When Elizabeth began her counseling career, she never imagined that her hospital trauma work would be the very training needed in her work with families. As a child of a child Holocaust survivor, she was always interested in psychological trauma that resulted from human, or relational conflict. She would take that work to humanitarian efforts in high conflict areas and regions. But as Elizabeth began working with families stateside, she found that she was entering a different kind of war zone.
Family Conflict and Counseling
Research tells us that premarital counseling before committing to marriage can reduce the risk of divorce by 31%. Full-service counseling centers like Embrace New Life / Counseling & Wellness in Heath, Texas, begin family work with dating and engaged couples. In this process, couples identify differences and look at accepting these differences in practical day-to-day life. Next are newlyweds who struggle with crafting a synchronized ‘we,’ or ‘us,’ or those new couples that jump right in with synchronizing three – starting married life with a new baby.
Family stress in modern life is a given. All members of a family face individual and relational challenges. There are a couple of difficulties, parenting issues, child or teen problems that contribute to family stress. And at Embrace, we see that digital platforms often complicate, increase and accelerate these family problems. Families are systems and are not immune to the struggles inherent in all systems. When one part of the system struggles, all attached systems struggle. And when one part of the system goes to war, all attached individuals and relationships are subject to becoming collaterals in that war.
Family Court and Counseling
Couples and families recruit counselors to help remedy individual and relational issues and recruit attorneys when they feel there is no remedy. An estimated 80% of families that divorce can find a new balance within two years. In these families, the transition to co-parenting is met to mitigate personal and relational damage. The other estimated 20% remain in high conflict for years after the divorce. And sadly, the damage is ongoing.
Counselors and family law attorneys have little control over the adults involved in a high-conflict divorce. They can center their work around the child’s best interests, but sometimes the adults are motivated by something other than the best interest of their child(ren). When this happens, it is up to the court to raise the child’s best interest over the parents’ fray. Individual counselors focus on personal goals and support. In a high conflict divorce, parents often place their individual counselors in conflict and attempt to weaponize the counseling process. Sides are declared. Sides are supported.
Counselors that work with family attorneys and the court are asked to remain focused on the child whose only choice is to have two imperfect parents. Outside of abuse, counselors recruited by the court are asked to enter the fray, not to be distracted by the fray, and are asked to rescue the child, keeping both parental bonds intact. This is not unlike traditional warfare, where the goal is to rescue innocents unharmed. And there are little to no graduate psychology or counseling programs that prepare counselors for this kind of work.
Family Counseling and Reunification Therapy
This rescue effort is often called Reunification Therapy (RT). But as you might guess, it too is controversial. Its leading critics cite the lack of evidence-based protocols for RT. And at Embrace New Life / Counseling & Wellness, we agree. The idea of reunification therapy is noble. The problem is that well-meaning professionals motivated by empathy for innocent children caught in the middle of high-conflict divorce have little guidance from psychology or from the law to help these children.
Innovative counseling centers like Embrace New Life / Counseling & Wellness immerse their counseling teams in a systemic perspective. When involved in a high-conflict divorce, all counseling should be unbiased and centrally focused on the child’s attachment needs and how all family members can contribute to, not damage these. Embrace New Life / Counseling & Wellness aims to advocate for healthy attachment bonds and support and shape healthy co-parenting. They are researching the effectiveness of current RT programs and, staying close to research findings, working to formulate a protocol of evidence-based interventions.
Family counselors have but one choice, and that is to press into the further development and refinement of Reunification Therapy. There doesn’t appear to be any trend in more kindness and civility in families – divorced or not. And without a cultural shift in our families, this work remains one of the most important trends in family counseling and family court.
Elizabeth Davis, MA, LPC-S is a therapist working with couples and families at Embrace, located in the affluent Rockwall / Heath suburb of DFW, Texas. Elizabeth sees a lot of high-conflict divorce and wonders if it may be more common in this socioeconomic group where there are more funds to perpetuate high-conflict court costs. Sadly, when the stakes include more than a child’s attachment bond, the bond is tossed aside in the interest of assets or revenge. A quick look into the lives of celebrities, male and female, this isn’t a surprise. It is suggested that actors like Greg Ellis and singers like Britney Spears have had their children used against them in high-conflict divorce to gain for someone else’s advantage. And it isn’t always the ex-spouse. Both of these cases may include interference of in-laws. It is painful to watch unfold in the media, and it is difficult to see it in the counseling office. As Embrace works to refine RT, there is hope that there are fewer casualties in these family wars.