Content of the Program
The program is very much individualized to the parties involved. Sometimes couples jointly identify that they want help and so come together. More often one parent is more motivated to get help. Occasionally an attorney or another psychotherapist will make a referral.
The first step is to assess what is going on in the relationship. Sometimes this is all that is needed or asked for. This is a matter of bringing the light of our experience to bear on the problem and letting others know what we see. The assessment can be required by an action of the Family Court, but usually is because the parties involved see things so differently that they want an unbiased but expert opinion about the nature of the problems they are having.
At one level this is about simply observing what is routinely going on in the relationship. Is one party dominating the other? Is there violence or other efforts at control? Are agreements clear when they are made? What happens to damage agreements? Are the kids put in the middle? What is the level of trust and resentment?
Strengths and deficits
At a second level we are looking at the relationship skills that each party brings to the enterprise. How well is each able to observe what is going on without projecting hopes or fears where they don't belong? How well can each refrain from acting impulsively when they are stressed or anxious? Is each trying to get the other to change or are they each looking to change their own behavior? This part of the assessment is about seeing what we have to work with and thus which skills can be supported or enhanced to improve the ability of each to calmly and creatively address the inevitable conflicts.
Sometimes assessment is all that is asked for, but often one or both parties will then decide to bolster their ability to name, address, and resolve the conflicts which keep arising in the relationship with the other parent--and sometimes with the children themselves. There are options for how this skill building can be supported.
Often this involves some sessions of individual work. We each need to be able to know where we are coming from before we can clearly let others know how we want things to be. We also need to know that we have been heard before we can relax enough to hear where the other is coming from.
Counseling with both parents together (and possibly step-parents)
If the work goes well, we can move to sessions with others in which we hone the skills as we address the actual issues which are dividing the parents. This can involve step-parents as well as they also have a stake in the children's welfare and their decisions have a big impact on the parental relationship. Occasionally I have had parents have a first meeting together to identify the issues between them but more typically this is something we move toward carefully.
Because this is really all about the welfare of the children, and because the kids have a huge stake in how well this works, we often have sessions which include the kids to allow their perspective to be voiced, considered, and included in decision-making.
Options for education: Building Healthy Relationships Class and Practice Group
Because the skills are so difficult to master, and because there are so few of us who are really good at them, and because they are easier for us to appropriate when we working with others to learn them; we offer a class in how to use the skills we call Creative Conflict Resolution. This is the Building Healthy Relationships class and group. The first phase is a twelve-week class which leads the members through a set of disciplines and other behavioral maps to build competency at conflict resolution. The second phase of the program is what we call the Practice Group. This is a chance to practice what you learned in the class. Parents of the same children will not be in the same class or in the same practice group. [The content of the class is presented in the book Just Conflict which became available in the fall of 2009. Click here for more information.]
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