Child Custody Suits Harm Families

07/18/2014

Sometimes I think that we forget the importance of family. Although our cultural leaders like to toss the phrase “family values” around, when it comes to prioritizing family time or providing assistance, our society doesn’t seem to hold families in high regard. It’s almost like they think families are unimportant even though they are at the heart of who we are as a people. As Ariel and Will Durant maintained in their book, The Story of Civilization, “The family is the nucleus of civilization.”

Families are what shape people, not only through genetics, but also by nurturing. Families teach people what to value, show them how to act, help people master various skills, and demonstrate how to relate to people. When done well, families turn out happy and well-adjusted people who contribute to society. However, when done poorly, it can turn ugly.

Take, for example, two recent celebrity child custody battles. After a lengthy legal fight, actress Halle Berry was ordered to share custody of their 6 year old daughter, Nahla, with her ex-partner, Gabriel Aubry. Prior to the decision, the two co-parents had many altercations and (I imagine) spent many days in court. In a somewhat similar situation, actor Jason Patric is fighting his ex-partner, Danielle Schreiber, for the right to see their 4 year old son, Gus, who was conceived via in-vitro fertilization. Both Patric and Schreiber have spoken to the media and used their considerable financial resources to try and win legally and in the court of public opinion. And although the circumstances of both cases are different, the overall dynamics of them are roughly the same.

As someone who works with high conflict divorced families (which encompass 15% of all divorces that end up in court), this sounds all too familiar. In fact, the details of both cases are eerily similar to the stuff I hear from the families I try to help. Two people love each other enough to become parents to a child and then, when they no longer get along, use the legal system and public opinion (the media and/or friendship networks) to try and control the other. Both sides paint themselves as the good parent while the former partner is labelled the villain.

Believe me, I understand how tempting it is to take sides in all of this. We are desperate for there to be some kind of Truth so that we can know how to proceed. Even the media articles I read had a distinct bias (perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise). However, try as we might, there usually isn’t a clear answer in these cases because the reality is that both parties have made poor decisions. As such, the one who ends up suffering the most is the child while the lawyers laugh all the way to the bank.

Which brings me to the point I was trying to make earlier: family is important. Very important. So important, in fact, that we should not leave battles and decisions like this up to the legal system. For better or for worse, our justice system is adversarial which means that, by definition, one side must lose. That is not an outcome that is good for families – even families as fractured as the Berry and Patric ones – because the negative reverberations affect the entire family system. When one member of the family is unhappy, everyone else suffers too. Thus, when family issues become legal ones, the family as a whole has already lost.

So what are we to do? How do we solve challenging family issues without resorting to lawyers? If we should not use the courts, then how do we disentangle issues like high conflict uncouplings, blended family struggles, or even child abuse? That is where psychologists come in because, if we are allowed to, we can teach people a better way. In our current state, society does a pretty horrible job of teaching people how to be in healthy relationships and we are even worse at managing conflict appropriately (just look at our track record on wars). But all that can change and, clearly, it needs to.

Where you need to start is with the individual. As Confucius once said, “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” When working with families in distress, that is exactly what I try to do: get people to see that change starts with themselves. I ask them to take the finger of blame that is currently facing another and turn it so that it is pointing toward their heart. Only then can they analyze how they manage emotions, determine where they learned to deal with conflict and figure out what boundaries they should have.

I also teach them about the concept of getting sideways. This idea actually comes from animal control officers. When you are dealing with a scared or angry animal, if you look it directly in the eyes, it will attack. If you turn and run, it will chase you. It is only by turning sideways – by choosing not to engage while still being fully present – that you can ratchet down the tension and then re-engage with safety so that a solution can actually be found.

None of this is easy, especially because people have learned habits of behavior that are difficult to change. Many times this behavior is passed down from in families from generation to generation, so it is very ingrained. It is exceptionally challenging to alter once lawyers have gotten involved because many of them are about winning versus changing the situation so that no one loses. And while there is a place for this kind of adversarial system, the family is not it.

So, my advice for both Ms. Berry and Mr. Patric is to ditch the legal counsel and focus on what is best for their child. Find a good psychologist who is well-versed in family systems and coparenting and work with her or him to set their hearts right. To do so will have tremendous benefits. Not only will they save money but they will grow on a personal level, the conflict will be managed more positively and their child will thank them in the end. The only people who won’t be happy are the lawyers. But I bet they can live with that.

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