In recent months I have been paying particular attention to the applications of Creative Conflict Resolution to issues in matters of intervention with families who are experiencing such a high level of conflict that the Family Court has become involved. This may be through allegations of abuse, through a petition for divorce, or by aggressive behavior on the part of a minor. I have identified four areas wherein the application of the tools of Creative Conflict Resolution are appropriate and helpful. I want to spell these out at greater length in the future, but for now let me just amplify the four contexts.
Evaluation of alleged "abusers"
I am often asked to do an "evaluation" of someone who is in a high conflict relationship. In most cases it is not clear what I am being asked to evaluate. The common notion seems to be that there is a standard evaluation that is done that will give some sort of helpful information. There is no such standard. Anyone who claims to be able to determine who is or is not an "abuser" will first have to define what that means. In order to do an evaluation, we first need to determine the question that the evaluation is intended to answer.
- Is this someone who is in a high conflict relationship?
- Is this someone who feels entitled to be dominant in primary relationships?
- Is this someone who displays markers for poor conflict resolution skills?
- Is this someone who is likely to benefit from completion of a structured program for persons in high conflict relationships?
Each of these is something that can be evaluated for (as well as chemical dependency and mental health issues). But as to whether this person is an offender or whether he or she should be allowed around children, these are the things that judges get paid to determine.
As you all well know, the divorce doesn't end the rancor in the relationship. Often the resentment that has split the marriage continues to spill out and, when it does, it harms the children. Couples generally think of counseling as something they might engage in to repair or restore the marriage. They do not usually see it as something that will support them in their relationship as parents together after the divorce.
There are several ways that the specific tools of Creative Conflict Resolution are applicable to the circumstances of parents who are no longer married to each other, but ultimately they all come down to being able to make and repair durable agreements on how they will act together on behalf of the children.
- They have to become able to separate out their own wishes and feelings from the needs of their children.
- They have to be able to tolerate their own anxiety about contact with the other in the wake of former intimacy and then deep hurt.
- They have to become able to recognize the patterns in the conflicts which arise and when they repeat themselves and to use these patterns to anticipate and address conflicts, rather than be overwhelmed and hopeless at the resiliency of these patterns of conflict.
The effect of high conflict parental relationships on children
Sometimes when we see kids acting aggressively towards others, we also notice that their parents are separated, divorced, or frequently fighting with each other. Children are very sensitive to the conflict between their parents. While we must expect that everyone, children included, be accountable for the choices they make; we also have an obligation to do what we can to protect children from life stressors that are not of their making.
Generally I meet these families when the kid has done something aggressive to another family member or to peers. The adolescent is the identified patient and the goal is to make him or her safe to be around others. But in identifying and addressing the stressors that are bubbling up as the bad behavior, we discover that the parents are fighting in ways that the kid is highly affected by and can do nothing about. Then, in addition to addressing the child's aggression, we want to bring the parents together to address their conflict and to help them do a better job of acting together on behalf of the children.
Parental reunification with children following abuse
When parents have acted in ways that are harmful to their own children and have had criminal consequences or civil consequences or both, we hope to get to a point where they can safely have contact with the children. The question of safety here is a complicated one. All parents occasionally fail to act in their children's best interest. If we go for perfection, we will never allow abused children contact with the perpetrator of the abuse. Further, we know that not allowing children to have contact with their parent is a form of abuse in itself. We want the parent to become able to create safety with the child, but we also want the child to learn how to construct safety for him or herself. Thus we are trying to find a fuzzy point on a complex curve. The tools of Creative Conflict Resolution help us to evaluate the qualities in the relationship such that we can build both safety and closeness.