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by Jeffrey P. Wittmann, Ph.D. New York: A Perigree Book, Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001. (pb: $13.95)

Reviewed by Carl D. Schneider, Ph.D.

Family Mediation News, Spring 2002, pp. 10-11

Whenever experienced divorce mediators get together these days and start talking about their practice, someone invariably says, “They’re just getting crazier, you know!” If there is any truth to that widely shared perception – and I think there is – then Jeffrey Wittmann’s Custody Chaos: Personal Peace: Sharing Custody with an Ex Who Drives You Crazy is the book you need! The sub-title says it all. This is the book for high conflict clients who find their interactions with their ex to be at a hopeless impasse.

Wittmann immediately engages the reader in that situation by observing: “Of course, you’re quite sure you know what the problem is: your ex…. That’s crystal clear to you. What more do you need to know?” Then, gently but firmly distinguishing the “world of things we can’t control” and “the world of things we can control,” he invites the reader to shift his/her attention from all that the “other” has done, is doing, and continues to do, to what responses and skills the reader is bringing to this situation.

Never sentimental, never losing the reader, Wittmann nudges, invites, and challenges readers to focus on their own responses to the matters they are confronting. He is unrelenting in his belief that the actions of the other do not justify our negativity. As he reminds the reader in his homey way: “Consider your relationship with your ex as a soup that you both must eat.” “Whatever …ingredients your ex may add, decide to add only those things that will make it taste more tolerable for both of you.”

What is the core message of the book? Two foci, I believe. First, Wittmann has a message to the client about one’s own self and actions: conduct yourself according to the values you believe in. Don’t be reactive. In a lovely metaphor, Wittmann invites parents to see themselves as each standing in front of a classroom at either end of the blackboard, chalk in hand. “Your children are the students…. Scribbling in their life notebooks as they learn…the lessons that you teach.” He repeatedly challenges us to understand that the task is not a one-time effort. It is a sustained commitment to be who we want to be for our children.

Wittmann also has a perspective to offer to his readers about how they view their ex: let go of the moral high ground, he says, and “view…your ex as unskillful rather than evil” “Your ex is an imperfect traveler in a confusing world. Like you and like all of us, he or she makes mistakes along the path to self-protection and happiness.” “It is the difference between seeing someone as evil and seeing him as missing tools in his toolbox.”

Wittmann offers a wonderful mix of advice, encouragement, and skill-specific advice that leaves the reader feeling clearer, more solid, more hopeful. His section on letter-writing to an ex, for example, is especially useful. I copied it to give to my clients. Along with examples, he also gives the reader the ingredients for what makes the letter work –e g., “a clear statement of the letter’s goal,” a statement of the writer’s “commitment to civility,” and “a specific positive request for the future.”

The reader can get a taste of the nuggets and gems strewn throughout this book from some of the following:

  • If your partner has tossed you the ball, ”When you pass the ball back, make it an easy lob and empathize.”
  • “When your ex has a complaint about your new partner and voices it to you, you are being invited into a difficult triangle.”
  • “Families can play a dual role in your life…they can be an island of security and love; they can also fan the flames of conflict.”
  • “Be clear with your family about the help you want- and the ‘help’ you don’t want.”

While the tone is conversational, it is always a thoughtful conversation that helps the reader focus on where he or she wants to go. It rises above the many pop psych books flooding this field to confront the really intractable problems that are so disheartening in post-divorce relations. I kept expecting that Wittmann couldn’t keep up such a helpful, concrete tone for the whole book. I was wrong.

Initally, I also wondered if my enthusiasm was a product of knowing the author. I have found, however, that every professional who has followed my encouragement to read this book has come back wanting additional copies for clients.

I am also recommending this book to my clients. I believe in bibliotherapy. Wise books help clients. For many years I have faithfully given all my clients Isolina Ricci’s Mom’s House, Dad’s House. I still do. It, however, is for “normal” couples. I have increasingly felt the need for something different, something with more of an edge for my high conflict couples. Custody Chaos, Personal Peace is it.

Note about the author: Jeffrey P. Wittmann, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, family therapist, and divorce mediator in Albany, NY, whose private practice concentrates on services for divorcing families, including the “Kids First After Divorce” program.

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