United States: Creating New Tools To Help Families Through Conflict

For those who've noticed the conspicuous delays between postings, I'll open with an apology. It's been a busy few months.

A presentation at AFCC Minnesota's Conference on Court-Involved Therapy, followed by a number impending deadlines for Family Law Institute and various publication commitments have me spent.

But amidst this flurry, I also had the privilege of presenting with the Bridging Center's Joe Noble and Lori Thibodeau on working with divorced and separated parents experiencing high-levels of conflict.

(For anyone who has not yet heard of Joe and Lori's fantastic class, Bridging Parental Conflict, check it out here.  You're already late to the party.)

Enough Already, What's with the Iceberg Image?

In the process of preparing our presentation, Joe and Lori offered what I found to be a fairly striking image. Illustrating a broader point, they analogized families going through the legal process of divorce or separation to icebergs.

Viewed from land, the vast majority of an iceberg is hidden underwater. We can't see it.  And, for that reason, we largely don't think about it.  But as any elementary school student (or infographic designer) will tell you, 90% of an iceberg only exists below the surface.

So too with families experiencing conflict. The law sees only the small portion of family life that exists above the water's surface.  It views the family as a finite number of legal issues—custody, parenting time, child support—to be decided and resolved.

And once they are, our family courts seldom go below sea level, leaving unaddressed the emotional, psychological and relationship issues that make up the most meaningful aspects of what it means to truly be a family.

Which, to torture this metaphor just a bit longer, means that if we only concern ourselves with the legal process of divorce and separation, 90% of a family's (most significant) needs go unmet.

Too Few Tools?

I love this image in no small part because of how simply it captures an issue most divorce lawyers already understand, at least intuitively.  Namely, that for as great an intrusion into familial privacy as the divorce is, the legal system is also remarkably handicapped in its ability to affect real change or to address the most meaningful issues families face.

Think of it this way: when the law encounters a struggling family, what tools does it have?

Decision-making, time, and money (maybe jail).

But if the problem can't be fixed with $500 or an extra Wednesday overnight with Dad, our family law system comes up fairy short.

On those rare occasions when the law does get below the surface into the messy realm of relationships and emotions, it's usually to order the parties into therapy.

But that's it.

Go to therapy, fix your problems (or don't), and come back if you have an issue with time, money or decision-making.

Getting Below the Surface.

If we truly intend to create a process that serves families–a process that gets below the surface—we need something more (and no, the answer isn't always a parenting consultant).  Which is one of the many reasons AFCC Minnesota recently unveiled a new model order for court-involved therapy.

Based on Association of Family and Conciliation Court's Guidelines for Court-Involved Therapy, the order (below) aims to address the myriad issues that arise in trying to craft a legal-therapeutic process that facilitates a positive, therapeutic process built on trust and confidentiality, while providing the transparency and tools needed to make legally-binding, child-focused decisions where necessary.

In other words, a process that works both on top of the iceberg and below the water line.

While attorney Nancy Berg and I served as the primary drafters, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to AFCC Minnesota's education committee, as well as a number of mental health professionals and lawyers who offered their insight.

For those interested in learning more, a pdf of the model order (annotated with cross references to the AFCC Guidelines) is here, but of course the document remains a work in progress, and is meant only as a starting point for professionals, not a substitute for legal advice.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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