What is High Conflict Divorce and Co-parenting?
Most separating couples go through a transition period of emotional upset related to the end of their relationship. However some families become locked into bitter and expensive battles over custody, access, support, and co-parenting. Although there is no generally accepted definition of what exactly constitutes a “high conflict” divorce, this term can be applied to any of the following divorce or separation situations:
- Lack of ability to communicate about the children and their care
- Being unable to make joint decisions about the children even before the separation
- A discrepant perception about each other’s parenting practices
- Pervasive distrust about the other parents’ ability to adequately care for the children
- Ongoing and unremitting hostility between adults
- Allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse
- A history of “failed” interventions such as mediation, counselling, custody and access assessments, and/or trial
- Drawn-out or frequent court actions
- Custody battles
- Restraining orders and/or no-contact orders
High conflict divorce is estimated at between 10 and 20 % of the divorcing population. High conflict divorce can disrupt and distort the development of children, placing them at risk for depression and mental disorders, educational failure, alienation from parents, substance abuse and future relationship difficulties of their own.
What causes High Conflict?
In short, lots of things. Anger, hurt, fear, loss of perspective, stress, personality traits, mental health issues and unresolved legal conflicts often fuel high conflict divorce. Co-parenting can be difficult at the best of times. In high conflict situations prolonged debates can arise over issues such as:
- When and how a child gets their hair cut
- When and where exchanges of the children will be made
- Which extra-curricular activities the children will be involved in.
- When and how often phone contact will be made with the other parent
- What types of clothing the children should wear
- What types of movies and television shows are appropriate
- What is an appropriate bedtime
We understand high conflict; we’ve seen it in action. We know how it manifests and how children suffer. Psychological literature suggests that parental conflict, by itself, is not a direct determinant of children’s post-divorce maladjustment; it is the extent to which a child feels caught in the middle that more accurately predicts their maladjustment. Children caught in high conflict environments seldom thrive. Here are some examples from families we have worked with that demonstrate how children end up in the middle:
- Parent A receives an invitation for their child to go to a birthday party. The party is scheduled on a day that Parent B has the children. Parent A does not tell parent B about the party. The children miss out.
- The children are learning about fire safety in school. They tell parent A that they don’t have an escape route at parent B’s home. Parent A takes the children to the police station to make a report.
- Parent A purchases an iPad and asks the child not to tell parent B the password. Parent B asks for the password so as to monitor the child’s online time. What does the child do?
- Parent A buys the child a winter coat. Parent B does not feel it is adequate for Calgary winters. Parent B purchases another coat. The child makes sure she takes both coats to school on exchange day to be sure she is wearing the “right” one for the right parent.
- Parent A is running late for the exchange and texts parent B to inform them. Parent B runs to the store quickly given the kids won’t be there for another half an hour. Parent A reaches Parent B’s home to find they are not there. Parent B does not call parent A to let them know of their arrival, but rather takes the children back to their own home.
Though divorce is stressful on everyone, it is the children who are at risk. One of the best ways to help a child is to help their parents. We strive to keep parents focused on their children’s point of view and to understand that children are at risk when their parents are in conflict.