As courts increasingly recognize the limitations of the legal system in resolving high-conflict custody battles, more therapists are becoming involved to offer alternative ways of approaching these difficult cases. Often such cases remain in the courts for years, exhausting judges and lawyers alike, as legal solutions to coparenting and financial struggles fall apart. More and more, courts are turning to mental health professionals for intervention and recommendations.
While such cases may initially seem unresolvable, with a clear understanding of the dynamics underlying high-conflict divorce, it's possible to help the embattled parties stop eviscerating each other and come to agreements that benefit everyone involved, particularly the children. The key lies in understanding how power is balanced in high-conflict couples.
Years ago, family therapist Cloe Madanes proposed that, in marriage or divorce, the partner who has the least power is typically the one who displays symptoms in an attempt to equalize power, albeit in a dysfunctional manner. This may be manifested in a number of ways--psychiatric symptoms, overaggressive behavior, or problems holding down a job. The more extreme the behavior of one of the partners, the less power that person has. In any case, that's a useful clinical hypothesis to make if one wishes to avoid the immediate pull of taking sides with the most attractive and pleasant person in these intense struggles.
It follows that the person in a divorce whose behavior is most out of control may be the person who most needs our help. While his or her aggressive behavior incites the ex-spouse and the court to restrict visits with the children, impose financial sanctions, and inflict jail time for contempt of court, the therapeutic task is, when possible, to find a way to empower this person to become a competent parent. The challenge is to help such parents focus on the welfare of their children and change their behavior, so that they can convince the court--as well as their ex-spouses--that they're no longer are a threat.
One such challenging case was referred to our institute by the courts not long ago. Susan and James were both in their mid-thirties, had been married for six years, and had a 3-year-old daughter, Sabrina. Their marriage had been turbulent from the beginning, with constant arguing. James's temper, which had been a problem during his teens, had gotten worse after the baby was born. The police had been called more than once when he began his screaming tirades at home and in public. He was arrogant, loud, and generally unlikable.
Susan finally divorced James, citing his explosive temper as the reason, and was awarded child custody. James was restricted by the court to supervised visits with his daughter at a domestic violence program. He was allowed to see her for only an hour at a time, three times a week. He visited regularly, but during one of those visits he swore and screamed at the supervising social worker, resulting in the program's refusal to deal with him further.
Both Susan and James had secured aggressive attorneys with their parents' money and filed motion after motion. Susan was clearly the more reasonable and sympathetic figure of the two. She was a good mother and had also been very disciplined in organizing the police, community, and school personnel to document James' loud, aggressive acts. Meanwhile, the struggles over visitation time, supervision of visits, and child support payments went on and on, with court hearings every two or three months. Finally, the judge decided that this couple must learn to deal properly with each other and that the court wasn't the place to accomplish that. The judge referred them to our program for us to supervise parenting time between James and his daughter and to see if we could settle the daily disputes between Susan and James. Both came reluctantly to our offices, determined to convince yet another arbiter to take his or her side. …