Forget Harmony, Settle for Peace
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
An oft-common mistake working with high conflict separated parents is to move
them towards getting along and working cooperatively for the well-being of their
children. It is a lofty and noble goal unfortunately far beyond the grasp of
folks who would likely prefer to see the other disappear for a more immediate
and permanent solution to the conflict. The more they are pushed together, the
more intense the conflict.
What needs to be understood here is that parents in high-conflict are actually
enmeshed in each other’s lives, bogged down in the minutiae of complaints.
Their only manner of engagement is the ongoing settling of scores as each continually
takes offence with the other. These parents frequently evoke the phrase, “The
best interests of the children”. However, their own efforts at self-protection
through retribution and retaliation undermine any real understanding of the
child’s best interest. The child’s best interest is superseded and
fused with the self-interest of the parent.
In lieu of cooperative parenting, where both are helped to get along, the more
achievable goal is to help the parents disengage. They need help to see the
futility of lobbing bombs that only serve to keep the conflict alive, commonly
to the tummy-ache, restless nights or limited concentration at school of their
children. Rather than cooperative parenting, these folks require clear boundaries
and rules for engagement when engagement is absolutely necessary. It may require
the parents to understand that both shall parent according to their own style
and customs (objectively assuming non-abusive or neglectful behavior).
Parents will argue that their divergent parenting styles and expectations will
confuse the child. Here parents are reminded that kids adjust to many different
expectations and behavioral styles. They learn not to run on the deck at the
swimming pool, yet to run full out on the soccer field. They learn that with
one teacher they must put up their hand to ask a question while the other teacher
encourages them to speak out and assert themselves. Hence children do learn
the different expectations and styles of various care-providers, teachers and
coaches. It is only when one butts in to set expectations for another, anarchy
reigns and conflict ensues. One teacher cannot tell another how to run his class.
One parent cannot tell the other how to parent.
To achieve parental disengagement, a parenting plan must be constructed that
addresses and anticipates as many areas of concern and potential areas of overlap
as possible. Clear boundaries must be established as well as the respective
spans of authority under given situations. Here the devil is in the detail.
Any matter left to chance will be the fodder for a new round of bombs.
Wherever possible, these parents must be kept separate and apart. They are
likely unable to resist a provocative tone, let alone raising an issue when
in each other’s company such as during time of exchange.
The need for communication is inevitable however. Communication will likely
require an intermediary, such as a Parenting Coordinator. The parents are likely
best to use email, with copy to the PC. In more difficult situations, the parents
may be required to have their communications vetted first whereby the parents
may be taught how to write a more appropriate communiqué.
Disengagement lowers conflict. A well-constructed parenting plan facilitates
Understanding that it is the parental conflict that is determinative of poor
outcomes for children of divorce, the goal is to limit the opportunity for conflict,
not encourage parents, keen on each other’s destruction, to get along.
This is a more realistic and feasible goal, truly in the best interest of the
Don’t worry about separated parents in high conflict learning to live
in harmony, but learning to leave each other alone to at least live in peace.
This will free the children from their conflict to then attend to the tasks