Thursday, November 29, 2018

Children Will Choose: 2 Ideas As To Why

Children will choose.  Sometimes I sit with couples attempting to strengthen their marriages.  Other times I sit with high conflict couples who are attempting to salvage them.  And still other times I sit with couples who have decided to divorce and are seeking a path forward for their family, which involves a co-parenting plan.  In any of these scenarios, our children are usually aware on some level that things in their home are not entirely harmonious.  Children crave harmony and safety, emotional and physical.  Somewhere along an invisible emotional continuum, it happens that a child will make a choice between aligning himself or herself with one parent or the other.

Cloe Madanes, a pioneering Strategic Family Therapist, has spoken about human relationships in the context of threes.  2 parents and a child, a couple and an affair, 3 siblings.  She encouraged family and couples therapists to assess the “triads” within a family from a perspective of who is in and who is out.  The in pair (i.e. a parent and a child) would be described as “in an alliance” and the out person, the other parent, on the periphery.  It is fairly common for sons to align themselves with their fathers, and vice versa, or daughters with their mothers.  Gender can be a powerful parent-child magnet.  If not careful, struggling partners will consciously or unconsciously recruit their children to aid and abet in their fight against each other.  Other times children will consciously or unconsciously choose a side. 

Yet, how do children end up choosing?  Perhaps an evolutionary instinct to survive is baked into all of us and as such a child will pick the parent who will best assure him/her of this.  It would be most interesting to ask a professor of geography like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel) or else a historian of world history like Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind) to weigh in on this idea.  Intellectuals like Diamond and Harari describe how humans developed through time and how some lived on and thrived while others did not.  When children are faced with parents and a home environment that does not feel emotionally safe, they will perhaps on some primitive level-honed by our species for over 2 million years- choose the parent they think will best “save them.”

Alternatively, we as a society are living in what some have described as an age of political tribalism.  Regardless of one’s political views, our culture in this regard has pushed us to choose sides.  And to choose from an “us or them” mentality.  In family systems terms, the president, congress, along with the judiciary, a triad,  metaphorically can be seen as our country’s parental/executive subsystem.  They are often in disagreement over policy and as such set the tone for how they will interact with each other.  Like children in a family the rest of us look to our government family system to model appropriate behavior, especially during their moments of conflict.  We are living in an age where we are choosing sides politically while castigating the other, and I wonder if our children are being socialized to do the same.  To choose a side, a parent, and by association to hold contempt for the other.

I am in the business of assisting couples.  Some who are making a go at staying together and others who are making a go at divorcing while remaining a family.  Along this continuum, if couples are not intentional about how they manage their often-strong negative feelings for the other, their children will become emotionally frightened and pick a side.  They will do this either out of a primitive instinct or out of what they are learning from our broader culture.  Either way, if not careful children will choose.      

Monday, November 5, 2018

Co-Parenting? Maybe

High conflict couples.  Some seek my services attempting to salvage their marriage.  Others have decided to divorce and request my services as a “co-parenting communication expert.”  In this latter scenario, I am called upon to help high conflict couples co-parent their children.  Usually these couple’s assumption about co-parenting is something akin to working together as parents. This is a tall order if the couple hardly agrees on much, gets into arguments over big and small issues, and carries too much anger and not enough indifference toward the other.  While co-parenting in principle is the ideal, sometimes it is beyond a high conflict couple’s reach.  In these cases, parallel parenting, while in my view less preferred, is probably a better, more tenable option.

Co-parenting is a framework that suggests 2 cooperative parents working together to make decisions on behalf of their children.  If the children live in a 2-home configuration (i.e. part of the week with one parent and the other part of the week with the other), co-parenting would reflect a similar “culture” in both homes.  This might include similar rules and expectations related to bedtimes, curfews, screen time limits, and general behavior.  In essence, there would be a seamless 2-home experience for the children, with 2 parents who have dissolved their marital relationship yet still value their ability to work together as parents.  These parents would be able to communicate with each other through direct dialogue, telephone, email or text messaging.  They would be able to agree and more importantly be able to disagree without tensions rising or conflicts between them intensifying.  Within a 2-home co-parenting arrangement, children generally do well related to depression, anxiety and other psychological issues.

If there is too much emotional conflict between parents however, co-parenting is not realistic.  Alternatively, parallel parenting (
is probably the better option.  Given the similar circumstances of a 2-home environment, parallel parenting suggests more of an “invisible wall” between the 2 homes.  Each parent sets his or her own culture, rules and expectations, with limited to no contact between each other.  The children live their lives with mom on pre-arranged days and holidays and with dad on certain others.  The advantage of this arrangement is that high conflict parents don’t have the opportunity to communicate and thus get into conflicts with each other.  This inevitably allows both parents to “cool off” and potentially down the road move toward a co-parenting relationship.  The disadvantage of parallel parenting is that children are often stressed (i.e. anxious or depressed) as they must accept that their parents carry negative feelings towards one other and are not able or willing to resolve them. 

Commonly, I am asked to assist divorcing couples with co-parenting needs.  The beginning assumption made by many couples is that they can feud and yet parent together at the same time.  Usually I can help high conflict couples recognize that this dynamic will not work if they want to constructively parent together.  Some couples are able to rise above their strong feelings for the other.  Others however are too entrenched in thoughts and feelings and in these cases need to fall back to parallel parenting.  My experience is that parallel parenting over a short period of time does not create deep psychological damage for children.  Over longer periods of time however, it can.  Sounds like an interesting dissertation project for anyone reading this who might be looking into a PhD/PsyD topic.

Friday, October 19, 2018

4 Important Aspects Of A Divorce Coach's 1st Session

Sometimes couples come to see me to save their marriage.  Other times they come seeking assistance in navigating the complicated process of divorce.  They have come to this difficult decision, sometimes mutually, sometimes initiated by one or the other.  At this juncture, I am called upon to act not as the couple’s therapist, but as their “divorce coach.”  When a couple seeking divorce contacts me, they often want to know what to expect during their first session, often called an “intake session.”

There are several important topics I cover during this first session though all are done within the context of assessing the emotional intensity between the couple.  In simple terms this assessment is done on a scale of low to high emotional intensity.  As a divorce coach, assessing the various “trigger topics” (i.e. where the blame is hiding) and managing the emotional intensity is my primary job.  This ultimately clears a path for the mediating or collaborative attorneys to move their clients through their divorce process as expeditiously and as emotionally pain-free as possible.

Beyond assessing intensity and the associated triggers, an additional topic of exploration is what we call the couple’s “interests and concerns.”  This is shorthand for what each client hopes will occur through their divorce process and what each is worried might happen instead.  Common interests cited by my clients may be, “a divorce that puts the needs of our children first,” or “a divorce where we can come out and still be on speaking terms.”  Concerns mentioned might be, “everyone will like my husband better than me and as a result he will get more of what he wants,” or “since I initiated the divorce my husband will attempt to punish me financially or with the time share of our children.”  Interests and concerns help to highlight potential triggers and they also begin to provide, particularly the interests, a road map for how the couple wants to travel their divorce path.

Another important area, borrowed from the Discernment Counseling work of Dr. William Doherty, is a discussion about the couple’s “divorce narrative.”  Whether the couple agrees or not on the details, it is vital that each has the opportunity to describe in their own words how a divorce decision was reached.  As a colleague once said to me, we are a story-making people and without a coherent story, we cannot heal.  Beyond the divorce narrative, I also want to know about any substance abuse, abuse in general, and any trauma histories.  Additionally, I want to know about the couple’s divorce plan so far.  Have they hired attorneys yet, consulting attorneys, and/or a neutral accountant?  Is either in their own individual therapies?  And if I have an opportunity at this point I will help couples steer toward non-litigating professionals.  The last part of an intake session relates to assessing “divorce ambivalence.”  To use Dr. Dougherty’s Discernment Counseling language again, are both partners leaning out, or are either or both still leaning in?  This is an intake assessment about the couple’s readiness for divorce.  Or either’s desire to return to working on their marriage before taking additional steps towards divorce.

An intake session for couples seeking marital therapy is similar and in many ways different to an intake session for couples seeking divorce.  In the latter scenario, assessing and containing fear and worry about divorce, about how their family will change, and whether their children will be OK is the first order of business.  Beyond that, several topics including an assessment of emotional intensity, trigger issues, and others need to be identified.  A structured yet free flowing first session will help guide the couple, with my assistance, through a smooth divorce process.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

4 Important Aspects of A Couples Therapist's 1st Session

I am often asked what to expect by couples coming to see me for their 1st couples therapy session.  There are several areas I set out to cover during this meeting also referred to as an “intake session.”  A productive intake balances a couple’s need to speak about what brought them in to see me with a structured and emotionally safe conversation.  By the end of this meeting, a couple should experience some interplay of spontaneity and an organization of the information discussed.

One important aspect to the intake session is a conversation about what led the couple to contact me.  How have they reached this particular point where they decided to address some important, often critical aspects of themselves and their relationship?  From the clinician’s point of view, how this narrative is articulated is as important, perhaps even more so, that what is actually said.  For example, is the presenting problem(s) described in victim-villain terminology?  Is there blaming and shaming or instead some shared understanding of the problem(s)?  And, does each partner conceptualize “how they got here” in a similar, somewhat different, or entirely different way?  Another part of the intake is the couple’s description of what solution-focused couples therapists call their “attempted solutions.”  This includes any past or present individual and/or couples therapies.  This information serves to inform the clinician about what has been helpful, to potentially build upon, as well as what was not, in order to avoid.  It also provides a beginning assessment of the couple’s general attitude toward therapy, each other, and their sense hopefulness at this point in time.   

Another area of the intake conversation is what Dr. William Doherty, terms “the best of times” assessment.  This question asks each partner to describe a memory of connection or joy during his or her relationship.  Dr. Doherty uses this assessment tool as part of his “discernment” counseling protocol.  I believe this also fits with the couple therapy intake process.  The response to this question provides 2 things: it can signal a positive feeling in the room which counter balances the weight of the moment.  The couple is offered the opportunity to “look back” to a nostalgic place and by association perhaps look forward to possibilities.  It also provides a quick assessment of any ambivalence related to the request for services at this time.  If either or both partners are reluctant to answer or remember “a best of times” then there is usually some ambivalence towards couple therapy.  This might lead me to pivot towards assessing for discernment counseling instead of couples therapy as the starting point.  Both partners need to have made a clear decision to pursue their couple’s work in order to ensure some success in their couple’s therapy. 

Other aspects of the intake session include the noting of any substance abuse, addictions, and/or trauma histories.  Additionally, as a trained systemically oriented couples therapist I inquire about the 5-common stressors that influence couple satisfaction/dissatisfaction.  Usually the more of these stressors present the greater the emotional turmoil between the couple.  And this starting point needs to be determined at intake.

The emphasis of an intake session is to get a struggling couple off to a productive and meaningful therapeutic start.  A first couple’s first therapy session is a balance between allowing a couple to speak freely about what brought them in.  And about experiencing a trained therapist who can make sure there is some semblance of order to a difficult beginning conversation.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Speaking With Your Child About Divorce: 3 Things To Remember

I spend a lot of my time working with couples.  Full disclosure, I prefer to help them stay together.  Long-term relationships are not easy and they require continual care and attention.  There are times however when a couple decides to divorce.  When this decision is reached, some of the clinical work must turn toward telling the children.  This conversation often brings up parent’s anticipatory fear and worry.

The major areas that make up this conversation are “the when, the where and the what.”  Parents preparing themselves for this conversation usually believe that they need to have their divorce plan fully organized.  They think their answers need to be well thought out and what they say need to both comfort and sooth their children.  Parents want their children to know, “it wasn’t your fault.”  Phew.  This is a lot of pressure!  The first thing I offer parents is permission to slow down and calm their own nervous systems.  If they are calm, “emotionally anchored,” this will be the bigger gift they bring to this conversation than anything they might actually say. 

Back to the when issue.  It is a good idea to help couples think through some aspects of how they visualize their post-divorce family life.  Will they continue to co-habitate in the family home?  Will one parent move into a new home?  Will they “nest” (the children remain in the family home while each parent take turns leaving during their non-custodial time)?  I help parents discuss in general terms who will take care of their children on given days even if a full “parenting plan” has not yet been crafted.  Some additional thoughts on the when part of this discussion: it is best to speak at the beginning of a weekend so there is time for children to absorb the information.  It is also important to avoid having this conversation on important holidays or birthdays.

And now the “where.”  It is generally a good idea to speak with children in a familiar yet neutral place.  Familiar can be the local park or the beach where the family often spends time.  It can be in the family home though not in anyone’s bedroom.  Bedrooms are not considered neutral spaces; they are safe, nurturing spaces that need to be emotionally protected.  Lastly, the “what.”  Children regardless of age want to know 2 basic things:  am I going to be safe, emotionally and physically, and will this change lead to more family harmony.  Parents will want to have this 1st conversation together and will want to keep it short.  This is not a “1 and done” but rather the beginning of many conversations to come as their children will inevitably have more questions and concerns.  Parents may say something like, “mom and I have been working on our marriage and things just haven’t worked out.  We’ve decided to end our relationship as husband and wife but we will continue forever to be mom and dad.  We are still a family and always will be.  You guys are safe and we hope our decision will bring much more calm and peace to all of us.”  Parents can tear up; modeling emotions is fine as long as it is not excessive.  Questions may be asked and the key is to thank children for asking, and then answer honestly and age appropriately.  Don’t disparage the other parent.  And if whatever they are asking has not yet been figured out let your children know that they will be told as soon as it is figured out. 

Telling children about divorce is not an easy conversation yet it can be managed with guidance and planning.  Feeling anxiety about this discussion, how a child will experience it, and how it will affect their life is normal.  Projecting calm however and emotional stability is paramount.  Like many things, our children take their cues from us.