Looking Through the Hour Glass – High Conflict Separations….


Family Law is fraught with complexity, competing interests, suffering and potent, palpable anger. The process of separating undoubtedly qualifies as a high stress life event with many individuals experience significant anxiety, depression, increased substance abuse and difficulty regulating their emotions. As a family consultant/single expert witness in the Family and Federal Circuit Court, providing so-called guidance and advice to families, I have often felt like I am in a ‘strange world’. As I sat to write this piece I felt some insecurity about the level uncertainty I hold in this area of my practice given my 15 years plus experience. I am both drawn to this work and deeply saddened by it. Drawn to a real desire to assist, support and guide – parents and children- through a difficult transition and, as readily, repelled by the messiness, uncertainty and seeming unfairness that lurks in the background – and is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by our legal partners-in-crime.

As a professional within the human sciences there is a certain level of tolerance for messiness –  Life is Messy – is a mantra within the field. I am interested in messy topics but I also have a strong desire to clean up the mess, make it tidy, understandable and predictable. However, my gut and my experience with high conflict separations, tells me that the messiness extends beyond the individual, beyond the family, beyond the extended family and spews forth (in a kind of circular motion) into the systems that must ultimately and officially, reconfigure the mess. Enter: the legal /psy nexus.

The overall and ever present themes that arise when I conduct family report interviews are stories of suffering, grief and loss, frustration, hopelessness and fear. A real sense of being stripped back bare emerges along with all the associated responses and reactions to such vulnerability – anger, frustration, hopelessness, deep sadness, fear and a sometimes an unacknowledged desire for justice in the form of retribution. This is a territory that has the potential to escalate into a whirlwind of emotion that resembles a war zone where the most vulnerable, children, are taken hostage.

It is at this point, commonly labelled as a “high conflict matter” in the family law arena, that the rules of engagement are articulated. It’s here that perhaps the messiness can, and should, be tidied up; that collectively the psy/legal nexus players can don their life-jackets, instruction manuals, wizardry and cleverness and sort the mess – readily providing a raft of safety to parents and children. Frustratingly, yet not surprisingly, this is not how most episodes of “Psy-Legal Rescue” end.

The power of the legal system is a two-edged sword. Family law imperatives are adversarial and procedural. The legal system can determine parenting arrangements with the intention of providing stability to a family undertaking enormous changes however, we also know that such directives do not necessarily result in compliance or obedience let alone quality outcomes. Orders are contravened, disputes escalate and allegations of parental incapacity roll in like waves on the ocean (see above reference to Psy-Legal Rescue – what a show it would be). Referrals are made to psy based practitioners with the hope that their skills will abate the waves of fear, anger and frustration that feed the conflict. Moreover, we are also asked to manage the children who are stuck in an untenable position where conflict insidiously impacts on their capacity to trust, connect and make sense of their crumbling world. Importantly, many parents can and do manage post-separation arrangements really well.

Individuals and families that successfully re-configure their post-separation identity seem to display key features such as a holding a sense of worthiness, courage and compassion to self and others. They display a willingness to let go of who they thought they should be, how their life should be and the projection of responsibility to others (typically their ex-partner). There is a quality to the separating process that holds courage to accept individual and others imperfections and even more intrinsically, a willingness to experience the full extent of the vulnerability inherent. There is an ability to ‘do’ vulnerability with a level of acceptance as if the discomfort that comes with it is to be expected and even necessary for the re-integration to occur. There is a willingness to engage in a process where there are ultimately no guarantees: a process where the child/ren is freed from the responsibility of absorbing the parental conflict and permitted to maintain their connectedness to both parents and family. It is in these circumstances that the psy/legal nexus is most useful and ameliorative.

High conflict families lack the above capacities. As psy practitioners charged with working with such families, it is indisputably apparent that what is most needed under these conditions is the clear recognition that the most vulnerable party must not be positioned as leverage in ‘peace talks’. Ongoing conflict is unequivocally harmful to children; what is even more harmful is the positioning of children as the site for change. There is a big difference between children participating in therapy to support them emotionally and mentally as their family changes and receiving what can be described as combat strategies to manage their parents’ difficult, confusing and harmful patterns of relating. Indeed, if this were to be viewed via a child protection lens, it would most likely be considered emotional harm. The burden of consequence or responsibility in high conflict family separations must not lie with children but rather with the adults with the psy/legal nexus remaining steadfast on this position.

The current paradigm where this drama (Psy-Legal Rescue) is set, aims to determine the truth, or, at least, who is the most right and who is the most wrong. What we know about people though is that the more vulnerable people feel, the more afraid they can become (of losing, of feeling shame, disconnected and alone), and this induces more blame, disconnection and unreasonableness. The unfortunate outcome of this can be a positioning of children as key points of negotiation, like a piece of property. If we are ever to improve this damaging consequence and really support the best interests of children, we must ensure the focus remains on the adults. Adults need to learn how to lean into the vulnerability of their unfolding experiences, suspend their compulsion to react, defend and win the war. This will involve enduring loss, feeling the feelings of loss and processing the fall out of loss. We are adamant, that the parents must bear the brunt of this journey, not the child – who never asked to be part of it, did not cause it, cannot control it and should not be subjected to a disproportionate amount of the fallout.

Dr Rayleigh Joy, The Groundworks Lab, Susan De Campo, Lifecare Consultancy

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