our peers or refer the client to another worker to assess, support or treat.

    The burden need not be ours alone to carry.

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