Monday, August 31, 2015

Failing at repairing: Family Members' Perspective

When divorced families are asked what blocked prior therapeutic attempts to repair damaged parent-child relationships, they offer valuable insights for divorce professionals working with these tragic situations. Here are some of their observations:

Lack of structure to the sessions.  From these families’ perspective, open-ended questions to begin a session (Where would you like to start today?) were, in practice, open invitations to chaos. Without direction and not knowing where best to start, family members brought up multiple grievances, often ones rehashed in prior sessions: the same thing all over again. Indeed, without an agreed upon agenda and a carefully sequenced, structured dialogue, family members recalled discussions shifting abruptly and unproductively from one complaint to another (usually by the one who spoke the loudest).

Lack of direction.  In the midst of their conflicts, family members were so used to blaming and being blamed that they didn’t have a clear picture of how to do things differently.  When sessions became exclusively a setting to prescribe what other family members must change, rather than a setting for mutual self-assessment, progress didn’t occur.   It was not enough to be told to listen or to apologize; family members said they needed to be taught and given examples about how to listen, how to apologize, how to talk, how to save face, how to say no, and how to negotiate acceptable resolutions.   
Ongoing litigation.  When court issues were still pending, family members reported that family sessions oftentimes became a forum for each family member to plead their case: everyone talked, no one listened.  Motivated to protect their position in court, each tried to persuade the therapist to align with his or her perspective and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other point-of-view. Attitudes hardened rather than softened.

Proxy interests. Another contextual factor frequently cited was the influence of persons outside the sessions, such as a favored parent, who opposed the children repairing a damaged relationship with a rejected parent. The list also included grandparents, stepparents, older siblings, therapists, lawyers, and family friends.

Lack of hope.  By the time these families became involved in family sessions, they had usually tried and failed to solve the problems on their own.   Now pessimistic that anything would change, family members felt hopeless and motivated only to avoid further risks.  Despite their pessimism, however, most of these family members said they were open to rebuilding hope, if only someone would show them how.     

Older teens. Some older teens simply marked time in sessions until they turned 18, at which point they refused further involvement.   

Refusal to participate: Refusing to participate took several forms: Parents who didn’t pay their portion of fees, parents and children who defied other family members’ requests or a court’s order to come to sessions, and children and teens who came to sessions (to comply with a court order) but refused to speak or would arrive and then walk out. In these instances, family members said the problem was their own and the therapist’s inability to persuade or leverage resistant family members to participate.

In future posts, I will report what these family members said did help. 

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