High-Conflict Divorce

Larry M. Friedberg, Ph.D.


It is obvious that divorce and interpersonal conflict go together, and it is well known that enduring conflict between divorcing parents is one the most significant risk factors for children of divorce.

We know that high levels of conflict, including incidents of domestic violence, are likely to occur at the time of marital dissolution, even if they haven’t occurred before.

Judith Wallerstein, in her well-known longitudinal study of children whose parents divorced, and who were studied into their own adulthood, observed that fifty percent of her families had violent episodes during the crisis period after the decision to divorce.

The National Study of Children, a much larger sample, indicated that physical violence occurred in fifty percent of divorcing families during the first year after the decision to separate, with the children present two-thirds of the time.

Obviously, high levels of conflict are expected at the beginning of divorce, among parties who have not settled their divorce without the court’s involvement.

California as an example: due to organization of courts, mandated mediation, etc., has lots of data available.   In 1980, only 10% of divorcing parents in California disputed about custody. By 1992 this number had more than doubled, and it has appeared to rise since. According to several reports, 70-80 % custody cases were settled w/o court intervention, & 50 % of contested cases resolved in court-mandated mediation.


Of the remaining 50 %, half settled after a court-ordered psychological evaluation,   half     required a ruling by the court. This contested half of the pie might seem to define high Conflict divorce. But Depner and her colleagues, studying this group. noted that serious family issues and allegations were pervasive in the mediation group. Four out of five cases included allegations of child Abduction,   sexual and or physical abuse, neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence or criminal activity In 65% percent of mediated cases domestic violence was alleged (by 1 or both) parties)

These numbers suggest that fifteen to twenty percent of California divorces involve significant levels of parental conflict.

Results vary, but several studies suggest that by the third year after divorce most former spouses have disengaged from intense conflict, while one-fourth to one-third of divorcing couples report high degrees of hostility and discord three years after separation, with levels of conflict never diminishing.

Wallerstein found that enduring post-divorce conflict was one of the three predictors of adult problems in her sample, along the ability of the custodial parent to weather economic and other stresses caused by the marital breakup, and father’s dropping out of the lives of their children.

Children of high-conflict divorce, particularly boys, are two to four times more likely to show significant clinical disturbance in emotions and behavior.

High Conflict Divorce

A Conceptual Model of High Conflict Divorce:


CASE 1: Psychological evaluation and Parenting Coordination

  • Married 11 years, twin boys age 8.   Mom filed for divorce
  • Blame
  • Children, family members as partisans
  • Domestic violence- at time of marital breakdown
  • Parental programming
  • Psychological evaluation recommended maternal custody and ongoing dispute resolution.
  • Settlement: Joint custody
  • Father now has custody

A man, referred with his  ex-wife for a custody evaluation, had the habit of leaving long messages on my voice mail.   Most of them involved efforts to cast aspersions and to blame problems on his wife.  For example:

“You know, Dr. Friedberg, you … say that marital problems are a two-way street. Well maybe that’s usually true, but not in this case. In this case its all her fault, a hundred percent her fault. You don’t have any idea how vicious she can be…”

This man initiated divorce process by literally picking his wife up and throwing her out the door of their house, into the bushes. They continued to live together, although his wife filed for divorce. There were no prior incidents of violence. The parties had mostly ignored each other, interspersed with verbal arguments. Father spent a lot of time locked in the basement where, according to his wife, he watched porno movies, smoked marijuana and engaged in cybersex.

I should mention that their children, twin boys age 8, wanted to live with their father. They were clearly partisans. In fact, I concluded from the style of their conversations with me that their dad had gone to strong efforts to program them into taking his side. Their father was nice. He talked to them and paid attention to them. Their mother was mean, crabby, she yelled at them. She ignored them, yelled at their father for nothing and hit them. She slept all the time when she was home with them, they said.

One other incident of physical violence while still in home together, on Christmas day. His wife was cutting up vegetables for Xmas dinner. He’d taken their   sons to his mom’s for Xmas eve. His sister brought a plate of food and visited his  soon-to-be-ex-wife.

The argument began the next morning: His wife was chopping vegetables at the sink.  He forbade her from having her family over for Christmas day. They argued.  He came over grabbed a hand in which she held a knife, pushed it down, accidentally stabbing himself in the leg. He said he did this because he thought she was threatening him. He called out to  their 7 year old sons, “Call 911, Call 911, your mother stabbed me in the leg.”  Hep repeated this falsehood to the police, but  later admitted   untrue. explained to me   lied because   wanted   kids to know the divorce wasn’t his fault,   their mom was to blame too. He was not charged by her.

In the course of this evaluation the man’s two sisters came to see me. Despite my concerns about their taking sides against their brother, both sisters indicated that they thought their brother had serious psychological problems , which dated back to his childhood.

The parents settled this case with joint custody. You might disagree, assuming that custody should go to mom. That’s what I recommended. She did not attempt to interfere w f/son rel. She was not deceptive, she had taken primary care of the children. but she had started worked midnights and slept all day, she became mostly interested in a boyfriend and was developing an increasingly poor relationship with boys. Or     to dad whom boys preferred, who was manipulative and untruthful but a more interested and involved parent. He moved out to a better neighborhood, was a born again dad who devoted most of his energy to his children

While this example is unusually dramatic , we know that it is common for individuals to engage in extremely hostile, insulting and even assaultive behavior during the process of marital dissolution and divorce, whether or not such behavior occurred earlier in their relationship. E.g. Judith Wallerstein   in depth study of sixty divorcing families     fifty percent   families in her sample   violent episodes occur in the crisis period after the decision to separate. 75 % had never exp’d violence before. The National Survey of children, much larger sample, including separated / divorced parents of 300 children, also found physical violence  present   in half of the families during the first year after filing, and that children were present two thirds of the time. In as much as 1/10 of divorces, such beh has not stopped 3-5 years post divorce

CASE 2:  I received a call from a GAL, after she received report from another psychologist.  This was the fourth custody evaluation of a couple with 3 and 4 year old children. The four year old, a boy, refused to see his father   The children had been living for several months with the mother’s brother, and had not had contact with either parent.  The children were going to be moved into the home of father’s parents.

The mother had accused the  father of sexually abusing  the children.  This was evaluated:   there was no substantiation of abuse.  Mom was to have supervised visitation only, due to her history of abducting the children and programming them to fear their father.  She was arrested in another state, and the children placed with their paternal grandparents, until they were ready to resume living with their dad.  Mom went briefly to prison.

I was appointed as a parenting coordinator, to work with the GAL to set up therapeutic visitation between father and children, preparatory to his assuming physical custody.  I was also to supervise the mother’s contacts with her children.  As a postscript, the children were reunited with their father after a short period of reunification therapy.  They thrived in his care. Mom’s parenting time after several years became unsupervised, but was always limited.  She never admitted to doing anything wrong.

These examples clearly illustrate the attitudes of parties embroiled in intense divorce conflict.   The relationships between such parents shares qualities of mutual distrust, & projection of bad or evil characteristics onto one another. One or both parents can engage in insulting, belittling or blaming statements, expressions of anger, enmity, accusation, & blame (see my article on moral disengagement and blaming).

Further describing their attitudes, such parents often see the other parent as harmful to their children & often see themselves as blameless victims. One or both is unable to make positive statements about one another & generally criticize the parenting practices of each other. One or both parents express fear of the other parent spending time with their children.

They deal with these attitudes by communicating these perceptions to their children, directly or indirectly.  There can be intense pressure for the children to take sides, sometimes justified by a parent’s sense of danger, or injustice. Some are persons who derive a sense of moral superiority from being victims, and who see others as either for or against them.

Obviously, high levels of conflict are expected at the beginning of divorce, among parties who have not settled their divorce without the court’s involvement.  But typically the level of conflict subsides over time (as seen in the Maccoby and Mnookin study).

Dimensions of High Conflict Divorce

Following the  suggestion of Janet Johnston, slightly modified,  we can define High Conflict Divorce in terms of 1) the domain in which the parties attempt to resolve their differences; 2) the tactics they use to resolve conflicts, or 3) their attitudes towards one another. Domain refers to the use of mediation, arbitration, custody hearings, and re-litigation, as opposed to the parties settling their conflicts privately. Tactics include verbal reasoning as opposed to verbal aggression, strategic use of allegations, denial of contact, refusal to communicate, physical coercion or physical aggression. Attitudes refer to the degree of hostility, suspicion, fear or even paranoia experienced by the parties in these disputes.

Maccoby and Mnookin studied over 1000 families- with almost 2000 children who filed for divorce in 2 California counties ( in ‘84-’85). Parities were nterviewed at the point of filing, 1 and 3 yrs later.  Maccoby and Mnooki assessed the parent’s perceptions, behavior, attitudes and feelings, then looked for patterns in their findings.  Here is a summary of their results:

The first factor that emerged from their measures was discord: frequent argument, emotional outbursts, logistical problems in transfer, perceived interference in parenting, and refusal or threatened refusal of parenting.  Satisfaction with the residential arrangement had a strong negative correl to discord

The second factor was: cooperative communication: how often they talked about children, attempted to coordinate rules, etc.

By the third year after divorce most former spouses have disengaged from conflict, but  Maccoby and Mnookin (like Wallerstein) found that in 25-33% percent of families displaying high Conflict at the time of divorce, high levels of conflict were sustained 3/5 yrs after the divorce . It never decreased during the childhood of this portion of their samples.

Maccoby and Mnookin found at the three year follow-up, four groups according to the combination of discord and communication:

  1. Disengaged: seldom talk, d coordinate any rules or activities, and have little conflict, often because make exchanges at times and places where they d have to communicate
  2. Cooperative: parents isolate conflicts in their rel from children, discuss children and plans, back each other up, coordinate rules and activities. This was the group self-rated to be most satisfied w the residential arrangement
  3. Conflicted: parents who don’t cooperate and d disengage. Their conflicts remained active and spill over into parenting. Seldom discuss children, d attempt to coordinate parenting. But they do argue, don’t manage transitions well, may threaten to cut off parenting time, report that other parent is undermining their parenting. Kids in this group most likely to witness verbal or physical aggression between parents
  4. Mixed group- they discuss children’s welfare and attempt to coordinate schedules, but maintain high degrees of conflict. Children in this group as likely to witness altercations as in the conflicted group.


A practical consideration: it is much more likely, with whatever intervention we make, to move people from the Conflicted to the Disengaged group than from Conflicted to Cooperative.

A Conflict Assessment Scale

Garrity and Baris (Caught in the Middle) defined a continuum of Conflict in divorce situations.  I have adapted their scale:


The low end of the scale, labeled Minimal Conflict, is characterized by cooperative co-parenting. Children are left out of disputes, which are resolved between adults.  The children’s needs are paramount in the parents’ interactions with one another and are separated from their relationship problems. The parents support another. At this end of the scale, the children receive maximal protection. This is where we hope parents to be; and this level of cooperation is what we expect when joint custody is considered.

Incidentally, several studies of joint custody are consistent with Michigan law with regard to the requirements for joint custody: children whose parents share joint custody do poorly in terms of their psychological adjustment if the parents are in the high Conflict group, and when parents are cooperative, they experience beneficial effects of joint custody.

The Severe Conflict end of the scale is characterized by physical endangerment to the child, physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, and mental illness on the part of one or more parents. Clearly, protection of the child is an urgent objective at this level. Children at this level are often psychologically traumatized.

Some kind of abuse allegation appears to occur much more frequently than one might assume. In Depner’s study of mediated cases physical abuse of the child was alleged in 18 % of cases, sexual abuse in 8 %.

In one review of 9,000 disputed custody cases in another jurisdiction, 1.5 percent, or 169 cases involved allegations of sexual abuse. Investigators who reviewed these cases felt that abuse probably did occur in fifty percent of cases, probably did not in 27 percent, and they could not tell in remaining 23 percent.

Even Mild Conflict, as defined by this scale, is potentially harmful. At this level it is important to distinguish the acute conflict characterizing especially the first year or two after filing and chronic conflict and conflict which endures over the long term.

Moderate and intense conflict are more common than severe conflict, and to the extent that the child is exposed to these levels of conflict there is a potential for harm to the child’s development.

The Psychological Impact of High Conflict Divorce:

50% of Wallerstein’s longitudinal study of divorcing families demonstrated high levels of conflict at the time of divorce (what Garrity and Baris would call moderate or greater conflict). Wallerstein and other researchers found that in half of these families the level of hostility was significantly reduced in the first two years after separation, but that in ten to twenty five percent of divorces the level of conflict between former spouses does not diminish.

Children of high conflict divorce, particularly boys, display 2-4 times the national norms in terms the prevalence of significant clinical disturbance of emotions and behavior.  Referring back to the distinction of attitudes versus tactics of Conflict, physical aggression between parents has been most clearly associated with behavioral and emotional disturbance

40 % of children who experience high conflict divorce develop behavior problems.   Post divorce conflict has been associated with:  1) anxiety and aggressiveness in preschoolers;
2) with aggressive behavior problems, depression. & anxiety in school age children; 3) with higher levels of antisocial behavior, lower grades, anxiety and social isolation in adolescents.     A number of psychologists reviewing this literature concluded that  post-divorce conflict is the best predictor of negative effects of divorce on psychological adjustment.

Judith Wallerstein, in her in-depth longitudinal study of families following divorce, found that very sign problems were demonstrated by half of the 62 children she followed into adulthood. Children of divorce , for example, four times more likely to experience failure in their own marriages. She felt that the children in her sample developed two problems: a fear of rejection and a lifelong vulnerability to loss.

Other studies present a less pessimistic picture:  30 to 50 % of children of divorce display short-term psychological problems   Additionally, children of divorced parents are more likely to have long-term problems, including problems in their adult lives, including depression, needing therapy, dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, unemployment and divorce.

Andrew Cherlin and his colleagues published in 1991 in the journal Science the results of two longitudinal studies, one a very large sample in England and one sample of over two thousand children studied in the US. They found that boys whose parents divorced had more problems at ages 11 and 16. However, they found that controlling for pre-existing behavioral difficulties and parental conflict eliminated any significant differences between boys from divorced and intact families. These preexisting conditions reduced the effect of divorce by half.  Of course, the preexisting problems could have resulted from pre-divorce parental conflict.  The effects of controlling for pre-divorce behavior for girls was smaller, but still significant.

Johnston, Campbell and their colleagues have a series of studies on high conflict families. 88% of their families had demonstrated episodes of physical aggression, and children witnessed over half of these incidents. About 40% of the children responded with passivity and anxiety. A large number, almost 40%, became partisans in the dispute. About 25% became aggressive themselves. Even after physical abuse or conflict ended, patterns of depression and withdrawal were shown.

Children, particularly girls, in this study whose parents demonstrated high levels of conflicts, (and whose parents had substantial time-sharing or had higher numbers of transitions between parents ) showed the following problems: more depressed, more withdrawn, more aggressive, more physical symptoms of stress, like stomach aches, headaches, etc., more problems with peers compared with children with fewer transitions. Parents who engage in high levels of conflict provide a model for aggressive, poorly controlled, and anxious behavior. Their poor relationships are very likely responsible for findings of relationship difficulties in adulthood which are demonstrated more often by children whose parents are divorced.

Cherlin et al found that controlling for the effects of conflict (rather than divorce itself) substantially reduced the correlation between divorce and such problems; similar findings were noted in the New York longitudinal study: parental conflict in early childhood, but not whether parents were divorced or remained together, predicted the quality of psychological adaptation, particularly relationship difficulties in adulthood

The quality of parenting is likely to be impaired in high conflict families.   Conflict between parents tends to preoccupy and distract them from their children, so that they can not attend to their children’s needs. For example, one study showed that parents who are mired in conflict are less warm towards their children, perhaps as a result of residual anger. Hetherington found that with marital break down and increasing conflict, parenting practices such as disincline become less consistent, more coercive.

We also know that fathers who experience intense post-divorce conflict with their ex-wives are more likely to drop out of their children’s lives.

Sources of Intense Divorce Conflict

Johnston and Campbell outlined the following sources of conflict which lead to either acute or chronic high conflict divorce:

External: This refers to the adversarial nature of court proceedings and the poor fit of such an adversarial arena to the solution of family problems. This includes some attorneys whose counsel to their client increases conflict, and decreases communication. This includes:

1) attorneys who portray an acutely distressed parent as chronically violent or ill;
2) attorneys who view family court as an arena for winning, or who allow parents the delusion that the court will resolve moral issues;
3) mental health professionals who accept as real the distorted views presented by one side (e.g. Bipolar patient whose husband was portrayed as a psychological abuser; child whose second therapist who had only one meeting with father, decided that father was a sadistic, abusive person, and even wrote a note to court to that effect– in the end it was concluded by the court that the mother had brainwashed the child);
4) child custody evaluators who focus on who is the better or worse parent rather than on how to meet the child’s needs; and
5) Allies who confirm the polarized, highly distorted view of either party.

Interactional: These are characteristics of the relationship between the divorcing or divorced parties:

1) a continuation of marital struggles over power, intimacy;
2) effects of traumatic separation (e.g., a woman discovers that her husband has been having an affair or seeing prostitutes);
3) the difference between being the spouse who is “left” and the one who leaves.

Traumatic separations can lead to what Johnston calls “the negative reconstruction of reality”: ‘he never loved me’, ‘she was only ever interested in my money’; ‘we weren’t really married, I was just a sperm and money donor for her’.  Allies make these perceptions seem more real. These beliefs contribute to distrust.

In another case, the loss of a child due to crib death was the core interactional issue between two parents, whose struggle over their two remaining children was a study in desperation.

Intrapsychic: Divorce has two key psychological components, according to such writers as Robert Emery and Janet Johnston:

1)  Loss
2)  Rejection

There is a grieving process for the lost relationship, often most intense for the parent who is left, rather than the person who instigates the divorce.

Clearly, people have different psychological vulnerabilities to loss and rejection.  Some parents respond to the dissolution of their marriage with feelings of panic, which are linked to traumatic losses in childhood or to early deprivation and/or ungratifying experiences in the family of origin. Such parents desperately cling to their children, feeling unable to survive on their own.  In one case a woman, who was both neglected and abused as a child, had fits of rage which were directed at her daughter. At the same time, she refused to let her husband put the daughter to bed, and blocked his involvement in activities with her. She had no interest in him having any time with the child.

Vulnerability to feelings of rejection, or especially to feelings of shame, is a core psychological dynamic of high conflict divorce.  Janet Johnston has written extensively on what she describes as a continuum of narcissistic vulnerability. This refers to the regulation of self esteem and the injury to self-esteem caused by many divorces:

1) At the mildest level of narcissistic vulnerability is a feeling of personal inadequacy naturally caused by the failure of the marriage, or by being left by the spouse. If you say to such a parent that you feel that they have good qualities, as a parent or person, they will feel reassured;

2) The next level is the level of extreme self-righteousness, superiority, and feelings of entitlement. Such persons refuse to accept responsibility for any problems, blame others for all difficulties, and feel ownership of their children, as if they were an extension of themselves. In other words they display narcissistic personality characteristics. If tell such a person they have good qualities, they will think you mean that they are good and the other parent is bad;

2) At the extreme level of narcissistic vulnerability are persons who experience their spouse or ex-spouse as evil, feel exploited, are paranoid.  To such parents a positive message about the other parent, and I mean an honest but minor one, will be perceived as proving you are plotting against them.

For example, a mom who used her children as co-conspirators in an attempt to accuse their father of abuse and eliminate him from their life.  The children viewed their father as an abusive persecutor, were really nasty to him (making messes at his house, laughing at him). They acted superior towards their father.  Their father had no positive characteristics in these children’s eyes, and their mother had no negative characteristics, no flaws.  These children were alienated from their father.

The Level Conflict Changes over Time

The following chart is a hypothetical, conceptual depiction of the data from a series of studies including studies by Maccoby & Mnookin, Wallerstein and Johnston.  I have identified four groups of divorced spouses:  1) chronically high conflict (in red), where conflict is intense or severe at the time of divorce and stays high (intense or severe) even after several years;
2) moderately high conflict, which starts out intense and remains in the moderate conflict range even after two years;  3) acute conflict, where conflict starts out intense or moderate and settles down to mild or minimal conflict after a period of time; and 4) low conflict, where conflict starts out mild or minimal and stays that way over time.


With this chart I am trying to make a rather simple point: conflict changes over time, needs to be studied over time, and its implications for child development needs to be understood in time.  Imagine the intensity of conflict (y-axis) as the steps in the Conflict Assessment Scale (in your packets), and time since the divorce was filed as the x-axis.

The red and yellow groups might be conceptualized as chronically enmeshed in high levels of conflict. These are the 10 to 25 % of divorcing couples whose level of conflict remains high; I will call them the Chronic Conflict group. Such persons, who can be distinguished with increasing ease over time, are the core group about whom I am here concerned when I discuss High Conflict Divorce.

The group described in green are characterized by acute conflict at the time of filing for divorce, with the level of conflict diminishing over time in a series of steps. Many parents who contest custody, but whose level of hostility, personality functioning, and conflict tactics differ from the high Conflict groups, are in this category.

In my opinion, based upon clinical experience and the research I have reviewed, by far the most common patterns are acute and low conflict.

The bottom line is the effect of high conflict divorce on children.  Children don’t like their parents to be divorced, but by far the most significant negative effects of divorce come from chronically high-conflict divorce.  This is especially true when parents don’t shield children from their anger or disagreements, arguing in front of their children, use their children as messengers or spies, try to get their children to take their side in the continuing battle with the other parent, enlist the child in blaming the other parent for the divorce or other problems, or attempt to alienate the child from the other parent (these are the definitions of mild, moderate, and intense conflict in the Garrity and Baris Conflict Assessment scale).

In my psychotherapy practice I see more families in the acute and moderate conflict groups (as I said above, children of high conflict divorce, particularly boys, display 2-4 times the prevalence of clinical disturbance).  The low conflict folks are less likely to be sent to me by the court, and their children and teens (on average) have the least divorce-related problems, so they don’t need therapy as often. Even mild conflict, especially if it has been preceded by acute conflict, is likely to be very troubling to the children in such families, they become Caught it the MIddle (the title of an excellent book by Garrity and Baris), as do the children in moderate and intense conflict families, if their parents don’t protect them from their struggles.

Children in High Conflict Families

Children who live in highly conflictual or violent divorced families are chronically subjected to parental efforts to disrupt their relationship with the other parent- whether placing the child in a loyalty bind, encouraging the child to blame the other parent, enlist the child to choose or align with one parent or the other, or engage in active efforts to program or brainwash the child against the other parent.  The following graphics describe some of the family patterns which often emerge:

Response to Post Divorce Conflict

The child may become a mediator, trying to resolve their parents’ problems, which can be exhausting, subject the child to feelings of helplessness, and reverse roles, between the child who takes care of the parents as opposed to the parent who takes care of the child.  This is sometimes referred to as a role reversal, or to the child as a rescuer.

The child may try to be an angel, be perfect, please both parents, believing that somehow they must be responsible for the conflict and can resolve it.

The child may withdraw from both parents, who are frightening due to their lack of control.  This seems to me to be particularly common in teens.

The child may try to act as a “lightning rod” or scapegoat, getting into trouble to get the parents to cooperate, focus on the child’s emotional or behavior problems (“sickness”) rather than the problems in their relationship.

Older children, particularly 9-12 years olds are very likely to form an opinion of who is right and who is wrong, in a specific instance or in general. According to one study, 75% of children of high conflict have such opinions, but don’t tell their parents.  25% strongly align, form a coalition with one parent, refuse to visit the other parent and may actually reject and persecute the other parent. Such children are typically adopting the attitude of the parent with whom they align, who has been making active efforts to create just that sort of a situation.

In acute conflict or minimal conflict situations, parents disengage from one another, but permit their children to have as positive a relationship with the other parents as possible.

In some families, about 29 percent according to Maccoby and Mnookin (e.g., in a truly “amicable divorce”), divorced parents can communicate, share information and decision making about their children without significant discord.  This is the Cooperative Co-Parenting, low-conflict group found by Maccoby and Mnookin.

Tactics of High Conflict Divorce and their Impacts on Children

We know that divorce is a risk factor for a variety of psychological problems for children. Many kids, although less than half, function more poorly in the period before the divorce and for a short time (1-2 years) thereafter. In general, however, their functioning, like their parents, recovers over time, unless the conflict between the parents stays high.

Only about 11 percent of kids whose parents divorce show measurable psychological problems, as compared with 8% of kids whose parents don’t divorce.  The good news is that the great majority of children will end up without disabling adjustment problems. The bad news is that the presence of divorce leads to a modest increase in such problems.  Why?

Parents provide a model for the child to imitate.  It is clear that a model of male-female relationships dominated by conflict, inability to resolve conflict, unhappiness, aggression, anger and bitterness, even paranoia (in some cases) has a negative impact on children.

Some studies show that in high conflict cases the children are witnessing verbal abuse on a frequent basis, as often as once per week, and in a substantial number of cases they witness physical fights or abuse post divorce.

Coalitions in High Conflict Divorce

Many children of divorce are exposed to one or both parents speaking badly about the other, to the child or to other adults in front of the child.  The children are used to pass insults and messages to the other parent.  Their parents may be more likely to ask the child to make decisions- e.g. ‘do you want to go up North with me or go with your father?’

In Wallerstein’s study more than half of the 8-12 y/o children provided information to one parent about the other parent’s activities in the first year after the divorce.  Parents often criticize, demean, devalue and accuse the other parent.During or after the divorce, their children may be given permission to criticize or argue with the other parent.  They too often pressure the child, or otherwise give the child permission to act in ways that are disrepectful, disobedient, provocative towards the other parent.

Too many children form a coalition with one parent, who seeks to exclude the other parent from the child’s life. Wallerstein found that this often occurred between a preadolescent child and the parent who opposed the divorce; perhaps as a response to the parent’s feelings of rejection and helplessness. Children who are vulnerable to such manipulation feel very distressed and frightened at the time of divorce. They be intensely hungry for the closeness with one parent provided by such a coalition.

Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly studied 131 children of divorce, from 60 families who were not high-conflict. 20% of these children were in considerable conflict about the visits and 11% were genuinely reluctant to visit, most commonly children over age nine. In 25 of the 131 children in this study (19%), an extreme identification with one parent, which they called an “alignment”, resulted in a reluctance to visit. This alignment or coalition involves the parent and child joining together, the child overly identified with the adult’s feelings and views, vigorously attack the other parent. They viewed this alignment as being fed by an angry parent who felt betrayed, rejected, and often abandoned by their former partner. Parent and child shared moral outrage at the conduct of the abandoning parent, and this evolved into a complex strategy for harassing the former spouse, and sometimes at shaming him unto returning to the marriage or otherwise getting revenge. Twice as many children united with mothers as with fathers.

Johnston did a study of high-conflict divorcing families, looking at children who aligned with one or the other parent.  Johnston had two samples:  one court referred due to the parents’ inability to reach an agreement regarding custody or because they were still disputing after an order had been stipulated or imposed by the court. The second had even higher levels of conflict.  They were referred by the court due to violence or non-violent conflict over custody and visitation which was ongoing. Compared to Wallerstein and Kelly, more children in these high conflict samples were in alignments, almost one third two to three years after separation. Among 9-12 year old almost three quarters showed alignments, mostly mild, secret preferences for one parent rather than refusal to visit or overt denigration. Such children tended to moralize their parents’ disputes and see a good guy and a bad guy, but mostly preferred to keep these feelings to themselves.

Mild alignments appeared to be a response to conflicts perceived between the parents. Children lack the capacity to understand both parents’ points of view, so that an alignment is a resolution to painful loyalty conflicts. The intensity and longevity of parental disputes contributes to the formation of alignments

Johnston found that 25 to 40% of children ages 9-12 were in strong alignments: overtly and strongly for one parent and against the other, refusing to see and attacking the target parent. The child adamantly refused to visit or to communicate with the target parent, rejected and denigrated that parent, refused to have anything to do with him or her. At times the child distorted reality or interpreted reality in dubious ways.

Parental alienation, coalitions, and reluctance to visit

Some coalitions, known as a parental alienation, can take the form of accusations of sexual abuse or other extreme behavior by the child to reject, denigrate or accuse one parent.  That parent is seen as “all bad,” with no redeeming traits, while the other parent is experienced as “all good,” with only positive and no negative traits.  Richard Gardner defined Parental Alienation Syndrome as follows:

  1. One parent, the Alienating parent, attempts form a coalition with the children, to exclude the children’s other parent from the children’s life, and
  1. The child or children become active partisans in the conflict.  They willingly join in a coalition with the alienating parent to reject and to denigrate one parent, the Targeted parent. They are convinced that this targeted parent is bad, does not love them, can not be trusted, or is a danger to them. Although they say things that are exaggerated or not true, they feel that such statements are justified, because the alienated parent is bad.
  1. The Alienating parent uses programming techniques to influence the children to join in a coalition against the Targeted parent. This programming includes repeated negative messages about the Targeted parent.
  2. Exclusion:  PAS does not apply to situations where a children or children have actually been abused (physically, sexually, or emotionally).

Gardner saw this as a more general response to a loss of control in the divorce process; one might add Johnston’s concept of narcissistic vulnerability, discussed above, as a risk factor for parental alienation within Gardner’s theory.  He sees one parent as the “alienating parent” and one as the “target parent,” in effect blaming one parent for the syndrome.  In many cases Gardner and his adherents advocate what is, in effect, a “radical parent-ectomy”, a move from the home of the alienating to the home of the target parent.

Johnston and Kelly, in my opinion, provided a more balanced view.  They refer to the Alienated Child, rather than to “parental alienation syndrome”.  They cited the limited empirical evidence for a syndrome of parental alienation, and note that this syndrome has been used far too broadly in the family court arena.  They agree that some children are alienated from one of their parents, by the active effort of the other parent, but these have to be carefully distinguished from the following alternatives:

  • Children who refuse visitation because of separation anxiety (especially younger children, also children with anxiety disorders and insecure attachment)
  • Children who refuse visitation because of problems in the relationship with one of their parents, eg:
    • children who are anxiously enmeshed with one parent
    • children have a parent who has not been actively involved in their life
    • children who parent with limited parenting skills
    • children who have a parent with a personality disorder, mental illness, etc.
    • Older children who are voluntarily in a coalition but have not been programmed (by a “bad alienating” parent), who are willing to play an active role in parental conflicts- e.g., to right wrongs, to restore the family unit, to be the champion for or ease the distress of the injured party.

Such children may in some sense seem “alienated” from one of their parents, but their situation is not the same as what Gardner is talking about, which is a form of child abuse.  Blaming the parent that the child wants to be with for alienating the child is improper in such situations.  They state:

Indeed, there are many custody situations in which questions about alienation arise that need to be examined and understood to recommend effective legal and psychological interventions for the family.

But these situations need to be carefully examined by the court and by forensic experts, and alternative explanations, and alternative interventions need to be ruled out, especially as there is no evidence for the effectiveness of what I call a “parent-ectomy.”


Finally, a few observations for parents regarding the consequences of divorce conflict:

For Parents:  The Impact of Your Divorce on Your Children

What determines whether the impact of your divorce is modest and temporary, or serious and long-term?  Here are some factors over parents have control, and which affect outcomes for children, based upon the research literature:

  1. First, freedom from being exposed to conflict between the parents, and not being put in the middle of the parents’ disputes is associated with better adjustment.
    1. That means not sabotaging the children’s relationship with the other parent, not using the children as messengers or spies, not arguing in front of them or speaking badly about the other parent.
    2. It also means not pressuring the child to become one’s ally against the other parent.
  2. Second, the quality of the children’s relationship with each parent affects outcomes. Quality means warmth, listening, and firm but loving discipline.
  3. Third, children’s contact with and the quality of their relationship with the non-residential parent. If one of you has the children most of the time, access to, and the quality of their relationship with the other parent is extremely important to their well-being. Do not interfere with this, or your children will pay a price.
  4. Fourth, your health and emotional well-being. It is critically important that you take care of yourself.  Bitter, unhappy or ill parents have much less to give, and their children have more problems.

Of these factors, I feel (and many researchers and clinicians agree) that the post-divorce relationship between the parents is the key factor in protecting your children from negative long-term effects of divorce.

Most important, its not how angry you are at the other parent, but how you express this anger:

  • is the anger something you are open about in front of your children?
  • How long do you stay angry after the divorce is settled?
  • Do you discuss your grievances with your children, or with others in front of your children?
  • Do you directly or indirectly ask for their sympathy or say things which might make them mad at the other parent?
  • Do you place them in a conflict of loyalty?
  • Do you interrogate them about what happens at the other parent’s house, and sympathize with anything negative they say?
  • Do you use them as spies, to get information about the other parent?
  • Do you compete for their love?

If you need help changing your behavior, or resolving your feelings about your divorce, seek professional help, for your children’s sake if not only for your own.