Parenting Solutions for High-Conflict Parties

If you are in the midst of a divorce or legal separation in Wisconsin, you already know that emotions can run high and that the process can be quite stressful, for parents and for children. After the divorce or separation is final, there is typically a cooling-off period, during which the family settles into the new legal custody and physical placement routines, established by the final order or judgment. The family lawyers who had been a consistent part of the legal process will typically conclude their representation at this time, and there are no more meetings, court appearances or financial documents to provide. As things quiet down for families post-divorce or post-legal separation, ideally, parents will develop constructive ways to communicate with one another about their children’s needs, working toward a productive parenting relationship, even though they are no longer romantically linked (and even though, many times, they do not like each other).

However, in some post-divorce or post-legal separation cases, parents never quite reach the point at which they are able to interact with one another in a civil manner. Due to domestic violence, an unhealthy power dynamic in the relationship, mental health issues, substance abuse, or even just due to extreme personality differences, these parents are not always able to engage in a meaningful or respectful dialogue about their children. Attempted conversations may deteriorate into name-calling, or one parent may simply ignore the inquiries or concerns of the other. If there was domestic violence in the relationship, there may be a safety risk associated with talking to the other party, or there may be a restraining order in place. Persistent conflict between parents causes many problems in the parenting relationship and can have vast negative consequences for children. In these situations, there are several resources for high-conflict parents, to enable them to make decisions and parent their children in a constructive way, despite their inability to work together.

  1. Co-Parent Counseling:

Co-parent counseling is, essentially, exactly what its name implies. If parties agree, they retain the services of a chosen counselor, with the mutual goal of improving their respective abilities to listen, to communicate and to parent their children. Parties can come to the co-parent counselor with concerns about the manner the other parent is responding to inquiries or concerns, or a party could raise a specific issue facing the family, to talk the problem through in the counseling setting. Co-parent counselors are almost always mental health care professionals, and they are generally not attorneys. For co-parent counseling to succeed, both parties must enter the process with the good faith goals of improving the parenting dialogue and learning to work together as a divorced or separated family, for the benefit of the children. For this reason, and because co-parent counseling involves engaging in conversation as equals, co-parent counseling may not be suited to parties with a significant power disparity or domestic violence in the relationship. However, co-parent counseling can be very helpful in cases in which both parties, while perhaps quite frustrated with and mistrustful of the other, have a genuine interest in putting the needs of the children first by working with the other parent, ongoing.

  1. Parent Coordination

In situations where there has been domestic violence, or if there are other issues present that cause significant conflict between parents, to the point where having a productive conversation is not possible, parent coordination is also an option. Unlike co-parent counseling, the goal of parent coordination is not to bring the parties together, but rather to provide ongoing conflict-resolution and decision-making, in the event the parties disagree as to making a choice that involves their children. Should the parties agree to retain a parent-coordinator (PC), they will enter into a detailed agreement with the PC, which will then be filed with the Court and signed as an order. The PC agreement will describe the specific powers invested in the PC, to make decisions and to resolve disputes between the parties that may arise, as the parties parent their children after a divorce or legal separation. When the parents have a dispute, they call in the PC, to resolve the issue. Generally, the PC’s decision will then be binding on the parties. Parent coordinators can be either mental health care professionals or they could be attorneys. Whether parties choose a PC who is an attorney or whether they choose a mental health care professional can depend on the unique issues of the case and on the challenges facing each party. Parent coordination is most effective in families where the parties have shown that they are truly unable to co-parent successfully. Left to their own devices, they would likely litigate, perpetually, or they are unable to communicate for safety reasons.

  1. Communication Tools

In addition to the above, there are several computer programs and apps that assist high-conflict parents to communicate with one another in a respectful and productive manner. Our Family Wizard and Talking Parents are two such programs. These enable parents to send messages to one another in an email-style format. The emails are typically transparent, meaning that the parties’ attorneys or counselors could view the messages and monitor them, for appropriateness. If one party sends harassing or threatening messages, the record is available and trustworthy. Some programs also have a built-in language filter that encourages the writer to use neutral language, to address the other. Most programs of this nature include a joint calendar, which the parties may maintain, to keep track of the children’s activities and appointments; this reduces the amount of contact the parties must have, with one another. Some programs enable the exchange of bills and/or receipts, for the payment and reimbursement of child-related expenses; this function also limits communication between parties. Use of a communication program can be concurrent with co-parent counseling and parent coordination. The goals of these programs are to minimize communication between high-conflict parties while simultaneously providing tools to enable them to safely exchange necessary information about their children.

Whether you and your ex are still good friends or whether you would fall into the “high-conflict” category, divorce and legal separation are times of dramatic change and significant emotional stress. We are happy to discuss the unique facts of your divorce or legal separation with you. Feel free to call the office, to schedule a free half hour telephone consultation.

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About the Author: Emily Wilson

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