The importance of the separation process and the impact on high conflict people

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first published her text “On Death and Dying” in 1970. This was based on her research and experiences with dying patients. In her preface she describes her book as

“an account of a new and challenging opportunity to refocus on the patient as a human being, to include him in dialogues, to learn from him the strengths and weaknesses of our ….management of the patient.”

The impact of Elisabeth’s work has gone far beyond those dying, as the process described by her has been found to be relevant to all situations involving loss and grief. An understanding of this is now expected knowledge for those working with family disputes and dealing with the loss and broken dreams following the breakdown of a marriage or relationship.

One party to a relationship may come over an extended period of time to the realization that they no longer want to be in that relationship. This generally results in intense feelings sometimes known as the “roller coaster of emotions” to describe the contrasting mood swings that flow from this decision. Once communicated to the other party in the relationship, this often sparks similar intense emotions for that person. These generally involve fluctuation from hate and anger, to love and joy; from fear to hope; sadness to happiness; hurt to relief, belonging to loneliness, and/or disgust to delight.

Elisabeth describes a process that must be embarked upon to move from these overwhelming emotions to a place where there is hope and an ability to resolve them and move on. The stages in this process are:

  • Denial and isolation-this cannot be happening to me, what am I to do
  • Anger-how dare he destroy all the dreams we had for our family
  • Bargaining-perhaps if I agree to go to counseling he would try again
  • Depression-I just do not know how and children and I are to survive
  • Acceptance-I cannot change his mind and I am better off without him anyway

Research shows that it takes 80 % of couples about 2 years to move through this process, and be able to make decisions about moving forward. It is not always possible to allow for this amount of time for couples to heal and move on. One party has generally been contemplating these issues for quite some time and the overlap for the other to come to the same point may be short lived. In these situations professional supports can be required to give the initiator of the separation some understanding of this dilemma, and to support the other to move through the steps as efficiently as possible.

The other 20 % could be described as High Conflict People (HCP). They are unable to make this transition and tend to get stuck in the second stage of anger. This means that they do not develop the awareness and acceptance that allows them to get into a good space to make the decisions necessary that flow from the separation. Dealing with those in this space requires identification, special skills and understanding. Bill Eddy was recently in Melbourne sharing his wisdom regarding this group of clients.

He describes the indicators for this category as including the following:

  • They are rigid and uncompromising;
  • They do not accept and heal from the loss;
  • Their emotions dominate their thinking;
  • They have an inability to reflect on their own behavior;
  • They have difficulty empathising with others;
  • They are pre-occupied with blaming others;
  • They avoid responsibility for the problem or the solution;
  • They depend on others to solve the problems.

They may have a personality disorder.

Many clients can get stuck, but with the right support and assistance they can move on. Others cannot, and need to be handled in a different way. If they demonstrate consistently :

  • a lack of self-awareness,
  • a lack of adaptation, and
  • a tendency to externalise responsibility;

then you are likely to be dealing with someone with a personality disorder or personality disorder traits. In these situations you need to be careful to adapt your work to achieve the best outcome for the client, as well as to protect yourself.

Bill Eddy has developed and tested some strategies with considerable success. He describes these as “tools” not “rules” and talks of a paradigm shift required to focus on the relationship with such clients, rather than the outcome. He is adamant that by doing this type of work in this way, good outcomes are much more likely with these types of clients. He is so convinced of the power of this approach that he uses it in all of his mediation with good results. The crux is to let go of any investment in the outcome, and to manage the process in a way that provides a safe and comfortable space, with no pressure, and the avoidance of resistance.

The first step is to connect with the client using empathy, attention and respect, and to maintain this throughout the process, no matter how challenging it may feel. The next step is to set up the structure for the discussion from the start, with the focus on the future, their proposals, and what agreements they wish to reach. The final task is to educate the client about their choices by providing information, and discussing the consequences of each choice they may make. By engaging in an investigation of the choices, rather than the problem, Bill has found that this allows them to move forward from the stuck place to considering how they would like things to be in the future.

The key to Bill’s approach is not to trigger the HCP’s emotional reactivity and distorted thinking, by using an EAR statement. Instead of reacting by attacking or being critical, it is crucial to use a statement that demonstrates empathy, attention and respect. In other words by acknowledging that the person is upset, letting them know you care, that you are there to help, and that you respect their efforts. One example might be:

“I can see how important this is to you. I will give you my full attention and I am here to assist you. I respect your commitment to solving this problem.”

Being stuck in the anger stage of the grieving process means that HCPs do not move on from this and do not progress their issues. They generally repeat their story to anyone who will listen in great detail without getting any relief from this. Interrupting them with an EAR statement, and moving on to require them to do something, can assist. By being directive with the process rather than the outcome, you can move them to a space where they can be distracted, calmed, and begin to focus on choices and the consequences of these. Establishing a different type of team work, with the goals of connecting with the client, structuring the process to suit their needs, and educating them is the approach advocated by Bill.

I have a great deal of respect for the work that Bill Eddy has undertaken in this area, and the great insight he has developed when working with these difficult clients. I am trying to put this approach into practice in my own work, and would value a conversation with others also going down this path. If you would like to compare experiences, please contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions.

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