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Marriages Come and Go, but High-Conflict Divorce Is Forever

Get a divorce from divorce, get on with your life.

Danielle Macinnes/unsplash
Source: Danielle Macinnes/unsplash

Two judges walk into a bar after work. Judge A presides over criminal cases, while Judge B adjudicates family law.

Judge A: “Your cases are not as tough as mine. I listen to wayward adults from dysfunctional homes come up with stories to justify their criminal conduct.”

Judge B: “Define ‘criminal conduct.’”

Few would argue that family court is an efficient system where justice is served in the best interests of children. Fewer would sympathize with adults behaving badly during custody fights. Typically, the problems started well before Mom and Dad made it to the courthouse.

Several large longitudinal studies found that nearly half of the behavioral and academic problems of children in marriages whose parents later divorced were observed 4 to 12 years before the separation. (Cherlin et, al.,1991; Elliot and Richards, 1991).

Predivorce variables aside, most adults don’t want the system to decide their family’s fate. However, when contention runs high, there is little choice but to go with government intervention. Adding insult to injury, high-conflict doesn’t always mean both parties are complicit in the acrimony. One person can unilaterally drive the conflict.

As a psychotherapist specializing in high-conflict divorce and co-parenting counseling, my job is to help parents resolve disputes and nurture their children’s social and emotional growth. Research shows that the frequency and intensity of parent conflict, the style of conflict, its manner of resolution, and the presence of buffers to ameliorate the presence of high-conflict are the most important predictors of child adjustment. I’ve outlined four problem areas below which contribute to relitigation, and what to do instead.

Caveat: For the non-contentious co-parents who act rationally and do their best to preserve their children’s emotional growth under extraordinary toxic situations, thank you. Keep it up, for kids are resilient and they can and do thrive with the presence of one stable parent.

Four Common Co-Parenting Minefields, Four Solutions

1. Contentious custody exchanges. Fact: Most airplane crashes occur during takeoff or landing. Same goes for frequent flyers of high-conflict divorce. In general, the fewer custodial exchanges, the better. Additionally, meeting at half-way points increases the likelihood of late arrivals and discord. Worse, your kids may witness your emotional dysregulation.

Effects on social-emotional development: According to research published in The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), direct negative effects of high conflict include children’s modeling of parental behaviors, failure to learn appropriate social interaction skills, and physiological effects (Cummings and Davies, 1994). Children assimilate repertoires of angry, impulsive, and violent behaviors into their own behavior as a result of viewing their parents’ responses to frustration and rage.

What to do instead: Prepare your central nervous system to be as calm as possible by practicing deep-breathing or other mindfulness activities prior to exchanges. Arrive on time, alone, and without your mobile phone set to video mode. “But I need a witness due to past allegations.” Barring suspicions of child abuse or domestic violence (in which case, meeting at police stations is an option), witnesses can agitate the situation. If you choose to bring another party for carpool access, have this person wait down the street from the exchange.

2. Persistent communication with co-parent and/or children during non-custodial time. This topic engendered a lot of emotional commentary in this popular article, Forget Co-Parenting With A Narcissist. Do This Instead. It's heartbreaking to lose time with your children; however, limiting communication is best for everyone’s mental health.

Effects on social-emotional development: Navigating two households, a complicated custody schedule, transitions, plus extra commute time (which sometimes includes flying) takes its toll. I’ve counseled kids who claim the aftermath of divorce is worse than the parental fights during marriage. Children deserve uninterrupted time with the other parent. Alternatively, you deserve time to decompress and recharge from your obligations as a single parent.

What to do instead: Consider a third party app like Our Family Wizard. This mobile responsive service provides a secure location to document and share information about your custodial plan. Best of all, it keeps your kids away from conflict. Having a plan for communication with the non-custodial parent works best when there’s a consistent schedule, for example, weeknights from 7:00 - 8:00 p.m. For more details, refer to this article.

3. Placing children in the middle to spy or settle disputes. Seeing your ex-spouse move on is difficult. But the relationship didn’t survive for a reason, and communication was likely a culprit. Using children to pass messages is age-inappropriate and damaging to their self-worth.

Effects on social-emotional development: A client composite of a child describing ‘invisible:’

“Sometimes I don’t want to meet my dad for dinner because he grills me with non-stop questions about my mom’s new boyfriend and whether he spends the night. He doesn’t ask about school or how I’m doing. I want to have a relationship with him but I don’t think he cares about me. Then when I get home my mom yells at me because I didn’t get the child support check.”

What to do instead: Avail yourself of therapy to deal with your anger, sadness, and grief. Participate in family therapy with your kids, too. Your therapist can help you establish appropriate boundaries around parent-child roles. Bottom line: children are not stand-ins for UPS, PayPal, process servers, or detectives.

4. Social media shaming. Divorce is devastating. Airing your dirty laundry on Facebook adds salt to the wounds. We live in a culture that encourages over-sharing, but that doesn’t mean you should follow the dramatic herd. Additionally, it makes the rest of us uncomfortable and, as a result, we may unfollow you.

Effects on social-emotional development: Kids just want to fit in and not be regarded as different from their peer group. Seeing a sunset image of mom and her boyfriend won’t help Sara develop her identity as part of a non-intact family. Kids feel “broken” enough trying to navigate puberty, peer pressure, and the latest social media crazes.

What to do instead: Unfollow your ex on social media out of privacy and respect. Ask your inner circle to refrain from posting about your family, and do not encourage them to stir the passive-aggressive pot.

Case in point: “I can’t control what others say on social media, and they’re entitled to their opinions. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?” Hmm…perhaps that baby needs to go. Enlisting others to do dirty work is about as transparent and credible as family members who report false allegations of child abuse.

Marco Ceschi/unsplash
Source: Marco Ceschi/unsplash

Contentious conflict doesn’t have to last forever. The childhood scars of high-conflict divorce are well-documented, and the effects are long-lasting. By committing to the four steps above, co-parents can resolve conflict, regain peace of mind, and successfully nurture their children’s social and emotional development. The critical first step is to be the responsible, mature, and compassionate parent your child wants you to be. In fact, his ability to emotionally regulate and cultivate healthy relationships in the future may very well depend on it.


Copyright 2017, Linda Esposito, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.

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