Guest Blogger R. Shelly Loomus, JD, MSW, explores step-by-step strategies that have successfully helped people manage their divorce-related conflicts in her new book, Winning Your High-Conflict Divorce: Strategies for Moms and Dads. “The Best Interests of Children in High-Conflict Divorces” takes a look into how to manage the “seemingly unmanageable.” For more information about Shelly, her book, and her practices, visit www.manageyourconflict.com.
***To register for the upcoming workshop, Navigating High-Conflict Divorce, click here.***
The Best Interests of Children in High-Conflict Divorce
By R. S. Loomus, JD, MSW
Family Courts believe children’s best interests are served by maintaining a relationship with both parents. Accordingly, courts promote programs that encourage divorcing parents to co-parent. While this may be the ideal, it isn’t always feasible. Twenty-five percent of divorces are recognized as high-conflict. In these situations, parents continue fighting years after their divorce is finalized. Unfortunately, no amount of parent education will help. Contrary to popular sentiment, high-conflict parents are not being stubborn and cannot be taught to “get along.” The reality is that at one time they could get along, at least enough to marry and have children. But now they are embroiled in a paradigm of chronic conflict, and that is because as many as 60% of these parents suffer from a personality disorder.
The pain from the loss of divorce can be excruciating, but for a person suffering from a personality disorder the pain actually feels worse. Personality disordered people cannot endure discomfort and are incapable of comforting themselves. Their pain originates from within; derived from a lifetime of unfortunate experiences that they cannot — or will not – examine. The pain inside is the residue of the ancient voices of critical parents, teachers, and peers. It says that they have done something wrong. That they are bad. That they are unlovable.
Rather than address these condemnations, however, disordered parents elect to externalize and experience them as anger. Unable to acknowledge there may be a sliver of truth in a criticism, a disordered parent reflexively slams the door on any reproach and projects the negativity onto the speaker.
Once beloved, the ex-spouse of the personality disordered parent now becomes the embodiment of every disparaging voice. Not only has he rejected her but he is likely to have accused her of many flaws. This is intolerable and so she transforms her reality into one she can accept. He is now evil incarnate and she the archetypal victim. Her fight is to silence him, thereby silencing every critical voice inside her head.
For the disordered parent, then, her divorce conflict is a holy-war; a quest for personal validation. She will do anything, sacrifice everything, to win. And her most potent weapon is the children. What better way to destroy her enemy than to hurt those he loves most? Void of self-awareness, the disordered parent sacrifices her children to win, refusing dance lessons or tutoring simply because her ex wants those for their children. But she will assert – and believe – that she is acting in her children’s best interest.
A disordered person’s self-deception is reflexive. She believes her revisionist reality so sincerely that she effectively convinces others. Even judges. Telling her she is making poor choices is useless because the fight is not really about dance lessons or tutoring. Rather, it is to defend and validate her reality. It is a quest to convince the family court that she really is a good person and parent.
When faced with such a formidable adversary, an ex-spouse cannot give up the fight. Walking away is untenable because he will not sacrifice the children. He will fight to provide for them while she fights to prove herself right. The high-conflict divorce, then, is a battle in which parents speak the same language but mean entirely different things.
Experts overwhelmingly agree that it is the conflict, not the divorce, which is most damaging to children. It is unreasonable then, to advocate co-parenting in high-conflict divorces. In these situations the ideal of co-parenting must be rejected in favor of parallel parenting. Legal professionals should encourage disengagement and empower parents who seek alternatives to conflict. That does not mean rewarding parents who “give in” to avoid the fight. Rather, it means recognizing when a parent has implemented an effective work-around to achieve his reasonable parenting goals. The challenge for professionals is to identify when a parent is truly acting in his child’s best interests, and when a parent is parroting those words in service to an unacknowledged and deeply buried agenda.
About the Author: Shelly Loomus is an attorney with a dual degree in clinical social work and a trained family law mediator. After her own high-conflict divorce, she realized that litigation is only one of the many tools available to parents struggling to be free from the unrelenting hostility that characterizes high-conflict divorces. Loomus combines her legal, clinical and mediation skills to help parents like herself manage chronic divorce and post-divorce related conflicts. She offers strategies and tactics that successfully reduce these ongoing and consuming conflicts.