Divorce and the Representation of a Psychologist’s Assessment

Reader’s Question

I have a pressing concern, and it is important enough for me to beg you to respond as soon as possible. I am separated from my wife, and we are working through our divorce settlement. I have regular phone contact with my three children, and they stay with me more or less every other weekend unless they have sports or Scout commitments. A few years ago my wife took two of the kids to psychologists. We were already living apart and I trusted her when she said there were issues with the two oldest. I never saw anything or experienced any problems in either my children’s behavior or their relationship with me when I was with them.

Now my wife says the psychologists have talked to her for a long time about the problems of our children, and she says she has been told by them that I present mental hazards to my children because — as my wife puts it in a recent mail — “the majority of the reasons that they are going are to deal with the issues that are raised by your behavior/attitudes and the emotional and mental crap that gets heaped on them by you because you don’t have any clue about appropriateness and boundaries and what is and is not OK for you to talk about, discuss and expose the kids to at their ages”.

I have no idea what she is referring to, nor has either one of the psychologists ever contacted me. No one except for my wife has ever contacted me about my not being suitable to be with my children or about advising me about any problems my children might have.

Awhile back I contacted the psychologists and requested information they might consider appropriate for me to know, and left my contact information. If they know how to reach me, and consider me such a concern, why have they never contacted me?

Can you help me? I do not know how to deal with this without risking hurting my children’s relationship with me or their mother.

I am very much in need of help.

Psychologist’s Reply

Some general guidelines when it comes to divorce settlements, custody, psychologists, and children:

  • Psychologists and other therapists are often involved with children during the divorce or martial separation process. You were operating in good faith when you accepted professional consultation for your children during this difficult time.
  • The laws governing information and findings by the psychologists differ from state to state and actually country to country. As a noncustodial parent, it’s not unusual for the psychologist not to contact you, although there are procedures you can take to request a consultation regarding your children.
  • It’s very common for people to accidently or purposefully misinterpret the comments or opinions of a mental health professional, especially when representing the information as part of an ongoing argument or negotiation. These misrepresentations are used to give “credentials” to an opinion or comment as “My doctor says you should be ashamed of how you treat me!”.
  • It’s very common to use misinterpretation, misinformation, and misleading comments during a divorce settlement. It’s not nice…but it’s common. Couples, in the heat of negotiations or when trying to change the settlement in their favor, often misrepresent what they claim are comments by their attorneys, friends, family, physicians, and other professionals.

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The fact that no legal action has been taken to change your custody involvement in your children, you have not been contacted by an agent of the court or by the mental health professionals, and no one else has brought this issue to your attention suggests this may be a custody or divorce issue. The fact that she describes their opinion in angry terms tells us that she is adding to whatever opinion may be present. I don’t know of any psychologists who diagnose with the phrase “emotional and mental crap”.

There is also a possibility that the situation is partially or even completely true but you have been unaware of your behavior or influence on the children. For this reason, I would recommend a strategy that addresses all the possibilities. For example:

  • I would contact the psychologists in writing, listing your wife’s complaints, her interpretation of their comments regarding your behavior, and volunteer for a consultation or meeting to discuss these issues. Send a copy of the letter to your attorney and a copy to your wife.
  • Volunteer to attend mental health consultation and treatment if the psychologists offer an opinion that your behavior is a bad influence on your children.
  • Focus on improving your relationship with your children. If your children are negatively influenced by your behavior, for example, they will have some emotional distress in your presence.
  • A common finding in divorce and separation is the discussion of personal and private “adult issues” in the presence of children by one or both of the parents. If this present in either parent, it should be addressed and stopped.
  • From your description your marital separation and divorce settlement has been a prolonged, probably emotionally exhausting event. I would recommend counseling for you for this reason. You’ll need to make sure you are doing whatever you can to keep all members of the situation healthy. The best way to ensure that your children are emotionally healthy following the divorce is to maintain a working relationship with your ex-spouse. When the parent maintains a pattern of resentment, hostililty, anger, etc. the children actually suffer more than the target of their anger.

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