High Conflict Divorce and Parenting


High conflict divorce is a term that is typically applied to any of the following divorce situations:

  • Ongoing, unremitting hostility between adults
  • Drawn-out or frequent court actions
  • Custody battles
  • Allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse
  • Restraining orders or no-contact orders
  • Lack of ability to communicate about children and their care

Research suggests that approximately 10% of the divorcing population can be identified as having high-conflict divorce. And within that group another 10% or 1% of the total divorcing population is in ongoing high-conflict that will likely never change. This is good news and bad. The good news is of course that the number of never-going-to-change high-conflict divorces is a small portion of the entire divorcing population. If you’re not there now, chances are you won’t ever be there.

But for those of you who are part of the dreaded 1%, it is a very difficult place to be. In fact, being any part of the 10% is no walk in the park! Life probably entails fighting with the other parent, trying to avoid fighting with the other parent, talking with lawyers, talking with therapists, undergoing multiple parenting evaluations, and going to court. Whew! It makes me tired just thinking about it.

What Do Parents Fight About in a High Conflict Divorce?

Well, just about everything! But more specifically, here are a few of the biggies:

  • Money

high-conflict-divorce01For starters, there is almost never enough. When a couple divorces, they go from supporting one household to now supporting two, often with the same amount of money. The allocation of child support and how it is spent can become a huge source of conflict. The same is true of maintenance  (which used to be called alimony.) Money can increase tension quicker than just about any other topic. And the end result is high conflict.

  • Parenting Styles

I have developed a theory which I’ve named the Hourglass Theory of Parenting after Divorce. It goes like this: When parents first have a child there is often some distance between each of their ideas about parenting styles. (Picture the base of the high-conflict-divorce02hourglass.) Magically though, over time, most parents come closer together in how they parent their child. (Picture the narrow part of the hourglass.) One parent may  yield to the other, or both  may   agree on one style. Any way it’s done, parents present a basic united front to their kids. When parents separate it isn’t unusual for parenting styles to once again diverge. For example, one parent may think, “I never really liked such an early bedtime. Now I can make my own decisions for my kids. At my house, bedtime is 9:30.” As you can imagine, this may result in conflict. The more one parent tries to make the rules for the other parent, the more likely it is that their relationship will be marked by high conflict.

  • Unresolved Feelings

Getting a divorce is a legal process that rarely addresses the feelings that almost alwaysaccompany the ending of a marriage. high-conflict-divorce03People don’t marry with the idea of getting divorced. We marry with stars in our eyes and forever in our plans.

But then things happen within the relationship and one or both people decide it’s time to end the marriage.

It’s the part about “things happening within the relationship” that brings with it a flood of feelings. In theDivorce Transitions classes that I teach I ask class participants to name some of the feelings they are experiencing. Slowly people call out words like sad, angry, scared, lonely, betrayed, abandoned, embarrassed, ashamed, revengeful, exhausted, anxious, overwhelmed, relieved, safe, and free.

Behind every word is a story about something hurtful that happened in this marriage. John Grey, author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus and numerous other books says, “What you feel, you heal.” If people don’t deal with those stories and the accompanying feelings, they continue to relate to each other in the same ways that caused the feelings in the first place. And the high conflict meter will zing off the charts.

  • Position (who is the better parent?)

high-conflict-divorce04 Trying to determine who the better parent is often contributes to high conflict between divorcing parents.

Sadly, for many parents the allocation of parenting time becomes a contest where the parent with the most time wins. Some parents mistakenly believe that if they have the kids the Court is saying that they are the better parent.

It’s nowhere near that simple. The battle to prove that one parent is the best parent is not only costly (both in terms of dollars and emotions) but also is a lightning rod for increasing conflict.

Some high conflict parents “up the ante” with frequent allegations and accusations of abuse, mistreatment, and poor judgment.

  • Power/control

This contributor to high conflict usually follows closely on the heels of the battle for who thebetter parent is. Some people high-conflict-divorce05believe they just aren’t going to be happy unless they are in control of every aspect of the other parent’s life. And this belief leads them to a multitude of actions in which they try to exert control. The result?High conflict.

Some people who get divorced experience a tremendous psychological wounding to their sense of self. They feel humiliated, abandoned, worthless, and hungry for revenge. They mistakenly think that making the other parent “pay” will make their own pain go away. They go to great lengths (sometimes disguised as acting on their child’s behalf) to control every action the other parent takes. These situations are marked by frequent court actions, involvement of third party investigators and unbelievable high conflict 

  • Dating or the introduction of a new significant relationship

high-conflict-divorce06This is an electric topic among many divorced parents and a frequent cause of conflict. It’s so important, we’ve devoted a separate section to it. Look here for more information.

It’s not unusual for divorced parents, who were getting along pretty well related to parenting their children, to find themselves smack in the middle of a lot of conflict once either one introduces a dating relationship. There is nothing more uncomfortable than having an adult you don’t know interacting with your children. Sometimes the “new person” oversteps bounds and tries to take over a parent’s role. Sometimes, the children don’t like the “new person” and don’t want to spend time with the other parent any more Sometimes a parent feels that their role is being threatened. And what do you end up with? High conflict.

Why Does it Matter?

So what if parents fight? It’s only words. Right?

In reality, children pay a huge price for their parents’ conflict. The effects of conflict on children are huge. This is one thing countless researchers agree upon. The biggest predictor of poor outcome for children is parental conflict. And this is true whether parents are married or divorced. Conflict rather than divorce presents the larger problem for children.

Action Steps to Minimize Conflict

  • Take responsibility for your own life and the decisions that you make. It is tempting to point the finger of blame at the other parent, but it wouldn’t be accurate. We each must be 100%responsible for our lives.
  • Maintain healthy boundaries with your child’s other parent. Don’t involve him or her in your personal life and stay out of their life. Making the mental shift from being married to divorced is sometimes difficult. Once you have made the decision to no longer be married, your responsibility to that other person’s personal life goes away. Of course you will always have aconnectionbecause of your child. Just stick to parenting business and nothing else.
  • Make sure you have a clear and complete parenting plan. The higher the conflict, the moreimportant it becomes to have every possible detail nailed down. Go here for parenting plan information.
  • Keep any changes to the parenting schedule to a minimum. In fact, I recommend to parents in high conflict situations to make no changes unless it is a dire emergency. Adjust your schedule to the parenting plan instead of the other way around.
  • Take good care of yourself and work on any unresolved issues that may be causing problems. Learn to understand and manage your anger.
  • Develop a business-like attitude when it comes to dealing with the other parent.
  • Create a mechanism to make decisions and resolve disagreements that will inevitably arise asyour child grows. Consider using a mediator or parenting coordinator to help you as needed.
  • Stick to your financial agreements.
  • If things aren’t working, look first to what you can do differently. Seek solutions instead of arguments.