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Therapeutic Divorce
A Dignified & Supportive Process for Families
Therapeutic Divorce-Narrative The therapeutic divorce process as described here has developed out of recent conversations between myself, Dawn Nee, Esq., attorney, Manchester, Maryland and Scott Ruth, Esq., attorney, Hanover, Pennsylvania. The conversations centered on developing a model for supporting families (adults and children) going through the emotionally-laden process of divorce and its aftermath and the avoidance of protracted litigation in courts in deciding outcomes for divorce and custody disputes. One idea that was generated is that the law can function to serve the emotional and therapeutic needs of families and mitigate the often de-humanizing and marginalizing inherent effects on families in divorce and custody disputes. Research on the emotional effects of divorce on adults and children are well known and has been documented. Children are often caught in the middle of high levels of conflict between divorcing parents are known to exhibit significant short term and long term emotional and behavioral problems including but not limited to anxiety, depression, academic and behavioral problems in school, anti-social and delinquent behavior, social isolation and undue peer influences. Adults uniformly experience varying degrees of anxiety, depression and low self esteem associated with divorce. It is not unusual to find significant level of substance abuse in divorcing families. The all too frequent adversarial approaches to law often do not focus or take into account the emotional fallout of divorce, especially in children who often are the “silent sufferers.” In therapeutic divorce, the emotional and therapeutic needs of all family members are taken into account, identified and worked with in order to preserve and facilitate optimal emotional and behavioral functioning in all family members. In families with children going through divorce and custody disputes, this process lends itself well to meeting the ongoing developmental needs of children who continue to need support, encouragement, as well as consistent rules, expectations and guidelines from their parents. Therapeutic divorce differs from other processes in the legal arena including collaborative law, preventive law, mediation, arbitration, conciliation or other alternative dispute resolution processes, although it may share some of the characteristics of each. The focus in therapeutic divorce is centered on the family as the unit of service and intervention with the assumption that dysfunctional patterns of behavior in the family unit must be addressed and changed in order for the family to regain its equilibrium. The process is optimistic, focuses on strengths and resilience in all family members and is aimed at conflict resolution and restoration of parent and child well being. One of the 1

assumptions is that only families are truly able to correct dysfunctional patterns of relating and that imposed or expert driven resolutions that come from outside the family unit from legal actors such as courts, lawyers, conciliators, arbitrators, parent coordinators, custody evaluators, therapists and others are likely to be less than adequate in solving familial disputes and problems. In this regard in therapeutic divorce problem resolution and behavior change is much more likely to be sustainable over time in that families are promoted as experts on their lives and are empowered to find solutions that work best for them. Research evidence would strongly suggest that imposed solutions from outside the family unit are likely to result in couples returning to court time and again for additional litigation, disputes and modifications of agreements. Lawyers, courts and other professionals involved in the lives of families going through divorce and custody proceedings may find therapeutic divorce advantageous and more rewarding than traditional adversarial processes in that the work of settling disputes is shared between the legal community, families and family therapists and outcomes are dependent on the quality of the collaboration. Therapeutic Divorce-Orientation & Philosophy • Families are the experts and final arbitrators of disputes • Family structures that are dysfunctional will likely benefit from assessments, therapeutic interventions and problem solving that is family-centered • Identification of strengths, gifts, potentials and resilience in all family members • The emotional well-being of children is primary • Parents are encouraged, supported, challenged and empowered to remove children from the middle of parental conflicts, ease the emotional distress of their children through the divorce process and aftermath and participate in collaborative, unified parenting practices • Family determined solutions to problems are more likely to be sustainable over time than imposed solutions by outside parties. Families are less likely to return to court for additional disputes and modifications to agreements thereby not occupying additional valuable court time that could be devoted to more important legal matters • Families that are successful may be enlisted as alumni and consultants to future families going through similar divorce and custody disputes • Therapeutic divorce may be seen as a viable pathway for preventing significant exacerbation of emotional, behavioral and substance abuse disorders in children and their families • The social and natural support network of families including but not limited to parents, children, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends, peers, pastors/ministers, significant others may be activated and empowered as “interested parties” in influencing change in the family system Therapeutic Divorce-Common dysfunctional dynamics and structures in families Family structure and dynamics are major contributors to problems in adults and children. Children living in chaotic and disorganized family systems where there are high levels of conflict, such as divorce and custody disputes often exhibit significant emotional and behavioral problems. Children are often the symptom bearers of larger problems in family 2

systems. Therapeutic divorce focuses on identifying dysfunctional structures and dynamics in families and targets interventions to re-structure and re-organize these patterns in healthier and more functional directions. The expected result is that children and their parents are able to maximize strengths and potentials and achieve more appropriate developmental milestones. The following are some of the more notable dysfunctional dynamics and structures found in families caught up in divorce/custody disputes: • Parent Disunity & lack of collaboration-parental disagreement regarding major rules, guidelines and expectations for their children • Parents exhibiting significant mental health and substance abuse problems • Parental child syndrome-children who assume parenting roles for their siblings and parents; often parents are too overwhelmed to assume functional parent roles • Poor parenting structures-too loving, too democratic, over controlling, punitive • Multi-generational patterns-dysfunctional patterns of behavior including but not limited to substance abuse, truancy, teen pregnancy, anti-social and criminal behavior, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, lack of respect for authority • Enmeshed family systems-families where there is over control, too much closeness, too many rules, intense and conflict laden interactions, lack of respect for autonomy • Disengaged family systems-families where there is distance, lack of closeness and disconnection among family members, lack of parental monitoring or supervision, family members living in different worlds, lack of communication and information exchange between parents • Protective families- families where one or both parents make excuses and rationalizations for their child’s dysfunctional behavior; no accountability, externalize responsibility and blame others for inappropriate behavior of family members. Protective families often exhibit patterns of juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior Therapeutic Divorce-Methods Referral for therapeutic divorce may likely come from courts, lawyers, mediators, best interest attorneys, parent coordinators, conciliators, arbitrators, custody and other evaluators, self referral from families in the process of divorce and other interested parties. The process is relatively simple and straightforward. The referral source if at all possible is invited to come to the first session, including opposing lawyers, parents and children. Usually school age children and above are invited to the session. In the first session all parties including myself co-create and develop the goals of the therapeutic divorce process. Referral sources and family members are given adequate time to air concerns, explore problem areas and make suggestions as to what is to be targeted for change. To avoid unilateral decision making the “team” agrees to make changes to the plan only after collaborative consultation among all members. Special emphasis in the therapeutic divorce process is placed upon assessment of mental health, substance abuse and relational problems in the family that are impacting on children and adults. The team is charged with the responsibility of developing planning, management and intervention to address the identified problems. Intervention strategies for the family include counseling sessions in any agreeable combination including individual, couple, family or social network intervention. If there are therapeutic impasses or non-compliance the referral source may be asked to come for a team consultation to 3

assist in keeping the process on course. The time line for successful completion of the therapeutic divorce process is indeterminate and may include a few sessions or more and is mostly dependent on the needs and desires of the family in consultation with the referral source and family consultant (myself). Further, if the family is referred by the court the particular mandates and parameters as set forth will be honored. All referral sources may receive progress reports or evaluations with appropriate releases of information or waivers if there is to be court testimony. The therapeutic divorce process is expected to positively impact on the emotional well being of children and their families, significantly resolve mental health, substance abuse and dysfunctional relationship patterns/conflicts, enhance parenting practices and encourage divorcing couples to settle their differences in a dignified manner. Therapeutic divorce is not a legal process but rather a person and family centered process that places psychological and emotional health of persons affected by the law and by legal actors as one important consideration in moving families through the process of divorce and custody disputes. Dean C. Wolf, LCSW-C Licensed Clinical Social Worker Partners for Creative Collaboration

January 2011


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