Divorce is major event in the life cycle of the nuclear family. It has the potential to be traumatic and, in some circles, is even referred to as, “The death of the family.” Families torn apart, and parents (with their attorneys) as adversaries, are common to this process that is often described as a "war". This tends to obscure the fact that in most divorcing families children (of all ages) are at the center of this shift in the structure of the family.
While divorce may be a major occurrence that shifts the family dynamics, it need not be antagonistic; rather, with the help of mental health professionals, it can be a process characterized by peaceable resolution.
Married couples with children have two roles: that of spouses and that of parents. Divorce ends the role of spouses. However, the role of parents ought to be preserved in order for children to get the best their parents have to give. This is very difficult for parents, when our culture often puts them in opposing positions during the divorce proceedings (ostensibly in the best interest of the children) and then expects them to reunite as parenting partners.
Parents disclose to the court some of the most personal details of their marriage, threaten the ability of each other to see or take care of their children and even at times distort the history and events of the marriage (especially during its decline). Then, we expect the parents to show up at school, a doctor’s office or athletic field and be pleasant and focused on their children. In order for this expectation to be fulfilled, parents would need to have superhuman psychological strength!
Unfortunately, the emotional energy and expenditure of financial resources that go into disentangling the spousal relationship greatly surpass the effort often spent strengthening the co-parenting relationship. Investing in the post divorce parenting relationship is a powerful way to give children the best opportunity to thrive.
As mental health professionals practicing psychotherapy, we have the unique opportunity to influence parents and the system at many stages of the process. We can play a crucial role in helping bring cohesion into the family. We can help parents to not lose sight of their children in the midst of the dynamics of the divorce process (especially if we get prior commitment from parents not to be called as witnesses). In this article, I look at some of the traditional and emerging roles of psychotherapists (outside the court) and outline ways we can support family functioning in spite of parents’ marriages coming apart.
Individual psychotherapist for a parent
Keeping in mind that there is more to the “story"
Clients come to us with narratives of the decline of the relationship and their divorce. The client presents a view to us based on perceptions and experience.
Yet, their personal accounting may not be fully accurate. As with our other clients, it is important to accept our client’s perceptions and subjective truths, but be cautious in making specific recommendations, as we do not want to inadvertently give advice based on an incomplete understanding of the situation.
Avoiding assertiveness that is at the expense of the child
Many clients describe a power imbalance as part of the marital history—often indicating feelings of disempowerment and intimidation.
As such, many psychotherapists naturally focus on building assertiveness skills in their client. This translates into teaching the client to set limits with the other parent in the context of the co-parenting relationship. Psychotherapists often speak to the importance of “finding your voice” so as not to continue the marital dynamic. However, holding one’s ground at all costs can contribute to more prolonged and conflictual experiences. For example, a scheduling discussion about options related to a particular appointment for the child may become much more tense when a parent is coached to take a stand. Instead, it may be preferable for the parent to simply have a short interaction and move on rather than argue about a trivial decision.
I have often seen parents engage in prolonged discussions around a 15- or 30-minute difference in scheduling appointments. They actually end up spending more time arguing about the scheduling, than the real difference they are arguing about. It is quite likely the child would be fine regardless of what time the event occurs but more than likely not fine with parents who readily engage in such conflicts. In other words, it may be better for the parent as well as the child for there to be accommodation on issues that do not have a major impact on the well being of the child.
Creating healthy contact
When there is domestic violence or significant dysfunctionality in the marital relationship, ceasing all contact is usually advisable.
This piece of advice usually makes sense when there is no need for the couple to work together. When there are children involved—and especially when there is joint custody and decision-making—children are best served by having parents who are able to communicate with one another and work together. In these circumstances, the challenge is to not take an "all or nothing approach” to contact, but to structure the communication. This can be done through divorce websites that help to mitigate and facilitate parental communication (e.g., OurFamilyWizard.com) and the use of Parent Coordinators and Co-parenting Counselors (as described in Zimmerman, 2015).
Individual psychotherapist for the child or family psychotherapist
Neutralizing the concept of “good” or “bad” parent
Children often get information and opinions from parents and extended family that paint the picture of one parent being “good” and the other “bad”. This can put children in the precarious position of loving both parents but yet feeling pressured to value one in comparison with the other. This bind can be very difficult for children and it may result in internal conflict.
Psychotherapists can help educate adults in the family about the consequences of such communication, appropriate boundaries related to what information children need to know, and options for changing the narrative. Teaching parents to separate their own feelings from their child’s feelings in regards to the other parent, and to look through the child’s eyes can be quite helpful. Clinicians can also help children see parents in broader terms than simply what has been painted as good or bad, distinguishing adult choices parents have made from their innate value as parents. Similarly, we need to be careful about our counter-transference and own tendency to judge one parent compared to the other. We can unwittingly perpetuate the good/bad distinction and the unintended consequences there-of. The parent who believes we are biased in favor of the other may also terminate treatment prematurely.
Encouraging children to be children, not caretakers
Children often feel the need to take care of their parents. In divorce, this can be highlighted for the child who sees a parent struggling with the fear, anger and anxiety of their own life transition. Children may shift into more of a caretaking role, thinking it is up to them to take care of the parent and even repair the marital relationship.
As psychotherapists we can be sensitive to this by helping to clarify the boundaries around the child's role in the family. We can also provide psycho-education to parents regarding their roles and responsibilities in the family, as well as facilitate dialogues between parents and children so that the likelihood of parentification can be reduced.
Removing the burden of choosing the parenting schedule
Parents often state their children want or do not want a specific schedule. They indicate that this has been discussed with the child. These reports typically differ between parents and contribute to miscommunications, misunderstandings, and even misattributions.
In my opinion, children should not be in the position of having this kind of voice in the divorce process. Children certainly can be queried about their divorce experience, their feelings and their concerns. However, decisions of such magnitude are not ones that we typically give children (especially pre-adolescents). We do not give children the option to pick their teacher, decide on medical treatments, or decide their religion. When we ask them to have input regarding the visitation schedule, in essence, we are asking them to choose between parents. This can be quite a burden for children. In some circumstances, it may even lead to retribution from the parent who was not chosen. Children may also choose a parent for reasons other than what is in the child's best interest (e.g., "to protect my mother from her abusive boyfriend" or "to clean my father’s needles"). Many times, these reasons are not reported until years later. Psychotherapists can help by learning about the child's experience and protecting the child from having to voice a preference. Parents can also be advised to not query the child about preference and the reasons behind this recommendation.
Emerging Roles of Psychotherapists
Helping with the process
Psychotherapists trained to work with couples and families possess the skill set to help with the emotional process parents are going through as they divorce. While mediation is not psychotherapy, it can be very therapeutic if the mediator practices in a fashion that, in addition to being neutral, is focused on helping parents through this transition with the experience of a transformative process. In fact there is a style of mediation called "Transformative Mediation". Bush and Pope (2002) describe this as a process that seeks to facilitate a positive (or therapeutic) change in the quality of the interaction or relationship, more than simply mediating terms of an agreement.
Helping parents make informed decisions about their children
When I begin mediation with parents I explain to them that I can take a completely neutral approach and facilitate their discussion and decision-making without providing input. I contrast that with remaining neutral to either of them and at the same time using my experience and training to help inform them about possible options and impacts there-of in a child-centered way. I call this "Informed Mediation". Virtually all parents pick this latter approach.
Creating terms of an agreement
When we are functioning as mediators, mental health clinicians can certainly help parents be clear, resolve differences and establish terms for their legal agreements—especially around non-financial matters. We do, however, need to be careful not to practice law (e.g., by writing legal agreements, providing legal advice) or to move beyond our scope of professional practice and function as a financial professional.
Co-parenting counselor and parent coordinator
Decreasing parental conflict
Both of these roles as described in Zimmerman (2015) can help parents reduce conflict. Co-parent counseling can help parents build communication and decision-making skills, while Parent Coordination can serve to help parents break through impasses in decision-making.
Shifting focus from reciprocal blame to the needs of the children
Marital dynamics and the divorce process can often lead to parents focusing on each other's flaws. Each of them can feel victimized by the other. Parents repeatedly complain to and about the other, rather than focus attention on resolving the issue at hand as it impacts the child. When a psychotherapist who is experienced with children and has a strong grounding in child development is in this role, the developmental, emotional and general needs of the child can be brought into focus. Parents can be educated about the experience and perspective of children in the context of their divorce process.
Getting children out of the middle
By setting parenting policies and facilitating child-focused decision-making, children can be spared from some inappropriate and harmful dynamics that require them to carry secrets, feel as if they are betraying one or both parents, or cause them to function as little adults. It is important that psychotherapists also stay out of the middle and avoid allowing counter-transferential feelings from negatively impacting their behavior. Using mentors and professional support groups with colleagues who also do this work can help one process the dynamics that occur when consulting with high conflict parents.
Collaborative divorce professional
Facilitating a kinder and gentler divorce process
Parents can choose to participate in a non-adversarial divorce, with attorneys who are specially trained. The psychotherapist serving as a Divorce Coach or Family Specialist also receives specialized training to function in this role, help parents deal with their emotions, and make sure the team is working well together so that difficult conversations are had constructively and not in a hostile manner.
Keeping the children's voice active
Serving as a Child Specialist, the psychotherapist relies on one's experience and knowledge of children and divorce to ensure that child-focused discussions occur. This can go a long way in leaving the parental relationship intact by helping parents reframe the process and concentrate on working together to help their children through this challenging transition in their family.
Helping promote constructive but difficult conversations
As experts in communication, dealing with different personality styles and helping process emotion, we are uniquely suited to help parents (and their attorneys) have difficult, but yet constructive conversations. Dealing with emotionally activating material, while keeping meetings focused and having the clients feel “heard” certainly requires great skill and sensitivity. It involves listening skills and the ability to best craft responses that are most likely to address the complex needs of the moment.
Overall, mental health professionals can play a crucial role in many stages of the divorce process, outside of the courtroom, to foster the healing of the family and ultimately secure and support the well being of the children through this transition (rather than create a bigger fissure). As psychotherapists we have skills that lend themselves to helping these families. However, often this means moving out of our comfort zone (and offices), dealing with other professionals and applying our skills in a new venue outside of traditional psychotherapy. When we do so, we have another way to help children and their parents deal more effectively with the profound shift in the family as it goes through divorce.
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Cite This Article
Zimmerman, J. (2015, April). Reflections on mental health professionals working with divorcing parents outside the courtroom. [Web article]. Retrieved from https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/reflections-on-mental-health-professionals-working-with-divorcing-parents-outside-the-courtroom
Bush, R. A. B., & Pope, S. G. (2002). Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 3(1), 67-96.
Zimmerman, J. (2015, January). Divorce and alternative dispute resolution: Expanding roles outside the courtroom and managed care. [Web article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/divorce-and-alternative-dispute-resolution-expanding-roles-outside-the-courtroom-and-managed-care.