High-Conflict Divorce and Child Custody Litigation

Within the last decade in matrimonial law, there have been rapid changes in developing options for conflict resolution that avoid protracted and bitter battle between divorcing adults. Three of these options are mediation, collaborative divorce*, and occasionally arbitration. If there are underage children in the family the decisions become much more complicated and most parents struggle to balance what they believe to be the needs of each child with their own needs and priorities. The period of ambiguity when there is so much uncertainty how the conflict will play out, and how all the pieces will fall into place, creates an enormous amount of anxiety for parents and children and, usually, their extended families as well.

Most people considering or planning divorce come to the task with a complicated and often painful mixture of feelings, memories, circumstances, and anxiety about the future. In addition to the normal stresses involved, these changes may also become associated subconsciously with earlier difficult life experiences, only complicating and delaying the person’s adjustment to the ending of the marriage.

For example, many people feel especially vulnerable around such concerns as

  • separation and loss regarding important people in their lives
  • anxiety relating to the impact of their own parents’ divorce
  • the complex psychological meanings of money
  • paralysis in making decisions
  • stress from discovering a spouse’s ‘dark side’
  • survival under adverse circumstances such as neglect or abuse in childhood

I have evolved my own model for working psychotherapeutically with adolescents and adults involved in custody litigation. I clarify from the beginning that I provide only psychotherapy and will not testify in court. I ask them to sign a contract to this effect and to give it to their lawyer. This is because – in my view – any threat to the confidentiality of the person’s treatment automatically changes and impairs the kind of treatment I practice.

However with my client’s consent, I can share information with the forensic evaluator and even with an attorney, for instance the Attorney for the Child, if I have serious concerns about the child they are representing. Also, if I am treating a parent, I let them know at the outset that the needs of the child, if I have reason to believe the child is at great risk, will become an active part of the work I do with the parent as we consider any actions that need to be taken on the child’s behalf. (This would be regardless of whether the circumstances meet the full criteria for mandated reporting.)

While my treatment of the litigating parent is interactive and focused, it also explores and integrates the earlier roots of the feelings and behaviors that have left them “stuck.” I work with litigating parents in both my Irvington and White Plains offices.

*Collaborative divorce is a form of divorce negotiation through which, as in mediation, the parties agree not to litigate. Rather than having one individual serving as mediator, the parties and their respective attorneys meet together to negotiate the terms of the divorce. Increasingly collaborative divorce is expanding into a team approach involving the attorneys, financial consultants, parenting coaches or coordinators, and child consultants (usually mental health professionals).