Hopefully, reunification therapy (RT) is successful, and then it is obviously done. But for families who feel stuck in RT and like they are not making progress, the lament often becomes, “Are we done yet?!” Which is a fair question. Attorneys and judges also struggle with this question in cases where one or more family members are asking to stop RT.
At Lepage Associates, where we have been doing RT for over 20 years, we have found getting clients to understand up front the breadth of what entering into RT really means – what it will take from all family members, the commitment, and why do it at all – results in more success, thus now we provide clients and attorneys with written information before we even take the case, to help set the stage for success. (For a copy of our Understandings & Agreements Form and our RT Handouts, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome the Handouts to be shared and used with any family, even if they do not come to us for services, because we believe the information benefits children and families). Attorneys and judges also need to realize that most RT cases take several months (a year is not uncommon), as people start very entrenched in their positions, and therapy must begin with the RT therapist having several 1-1 sessions with each parent and child before starting joint sessions, to help ensure benefit is gained from joint sessions.
So, when is reunification therapy done? Let’s look at some of the nuances and complexities that can arise. The goal of reunification therapy is, as the name implies, to repair the relationship of a parent and child who have become disconnected in some way. So, in very simple terms, RT is finished when the relationship is repaired.
1. Ideal/Success: RT is DONE when the rift is healed, and the parent and child have a healthy relationship. (Note: healthy relationships are not perfect.) Indicators of success would be the parents and child talking mostly positively about the family relationships, forgiveness of past wrongs paired with current healthy behaviors, and the child being willing and even happy to spend time with the parent they previously had the rift with. This is an ideal and is the healthiest outcome in terms of present and future mental health for the child and for the parents.
Does this above sound quick? Often it is not quick! In fact, to the opposite, it can take significant time and continued effort. This means if the family members (most notably the parents) do not have the inclination to stick with RT over many, many months, then this level of success will not be achieved in the current RT. Still, there is another form of success…
2. Solidly Better/Good Enough Success: RT CAN ALSO BE DONE when the relationship is improved enough such that it is no longer a major source of emotional pain and/or anger for the family members, and there is some connection between parent and child where previously there was little or none. Indicators of this would be the negative rhetoric between family members is tamped down quite a bit, they can see some positives in one another, and the child is willing to spend time with the parent they previously had the rift with (and sometimes enjoys that time even if also feeling neutral about that time together often).
Is this ideal? No, but lots of families exist in this space of some connection, without being truly close. Children do not have to have the same level or type of connection in their relationship with each both parents to have positive relationships with both. If the relationship where there was a negative rift now lives in the land of neutral to positive, that’s a win. And it creates a foundation for possible future growth. Clearly, Option #1 is better for long term mental health, but this option is perfectly reasonable, normal, and healthy.
If clients have the inclination to stick with RT and strive for Option #1 above, that’s great, but professionals must also recognize that many families, who have never even had a divorce or any rift, live their whole lives in this zone, making it normal. It is normal and natural for a child to be closer to one parent versus another, often a result of more similar personalities, perspectives, values, and/or shared interests. It is also normal to enjoy time with some family members more than others. It is important all family members realize this is normal and does not mean anything negative about either parent or the child. (Having said that, I can recognize the two sides of this coin: the deep love for a child and drive to get to Option #1 and the reality that this two Option #2 is a totally normal occurrence in families.)
3. A Little Better/But Probably Not Good Enough Success: RT is PROBABLY NOT DONE YET when things are a little better, but not by much. Indicators of this would be slightly less negativity between family members, and a begrudging willingness (resignation to) on the child’s part to spend time with the other parent. On one hand, if RT ends here, this little shuffle forward is still a win, because any improvement in the disenfranchised parent-child relationship is positive. But there is more likelihood for regression, and on the upside, there is evidence this family can make shifts forward. Some sustained time and effort in this realm might get move the family into the ‘Solidly Better/Good Enough Success’ realm. However, that is the perspective of a therapist. Some judges might move the family into the ‘Solidly Better/Good Enough Success’ realm. However, that is the perspective of a therapist. Some judges might decide if the child is now willing to spend time with the parent, that the family should not be ordered to spend time and money on more therapy, and these practical realities need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
4. No Improvement! /So Do We Stop?!: The two ends of this success-failure continuum are where one most clearly sees a hard stop. In above, RT ends because the relationship is truly repaired. But here in the land of no movement and seeming failure, one wonders how long family members should engage in therapy.
5. Give me a quantitative answer in time/months/sessions, not the qualitative descriptions above! As a practical matter, attorneys and judges often want to know how much time one should linger in the realm of ‘A Little Better/But Probably Not Good Enough Success’ or ‘No Improvement’ before ending the RT effort all together. This topic is emotional because the complex and seemingly heart wrenching question is not really about when RT ends, but is – “When do we give up on this parent-child relationship? At least for now?”
Therapists are remiss to provide a timeline because research shows children do best when they have a relationship with both parents, even if the parents are separated, and even if the relationships are imperfect. In contrast, no relationship or a highly poor one affects social-emotional development and can have an adverse impact through adolescence and into adulthood, negatively impacting education outcomes, childhood social-emotional adjustment, and mental health in adulthood. RT can help prevent these outcomes by restoring relationships and helping children (and their parents) learn lifetime skills about conflict resolution, forgiveness, and boundary setting. Therapists are also remiss to place a timeline on RT because people, and families, all progress at different paces in therapy. If you had 10 people with anxiety or depression (or trauma or relationship issues, etc.) who all entered therapy at the same time, their symptoms would abate at differing rates; there would not be one timeframe that ‘worked’ for all. Thus, we hope these qualitative descriptions above help provide some useful framework for instances where you are trying to decide if RT is ‘done’ or should continue.