What is Reunification Therapy? Reunification Therapy is court ordered therapy after a high conflict divorce. The purpose is to help repair the relationship between the divorced parent and child.
Divorce is difficult in so many ways. Emotionally, financially, mentally – not to mention the dealing with how to handle property, possessions and of course, the kids. There might not be anything more difficult than figuring out how to handle your soon to be ex-spouse and your kids. Going through the court system in the context of high conflict divorce, sometimes a custodial parent will deny the noncustodial parent access to their child/ren by interfering with phone calls, denying visitation, and making it difficult to have meaningful contact. Over time this can cause a disruption in the parent-child relational bond. When there is access blocking, it is usually combined with undermining and disparaging of the rejected parent to the point where the child becomes confused and may even turn against a once loved and safe parent. Often the children are forced to choose between the parents and typically align with the alienating parent, whom they spend the majority of their time with. This is called parental alienation.
When a previously accepted and stable parent has been separated from their children and feels this relationship has been damaged, they often seek relief from the court by asking for reunification therapy. When one parent is seeking reunification therapy, there is typically another parent who resists the therapy. Due to this, reunification therapy works best when it is court-ordered. The Court Order should support the recommendations and service agreement of the treating therapist and should include the expectations of cooperation by both parents, with sanctions for noncompliance. Treatment goals should be clearly defined with the intent to improve the damaged relationship and to progressively increase contact.
First of all, Reunification Therapy is in a process of evolving and does not yet have a standardized theoretical model or a theoretical foundation. Unfortunately, this can lead to many therapists making it up as they go along, often without time sensitive goals or structure, which leads to treatment failure. Further, therapists who lack specialized training in reunification therapy can actually cause more harm than good.
Secondly, it is important to be aware that there are many different types of therapies, each with their own unique ways of defining and intervening with problems. In the medical model, when you need help with a skin disorder, you would seek out a dermatologist, or if you had cancer you would quickly be referred to an oncologist. In seeking help with family relational problems in the context of high conflict divorce you will need to carefully select a therapist who has advanced knowledge and specific training in divorce issues and family therapy interventions. When seeking reunification therapy, the treatment model of choice is family system’s theory.
There are important reasons for this. First of all, when a child is rejecting a once loved and safe parent, the breakdown in the relationships is most likely caused by the changing structure of the family unit. A qualified family therapist can assess the boundaries and alignments in the family relationships to see if they are healthy or not. The treatment focuses on changing the family interaction patterns, rather than focusing on any one individual as the identified patient. A family system’s therapist can do a proper assessment, get both parents involved and then work to restructure unhealthy alignments and interaction patterns.
When seeking treatment use caution as many therapists have no knowledge or training in family systems or in the specialty of high conflict divorce. These therapists are not qualified to make proper assessments or give the needed interventions in these cases. MFT’s or Marriage and Family Therapists are highly recommended as they receive the most extensive training in Family System’s Theory and are the most qualified and specially trained to intervene when there is a disruption in family relationships.
About the Author: Michelle Jones, LCSW, graduated from Brigham Young University in Clinical Social Work. She has worked in Utah in several treatment centers helping individuals and families for nearly 15 years. She serves as a member of the executive committee of the National Parents Organization whose mission is to promote shared parenting and reform family law. She has a private practice and is the Director of Reunification Services at the Center for Couples and Families in Northern Utah.