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High Conflict Divorce Mediation

Mommy's House, Daddy's House Revisited

Arlene Unger, PhD

When Lynne first asked me to write an article for her website, she left me with the idea that writing about a sex-related topic would draw a large audience. It was tempting to write about sex-drive in high-conflict divorce. Yet after some thought, I decided to write about a topic which received a lot of attention in the late 80's and now seems to have resurfaced in light of Joint custody.

Since I have just transferred my 20-year-old practice from Palo Alto, CA to Dana Point, CA, it seemed a good time to revisit some nostalgic topics that helped launch my therapeutic career.

In light of the increasing numbers of 50/50 custody decisions made in California courts today, there has been a growing concern about how much parents can or should coordinate their lifestyles. Dr.Isolina Ricci in her second edition of "Mom's House/Dad's House" (1997) refers to this delicate dilemma in light of what is in the "best interest of the child." She advises parents to have a plan in place before custodial transitions and new households get underway. Dr.Ricci suggests that without these prior arrangements and agreements, children may unduly suffer during custodial transitions.

Lack of coordination can trigger parental conflicts over discipline, rule, homework, nutrition, bedtime, hygiene and the handling of extracurricular activities. Some parents have claimed that things go much smoother when each family's routines are coordinated, but their lifestyles remain separate. Other divorced families go to extreme measures to make a seamless transition from one home to the other leaving the child to think that each home must be an extension of the other.

One child I have seen reported that his mother's decorator went over to Dad's house to set up an identical bedroom set so that he would feel like he was "at home" even when with his father. He claimed that his mother went so far as making sure he had the same set of toys, bikes, and clothes at both homes. Despite the immense effort toward coordination, the boy still had behavioral problems. Further investigation showed that the likeness of the homes did not mitigate his overexposure to constant arguing between his parents.

Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) wrote that divorce parents should attempt to minimize conflict because of its extreme negative impact on children/teens. Leventhal et al., (1999) reported on how much children/teens are vulnerable to marital/divorce battles and how they did much better when there were amicable relations between the homes. Johnston and Roseby (1997) discussed the need for highly detailed and structured schedules in each home. They recommend interrupted blocks of time, visits and limited transitions to reduce future behavioral problems. They noted that children of all ages strive in areas of self-esteem and school achievement when they can count on the parent stability, amicability and a firm but loving nature.

In my evaluation of children of divorce, I have been asked almost weekly such questions as, "Should we have the same rules at each home?" "Should we be a carbon copy of each other's home and provide a seamless environment for the child to go from one home to the other?" and "Should we set up two separate homes or use a common family home to parent from?" In the later case, the children stay in the original family home and only the parenting changes.

Other inquiries brought to my attention involve how holidays or birthdays should be handled. Some parents believe that their children should experience "togetherness" during these times and both families should come together. Others believe in complete separateness and, if the child's birthday falls on an off year, that parent simply loses out. It has been my clinical experience that when parents attempt to keep similar schedules and routines, but function autonomously, visitations run more smoothly.

"Should the child bring toys, belongings and clothes back and forth, or should each household provide its own?" Questions of this nature are unending and there is even controversy among the experts like Wallerstein (1991) and Ricci (1997). Some educators believe that keeping things completely separate works best and other think that some overlap is necessary. I have noted that children "under one roof" format works best for ages 5 and under, but after that, consistency not sameness facilitates better child adjustment to the divorce. Children that I have interviewed over the years prefer to have different things at each home, including personal belongings.

At a recent Forensic Conference for Custody Evaluators, Debra Gordon, a Northern California Psychologist presented on the developmental issues and outcomes of children of divorce. She noted that while very young children could greatly benefit from homes that are similar to the former family home, it is not essential to make each home a carbon copy of the other. What is more important is that there be a high degree of cooperation between the parents regardless of the variability of their lives/schedules. Wallerstein and Corbin (1999) further point out that continuity around transitions, routines, separations, and rituals around bedtime is critical within despite the makeup of each home. The authors strongly suggest that regular and routine custodial visits can lead to lengthening the time spent where similarity between homes have not shown to assist in this regard.

According to Dr. Ricci (1987)"matched" and "overlapping" lifestyles between parents' homes may also create a false belief that the parents will reconcile and possibly reunite. This is often a secret wish that lives with in all children of divorce for years can cause havoc for the childen when parents remarry. Mzazek, Mzark and Klinnert reported in 1995 that successful adjustment to divorce requires the acquisition of five key dimensions of parental availability, control, commitment, scope of understanding and mental/emotional stability can mitigate conflicts down the road. Remember, it is continuity, rather than similiarity, that is in the child's best interest.


ARLENE UNGER, PhD IS A LICENSED PSYCHOLOGIST SPECIALIZING IN CUSTODY EVALUATIONS, DIVORCE RECOVERY, AND MEDIATION. SHE OFFERS INDIVIDUAL COUNSELING, SUPPORT GROUPS, AND WORKSHOPS AIMED AT HELPING FAMILIES IN TRANSITION WORK THROUGH THE PAINOF SEPARATION AND REBUILD THEIR LIVES. ARLENE IS IN PRIVATE PRACTICE IN DANA POINT AND CAN BE REACHED AT (949) 240-7302


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