Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Remember in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy began her stroll down the Yellow
Brick Road? Eventually she came upon a fork in the road. There she stood, unable
to determine which way to go until the voice of the Scarecrow came from behind.
With arms folded one over the other and fingers pointing out in opposite directions,
he said, “some folks go that way (pointing in one direction), and others
go that way (pointing in the other direction).”
Sitting between parents in a high conflict situation with regard to custody
and access issues is like watching the scarecrow. However, with separated parents
they are both pointing at each other, each blaming the other for initiating
and maintaining their conflict. In many instances, both have contributed to
their mutual conflict and hence both feel justified at incriminating the other.
Regardless of who started it, in many instances it is clear, they both maintain
it. As a concept this is known as circular causality.
The issue of determining who started the conflict takes on significant meaning
for separated parents. They hold a belief that by determining who started it
and affixing blame, the alternate parent will not only be vindicated, but that
their position with respect to a solution of the actual custody/access dilemma
will take precedence. To this end, parents in high conflict entrench themselves
in their position, behaviors that actually contribute to the very conflict from
which they seek relief.
The mediator, assessor or parenting coordinator appointed to relieve the conflict,
normalize relations and facilitate the children’s development between
separated parents obtains a history of the situation. The purpose is not to
determine and ascribe blame, but to understand the dynamics and behavioral specifics
of the conflict that continue to keep it alive. The goal of intervention, be
it mediation, assessment, court order or parenting coordinator is to interrupt
the sequences of behaviors leading to circular causality, in favor of creating
new behavioral sequences that promote healthy relationships and the child’s
reasonable psycho-social development.
This is a challenge. Parents in high conflict are reluctant to let go their
position, present with a strong need to be vindicated and often do lose sight
of the long-term needs of their children. In many cases, this situation is exacerbated
by lawyers who are more apt to fight their client’s cause versus facilitate
agreement even in the face of differences of opinion.
Children who fair better with regard to psycho-social well-being, have at least
one parent who is able to forgo a determination of “who was right and
who was wrong”, in favor of developing agreements to act reasonably and
structure custody and access arrangements that facilitate all pertinent relationships.
Where parents are seemingly unable or unwilling to cease their role in the
battle, they are advised to attend with a Parenting Coordinator, a parenting
expert empowered to act as arbitrator. One thing is certain, separated parents
continuing to behave in their usual manner will likely continue to live in conflict
and hence rear children who in turn will experience distress, However, if parents
agree to heed the direction of the Parenting Coordinator and let go the need
to determine who was right and who was wrong, have the opportunity to escape
the trap of circular causality and move forward to healthy and constructive
Given the history of conflict, the parents will likely begin with no faith
or hope. However, faith and hope are not prerequisites for success; only commitment
to following through as directed. Faith and hope can develop over time, the
result of behavioral action.