Keynote – Post-separation decisions about children: Engaging with hidden parental motivations


Professor Lawrie Moloney,
La Trobe University
Professor Bruce Smyth,
Australian National University
Tuesday 4 June 2019

Time: 9:30am – 11:00am

Room: Grand Ballroom

Keynote Address

Post-separation decisions about children: Engaging with hidden parental motivations

In this presentation we propose that many – if not most – intractable post-separation disputes over children are proxies for other difficulties. At their core, we suggest that most of these disputes are sustained either by expectations linked to power or entitlement; or, like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, by issues that are not immediately obvious and that lie ‘beneath the water line’. The first of these categories is not the focal point of our presentation. However, we note in passing that being potentially dangerous, these disputes need (but rarely receive) high quality forensic investigations linked to timely, affordable and authoritative decision-making processes, which are in turn augmented by social supports.

Our focus is on the second category, too many of which morph into protracted, expensive and destructive legal disputes. We suggest that intractable parenting disputes motivated by unconscious or partially conscious needs require ‘strategically empathic’ responses. By ‘strategic’ we mean that the initial focus of these responses needs to be directed at the root causes of the impasse rather than the details of the dispute. By ‘empathic’ we mean that we begin with an assumption that both parents are doing the best that they can at the time. We suggest these disputes are especially unsuited to rationally focused, facilitative processes (such as splitting the difference between parental claims) or externally located investigations – especially when aimed at determining who has the ‘superior’ claim.

We flesh out this thinking by considering the phenomenon of interparental hatred as an example (even if an extreme one) of parenting disputes motivated by largely unconscious processes. We examine the origins of hatred in intimate relationships, how it can be maintained and even exacerbated at the time of separation, and what intervention options exist when hatred of a former partner is a key motivator in a parenting dispute. We use this analysis to return to the broader issue of limits to rationally-based mediation and decision-making processes in non-violent yet intractable post-separation parenting disputes. We imagine the sort of future touched upon in a number of papers at this conference – a future supporting processes in which:

  • children’s needs, perceptions and attachments are taken seriously
  • we think beyond brief, conventional FDR interventions in complex cases; and
  • the barely conscious or unconscious needs and motivations of parents are respected and addressed by therapeutically-aware negotiators and mediators.

Unfortunately we're unable to share this presentation


Professor Lawrie Moloney has practised as a psychologist in private practice and in a variety of settings, including the National Health Service (Scotland) Bouverie Family Centre, the Family Court of Australia and Swinburne University. He taught counselling psychology a La Trobe University for twenty years and was a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies until ‘retirement’ in 2017. Lawrie’s professional interests include exploring models of evidence based practice in counselling and psychotherapy and promoting better-targeted services for separated parents who find themselves in conflict over the care of their children.

Bruce Smyth is Professor of Family Studies with the Centre for Social Research & Methods, Australian National University in Canberra. He has published widely on post-separation parenting, especially shared-time parenting. His current projects include: the high-conflict post-divorce shared-time family; naming and working with entrenched inter-parental hatred (with Prof Lawrie Moloney & Dr Steven Demby); the meaning of home to children and young people (with Prof Belinda Fehlberg [lead CI], A/Prof Kris Natalier & Dr Monica Campo); and a mapping exercise of divorce smartphone apps in Australia (also with Prof Belinda Fehlberg).