Courts don’t typically have one, standard approach to dealing with high-conflict divorces. Instead, family courts throughout the United States have instituted counseling and therapeutic programs, parent education classes, and mediation programs to help reduce the conflict in ongoing post-divorce disputes. The different kinds of interventions that have developed in this country have arisen out of the needs of courts, judges, and attorneys as well as the experience and clinical expertise of therapists and counselors. Both mediation and parent education programs seem to predominate in court systems. Divorce mediation has been viewed since the 1980s as a promising alternative to the more traditional courtroom method of resolving issues between two co-parents engaged in hostile conflict. However, with concern about the increasing number of high-conflict divorces, courts have turned to interventions that range from divorce education plans to intensive co-parent counseling, therapeutic programs, and binding arbitration.
There are, however, five types of interventions for divorced families and high-conflict postdivorce couples that have been most commonly used:
Parenting education programs have sprung up around the country in response to the growing number of divorce cases seen in family and juvenile courts. One study in 1996 found that there were over 500 parent education programs in forty-four states (Ellis, 2000).
Some of these programs were court mandated, while others were voluntary. The majority of these parenting education programs are one session in length and generally last no more than four hours.
A typical educational program features speakers, specialty videos, and literature handouts. All aspects of such programs, including speakers, videos, and handouts, usually are aimed at getting across one important message: That it’s important for co-parents to work together for the sake of the children. To date, there has been only limited research on the effectiveness of such short-term educational programs (Ellis, 2000). However, it appears that educational programs do influence those co-parents who are inclined to be cooperative after divorce.
Kim and Ron had just divorced after an eight-year marriage and three children. They got caught up in the adversarial nature of the divorce proceedings and they argued bitterly over custody, parenting time, and financial support. They were able to finally come to an agreement on their major issues, and they appeared in court where the judge signed a divorce decree.
Within two weeks following the settlement of their divorce, they received letters in the mail from the family court directing them to attend a divorce education program. Before the evening when they were scheduled to attend, they checked with each other to see if both were planning to attend. Kim said she was planning to attend. “It’s inconvenient, because it’s on the night I have parenting time,” Ron told her, “but I’ll get a baby-sitter and come.”
In the two-hour program they attended, a family court judge spoke about the importance of parents working together and a video was shown depicting the devastating effect on children when divorced parents couldn’t get along. Following the video, a social worker reinforced the message that parents need to get along to protect the mental health of their children.
After a question and answer session, Ron and Kim saw each other at a table in the back of the auditorium where they both picked up literature on parenting after divorce.
“Let’s walk out together,” Kim suggested to him.
As they walked to the parking lot, Kim said the program helped her realize how important their working together as parents would be for the future of their children.
“I know,” Ron said. “I get pretty angry with you sometimes, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from being good parents.”
“You’re right,” Kim said. “Our kids are too important to both of us to mess them up over our problems with each other.”
“I guess when you think about their happiness and their lives,” Ron said, “nothing we have to argue about is really that important.”
“No, not really” Kim said. “I’ll really try if you will.”
Ron and Kim were able to put aside their emotions and their differences for the sake of their children. The educational program they attended had opened their eyes to how much damage their arguing could cause to their children. Although there’s no way to know, Ron and Kim might have come to an amiable reconciliation of their differences anyway. A short-term educational program would have been less likely to have any significant effect on Ron and Kim if they had been co-parents who were experiencing high levels of conflict.
Many courts offer some type of parent education class for divorcing parents. The intent is to educate parents about the dangers of conflict following divorce and the specific harm to children of high conflict. Critics of short-term parent education programs contend that they aren’t educational because they don’t help divorcing parents learn new skills or practice any skills that will help them to deal with each other in more cooperative ways. However, for some parents, hearing professionals talk about the dangers of ongoing conflict is sufficient to bring about a more cooperative relationship.
Mediation and Counseling Programs
Mediation is such a key resource in dealing with high-conflict situations that we have given it a chapter of its own: chapter 13. Community-based programs for high-conflict divorces are almost exclusively counseling and therapy sessions offered by a range of mental health professionals, including family therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors. Such programs are offered on an individual or family basis. Since there has been little or no research on therapy with co-parents involved in a high-conflict divorce, there is no generally agreed upon approach to treating them.
Articles reporting on counseling and therapy models most often focus on clinical issues related to grief, hostility, divorce, and child adjustment. Doing therapy with high-conflict couples with children requires clinicians with sophisticated skills and experience, and it’s difficult to find models for treating high-conflict divorces that can be used by a variety of clinicians effectively. In chapters fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen we offer specific programs, techniques, and interventions that we’ve found effective in helping high-conflict postdivorce relationships.
Skill-Building and Psychological Programs
More specialized educational programs are often used to teach co-parents about the psychological effects of conflicts on children and to help them learn better communication skills. These skill-building classes may use exercises and role-playing to teach effective communication and problem-solving techniques.
While short-term programs don’t tend to show as many positive effects as do longer-term programs, brief interventions often lead to indirect results because of referrals and links to other community resources. Family counseling programs using trained facilitators and therapists seem, however, to show better outcomes for couples experiencing problems related to divorce. As early as 1985, Wallerstein and her colleagues tested a number of counseling and therapy programs and concluded that many were useful for children. Unfortunately, there have been few attempts in the psychological literature to identify the level of conflict in families and determine how various therapeutic programs help parents to resolve conflict. While there is little or no reliable information about the number of courts that utilize referrals to family counselors or to private groups, researchers believe that programs that invite parents to participate through role play, interactive discussion, and skill-building activities have an enhanced opportunity to reduce conflict (Kramer et al., 1998). Other psychological or therapeutic programs deal directly with the psychological factors that lock co-parents into ongoing conflicts and disputes. Impasse-directed mediation is among these types of programs.
This approach, reported by Johnson and Roseby (1997), differs from regular mediation in three significant ways. First, this approach brings together therapy and mediation. The idea is to deal with some of the underlying emotional factors that have led to the bitter conflict and to resolve this conflict so co-parents can work more effectively together. Second, because co-parents involved in serious and prolonged dispute often fail to protect their children from the conflict, the approach is directed at helping co-parents better understand children’s needs and then to teach them to be more protective and helpful to their children. Third, this approach doesn’t concentrate on developing a specific plan to solve the problems. Rather, it focuses on helping to build a structure and a way of working together that will allow the family to move forward in dealing with the postdivorce transition. In chapters fifteen and sixteen, we consider related approaches that involve longer programs designed to change communication patterns and skill building.
Parent Coordination and Arbitration
When co-parents are so entrenched in their conflicts that all other attempts to intervene have failed, the court may have no choice but to refer them to a parent coordinator or an arbitration program. Parents who are in high-conflict postdivorce situations have often attended educational programs without effect, been unsuccessful in counseling or therapy, or refused to engage in meaningful mediation sessions. The court will often then appoint a person, sometimes called a special master, parenting coordinator, family court advisor, or custody commissioner, whose job it is to manage the conflicts and disputes. These specialists may use their authority to make recommendations both to the family and to the court. Because of the role parent coordinators play, they are often referred to as co-parent arbitrators. However, the title of parent coordinator has taken on a life of its own and has come to describe a discrete area of clinical practice regardless of whether a court has appointed a therapist to this role. When parent coordination is conducted privately, the professional chooses whether to accept binding authority from the court or maintain his neutrality in a purely therapeutic fashion. In chapter fourteen, we discuss parent coordination as a therapeutic practice approach. There are two models of parent coordinator or co-parent arbitrator commonly used. In one model, the co-parent arbitrator is called on to play a role only when parents can’t solve a specific problem or conflict. In the second model, the coordinator or arbitrator acts as a counselor, mediator, or family therapist. However, both models include the function of helping co-parents to carry out a parenting plan or solve conflicts related to parenting. In some states, including Michigan, Friend of the Court offices have been created by state statute. Friend of the Court counselors, who are employed by each county throughout the state to work with family courts, have the authority to ensure compliance with court orders related to parenting time, child support, and custody.
The Friend of the Court counselors act as mediators, parent coordinators, and family therapists. Because of their high caseloads, if Friend of the Court counselors are unable to bring about agreement in a relatively short time, they commonly refer the feuding co-parents to a private practitioner or community agency for the ongoing provision of parent coordination or family therapy. If co-parents don’t follow court orders, the Friend of the Court counselor can begin civil hearings in which one or both co-parents could be found in contempt of the court.
Supervised Visitation and Monitored Exchange Programs
When there has been ongoing high conflict as well as threatened violence, domestic violence, or abuse, the court can order supervised visitation for one or both parents. The visitation and parenting time can be supervised in a therapist’s office, at an agency providing this service, or in the presence of a guardian ad litem who is appointed to represent the interests of the child. Often, too, when there is domestic violence and assault, the exchange of children for parenting time may take place at a police department or in a situation where both co-parents feel safe.
Curtis and Vanna had such a stormy and violent relationship with each other that the court ordered that they exchange the children for parenting time in the parking lot of the local police department. The police department was aware of this arrangement and made sure an on-duty police officer was monitoring the exchange of children. This supervision reduced the threat of domestic violence accusations between them.
Supervised parenting time exchanges and supervised visitation may be appropriate when there is ongoing high conflict and domestic violence. It is also appropriate when there is parental substance abuse, fears about child abduction, and concerns about the safety of either co-parent or the children.
In examining the variety of high-conflict divorce programs and treatment services that have developed in recent years, we’ve presented only an overview in this chapter. In the following three chapters, we describe three important approaches in much more detail. Our focus in the next chapter will be on the popular and often effective process of mediation.
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