How couples therapy can help.
By Matthew S. Mutchler, Ph.D., LMFT
Divorce can be heart-wrenching for both partners. For children, the impacts of a high-conflict divorce can be lifelong if parents don’t work out an effective way to co-parent that keeps the children out of the middle of disputes.
Some of the negative impacts a high-conflict divorce can have on children include: delayed adjustment, strained parent-child relationships, depression, anxietyand negative coping strategies such as substance abuse. The negative effects of a high-conflict divorce can last for years after the parents separate. When parents have a more collaborative relationship, however, outcomes are more positive.
There are a variety of tools available to help parents put the interests of their children first. Some parents are turning to their smartphones, using apps like 2houses and Coparently to manage their child’s schedule, share financial expenses, keep directory contacts such as pediatricians, and to keep a record of agreements and conversations. Apps can be a helpful tactic to use, but first parents need to set a co-parenting strategy.
As a practicing marriage and family therapist, I see firsthand how much going to joint therapy sessions can help divorced parents and their children. As a therapist, I help parents to redirect the focus to their children.
In high conflict divorces I often see parents trying to “win” arguments. Through therapy, I help both parents focus instead on how their children can win. This helps avoid long conversations about the past and refocuses sessions on the present and what is best for the child. The following strategies can help divorced parents to co-parent.
Recognize Both Partners’ Good Qualities
In high-conflict divorces, parents often ignore the positives when it comes to their former spouses’ parenting efforts. It can be helpful to try to remember what makes the other party good as a parent. I often suggest that clients point out their former partners’ parenting strengths. What does the other party do that enhances the child’s life? By actively looking for and identifying the good, parents can have a more productive relationship and co-parent as a unified team.
Remember That the Couple is Over
Couples should go into therapy with clear goals. While the couple is over, divorced parents still have to interact with each other. Couples counselingfor divorced parents is not aimed at healing wounds each parent suffered in the relationship or at reconciliation. Both parties should understand that the only goal of the counseling is to build a cooperative co-parenting environment.
Establish Communication Ground Rules
To keep counseling sessions productive, it is helpful to set ground rules for communication. Agree on basic rules such as “only one person may talk at a time.” Sometimes, providing the option of a five-minute break is helpful. I had a client who would shut down do this whenever she became overwhelmed. When she starting taking breaks and coming back she was able to focus and stay more engaged.
Commit to Keeping Communication in Front of Children Respectful
The most important rule of co-parenting that I emphasize with clients is that communication in front of children should always be civil and respectful. Any sensitive topics should be discussed when children are not present.