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 experiencing significant anxiety, depression, increased substance abuse and difficulty regulating their emotions.
As family consultants/single expert witnesses in the Family and Federal Circuit Court, providing so-called guidance and advice to families, we have often felt like we are in a ‘strange world’. Certainly, as we started to write this piece we felt some insecurity about the level uncertainty we hold in this area despite our combined 35 years of practice wisdom and experience. We are 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. We are interested in messy topics but we also have a strong desire to clean up the mess, make it tidy, understandable and predictable. However, our gut and experience with high conflict separations, tells us 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 psy/legal nexus.
The overall and ever present themes that arise when we 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.
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 ameliorating.
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.
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.
Rayleigh Joy and Susan De Campo are Family Consultants at LifeCare Consultancy.