The Early Identification and Streaming
of Cases of High Conflict Separation and Divorce: A Review
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS (Continued)
Characteristics of high conflict divorcing families
A number of clinical and empirical studies have concluded that one of the most toxic factors contributing to the immediate and long-term negative outcomes for children is ongoing conflict between parents before and after divorce. These studies are very clear in their conclusions about the dangers to children of exposure to high conflict between their parents, but they are vague and inconsistent about how to define high conflict. One of the persistent difficulties in these studies is the lack of baseline measures for the level of conflict that one would expect in most divorcing families. Without this baseline, it is impossible to accurately determine the level of conflict that can be defined as
More empirical research is needed to develop an accurate measure of the conflict which can be defined as high conflict. Such research, using large sample groups, should begin by establishing baseline measures for the amount of conflict that normally exists in divorcing families as compared to intact families. Once this baseline is established, a second baseline of conflict levels can be determined for families that exhibit a number of the characteristics mentioned below.
In the absence of any accurate psychometric measures for high conflict families, a number of researchers have identified certain behavioural or emotional characteristics that typify what they refer to as high conflict divorces. The problem with these studies is that they try to identify behavioural or emotional characteristics that contribute to a state of affairs that is not clearly defined at the start. These characteristics are broken down into internal elements and external markers.
The internal elements are those characteristics that come to light as a result of careful investigation by a trained mental health professional. These include feelings, attitudes, belief systems and relationship dynamics, and are often identified during custody/access assessments.
Internal individual elements include:
- a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour;
- a sense of powerlessness;
- an overwhelming sense of unresolvable loss;
- a history of violent and abusive behaviour;
- a tendency to vilify the other parent;
- a poor sense of personal autonomy beyond the marital relationship;
- an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs;
- a high degree of distrust;
- rigid and inflexible thinking about relationships and child development;
- a history of addictions and substance abuse; and
- generalized anger towards life in general and members of the opposite sex.
Internal relationship characteristics include:
- a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy;
- a poor sense of boundaries;
- a high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation;
- verbal and physical aggression between the parents;
- a tendency to involve the children in the disputes; and
- a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent.
External markers tend to be quantitative in nature and can be noted and tracked by any professional who has regular contact with the family. These include:
- criminal convictions;
- involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute;
- several or frequent changes in lawyers;
- the number of times a case goes to court;
- the overall length of time it takes for the case to be settled; and
- a large amount of collected affidavit material.
Some attempts have been made by researchers and clinicians to develop "typologies" of high, medium and low levels of conflict as a first step in streaming these families. The most common streaming is towards different types of parenting plans. These distinctions appear to have only limited application in the clinical practices of mental health professionals who conduct custody/access assessments. Most mental health professionals start from the assumption that families who require assessments (often court-ordered) are already in high conflict situations. The assessment process then makes a further distinction between high conflict and low conflict families. Recommendations for parenting plans, including ideas for using community resources to reduce levels of conflict, are then linked to the level of conflict identified in the assessment.
This research study concludes that a high or low conflict typology is more useful to practitioners than models that identify several levels of conflict. This simpler model provides easier links to specific types of parenting plans. Suggested models are shown below.
High Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan
- criminal convictions
- involvement of child welfare agencies in the dispute
- several or frequent changes in lawyers
- the number of times a case goes to court
- the overall length of time it takes for the case to be settled
- a large amount of collected affidavit material
- a history of access denial
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
- minimal or no contact between parents
- a great amount of detail with little flexibility left to parents
- regular routines for children
- a primary parent for decision-making
- access may be limited or supervised
- any communication between parents is through use of a "Communication Book"
- use of a neutral place for exchange of children
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
- a history of mental health difficulties, including depression, anger, withdrawal and uncommunicative behaviour
- a history of violent and abusive behaviour
- a tendency to vilify the other parent
- an inability to separate the parents’ needs from the child’s needs
- inflexible thinking about relationships and child development
- a high degree of distrust
- a tendency towards enmeshment rather than autonomy
- a poor sense of boundaries
- a high degree of competitiveness in the marriage and in the separation
- the amount of verbal and physical aggression between the parents
- a tendency to involve the children in the disputes
- a pattern of alienating the child from the other parent
Referral to Community Resources
- mandated services to monitor child safety
- counselling and therapy to help with issues of anger and loss
- addictions services
- supervised access and exchange programs
Low Conflict Families, Characteristics and Suggested Parenting Plan
- ongoing disputes of items of daily routine
- use of supportive family and friendship networks to limit conflict
- use of lawyers as a last resort
- few court appearances
- no criminal activity linked to the custody dispute
- no history of violence
Key Elements of a Parenting Plan
- possibility of joint and shared decision-making;
- possibility of equal time with both parents based on the child’s needs
- parenting plans to provide guidelines, but allowing flexibility between parents;
- focus on contentious issues, leaving most for the parents to negotiate.
Individual and Relationship Characteristics
- ability to separate the child’s needs from parents’ needs
- ability to validate the importance of the other parent
- conflict is resolved with only occasional expressions of anger
- negative emotions quickly brought under control
- ability to not say certain things in anger
- pattern of protecting the child from angry episodes
- child functioning improves after a period of adjustment
- both parents can tolerate differences
- ability to cooperate on child-related issues
- a resolution of personal issues
Referral to Community Resources
- mediation services
- individual and group support counselling for children and parents
- parent education programs
It may be that, beyond the practical application for developing parenting plans, there is little usefulness in trying to define more accurate criteria for characterizing high conflict divorce situations. Probably the main difficulty with this term is the adjective "high", since it implies there is a clear distinction between various levels of conflict. Making such distinctions among individuals is one thing, but trying to generalize such distinctions and draw universal correlations between combinations of external and internal markers and the children’s emotional response to these markers demands very sophisticated research.
At this time, it is most useful to see divorce conflict as a continuum, an interplay between three sets of factors:
- specific events and behaviours in a family leading up to and following the decision to separate;
- the family and community resources available to help the parents and children adjust to the structural/environmental, emotional and relationship changes; and
- the children’s internal responses to these challenges.
More research, including studies that investigate long-term outcomes, is needed to determine whether the use of criteria to identify high conflict divorce has any practical application for mental health and legal practitioners in terms of developing parenting plans and alternative services for dispute resolution.
Some studies refer to specific types of hostile behaviour between parents in high conflict. These behaviours include parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial. Each of these requires more study to accurately define the behaviour as well as gain some understanding about how these particular behaviours affect children.
More research is required concerning certain elements of high conflict divorces, specifically parental alienation, use of false allegations, and access and custody denial, to determine whether legislative initiatives would be a useful response to these situations.
The effects on children of high conflict between parents
When looking at negative outcomes for children, a majority of studies identify high conflict between parents as having the most toxic effect on children. Only a few studies have examined the after-effects on children of high conflict families. These studies conclude that exposure to high conflict between divorcing parents results in children showing:
- high levels of aggressive behaviour;
- anti-social behaviour;
- conduct disorders; and
They further conclude that:
- open hostility for periods longer than one year are likely to cause children problems in the form of uncontrolled behaviour;
- both girls and boys are equally effected by inter-parental hostility, but boys are more likely to show their upset in overt displays of problem behaviour;
- the child’s age does not to seem to be a mitigating factor in reactions to inter-parental hostility (very young children and older adolescents all show upset in these situations); and
- good relationships between one or both parents and the child mitigate but do not eliminate the negative effects of inter-parental hostility.
These studies indicate that children who live in high conflict situations are at an even greater risk of becoming maladjusted than children in lower conflict circumstances of divorce and separation.
As part of a public education program designed to raise awareness about the hazards of divorce for children, attention should focus on the specific hazards caused by high conflict situations.
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Divorce has become a major issue in our society, and many causes have been attributed to the incline in divorce rates. Divorce rates have spiked during the past few decades and no on really knows why, but several theories have been formed in an attempt to explain this recent phenomena. Feminist theory, Individualism, and dual income theories will be discussed and analyzed to determine if they apply to the recent rise in divorce rates in North America. These theories do not act alone, that is, a not one of the above theories can be labeled as a definite cause of divorce, but when all three are examined together, a formula for divorce can be seen. The rise in divorce can not be, and should not be, attributed to a single theory, but rather the rise in divorce rates can be linked to all three, and one can see that these theories act collectively, as opposed to individually to cause the dramatic spike in divorce rates.
In recent years, Feminist theory has become pushed its way through traditional theory to become recognized. This theory directly applies divorce rates, as it taught women to stand up for their rights, and that they could do anything they wanted. This included activities that were previously occupied by men only. Feminist theory taught women that they did not need to depend on men for emotional support, financial support, or even to give them status in society, rather, feminist theory taught independence. Some forms of feminist theory has established that women do not need men to survive; a quote to back this up is one from Gloria Steinem, and she says “ A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” This backs up the idea that women do not need men to function, and this can be seen as a cause for a higher divorce rate. Some feminist theories are seen as extreme and Eva Figes displays the radical feminist theory when she says, “Either one goes on gradually liberating the divorce laws, until marriage stands exposed as a hollow sham in which no one would wish to engage, or one takes a short cut and abolishes marriage altogether.” (Figes, pg. 121, patriarchal attitudes, 1972, Feminism Opposing Viewpoints, 1986) Since feminism has shown women that they no longer need to rely on men for support, some of them have begun to remove men from their lives. This, in turn can be correlated with the spike in divorce rates since the beginning of the feminist movement. “The end of the institution of marriage is a necessary condition for the liberation of women. Therefore it is important for us to encourage women to leave their husbands…” -Declaration of Feminism. This idea, again, shows the way that feminist theory has attributed to the divorce rates. This idea is essentially telling women that they must divorce their husbands in order to liberate women. This idea directly tells women to divorce their husbands in order to be liberated, and to aid in the liberation in all women. This is a main reason that Feminist theory has aided in the rise of divorce rates since the start of the feminist movement.
A second theory on the rise of divorce rates is the theory of individualism. William J. Goode says that “In our time people have been reducing their personal investments in the collectivity of the family.” (Goode, pg. 9, World Changes in Divorce Patterns, 1993) This statement accurately portrays the idea of individualism as it is saying that people of the past few decades have stopped emphasizing the collectivity of society, and on a smaller scale family, and have begun to focus on personal gain and investment. Individualism is a mainly North American viewpoint that involves placing emphasis on the individual, rather than focusing on the group. Individualism looks at the “I” instead of the “We”, and this can be translated into a cause of the recent divorce rates seen in North America. With individualism, people stop staying together for the kids; if a person from an individualistic society feels unhappy, or just simply wants out, they get out. Along with individualism has come a need for personal happiness. Goode believes this may be a reason for the rise in divorce rates and says, “One might also suggest that the culprit has been the incorrigible romanticism of this population, cherishing the dream of romantic life in marriage, believing in the individual’s right to pursue happiness, so that the grubby reality of daily married life seems to many a personal defeat.” (Goode, pg. 180-181, World Changes in Divorce Patterns, 1993) This shift from cultural values to individual values has put major pressure and stress on existing ideas about what marriage is about. It is this stress that leads to many splits; therefore one can presume that individualism correlates with divorce.
A third theory about the rise in divorce rates is a theory brought on by feminist and individualist theory. This is the idea that more families are converting to a dual-income household; that is; both partners in marriage are working and pursuing separate careers. Some people believe that some of these careers move away from each other and can pull two partners apart so each individual can pursue his or her career. Most dual-income families spend less time together than single income families; therefor these families have less time to grow to love each other and more time to grow apart. This theory can also be linked to divorce rates in the sense that if you are focused on making a career work, then it becomes more difficult to provide the focus it takes to make a marriage work. People are just giving up on marriage because it has become less important to them than economical status. The need for dual income families has, indeed, shifted mentalities to economics, rather than marriage or love, and this can impact on existing marriages. When it became almost necessary for both partners to have careers, a strain was put on marriages, and this strain has aided in the spike of divorce rates. The focus is no longer on traditional male/breadwinner, female/homemaker roles, and this has been hard to adapt to for many people. Some people can not adapt, or could not adapt quickly enough to this change, so the force of separate careers pulled couples apart, often times ending marriages in divorce. A branch of the dual income effect is role conflict. Role conflict exists when there is scarce time to be divided between work and family. Gary L. Cooper and Suzan Lewis say “When people feel torn between the needs of their children and the demands of work, the subsequent conflict can be very distressing.” (Cooper, Lewis, pg. 78, Managing The New Work Force, 1994) This distress can, and often does lead to separation, or, in some cases, Divorce. Cooper and Lewis go on to say “ Problems may arise if partners lack the time and energy to provide the practical or emotional support associated with having a homemaker wife.” (Cooper, Lewis, pg. 120, Managing The New Work Force, 1994) this is essentially saying that with the incorporation of new family ideas comes a change from traditional roles, that, in turn, may produce a lack of actions or support that has grown to be the norm in society. This can cause many problems as dual income situations may remove comfort areas of a relationship and, by doing this, a more stressful situation is created, which may eventually lead to divorce.
Each of these theories can provide valuable insight on the rise of divorce rates over the past sixty years, but not one can be considered a cause, and one can not be labeled as more important than the other can. Feminist theory brings up a good point in the sense that it discusses the liberation of women and the new ideas and rights of women today. The points listed above are solid arguments to support the fact that divorce rates do correlate with the feminist movement. The same can be said for dual income families. One can see that there is a correlation with the movement from traditional families and an increase in divorce rates. Again, the same can be said for individualism. With society moving from collectivism into individualism, the sense of family solidarity can be lost. This is why all three theories are applicable to the rise of divorce rates, and these rates will continue to rise as societal value changes.
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