1. What is ‘high conflict’?

There is no simple definition of ‘high conflict.’ It is hard to figure out why some parents are able to separate with little difficulty, while others seem to get ‘stuck’ in conflict after separation, unable to step away from it, and unable to protect their children from the negative consequences of conflict. 

Several important factors have been considered in the literature to determine the type of conflict and the level of it, and how often it occurs, in high conflict divorce or separation situations (Saini & Polak, 2010). Some of these factors include:

  • the presence of mental health problems
  • the presence of substance (drug and alcohol) use/abuse
  • criminal history of either parent
  • negative patterns of conflict resolution and communication
  • the identification of blame for the end of the couple relationship (one person blaming the other for causing them to break up)
  • the lack of trust between ex-partners
  • the unequal division of assets (for example, money and property)
  • different or inconsistent views of how to parent their children
  • the presence of emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • lack of appropriate and healthy parent-child boundaries
  • multiple complaints to child protection services and/or police services
  • the number of professionals involved with either parent
  • more frequent attendance at court
  • the negative involvement of external supports (for example, friends and family members) by ‘taking sides,’ and contributing to ongoing hatred, hostility and disrespect between the people involved.   

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2. How big is the problem of high conflict after divorce?

In Canada, 37% of all marriages will end in divorce before the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary (Statistics Canada, 2006). Of these, 25% will divorce before their 4th wedding anniversary. Over a third (1/3) of all divorces in Canada involve children. In 2000, 1 in 3 divorce cases involved custody or access issues related to dependent children. These numbers are low estimates, because these reported numbers do not include other romantic relationships that end in separation, like couples who have children but did not get married, same sex couples who share children, and married couples who separate but do not get divorced.

Most separating or divorcing couples are able to work through initial feelings of anger, disappointment, and loss quickly and re-establish healthy relationships with their ex-partners and their children (Bacon & McKenzie, 2004). However, about 40% of ex-partner interactions are considered conflictual at the time of separation (meaning that there is arguing and tension between the separating partners) (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Of these, 10% remain in high conflict no matter how much time passes (Maccoby, Depner & Mnookin, 1990).

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3. What are the different kinds of relationships of parents after separation and divorce?

According to Ahrons (2004), relationships between former partners can be grouped into five categories. The first two are fairly positive - both parents continue to have relationships with their children, and the disruption of a separation or divorce is minimized.

In the last three categories, lack of support and cooperation between parents causes problems for both the children and adults.

Perfect pals

Perfect pals are former spouses who remain friends after a separation or divorce. The decision to divorce is usually mutual (both spouses agree to get divorced) and they still like and respect each other, which helps them cooperate. They do not allow anger or hurt feelings to interfere with their parenting. With a common concern for their children, they often share decision-making, child care and they both participate in their children’s celebrations. This type of relationship, while rare, makes a child’s adjustment to separation or divorce relatively easy.

Cooperative colleagues

Cooperative colleagues may not be friends, but they can cooperate and make compromises for the children. Although they may disagree over issues, they keep their conflicts under control. There is some sharing of decision-making and child rearing tasks, and some participation in major life events. Cooperative colleagues help each other in times of crisis. Their priority is to do what is best for their children. Though there may be conflict in the cooperative colleague relationships, the conflict is managed effectively. 

Angry associates

These are former spouses who remain angry after the separation. Because they remain angry, parenting together is difficult. There is little flexibility in their arrangements, and negotiating about their arrangements brings up old pain. The children are usually caught in the middle of these conflicts. Events such as birthdays may be stressful. Other family members may be drawn into the conflict. Angry associates may not help each other in times of crisis or stress. Children suffer much more from the effects of separation and divorce when their parents have this kind of relationship.

Fiery foes

Fiery foes are so angry with each other that they cannot co-parent. Each feels the other is an enemy and focuses on what they think the other person has done wrong. The anger never dies. Custody negotiations are a battle; support payments and visitation become weapons. Children become pawns in the conflict and are often forced to take sides. Major events such as birthdays become opportunities to resume battle. One parent may be excluded from such events to avoid conflict. This kind of relationship is extremely hard on children.

Dissolved duos

These are former spouses who stop having contact with each other after the separation or divorce. One parent may move from the area, completely withdrawing from their former life.

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4. Why do some parents remain in high conflict situations after they separate?

There are many reasons why some parents remain in high conflict despite the fact that time has gone by (Hopper, 2001).

First, high conflict may come from an unequal sharing of the resources or power in the ex-partner relationship. In these situations, both parents may try to get as much as they can financially from the relationship, such as money and property, but the power imbalance between the ex-partners creates and maintains the conflict (Weitzman, 1985).

Second, conflict can be played out by the adversarial nature of the legal system (one person against the other). For example, ex-partners often begin the court process by filing documents about what the other parent has done wrong to try to support their legal position, which can be very hurtful to the other parent.

Third, conflict may have already existed in the relationship before the divorce, which lead to the final break-up (Amato & Afifi, 2006).

Fourth, conflict may be the result of interpersonal and personality problems by either parent. In these cases, divorce may begin to make one or both of the spouses feel very vulnerable (Johnston & Campbell, 1988) or the loss of the attachment to the other person may cause distress (Saini, 2007). Causing conflict may become a way to hang onto some form of relationship to the ex-partner, even if it is a negative way to do this.

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5. When are parents most likely to be in high conflict?

Children are less exposed to high conflict when clear and consistent schedules are developed to limit the parents’ contact with each other. Parents can expose their children to conflict when there are no clear rules set up to organize parenting plans, no clear rules around boundaries between the parents, or unrealistic schedules that provide the parents with too much flexibility and too many opportunities to negotiate when they are realistically unable to communicate.  

A well-crafted parenting plan to limit high conflict must be complete and detailed, and include strategies to reduce situations where conflict may occur, such as:

  • transporting the child between homes
  • exchanging the child for visits
  • sharing information about the children
  • schedule for telephone access including who can (and cannot) call and the times of these calls
  • plans for attending the child’s school functions
  • plans for parents’ involvement and watching the  child participate in extracurricular activities (sports or music lessons, for example) and plans for transportation to the activities
  • plans for moving things like the child’s clothes, belongings, and school books, from one home to the other
  • rules about haircuts, earrings, and other changes to the child’s appearance while with either parent
  • plans for special occasions such as the child’s birthday, the parents’ birthdays,  extended family members’ birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, religious holidays, summer schedule, and special trips out of the country. 

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6. Why is high conflict separation a problem for children?

Conflict has been found to be the most important factor in both children’s and parents’ adjustment after separation (Hetherington & Kelly) and a stronger predictor of how children cope after separation, than the actual event of separation (Emery, 1994). General conflicts between the parents after divorce can almost double the problems related to children’s coping and adjustment in cases where the conflict between parents was hostile or aggressive. 

The presence of high conflict after divorce has been linked to higher rates of children with psychological and adjustment problems (Emery, 1999), higher rates of post-divorce litigation between ex-partners (going back to court after the divorce is final) (Emery, 1994), and higher rates of non-payment of child support (Braver, Wolchik, Sandler, Sheets, Fogas & Bay, 1993).

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7. How do you protect against the negative impact of high conflict?

There are a number of protective buffers for a child caught between parents’ high conflict. First, children adjust better when they have a good relationship with at least one of the parents, a caregiver, or a mentor. Children do better when they have the support of their brothers and sisters, and when adequate boundaries are put around the conflict (Kelly, 2007). Children also do better when at least one of their parents provides appropriate warmth and caring, even when there is conflict between the parents. 

Competent parenting can reduce the impact of separation and multiple changes to the children’s lives, and protect children against the negative impact of high conflict. A competent parent can balance or ‘make up for’ the negative effects of a non-competent parent who may be eager to engage in conflict.  

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8. How can communication be structured to reduce conflict?

Often, during a serious conflict, there is very little communication between the involved parties, and very little sharing of information, intents, and beliefs.

Even in normal situations, people often say things that are not interpreted in the way the statement was intended. When people are angry with each other, the likelihood of misinterpreting communication is greatly increased - to the point where it is almost bound to happen.

The people in the conflict do not have reliable methods for communicating with opposing parties. This may be because they do not want to communicate, or it may be because they are afraid to contact their opponents or have no way to do so.  Sometimes the parties will break-off communication as a form of protest after an unpleasant incident. However, this lack of communication can increase the risk of it happening again in the future.

Sometimes communication can make things worse rather than better.  When communication is threatening, hostile, or inflammatory it can do more to escalate a conflict than to resolve it. 

When two people separate and/or divorce, their relationship as spouses ends. But because the parent-child relationship continues, they need to develop ways to handle new parenting responsibilities. Parents can work as a parenting team while keeping their personal lives separate. This type of relationship is generally best, but there are exceptions.

In some situations children need protection from a parent. Examples include when a parent has abused, neglected, or deserted a child.  Continuing a relationship with this parent isn’t in the child’s best interests.  In most families, however, it works best if both parents cooperate. Children adjust more quickly and have fewer long-term problems when they keep close, independent, and supportive relationships with both parents.

When parents cooperate, it makes for a better adjustment for the children.

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9. What are some of the available services for high conflict families?

Growing unhappiness with the adversarial way that family disputes are processed in the courts,  has created a need for the development of interventions and services to either limit conflict, or help parents and children get ‘unstuck’ from high conflict divorce.  These include mediation, custody evaluations or assessments, supervised access programs, and psychological approaches. 

Mediation

Mediation, a form of Assisted Dispute Resolution, involves a process where a neutral third party mediator assists the parties with communication and negotiation, to help them to reach a voluntary agreement about issues such as child custody, visitation, support and property division issues.  Mediation is often considered to be an issue-oriented, goal-directed, problem-solving approach, with the main goal of reaching an agreement.  Mediators help parents resolve disputes by developing a process to balance power, while figuring out the parties’ positions and interests, and coming up with several options for identifying and prioritizing, and then negotiating, differences and alternatives until an agreement is reached (Johnston & Campbell, 1993).

Custody Assessments

Custody and access evaluations are usually conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals with the main goal of assisting the court by providing expert recommendations about the custody and access of the children involved in the dispute.  The custody evaluations normally deal with the level of conflict between parents, parent functioning, child–parent relationships, and the children's developmental, social, emotional, and educational needs after separation and divorce. Custody and access evaluations are given a large amount of weight by the courts, with the expectation that custody evaluators will use the best available scientific evidence, and objective, reliable, and valid procedures within the evaluation process (Saini, 2008).

Supervised Access Program

The Supervised Access Programs provide a safe and secure setting where visits and exchanges can take place, while ensuring the safety of all participants, including staff.   Staff and volunteers are trained to be sensitive to the needs of the child and to provide the court and/or lawyers with factual observations about the participants' use of the service.  The staff and volunteers at the supervised access centres usually do not provide services such as counseling, mediation, therapy, or parent education, and all visits and exchanges are done on-site at the supervised access centre.

Psychological approaches for high conflict families

The main focus of the programs talked about above has been to find ways to limit the level, frequency and nature of high conflict by limiting the contact between the parents. Although family processes may begin to change while involved in these programs, the focus on improving problems between family members is considered secondary.  Psychological approaches and intensive psychotherapies have been used with high conflict families.  High-conflict divorcing families often seek therapy, sometimes because of the difficulty in living with these disputes, though more often because the court or lawyers have gotten involved.

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10. What are 10 ways to protect children from the conflict?
  1. Have clear, consistent schedules and rules.
  2. Act responsibly so children are secure in knowing a responsible adult is taking care of them.
  3. Avoid putdowns and talking badly about the other parent when the children are present.
  4. Do not ask a child to relay a message to the other parent.
  5. Do not ask a child what is going on in the other parent's life or household.
  6. Do not use a child as a confidante (someone to ‘vent’ to) or depend on a child for emotional support.
  7. Do not talk about the financial or emotional details of the divorce (or problems with child support) with the children.
  8. Do not ask a child to keep a secret from the other parent.
  9. Try to create as much stability and continuity between households as possible.
  10. Get the emotional support you need to deal with the conflict so that you are better able to focus on the needs of your child.

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