The Reasonable Parent's Dilemma
© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
[Excerpt from the book "Don't Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce" ]
Reasonable parents are faced with a serious dilemma when separating from or divorcing a high-conflict parent. On one hand, it might seem best to totally exclude an HCP parent from the child’s life, in order to protect the child from the extreme thinking and behavior of that parent. On the other hand, that approach itself will teach the child extreme solutions to relationship problems. What should you do?
Efforts to exclude the HCP parent usually escalate the HCP’s extremely defensive and aggressive behavior. Once you get to court to fight for excluding the HCP parent, the HCP may turn on the charm and blame so strong that YOU may be seen as the HCP parent. This behavior that’s aggressively defensive is what often drives high-conflict divorces and custody disputes.
But if you don’t fight to put some limits on the HCP parent’s behavior with the child, he or she may feel free to abuse the child or have a highly negative influence on the child’s development and may actually alienate the child against you. You don’t want this to happen either.
The Assertive Approach
The solution that I have arrived at (after 30 years) is what I call “The Assertive Approach.” This is an alternative to being overly aggressive and trying to eliminate the other parent – and an alternative to being overly passive and adapting to whatever the HCP parent does. This approach is very hard to do as one person, while everyone else around you is being aggressive or passive. That’s why I hope that many of the people in your situation use an assertive approach as well. But you can use it regardless of what others do.
An assertive approach seeks objective information, provides objective information to decision-makers, and seeks restrictions on “bad behaviors,” rather than the elimination of “bad people.” An assertive approach sees the good and bad in everyone, rather than seeing one person as all-good and the other as all-bad. While one person may be behaving much better than the other, we all have things we can learn.
An assertive approach uses and teaches children to use: Flexible Thinking: There is more than one solution to most problems, avoiding "all-or-nothing" thinking Managed Emotions: Managing one's own anger, sadness, fear and anxiety Moderate Behaviors: Avoiding extreme behaviors
Therefore, I suggest that you assertively seek assistance in assessing your situation and seek restrictions on specific bad behaviors. Ask the court or professionals to put pro- tections in place – while not trying to eliminate the HCP parent from the children’s lives. This shows that you are not engaging in all-or-nothing thinking and extreme solutions, while also showing the need for restrictions and protections. In high-conflict cases, the reasonable parent is often blamed for being a high-conflict parent, while the true HCP is more persuasive and charming, and often prevails. The assertive approach will help you deal more effectively with this problem, so that your proposals and responses are not likely to be viewed as those of a high-conflict person.
Using an assertive approach, you can demonstrate that you want an independent, neutral person to assess the situation and provide feedback about both parents’ behavior. Then, each parent can make needed improvements in their own bad behavior. This way, you can demonstrate that you are also willing to look at your own behavior and make improvements.
With this assertive approach, you do not trigger as much defensiveness from the other parent and from professionals. At the same time, you do not give the HCP parent free rein to act negatively in your children’s lives. The goal becomes identifying bad behavior and sincerely seeking the learning of new skills.
Once safety issues have been sufficiently assessed and addressed, then the actual par- enting arrangement (such as having “primary custody”) is less important than getting bad behaviors to be improved and getting the conflict to be reduced. Then, whatever parenting arrangement there is (including supervised access or limited time, when necessary), the children are protected from the worst behaviors while still having a relationship with both parents and learning what works with each of them.
Finding the Assertive Balance
Accomplishing this balance takes practice and flexible thinking. I know you may not like this approach, but I have seen the other approaches (too aggressive or too passive) generally fail while driving high-conflict cases – with the children as the victims of the ongoing conflict.
For example, here are three scenarios from my experience that don’t work:
1. If your behavior is just as aggressive as the HCP parent, then the court may treat both of you as equally difficult, and the HCP parent may feel free to cause chaos and negativity in the child’s life.
2. If you aggressively pursue all-or-nothing solutions and persuade the court to determine that the HCP parent is an “all-bad parent,” then that parent usually becomes highly defensive and fights even harder – often in court or with out-of- court maneuvers.
3. If you are passive and the court accepts false or misleading allegations about you and wrongly determines that YOU are an “all-bad parent,” then the HCP parent often becomes over-confident and escalates their negativity.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.