Diagnosing High Conflict Divorces

With the breakdown of the marital-parental partnership comes conflict on some level. This conflict cannot only impede resolution of the divorce issues but it can create significant issues in the raising of the parties’ children. These high conflict relationships have be identified if the best interests of the children, both during litigation and afterwards, are going to be served.

Most families that divorce (80% of all divorces) are in Tier One. These are the parties who can discuss their issues and find their own resolutions. There is some conflict, but primarily manageable by family, namely the parents. For these divorcees there is minimal need for involvement of legal or mental health services.

There are also parties who need the assistance of lawyers and therapists. These divorcees in Tier Two have a mid-level conflict. Legal and mental health services assist the family in regaining leadership of family. May need legal coaching and judicial attention but do not go to trial.

In Tier Three, there are very high levels of conflict with high need of legal, mental health, neutral services. Their time, energy, social, and financial resources are heavily drained by these conflicts. They are the 10% of cases that take up 90% of the court’s time. Predictable dynamics for Tier Three are:

  • Heavy blame of the other party
  • Contempt, negative attribution of other party
  • Fear for safety (substantiated and unsubstantiated)
  • Little insight of parties into own contribution to the conflict
  • Children clearly in the middle and elevated to situational decision making roles
  • Difficulty negotiating (parties can’t see actual goodwill of other side)
  • Very poor communication amongst the parties
  • Extreme levels of distress experienced by all parties (and children)

The leadership of the family becomes warped in Tier Three relationships. When there is parental conflict, the children are put in the middle. When there is continued parental conflict, the family tree becomes inverted. When the conflict continues and the parents are not acting as the leaders to the family, the fall back looks like a family tree with the child on top and the parents on bottom.

All too often this absence of parental leadership results in the child becoming aligned with one parent. This creates one parent who retains the intimacy of the child as the In-Parent and the other who is seemingly excluded as the Out-Parent. When there is an In-Parent and an Out-Parent, we see these dynamics:

In-Parent Dynamics

  • Children are stressed by the Out-Parent
  • “We” and “us” are used by the In-Parent and children with specific diametric reference to the out-parent. E. g. “we are tired of the verbal abuse”
  • In-Parent declarations of “it is not good for the child to see the other parent”
  • Belief that the Out-Parent “doesn’t get it”

Out-Parent Dynamics

  • Has not seen children or has very limited time with children
  • Focused on time. E. g. “When will I see my child?”
  • Claims that the In-Parent is “alienating”
  • Often blaming and “not taking responsibility” for their part

This detailed definition of high conflict relationships and examples can be very valuable to divorcees. Whereas Tier One and Tier Two relationships are readily self-identifiable by divorcing parties, Tier Three divorcees can have a hard time recognizing the degree of acrimony amongst the other parent, their children, and themselves – self-awareness can be especially difficult amongst the unyielding patterns of Tier Three relationships.