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There’s a lot of things I didn’t understand, a lot of things I’d do different if I could. Just like I think there’s a lot of things you wish you could change, but we can’t. Some things once they’re done can’t be undone. My wife, my ex-wife, says that she loves Billy, and I believe she does, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. – Kramer vs. Kramer
High Conflict Co-Parents and Consequences for Children
Parental conflict has been defined as any action, deed, or word that creates anxiety, places a child in the middle or forces a child to choose between their parents. Conflict can be subtle, such as tone of voice, hostile body language, eye rolls, ignoring, jokes and sarcasm, or overt, such as threats of violence, verbal attacks and physical abuse.
In a larger sense, the term “high conflict” has been used to describe a variety of case types, including where:
Definition of Parenting Coordination
Parenting coordination is a dispute resolution process provided by mental health professionals or family law lawyers that assists high-conflict parents to implement their existing parenting plan in a child-focused and expeditious manner to minimize parental conflict, thereby reducing risk to children. A quasi-legal, mental health and consensual dispute resolution process, it combines assessment, education, case management, conflict management and decision-making functions.
Generally speaking, there are three roles and five functions of a parenting coordinator (the “PC”). The roles are:
History of Parenting Coordination
Parenting coordination emerged in California in the early 1990s out of the repeated frustration and the failure of the family court system to assist high conflict co-parents, particularly the roughly 10–15% of divorcing parents who continue the legal adversarial process after they obtain a judgment of their custody disputes. The special master program, as it was then known, was intended to address the needs of these “frequent court flyers” who continued to litigate day-to-day issues that came up as they attempted to implement custody agreements and orders. A special master was assigned to such parties to intervene when a parenting dispute erupted and attempt to mediate a resolution. If successful, the parties would be able to avoid another application to court, and the court would be spared the time and expense of hearing it.
As the parenting coordination model has been implemented in various jurisdictions, there has been variation in the manner in which the PC practices, the authority of the PC, the stage of the legal process when the PC is appointed and functions, the various roles of the PC, the qualifications and training of the PC and the best practices for the role.
Parenting Coordination in British Columbia
As stated in the recent case of Friedlander v Claman, 2016 BCCA 434 at paragraph 63:
The role of a parenting coordinator is a relatively new concept that, in this jurisdiction, only formally surfaced with the implementation of the FLA. It is not without some controversy as evident from the differing views with respect to its use as discussed in Fleetwood v. Percival, 2014 BCCA 502, by the majority (at paras. 44 – 53) and the minority (at paras. 21 and 22, 27 – 33).
In 2006, some lawyers and counselors formed committee to establish parenting coordination in British Columbia and to provide education to lawyers and mental health professionals interested in working as PCs. An initial roster of parenting coordinators was launched in 2007, the members of which included experienced family law lawyers, mediators, social workers, psychologists and registered clinical counselors who had received interdisciplinary training in mediation, arbitration, interviewing children, family violence, developing age-appropriate parenting plans and working with high-conflict personalities. The BC Parenting Coordinators Roster Society was formally incorporated in 2009, and currently has roster of 40 parenting coordinators who practice all over BC.
When the Family Law Act, S.B.C. 2011, c. 25 came into force in 2013, it legislated recognition of parenting coordination in sections 14 to 19. A parenting coordinator, as qualified under the Family Law Act Regulation, B.C. Reg. 347/2012 (the “Regulation”), may assist co-parents only for the purpose of implementing an agreement or order respecting parenting arrangements, contact with a child or other prescribed matters. In particular, a parenting coordinator can assist the parties to build consensus by creating guidelines respecting how a parenting arrangement will be implemented, suggesting methods of communication between the parties, identifying and creating strategies for resolving conflicts between the parties and providing information respecting resources available to the parties for the purposes of improving communication or parenting skills
Parenting coordinators have the power to make determinations of a dispute within the boundaries of prescribed matters only, subject to any limits or conditions set out in the Regulation. A PC can make determinations in respect of:
Categories of Co-Parenting After Divorce
In order to understand the types of conflict found in divorce, Janet R. Johnston proposed a conceptual model involving three dimensions of conflict: the domain dimension, the tactics dimension, and the attitudinal dimension. The domain dimension refers to disagreements over divorce issues, such as financial support, property division, custody and access to children or differences in opinion regarding child-rearing practices. The tactics dimension is the manner in which divorcing couples informally try to resolve disagreements, either by avoiding each other and the issues, or by verbal reasoning, verbal aggression, physical coercion and physical aggression. It can also refer to the way that divorce disputes are normally resolved by the use of lawyer negotiation, mediation, litigation, or arbitration by a judge or PC. The attitudinal dimension refers to the degree of negative emotional feeling or hostility directed by divorcing parties toward each other, which may be covertly or overtly expressed.
The duration and developing pattern of each form of conflict is relevant to its characterization as either normal or pathological. For instance, higher levels of most types of divorce conflict are expected and relatively common at the time of marital separation and filing for divorce, and until the issuance of the final divorce order. On the other hand, post-divorce conflicts are sometimes considered to be intractable and indicative of pre-existing individual and family dysfunction.
Three main types of post-divorce co-parenting patterns were identified by Maccoby and Mnookin, generated by the presence or absence of discord (frequent arguments, undermining and sabotage of each other’s role as parents) and the presence or absence of frequent attempts to communicate and coordinate with respect to the children.
Specifically, three to four years after separation, Maccoby and Mnookin found three major co-parenting patterns: high communication and low discord, called cooperative co-parenting (29%); low communication and low discord, denoted as disengaged co-parenting (41%); and low communication and high discord, labeled conflicted co-parenting (24%) Over the three-year period studying post-divorce co-parents, the authors noted that it was unlikely for conflicted parents to become cooperative; most remained conflicted, and a small group became disengaged.
Other authors have referred to four categories of co-parenting after divorce. The categories are created by two variables: the level of engagement and the level of conflict. The engagement variable is defined by the degree of interaction that occurs between co-parents and the conflict variable describes the quality of that interaction.
Level of Engagement
What is Success as a Parenting Coordinator?
The fundamental goal of parenting coordination is the reduction of post-divorce co-parenting conflict for the benefit of the children. In order to be successful in reducing such conflict, a parenting coordinator needs knowledge and experience in conflict resolution, mediation techniques, communication, family law, psychology and children’s adjustment issues specific to divorce.
Multiple authors have noted that it is much more likely, whatever intervention is made, for a PC to move co-parents from conflicted to disengaged/parallel co-parenting than from conflicted to cooperative co-parenting. Moreover, research indicates that couples rarely move directly from conflictual to cooperative parenting; they almost always need to go through the intermediate step of disengagement. If co-parents can learn to disengage from each other, they may well be able to parent cooperatively at a later date.
Co-Parenting Conflict Analysis and Interventions
Conflict analysis models, if they are effective at simplifying complex interactions as well as giving useful guidance, should be routinely applied by dispute resolution practitioners such as PCs and form a core part of their training.
As stated by Bernard Mayer:
A framework for understanding conflict is an organizing lens that brings conflict into better focus. There are many different lenses we can use to look at conflict, and each of us will find some more amenable to our way of thinking than others … We need frameworks that expand our thinking, that challenge our assumptions, and that are practical and readily usable.
What follows are three models of post-divorce co-parenting conflict that PCs can use to diagnose co-parenting conflict as well as obtain guidance about what interventions may help and why.
Conflict Assessment Scale Model
Description of Model
Garrity and Baris, the authors of an often cited book Caught in the Middle, formulated a “Conflict Assessment Scale” which both describes a couple’s style of conflict resolution and ability to cooperate and assess the danger of the environment for children. It describes five levels of conflict – minimal, mild, moderate, moderately severe and severe – which represent a continuum of conflict rather than distinct categories:
ability to separate children’s needs from own needs
can validate importance of other parent
can affirm the competency of the other parent
conflict is resolved between the adults using only occasional expressions of anger
negative emotions quickly brought under control
Occasionally berates other parent in front of child
Occasional verbal quarrels in from of child
Questions child re: personal life of other parent
Occasional attempts to form coalition with child against other parent
Verbal abuse; no threat or history of physical violence
Loud quarreling in front of child
Denigration of other parent to child
threatens to limit access to other parent
threats of litigation
ongoing attempts to form a coalition with child against other parent around isolated issues
child is not directly endangered but parents are endangering to each other
slamming doors, throwing things
verbally threatening harm or kidnapping
attempts to form a permanent or standing coalition with child against other parent (alienation syndrome)
child is experiencing emotional endangerment
Endangerment by physical or sexual abuse
Drug or alcohol abuse to point of impairment
Severe psychological pathology
The nature and frequency of access to a PC that particular co-parents will need will be determined by their level of conflict. While those in the minimal to mild category may require only minimal contact, perhaps only once every three months plus occasional meetings to resolve disputes, co-parents in the moderately severe to severe conflict categories will need to meet with the PC more frequently and require greater overall intervention.
The critical need of co-parents at higher levels of conflict is disengagement from each other. The less direct contact they have with each other, the better. Strategies will include a neutral drop-off place to provide children with a calm transition from one home to another and a neutral information repository such as an online co-parenting program or a paper log that is exchanged with the children and can substitute for oral communication about important child-related information. Joint attendance at children’s school performances or sporting events is generally unwise at higher levels of conflict unless structured ahead of time to ensure the parents will be kept separate. If joint attendance at an event will create a loyalty bind for the children, an intervention to split these special events will be required to keep the peace. Many of these will be necessary interim measures until emotional disengagement between the former spouses is attained.
Co-parents in moderate and higher conflict will benefit from learning to co-parent at a distance. While guiding toward disengagement through determinations, educational efforts and visitation strategies that reduce parental contact, the PC will support the parties in rebuilding their lives as separate individuals. For the first years post divorce, the PC can hopefully act as a buffer, absorbing the impact of the conflict and shielding the children from it.
Moderately severe or severe co-parenting conflict will present the greatest challenge to PCs. One or both parents will likely to have some problem or disorder that threatens the children’s emotional or physical well-being. The primary goal of the PC will be to ensure the safety of the children during visitation. The PC must be capable of recognizing situations that endanger the children and of taking action to secure supervised visitation to safeguard them. This may involve bringing in a mental health professional trained in the area of risk (such as alcoholism, substance abuse or violence) to assess an ambiguous situation. The PC will need to assess the requirement for supervised visitation and whether to move gradually from supervised to unsupervised visitation.
Divorce Impasse Model
Description of Model
Authors, including Gilmour and Johnston have formulated a “post divorce impasse” model where the parents are frozen in the transition between a joint life and separate lives, and that these impasses can occur at three levels: the external/social level, the interactional level, and the intrapsychic or internal level.
At the external level, the dispute may be fuelled by significant others (extended family, friends, new partners, the litigation process, legal and mental health professionals, community members) who have formed coalitions or alliances with the divorcing parties and legitimized their claims. Often referred to as “tribal warfare,” the external social network serves to confirm the polarized, highly distorted view of the other party.
At the interactional level, the dispute can either be a continuation of a conflictual relationship or the product of a traumatic or ambivalent separation of the parents. Specifically, it can be a continuation of marital struggles over power and intimacy, the effects of a traumatic separation or the difference between being the spouse who was left and the one who did the leaving. Traumatic separations can lead to what Johnston calls the negative reconstruction of reality such as “she never loved me” or “he was only after my money.” External allies can reinforce these perceptions and further erode trust.
At the intrapsychic level, disputes may serve to manage intolerable feelings engendered by the divorce such as shame, grief, helplessness and guilt in psychologically vulnerable parents. All divorce has two key psychological components of loss and rejection. There is a grieving process for the lost relationship, often most intense for the spouse who is left, rather than the spouse who instigated the divorce.
People have different psychological vulnerabilities to loss and rejection. High risk individuals for long term post-divorce conflict are unwilling or unable to experience the loss and rejection that are part of divorce and are predisposed to project onto others the blame for their marriage ending. The response to the dissolution of their marriage may be linked to traumatic losses in childhood or to early deprivation or traumatic experiences in their family of origin.
The predominant characteristic of people with intrapsychic problems is their refusal to experience and accept their own pain. Instead, they externalize it as anger and direct it toward others. The inability to understand their own contribution to the marital breakup often leads them to conclude that the fault must lie outside themselves, usually the ex-spouse. Further, these individual’s limited capacity to empathize with others makes it very difficult for them to protect their own children from co-parenting conflict. They tend to view their children not as separate individuals with separate needs but as extensions of themselves. Such parents cannot put themselves in their children’s place to experience the unhappiness that divorce causes them.
The intensity and longevity of their feeling are other indicators of a high level of vulnerability. Vulnerable people may be able to avoid the pain of divorce only by storing up anger, often for years after the divorce or even indefinitely. Frequently these are focused, seemingly tireless people in recruiting others to their position. Many keep a mental record, if not a written one, enumerating the ex-spouses inadequacies, culpabilities and perceived transgressions. Over time, the divorce impasse is strengthened by sharing a disparaging view of the ex-spouse with others, who subsequently reinforce and validate it.
When assessing intrapsychic vulnerability, Garrity and Baris refer to a “Severity of Vulnerability Scale,” where each of the following criteria are assessed on a range from mild traits to ingrained personality structure:
The particular nature of an co-parental impasse must guide the design of an appropriate PC intervention strategy. The divorce impasse model is defined by the interaction between lifelong patterns of inherent vulnerability and the marital or divorce injuries. Vulnerability is those factors at the intrapsychic level that predispose people to conflict, even before the marriage and divorce. The unhappiness of the marriage and the circumstances of its ending (the interactional level) and the possible existence of tribal warfare after the divorce (the external/social level) constitute the injury. The existence of these factors and their unique interaction are the particular signature of the impasse between any given couple.
An overarching strategy for all levels of impasse will be to keep the co-parents focused on the children. This can be done through educational techniques such as teaching parenting skills and behavioral approaches such as refining the co-parenting plan to reduce structural opportunities for conflict.
Regarding education, the PC may need to educate the parents about what is a loyalty bind for their children and how it adversely affects them. When a loyalty bind is identified as occurring, the PC will point it out and help the parents to hopefully amend the parenting plan and their behavior for the benefit of the child.
The parents may need to be educated about general principles of co-parenting. As Matthew Sullivan points out, these rules are organized by principles that support a parallel parenting model:
High Conflict Personalities Model
Description of Model
Personality disorders and accompanying cognitive distortions of one or both spouses may exacerbate conflict during marriage and after separation. As noted above, several authors have suggested that personality disorders are frequent among high-conflict parents, perhaps affecting one or both parents in as many as 60% of the cases.
Bill Eddy, who had been a therapist before becoming a lawyer, sets out in his “High Conflict Personality” theory or “HPC Theory” that high-conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. Often having a personal history of abuse or disrupted early-childhood relationships, a HCPs pattern of behavior usually happens repeatedly over the person’s life in many different situations with many different people and often includes all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and blaming others.
Eddy states that HCPs are constantly in distress and unaware of the negative, self-defeating effects of their own behavior. Further, Eddy states that those who become HCPs often also have personality disorders or some “traits” of a personality disorder. A personality disorder is a long-term dysfunctional pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving that affects many areas of a person’s life. Only a recognized mental health professional can diagnose a personality disorder, some of which include borderline, narcissistic, antisocial and histrionic.
Eddy states that HCPs and people with personality disorders share three key characteristics:
Eddy recommends a “Private Working Theory” that someone may be an HCP. Rather than labeling such an individual or assuming the theory is correct, the PC can employ the working theory with the following interventions to attempt to reduce the co-parenting conflict: 1) connecting or bonding with the parent with empathy, attention and respect; 2) structuring the co-parenting relationship around tasks and avoiding reacting to emotions; 3) reality testing so the PC doesn’t believe everything he or she is told, but also doesn’t assume the parent is lying because they may honestly believe inaccurate information; and 4) educating the HCP about consequences, as HCPs are often caught up in the moment and cannot see the risks and/or consequences ahead.
Barbara Jo Fidler presents a useful framework for identifying and managing personality disordered co-parents in parenting coordination:
Fear of being abandoned
Fear of being inferior
Fear of being dominated
Fear of Being Neglected
Constant Over-Compensating Behaviors
Frequent anger, manipulation, efforts to control others
Self-absorbed, bragging shows distain for others
Dominating, manipulating, controlling, deceiving
Attention-seeking, drama, emotionalism
Reassurance, arms-length, consistency, avoid excessive flattery
Recognize strengths, avoid confronting weaknesses
Be wary of false charm, allegations about others
Empathy with person, not dramatics
Provide security with clear relationship boundaries
Provide tasks, use strengths, share credit for successes
Avoid doing favours, focus on goals and good behavior
Keep focusing on tasks, encourage use of own skills
Avoid great expectations, avoid jumping to conclusions
Reduce expectations of easy success and need to be special
Expect lying, corroborate information, see consequences
Find out about real abilities, encourage self-sufficiency
Skills training in regulating emotions, penalties for false statements
Cognitive therapy, penalties for false statements
Group program for abusers, penalties for false statements
Cognitive therapy, penalties for false statements
The ultimate goal of conflict analysis and intervention selection will be to assist the co-parents to function on their own without a PC. For lesser conflicted co-parents, this may evolve through improved communication and conflict resolution skills. For more conflicted co-parents, this will likely only result from a highly detailed parenting plan. Protecting children from damaging exposure to parental conflict is worth the challenge.