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Defining High Conflict

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Abstract

The term high conflict is used regularly across various literatures; such as divorce, family court, and psychotherapy; to describe relationships that are mired in conflict. Despite its widespread use, the term has not been precisely defined in a clinically meaningful way. This article offers a definition of high conflict based on a synthesis of previous literatures related to high conflict, observations of court personnel, and the authors’ own clinical experiences working with this population. A case study illustrates the pervasive negative exchanges and hostile insecure emotional environment that characterize these couples. The implications of this definition for clinical practice are also discussed.
The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39:11–27, 2011
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0192-6187 print / 1521-0383 online
DOI: 10.1080/01926187.2010.530194
Defining High Conflict
SHAYNE R. ANDERSON, STEPHEN A. ANDERSON, and
KRISTI L. PALMER
University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA
MATTHEW S. MUTCHLER
Penn State Worthington Scranton, Dunmore, Pennsylvania, USA
LOUISA K. BAKER
University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA
The term high conflict is used regularly across various literatures;
such as divorce, family court, and psychotherapy; to describe re-
lationships that are mired in conflict. Despite its widespread use,
the term has not been precisely defined in a clinically meaning-
ful way. This article offers a definition of high conflict based on
a synthesis of previous literatures related to high conflict, observa-
tions of court personnel, and the authors’ own clinical experiences
working with this population. A case study illustrates the pervasive
negative exchanges and hostile insecure emotional environment
that characterize these couples. The implications of this definition
for clinical practice are also discussed.
INTRODUCTION
Conflict is inevitable in relationships, particularly among couples (Gottman
& Silver, 1999). Studies of conflict within couples have found that some
level of conflict can actually be beneficial to couple relationships (Gottman,
1994). Successful conflict-management strategies enable couples to commu-
nicate in ways that promote understanding, resolve differences, and foster
intimacy (Anderson & Sabatelli, 2007). The potential for couple conflict to
escalate beyond a productive level is also well recognized in the literature.
Address correspondence to Shayne R. Anderson, Department of Human Develop-
ment and Family Studies, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-2058. E-mail: shayne.
anderson@uconn.edu
11
12 S. R. Anderson et al.
The term ‘high conflict’ has been used to refer to couples when the tim-
ing, duration, and intensity of their conflict results in negative effects for the
relationship, individual partners, or other family members, most notably chil-
dren (Cummings & Davies, 1994). High conflict cases are often referred to
therapists by family courts when divorcing spouses have been unable to
resolve differences over financial support, property division, child custody,
visitation, or methods of child rearing (Johnston, 1994). They may also be re-
ferred by courts for cases involving domestic violence or by child protective
agencies when child abuse or neglect is suspected (Johnston, 2006). Finally,
it is not only separating couples who engage in high conflict. Couples in on-
going stable relationships can become conflict-habituated (Cuber & Harroff,
1972).
Despite the widespread usage of the term high conflict couples and
the increasing focus on this population, the available literature, in both the
legal and treatment spheres, offers limited assistance in defining high conflict
(e.g., Johnston, 1994; Goodman, Bonds, Sandler, & Braver, 2004). The extant
professional literature does not offer a consensus as to precisely what occurs
within these high conflict relationships nor what differentiates couples who
engage in regular conflict from those who engage in high conflict. Equally
unclear is what differentiates high conflict from domestic violence. The result
is that the family therapy field lacks a clear conceptual basis for intervening
with high conflict couples.
The goals of the present article are twofold. First, we offer a defini-
tion of high conflict that specifies the contextual, interpersonal, and in-
trapersonal characteristics of high conflict relationships. Then, we outline
the implications of this definition for clinical intervention and research.
To develop this definition, we conducted reviews of literature related to
high conflict divorce, psychological aggression in marriage, typologies of
violent couples, and couple conflict more generally. We also have drawn
on our own clinical experiences and our interactions with court profes-
sionals who have referred high conflict couples to our psychotherapy
clinic.
We begin by discussing conflict as occurring along a continuum in
order to establish the scope for the term high conflict. We distinguish high
conflict couple interactions from those that characterize less severe couple
conflict on the one hand, and domestic violence on the other. We then
offer a definition of high conflict that specifies both inter- and intra-personal
characteristics of highly conflicted relationships. A clinical vignette is offered
to illustrate the various dimensions of the definition. We conclude with a
discussion of clinical and research considerations arising from this definition
of high conflict.
Defining High Conflict 13
DEFINING HIGH CONFLICT
The Conflict Continuum: Distinguishing Conflict, High-Conflict,
and Domestic Violence
As noted above, much of the available literature has defined high con-
flict by applying a subjective standard that locates high conflict somewhere
between low or “normal” conflict and domestic violence. For example,
Weeks and Treat’s (2001) typology of couple conflict distinguishes between
low, medium, and high-level conflict within couples. Low-level conflict is
generally issue-focused. While the couple may have clear differences or
preferences about these issues, they are often able to remain psychologically
differentiated and negotiate a solution to the conflict. Medium-level conflict
involves patterns of relating that are often carried over from each of the part-
ner’s family-of-origin experiences. In this type of conflict, couple interactions
typically include greater levels of blaming and reactivity. High-level conflict
is defined as having a “chronic quality,” and a “high degree of emotional
reactivity, blaming and vilification” (Weeks & Treat, 2001, p. 173). In high
conflict cases, partners often exhibit low differentiation and an inability to
take responsibility for their role in the conflict.
Weingarten and Leas (1987) suggest five levels of interpersonal conflict.
Level 1 (Problems to Solve) is similar to Weeks and Treat’s (2001) low-level
conflict category. Conflict is focused on specific issues and how to solve
them. When anger is expressed over differences it is usually short lived and
the emotional climate remains hopeful. Couples within Level 2 (Disagree-
ments) trust each other less than those in Level 1 and are more likely to view
the relationship as problematic. Since trust within the emotional environment
has begun to fade, partners communicate less often with one another and
are more likely to triangulate others into the conflict. Although the emotional
environment may feel insecure, and couples may feel uncertain about how
to engage each other, they are not antagonistic, and can still see ways to
address their disagreements. In Level 3 (Contest), “winning” the conflict is
the primary motivation. The emotional climate is characterized by frustration
and resentment, with anger erupting quickly and dissipating slowly. Each
partner generally sees the conflict as coming from the other, such that if the
other partner changed, the conflict would disappear. Level 4 (Fight/Flight)
and Level 5 (War) are similar to Weeks and Treat’s (2001) description of
high-conflict. Interactions are characterized by blame, emotional volatility,
and partners’ inability to take responsibility for their part in the dispute. In-
creased triangulation of third parties and fixed, negative perceptions of each
other are readily apparent. The conflict is no longer about issues, but rather
it is about the person. The emotional climate in Level 4 is typically one of
antagonism and alienation. In Level 5, the emotional climate is marked by
hopelessness, rage, and revenge.
14 S. R. Anderson et al.
One of the most prominent early works to propose a range of couple
conflict styles was the work of Cuber and Harroff (1972). Based on inter-
views conducted with 211 individuals married for ten or more years, the
authors established five types of marital relationships: Conflict-Habituated,
Devitalized, Passive-Congenial, Vital, and Total. The most relevant type for
our purposes is the conflict-habituated couple. According to Cuber and
Harroff (1972), high levels of conflict and partner-directed hostility occupy
a significant place in the couple’s interactions, and rarely do these couples
resolve any issues within the relationship. Conflict is “ever-potential” and “an
atmosphere of tension permeates the togetherness” (p. 276).
Several recent studies support the findings of Cuber and Harroff (1972)
and elaborate further on the characteristics of couples dealing with high
levels of conflict. Lavee and Olson’s (1993) typology described conflicted
couples as engaging in bitter personal attacks with each other and being
“dissatisfied with the personal characteristics of their partners” (p. 336). Fals-
Stewart, Schafer, and Birchler (1993) identified a subtype of distressed cou-
ples based on the Areas of Change Questionnaire. Their high-conflict couples
were those who reported intense, extensive conflicted interactions and sig-
nificant psychological distress.
Gottman’s (1993, 1994) extensive research on couples identified five
couple types, two of which were characterized by high levels of conflict.
Volatile couples and hostile couples both engaged in interactions plagued by
negativity, mutual defensiveness, blame, and negative attributions. Hostile
couples also exhibited an inability to listen to, or empathize with, each
other in a “psychological climate of endless misery” (Gottman, 1994, p. 47).
However, the major feature distinguishing hostile and volatile couples was
that volatile couples also expressed high levels of positive affect to balance
the negativity. Hostile couples expressed far fewer positive sentiments.
While much of Gottman’s (1993, 1994) research suggests that a certain
amount of conflict can be helpful in maintaining a stable marriage, it also
provides characteristics of conflict that can be destructive to couples. When
the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling) per-
meate the relationship, the couple may encounter a “gridlock of perpetual
problems” (Gottman & Silver, 1999, p. 132). Elements of the four horsemen
help to further elucidate what differentiates low-level conflict from destruc-
tive high-level conflict.
For example, criticism is distinct from complaints, such that when cou-
ples criticize each other, their interaction is directed at the person rather
than the disputed issue or situation. This supports the findings of others
who also found that low-level conflict tends to be issue-focused (Lavee &
Olson, 1993; Weeks & Treat, 2001). Contempt is marked by an environment
of cynicism, sarcasm and disgust that is fueled by “long-simmering negative
thoughts about” one’s partner (Gottman & Silver, 1999, p. 31). Defensiveness
surfaces as a way to blame one’s partner or defend self, while stonewalling
Defining High Conflict 15
often results when criticism, contempt and defensiveness reach such a level
that one partner tunes out. Gottman, Driver, and Tabares (2002) suggest that
a relationship dominated by the four horsemen contains conflict that is char-
acterized by chronic physiological arousal; negative perceptions, including
negative attributions and sentiment about one’s partner and the relationship;
and the failure of partners to accept influence from each other or to attempt
to repair the relationship.
In summary, previous literature suggests that couples at the low end
of the conflict continuum focus on issues more than the partner. Problems
are negotiated and solved. Partners are willing to accept responsibility for
their part in the dispute, there is a shared sense of trust, and a hopeful
emotional environment prevails. Further along the conflict continuum there
is a greater focus on the partner rather than the issue and fewer problems
are successfully negotiated and resolved. Higher levels of blaming, reactivity,
frustration, resentment, anger, distrust, and pessimism about the partner and
the relationship are present. Further along the continuum, these feelings may
give way to helplessness, rage, and revenge. At each stage of the continuum
the ratio of positive to negative, hostile exchanges declines.
VIOLENCE IN HIGH CONFLICT RELATIONSHIPS
Just as it is important to distinguish between conflict and high conflict, it
is important to distinguish between the violence that occurs in highly con-
flicted couples and the violence present in severely abusive relationships.
Violence and aggression are common among couples in the general pop-
ulation and even more prevalent among couples seen in outpatient clinics
(Simpson et al., 2007). It is likely that the prevalence of violence in high
conflict couples is even greater still. Indeed, many of the characteristics
associated with high conflict such as anger, jealousy, poor marital adjust-
ment, lack of conflict resolution, and negative attributions are frequently
cited as correlates of relational violence (O’Leary et al., 2007). Furthermore,
the prevalence of violence increases sharply during the separation and di-
vorce process (Brownridge et al., 2008). The need to distinguish between
the violence likely to occur in high conflict couples and the violence in
severely violent couple relationships is not simply a conceptual matter. It
is essential in determining the suitability of couple therapy for high conflict
resolution.
Tactics of control, domination, fear, manipulation, and degradation di-
rected toward the partner define severe violence and abuse. These acts
comprise a pattern of behavior that is both frequent and severe. Violence
in these couples is a one-sided affair perpetrated by a batterer against a
victim. Johnson (1995) describes this pattern of behavior as patriarchal ter-
rorism. In contrast, the violence among high conflict couples is more aptly
16 S. R. Anderson et al.
described as situational couple violence (Johnson, 1995). Violence in these
couples is frequently mutual and lacks the degree of control, manipulation,
and degradation characteristic of battering relationships. Rather, the com-
paratively infrequent physical aggression in these couples is thought to be
reactionary in nature and the result of a cycle of mutual escalation (Johnston
& Campbell, 1993; Brownridge et al., 2008).
Definition of High Conflict Couple Relationships
High conflict couples can be characterized by several distinct attributes that
fall into two clusters: Pervasive Negative Exchanges and Hostile, Insecure
Emotional Environment. Cluster I: Pervasive Negative Exchanges, is charac-
terized by recurring destructive communication patterns, defensiveness and
counter attacking, rapid escalation of conflict, unremitting change attempts,
continual rejections of such attempts, and negative attributions. Cluster II:
Hostile, Insecure Emotional Environment, is characterized by strong nega-
tive affect, a lack of safety, a sense of mutual distrust, emotional reactivity,
triangulation, and enmeshment. Outcomes resulting from the interaction of
these two clusters can be unsuccessful attempts at resolving conflict without
assistance, failure of standard interventions employed by the legal system and
others such as parent counseling, divorce mediation, or parent education,
and difficulty retaining couples in traditional relationship-oriented therapies.
CLUSTER I: PERVASIVE NEGATIVE EXCHANGES
This cluster specifies features that relate to the patterns of couple interac-
tions and the content and intensity of these exchanges. In general, cou-
ples characterized by high conflict tend to be entrenched in conflicted
interaction patterns. In addition to their pervasiveness, these patterns are
characterized by defensiveness, aggression, and shared rigid and negative
portrayals of the other. These four essential characteristics of high conflict
couples—pervasiveness of conflict, and exchanges driven by defensiveness,
aggression, and negative attributions—distinguish high conflict from less per-
nicious conflict and are often associated with the term high conflict through-
out the literature.
Pervasiveness. An obvious but essential feature of high conflict dyads
is that their interactions are dominated by conflict. For these pairs, pervasive-
ness involves rapid escalation of conflict that intrudes into communication
that did not begin as conflicted. Conflict characterizes the couple’s commu-
nication on most topics and in most settings. Although couples experiencing
conflict for a relatively short period of time may escalate into high conflict,
a defining feature of high conflict couples is that the conflict persists across
time. Part of what keeps high conflict couples entrenched in conflict is failure
to reach resolution or compromise.
Defining High Conflict 17
Pervasiveness, in one form or another, is often cited in literature on di-
vorce, divorce mediation, domestic violence, and family conflict as a defining
feature of high conflict couples. Mitcham-Smith and Henry (2007), who of-
fer a mediation-based intervention for high conflict parents, comment that
high conflict divorce is characterized by “entrenched conflict” (p. 368). Citing
the Family Law Supreme Court Steering Committee Report (2003), Mitcham-
Smith and Henry note that 8–12% of couples use the court system to maintain
a cycle of perpetual conflict to continue their disputes as long as 2–3 years
post-divorce. Emery (1999) estimated the numbers to be much higher, sug-
gesting that as many as one-quarter to one-third of separated parents engage
in severe and persistent conflict. Parkinson (2000) observed that, for di-
vorcing couples, “outrage and anger can quickly spread from one issue to
another,” and in high conflict couples this may contribute to complete com-
munication breakdown (p. 70). Beck and Sales (2001) noted that spouses in
the most troubled relationships share the same underlying inability to engage
each other constructively in identifying areas of conflict and then resolving
them. Johnson (2006) cites “the refusal to submit to another’s rules, requests,
or demands” as a defining feature of high conflict couples (p. 17). Clearly,
the pervasiveness of conflict constitutes a central feature of the relationship
dynamics of high conflict couples.
Defensiveness. The pervasiveness of conflict within high conflict cou-
ples is maintained by exchanges that are organized primarily by defensive-
ness. These defensive interactions are characterized by self-protection, avoid-
ance, withdrawal, stonewalling, or efforts to control the other before being
controlled. This pattern of reactive defensiveness reduces the opportunity
for trust to develop among high conflict couples (Dalton, Carbon, & Olesen,
2003) and makes attempts at mediation difficult (Cohen, Luxenburg, Dattner,
& Matz, 1999).
Aggression. High conflict couples’ exchanges are also generally
marked by aggression. In high conflict couples, aggression takes the form
of attacks that are person-focused rather than issue-focused and that may
appear offensive and unprovoked. Aggression may be in the form of either
verbal or physical attacks. However, as noted above, physical aggression
is likely to be reactionary in nature and the result of a cycle of mutual es-
calation. Generally absent is the one-sided pattern of battering designed to
promote control, domination, and fear (Holtzworth-Munroe & Stuart, 1994;
Johnson, 2006).
Nonetheless, it is likely that the prevalence of both physical and psycho-
logical aggression will be high among high conflict couples, both because
violence is common among couples seeking mental health treatment, and
because high conflict couples face an increased likelihood of intimate part-
ner violence due to the strong association between poor marital adjustment
and aggression (O’Leary, Smith Slep, & O’Leary, 2007). For this reason it is
important to distinguish between physical aggression and battering. While
18 S. R. Anderson et al.
treatment at the couple level may be indicated for aggression, couples in
which severe physical or psychological violence is used may be best served
through the legal system.
Escalation. Exchanges between high conflict partners feature fre-
quent reciprocal negativity that escalates (Ridley, Wilhelm, & Surra, 2001).
Middelberg (2001) referred to this as the “dance of conflict” which is charac-
terized by blame, criticism, lack of empathy, emotional reactivity, and a cycle
of attack and counterattack (p. 347). When couples interact on the higher end
of the conflict continuum described above, anger, jealousy, and instability of
affect are associated with greater risk of verbal and physical abuse (Dutton,
Saunders, Starzomski, & Bartholomew, 1994). The stronger the anger and
fear in the couple relationship, the greater the likelihood of moving from
family-only violence (somewhat analogous to situational couple violence) to
pathological battering (Holtzworth-Munroe, Rehman, & Herron, 2000).
Negative Attributions and Dualistic Thinking. The final feature that
characterizes Cluster I addresses the cognitions that motivate partners to
participate in the conflict. Individuals who are part of a high conflict dyad
frequently hold negative attributions about the other person, tending toward
dualistic thinking that vilifies the other and portrays the self as victim or
under attack (Grych & Fincham, 1990). Over time, these attributions become
rigid, redundant, easily activated, and difficult to extinguish. Both partners
participate in the process of mutually exchanging their dualistic thoughts and
negative attributions that both activate and maintain the pervasive negative
patterns of exchange that characterize high conflict couples.
Various authors have associated these cognitive tendencies with high
conflict couples. Mitcham-Smith and Henry (2007) observed that high con-
flict parents typically engage in dualistic thinking (e.g., black and white,
good or bad, and all or nothing). Similarly, Dalton, Carbon, and Olesen
(2003) suggested that distorted and exaggerated negative views of each held
by the other lead to mistrust among conflicted couples. Elrod (2001) noted
that divorced or separating parents may feel shame and a vulnerability that
turns their perceptions into ‘black and white’ issues, i.e., I am good and my
spouse is evil” (p. 510). O’Leary, Smith Slep, and O’Leary (2007) describe
a similar dynamic in violent couples where one partner attributes disliked
behaviors to the other partner. Beliefs such as the partner is deliberately
trying to get them mad or the partner has control over the disliked be-
havior and is choosing not to exercise it are frequently observed in these
couples.
CLUSTER II: HOSTILE,INSECURE EMOTIONAL ENVIRONMENT
The pervasive negative exchanges contribute to and are maintained by a
hostile emotional environment of strong negative affect, emotional reactivity,
Defining High Conflict 19
lack of safety, triangulation, and mutual distrust. This environment spills into
other areas of family functioning and is detrimental to the welfare of children
(Buehler et al., 1994).
Strong Negative Affect. Strong negative affect generally involves high lev-
els of anger, hostility, and unresolved conflicts (Davies et al., 1999). Hostility
and other negative emotions may be covertly or overtly expressed (Johnston,
1994) and are often accompanied by experiences of depression and
anxiety that may limit parents’ abilities to be nurturing and responsive to
their children (Gaulier, Margerum, Price, & Windell, 2007).
Intense negative affect is prevalent in high conflict couples both pre and
post divorce with these couples reporting mutual distrust, blaming, hostility,
verbal abuse, and fearfulness towards each other (Johnson, 2007; Mitcham-
Smith, 2007). The intensity of conflict between parents during marriage is the
most significant factor in the adjustment of children following divorce (Boyan
& Termini, 2005). High conflict parents often have minimal understanding
of the effects of their mutual negative affect on their children.
Emotional Reactivity. A high degree of emotional reactivity expressed
between partners also adds to the family’s hostile emotional climate. Weeks
and Treat (2001) noted both partners in these couples are highly emotionally
reactive and tend to vilify each other. Furthermore, these individuals often
exhibit low differentiation and an inability to take responsibility for their
role in the conflict. Weingarten and Leas (1987) note that blame, emotional
volatility, and partners’ inability to take responsibility contribute to an emo-
tional climate of antagonism and alienation or hopelessness and revenge at
the highest levels of conflict.
Lack of Safety. The authors’ clinical experiences working with high
conflict couples have consistently included discussions of a perceived lack
of emotional safety in the couple and family emotional system. Exposure
to repetitive and unresolved parental fighting, participation in custody eval-
uations, and family conflict in the wider system creates an environment of
emotional insecurity for children (Cummings & Davies, 1994). In the pro-
cess of constant unresolved conflict, the relationship between the child and
one or both parents can become distant, cut-off or alienated (Elrod, 2001;
Ramsey, 2001).
Mutual Distrust. In our clinical experiences working with high conflict
couples, we frequently hear partners express mutual distrust toward each
other. This can be expressed as disbelief that the partner will ever change or
is really serious about the therapy. Alternatively, there may be distrust of the
other’s capacity to properly care for the children or to have the children’s
best interests in mind.
Despite the apparent pervasiveness of this characteristic, available litera-
ture on the topic is scarce. Johnston (1994) called attention to the “pervasive
distrust about the other parent’s ability to care for their child adequately
and discrepant perceptions about parenting practices [that] generally typify
20 S. R. Anderson et al.
couples who are likely to be highly disputatious” (p. 168). Gilmour (2004)
simply noted that high conflict relationships can include long lasting emo-
tional disagreements that involve high degrees of anger and distrust. This is
an area that needs further investigation.
Triangulation. Another important feature of high conflict couples is
triangulation. Triangulation occurs when tension or conflict builds to an
intolerable level within a two-person relationship. To relieve anxiety the
person most uncomfortable with the relationship brings a third person into
the relationship (complaining to him/her, gossiping about the other, or ask-
ing for advice). Although triangulation occurs in all relationships, it tends
to occur more often in poorly differentiated families (Bowen, 1978). Trian-
gulation becomes dysfunctional when it is a primary strategy for managing
conflict, because conflict remains unresolved.
Children are prime targets of the triangulation process. According to
Johnston and Roseby (1997), high conflict parents have difficulty focusing
on their children’s needs as distinct from their own and cannot protect their
children from their own emotional distress and anger, or from their ongoing
disputes with each other. Partners may attempt to gain control over the other
by placing the child in the middle and attempting to sway his or her opinion
of the other parent, putting pressure on the children to take sides or play
the role of messenger or spy (Emery, 1999).
An example of triangulation among divorcing couples is Parental Alien-
ation Syndrome (PAS). PAS is characterized by one parent vilifying the other
parent with unwarranted claims of abuse, neglect, or wrongdoing (Gardner,
1998; Kelly & Johnston, 2001). This is often seen during the pre-divorce
stage when negative emotions are strong. The actions by parents in PAS
cases are devastating to children but they also damage the functioning and
reasoning of the adult perpetrator. Such actions include portraying the target
parent as dangerous, unnecessary, or neglectful; allowing the child to make
decisions about visitations; denigrating the target parent to the child; exag-
gerating and discussing flaws of the target parent; disrupting or terminating
the other parent’s visits with the child; probing the child after visits to detect
“negative” behaviors or occurrences; creating barriers for phone contacts or
scheduled visits; and making allegations of sexual or physical abuse (Stahl,
1999; Boynan & Termini, 2005).
High conflict couples tend to triangulate family courts, attorneys, po-
lice, and other professionals as well. According to Neff and Cooper (2004)
family courts and related professionals are spending 90% of their time on
the 10% of the population deemed high conflict. These parents use the
courts as a way to control, punish, and publicly condemn their ex-spouse
for his or her wrongdoings and drag out the legal process to inhibit closure
and allow the other parent to move on from the marriage (Coates et al.,
2004).
Defining High Conflict 21
Other Correlates and Risk Factors for High Conflict
Although the main focus of this article is on the interactional exchanges and
emotional climate frequently found among high conflict couples, there are
a number of other factors that may be relevant for clinical assessment and
treatment. Chief among these are the history of the couple’s relationship and
each partner’s individual history and family of origin experiences.
COUPLE RELATIONSHIP HISTORY
Frequently, the grievances high conflict couples report in therapy have been
present in the relationship and remained unresolved over a period of time.
Sometimes they were present from the very beginning of the relationship, as
in the case of a wife who complained that her husband spent more time on
their honeymoon doing work on his telephone and laptop computer than
with her. These long-standing issues become “perpetual problems” in the
sense that they become habituated, are heavily loaded with negative affect,
can escalate quickly into full-blown arguments, and have limited strategies
for de-escalating or softening the interaction (Gottman, 1999). Identification
of these relational triggers is essential if repair attempts are to be successful.
PARTNERS’INDIVIDUAL HISTORIES AND FAMILY OF ORIGIN EXPERIENCES
One important element of each partner’s personal history is the kinds of
childhood experiences of trauma, abuse, neglect, loss, separation, and re-
lated attachment injuries he or she has experienced. These injuries leave
individuals unable to establish trust, form secure attachments, or manage
the stresses inherent in an intimate relationship. They may come to view
the world and relationships as dangerous and uncertain (Johnson, 2002).
As a result, they are at high risk for getting stuck in the pervasive kinds
of pursue-withdraw or criticize-defend interaction cycles that characterize
highly distressed relationships (Gottman & Driver, 2005). Absent is the ca-
pacity to self-soothe and a willingness to accept influence or relationship
repair overtures from the partner (Gottman, 1999).
CLINICAL VIGNETTE
Harriet (41) and James (39) are never-married parents of Kelly (4). They
separated when Kelly was two years old, and had been embroiled in court
battles regarding custody, visitation, and child support since that time.
22 S. R. Anderson et al.
Cluster I: Pervasive Negative Exchanges
Harriet and James exhibited intense conflict on a variety of topics, includ-
ing consistent lateness for visitation exchanges, poor communication, and
mutual accusations of parental neglect. Therapy sessions would often be-
gin with Harriet raising a complaint against James who would respond with
an unrelated counter-complaint against Harriet. Interactions would quickly
escalate into a cycle of aggressive criticism and defensiveness. On one oc-
casion, James complained that Harriet was not attending to Kelly’s medical
needs. Kelly was having frequent urinary tract infections and James charged
that this was due to her eating a poor diet in Harriet’s home. He further
complained that Harriet would not take Kelly to the doctor (she stated that
medical costs were James’ responsibility). Harriet countered that Kelly fre-
quently came home from James’ house with bruises, scrapes, and small cuts.
James responded defensively, stating that the injuries resulted from play or
hiking. James’ response to Harriet’s accusations of abuse was to accuse her
of medical neglect. These cycles of negative interactions would continue to
escalate until the therapists intervened to halt them or one of the partners
stormed out of the room.
Inherent in these pervasive negative exchanges were negative attribu-
tions and dualistic thinking that portrayed the other as a “bad” parent. Each
partner had a story that served as “proof” of the other’s wrongdoing. Both
were unwilling to change their story, even though they were able to co-
parent successfully in other areas. This paradoxical stance of willingness to
work together while each maintains a view of self as the “good parent” and
the other as the “bad parent” is a core challenge in working with couples
such as Harriet and James.
Cluster II: Hostile, Insecure Emotional Environment
Escalation of the conflict between Harriet and James was driven, in part,
by their strong negative affect towards, and distrust for, one another. It
was further compounded by a perceived lack of psychological safety. For
example, during visitation exchanges, Harriet forbade James from coming
into her home. James interpreted this as a power struggle and continued
to enter the home. Harriet felt threatened and forbade James from entering
her driveway. Loud arguments inevitably ensued when James continued to
defy Harriet’s rules. Kelly witnessed these intense exchanges, diminishing
her sense of psychological safety with either parent.
Triangulation was prevalent during this dispute as both partners tried
their best to get the therapists on their “side.” Harriet indignantly pointed out
how James had no respect for her or her boundaries. James countered that
Harriet cared more about where he parked his car than Kelly having to walk
out to the street by herself. The emotional reactivity surrounding this issue
Defining High Conflict 23
was so strong that neither was able to accept the therapists’ posture of not
taking sides. After one heated session, Harriet telephoned to state that she no
longer wanted to continue treatment because she felt that the co-therapists
did not support her on this issue. At that point, treatment had been ongoing
for 5 months and the parents had been able to make some progress towards
forming a more collaborative working relationship in several other areas.
However, the ease with which progress was lost is yet another hallmark of
treatment with high conflict couples.
IMPLICATIONS
The definition we have presented clarifies the term high conflict by identi-
fying its core interactional, contextual, and intrapersonal characteristics. Our
goal was to provide clinicians with a framework to guide assessment, inter-
vention and treatment evaluation with high conflict couples. In this section,
we offer examples of the link between our definition and clinical practice.
Our intention is not to provide a comprehensive treatment approach. Rather,
it is to illustrate how elements of the definition can inform work with these
clients.
As illustrated by the vignette, the content these couples bring to ther-
apy, the numerous systems involved, and the affective intensity they present
with can be overwhelming. Amid allegations of abuse and neglect, custody
disputes, and multiple petitions to the court, it is easy to lose sight of the
underlying interactional dynamics that maintain the conflict. Elements of the
conceptual definition provide clinicians with concrete areas of focus for as-
sessment that move beyond the in-session content. Consider the following
examples.
The definition indicates that aggression is frequent among these couples
(Cluster I), and leads to a lack of physical and psychological safety (Cluster
II). Given the prevalence of emotional, psychological, and physical aggres-
sion among this population, therapists would be wise to assess for violence
with every high conflict couple. As they do so, they should consider the dis-
tinction between severe physical violence and mutual aggression between
partners. In addition to the degree of aggression, another key characteris-
tic of high conflict couples is the extent to which they triangulate others
into their conflict (Cluster II). This aspect of the definition focuses clinicians
on the need to assess how both partners are triangulating attorneys, family
court personnel, individual therapists, school personnel, and their children
into their conflict. Clinicians can use each element of the definition in a sim-
ilar way to focus their attention on the core characteristics and interactional
patterns common to high conflict.
Therapists can also use aspects of this definition to determine which
therapeutic interventions to use with high conflict couples. For example,
24 S. R. Anderson et al.
due to the rapid escalation of conflict (Cluster I) and lack of safety in
the relationship (Cluster II), therapists must develop a repertoire of skills
for managing intense and volatile interactions. In addition to actively inter-
rupting in-session conflicts, therapists can assist partners in managing their
emotional arousal with self-soothing or relaxation techniques. The nega-
tive attributions and dualistic thinking (Cluster I) that perpetuate conflict
can be identified and challenged using interventions from cognitive ther-
apy, or re-storied using narrative techniques. Cluster I also points to the
unremitting change attempts and continual rejection of these attempts as a
core feature of the interaction among these couples. Using acceptance in-
terventions such as those suggested by Jacobson and Christensen (1996),
therapists can help clients focus on personal responsibility for change and
mutual acceptance. In short, the conceptual definition can be used to fo-
cus clinical interventions on the areas that are conceptually linked to the
conflict.
A clear definition of high conflict not only guides assessment and in-
tervention, it also provides the basis for evaluating clients’ progress in treat-
ment. The defining characteristics of these couples can serve as the pri-
mary indices for evaluating the couple’s response to treatment. For example,
clinical evaluations can focus on the level of emotional reactivity, ratings
of trust, the frequency with which the couple triangulates family mem-
bers and the legal system, psychological safety, or any other element of
the definition. This can be accomplished informally via clinical interviews
and observation or by using any number of psychometrically sound mea-
sures that assess the various areas encompassed in the definition of high
conflict.
CONCLUSION
A clear definition of high conflict provides a framework for assessing, treat-
ing, and evaluating the success of therapy with high conflict couples. Based
on our own clinical work with this population, a review of the literature in
various fields, and input from court personnel, we have provided a concep-
tual definition of high conflict that includes two core clusters that describe
the interactional, emotional, and intrapersonal characteristics of high con-
flict couples: (1) pervasive negative exchanges and, (2) a hostile, insecure,
emotional environment. The systemic focus of couple and family therapists
makes them ideal candidates to provide clinical services to this population
and to pursue a research agenda to better understand how to successfully
treat high conflict relationships. It is our hope that the conceptual definition
of the interactional, emotional, and intrapersonal features that are character-
istic of these couples will provide the foundation for further developments
in research and clinical practice.
Defining High Conflict 25
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... International estimates of "high conflict" typically range from 10-25 percent, with 5-15 percent being the most common estimated range of enduring conflict (Smyth & Moloney, 2019). Anderson et al. (2010) suggest that high conflict is characterized by two core clusters: ...
... The results from a number of studies have contributed to distinguishing between the mutual violence sometimes exercised between partners in high-conflict couples and the more onesided violence that takes place in cases of serious partner violence or maltreatment (Simpson et al., 2007). Not uncommon is including mild, mutual or situational violence in the high conflict concept (Anderson et al., 2010). "Exposure to violence includes experiencing, viewing, hearing, or being involved in the aftermath of the physical violence that has taken place" (Edleson, 1999). ...
... This is in line with other research endeavours that focus on parents in high conflict past two years of separation (Francia et al., 2019a). By targeting this population, the sample is part of the 10-15 percent of parents whose past separation is entrenched in conflict and who struggle with establishing a working coparental relationship (Anderson et al., 2010;Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
Background: Prolonged conflicts among postdivorce or noncohabiting parents are found to threaten the welfare of children, parents, and functioning in two household families. These family contexts are known in the literature as having intensified psychosocial risk, pressuring subject positions of family members, and having difficulty functioning as a family. Many resources are spent from an array of public institutions—court, health, and child and family welfare institutions—to promote cooperative coparenting, help resolve custody conflicts, and aid the functioning of the family. A need exists for a further understanding of children’s and parents’ positions in prolonged conflict and their views on family life. More knowledge about postdivorce families (in chronic conflicts) is important for policy-makers and various service providers for children and families. Overall aim: This thesis aims to explore the meaning constructions and subject positions of postdivorce families in prolonged conflicts. Social constructionism and the systemic perspective have been a meta-theory in this thesis, combined with a discursive framework and the use of positioning theory. In this thesis, the term postdivorce or separated families involves families with noncohabiting parents, with parents having been married, with others having been cohabiting, and with some having not lived together at all. The main ambition of this study is to expand the knowledge about postdivorce families in prolonged interparental conflicts and how these family circumstances seem to be constructed from children’s and parents’ perspectives. The possible consequences of various positions for the family, the professionals in family services, and society are discussed. Knowledge from the children’s and parents’ perspectives might help us discern how one can support their well‐being in (to them) relevant ways. We also add to the knowledge of how to aid and strengthen families embedded in enduring postdivorce conflicts. Research questions: The following research questions were asked to illuminate the overall aim in three papers. The first paper focused on child subject positions and asked (I) how do children position themselves for challenges in postdivorce family conflicts, and how does family conflict position children? The second paper focused on the parallel storylines and subject positions of conflicted parent couples and asked the following three questions. (II a) What storylines emerge when separated couples in prolonged conflicts talk about their coparenting relationship? (II b) What positions of the self and the other are constructed when talking about the conflicted coparenting relationship? and (II c) What does it mean for the duty of parenthood when separated parents are in prolonged conflict? The third paper focused on fathers’ stories in prolonged conflict and asked the following three questions. (III a) What storylines of parental agency emerge when separated fathers talk about their children who are in distress from the conflict? (III b)What positions of agency do fathers take up in these storylines, and in what kinds of subject positions are fathers other-positioning their children and ex-partner ? (IIIc) How do these storylines legitimize fathers’ own subject positions and actions towards their children and ex-partner? Methods and Data: The ontological and epistemological stance in this research project is from systemic paradigms—that of social construction (Gergen et al., 2015) and bringforthism (Maturana & Varela, 1992; Maturana et al., 1980). The research project uses a qualitative methodology. The empirical material is from in-depth interviews with children and their parents in prolonged-postdivorce families with frameworks from social construction, systemic theory, and the discursive framework of positioning theory. The interviewed families were participants in a family therapy program in Norway that aimed to assist families with parents with a history of more than two years of conflict and who had been unsuccessful in resolving conflict or their coparenting challenges through family mediation, counseling, or legal proceeding/court attendance. Findings: Paper I: Children take up three dominant positions to address family conflict: (1) keeping balance (in the storyline of the family conflict), (2) keeping distance (in the storyline of the troubling parent), and (3) keeping on with life (in the storyline of life—as more than family challenges). Arguably, each position is an act of resistance against threats from family conflict. Paper II: Two typologies of conflicted storylines from an overarching storyline of “The Troublesome Other and I” were prominent in the findings: (1) storylines of violations of trust, positioning the coparents in relation to traumatic events in the past, and (2) storylines of who is bad, positioning the coparent as either a disloyal coparent or a dysfunctional parent. The findings indicate that prolonged conflicts made it impossible to find available positions for cooperation. Paper III: Three positions of father agency emerged in the analyses: (1) The Savior, (2) the Jungle Guide, and (3) a Beacon in a Fog of Uncertainty. Each position exemplifies fathers’ “world views,” “microcosmoses,” or “moral orders” of postdivorce dangers that surround children and shows how fathers typically position their children and their ethical stance in terms of parental agency. Our understanding of fathers’ agency from the perspective of positioning theory is fathers’ storylines (world views) about their obligation to carry through a line of action (perform agency) in response to how they perceive their children and their needs. This could be viewed as an alternative to understanding actions of father`s in high conflict divorce families that are often explained through the lens of psychopathology. Discussion and conclusive reflections: The discussion chapter in this thesis discusses patterns across the individual papers. In addition, some implications for professional practice and methodological strengths and limitations are discussed. The findings highlight how prolonged conflict positions the family system and how different family members typically construct and take up available subject positions to address conflict-related challenges. Such knowledge is relevant for Norwegian family counseling services and all agencies in contact with children and parents of postdivorce families, such as schools and child welfare agencies. It is also relevant internationally for professionals and various forms of behavioral and mental health services that aid children and parents in postdivorce families. This thesis further argues that children with parents in prolonged conflict are not passive victims but agents dealing with conflict challenges. Prolonged postdivorce conflict is found to be a disruptive positioning force and a threat to parents’ agency. This thesis argues that family counseling services should aid postdivorce parents within the boundaries of their joint capacity of cooperation and that parents in prolonged conflict might more successfully practice parallel parenting to reduce conflict exposure. This thesis also states that prolonged postdivorce conflict is a responsibility of society and not of conflicted parents or families alone. Therefore, it is important that welfare institutions, such as family counseling services, apply a nonjudgmental and systemic framework and take into account the different subject positions in the family mean. Furthermore, this thesis also adds to our knowledge of how various subjects’ positions taken up by that family members in families embedded in prolonged conflicts restrain the possibilities of other members from taking up their preferred subject position as a child, as a parent vis-à-vis the child, or in relation to the other parent. This study uses positioning theory to add an interconnected perspective of discourses of postdivorce families and how families negotiate subject positions. In the final reflection, family counseling services are warned against professional diagnostics and the use of terminology that creates a linear and fixed/rigid positioning of family members in prolonged postdivorce conflicts. This thesis has broad relevance for understanding challenges and dilemmas that family counseling services face today, as well as the more specific need for more research that investigates the meaning-making of children and parents as service users and how different welfare services position the postdivorce family with conflict-related challenges.
... This type of divorces is called a high-conflict divorce (HCD) and is characterised by pervasive negative exchanges between ex-partners in combination with an insecure and hostile emotional environment. Ex-partners are entrenched in pervasive negative interpersonal dynamics, which are characterised by blame, hostility, anger, and fixed negative perceptions of each other (Anderson et al., 2011;Smyth & Moloney, 2019). ...
... It is equally likely that changes in child PTSS led to changes in parental conflicts. For example, parents in HCD tend to fight for the benefit and the good of their children (Anderson et al., 2011;Target et al., 2017). Perceiving PTSS in their child might be a reason for parents to intensify conflicts with their ex-partner, assuming that their ex-partner is the cause of their child's distress. ...
Article
Full-text available
Parental conflicts consistently predict negative outcomes for children. Research suggests that children from high-conflict divorces (HCD) may also experience post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), yet little is known about the association between parental conflicts in HCD families and child PTSS. We investigated this association, hypothesizing that parental conflicts would predict child PTSS. We also tested the moderating role of interparental contact frequency, hypothesizing that frequent contact would intensify the association between parental conflicts and child PTSS. This study was part of an observational study on the outcomes of No Kids in the Middle (NKM), a multi-family group intervention for HCD families. A total of 107 children from 68 families participated in the study with at least one parent. We used pre-(T1) and post-intervention (T2) data. Research questions were addressed cross-sectionally, using regression analyses to predict PTSS at T1, and longitudinally, using a correlated change (T1 to T2) model. The cross-sectional findings suggested that mother-and child-reported conflicts, but not father-reported conflicts, were related to the severity of child PTSS. Longitudinally, we found that change in father-reported conflicts, but not change in child-or mother-reported conflicts, were related to change in child PTSS. The estimated associations for the different informants were not significantly different from one another. The frequency of contact between ex-partners did not moderate the relationship between parental conflicts and child PTSS. We conclude that there is a positive association between parental conflicts and child PTSS in HCD families independent of who reports on the conflicts.
... Ongoing legal battles, or the threat of new legal proceedings, with the stress and financial consequences that this imposes, make these interventions even more difficult (Van Lawick and Visser, 2015). This lack of conceptual clarity is considered to be a major source of confusion for both researchers and professionals (Anderson et al., 2011). Despite the abundant literature, there is a lack of concise and contemporary definition of HC post-divorce co-parenting (Francia et al., 2019). ...
Article
Full-text available
Objective Our research aim is to enrich the conceptualization of high conflict post-divorce co-parenting by understanding the dynamic process involved.Background The studied phenomena were explored by linking previous scientific knowledge to practice.Method We cross-referenced the previous study results with the experiences reported by eight professionals and tried to answer the following research question: how professionals’ experience and previous scientific knowledge contribute to a better understanding of HC post-divorce co-parenting? Individual face to face interviews were conducted and analyzed regarding the qualitative theoretical reasoning of thematic analysis.ResultsAnalysis allowed us to highlight how four main axes are related to HC post-divorce co-parenting: (1) Parents for life, (2) Acting in the child’s best interests, (3) Managing disagreements, and (4) Healing the separation.Conclusion Our findings capture high conflict post-divorce co-parenting as a multidimensional dynamic process. As such, dealing with co-parenting disagreements must be understood as a moment in a process that is influenced by, and influences, other dimensions.ImplicationsInterventions must consider the four dimensions and their reciprocal interactions. The essential elements underlying parents’ difficulties may reside at a multiplicity of levels: inter-relational, contextual, and intrapsychic. Each level contains key potential factors in understanding these families, and in formulating intervention guidelines.
... The research literature (Anderson et al., 2010;Haddad, Phillips, & Bone, 2016;Johnston, 1994;Kosher & Katz, 2022;Smyth & Moloney, 2019;Stokkebekk, Iversen, Hollekim, & Ness, 2021) shows great variation in terminology when describing parental conflict. Coleman (2014) labels prolonged marital disputes as intractable conflicts characterised by escalation, hostile interactions, sentiment, and a change in quality over time. ...
Article
Full-text available
This article explores professionals' understanding and experiences of parental high conflicts in Norwegian family counsellor and child welfare services. The data were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis, examining four focus group interviews with a total of 24 professionals. We used tame and wicked problems as a theoretical frame of reference in order to discuss how high conflict cases can be understood. The analysis shows that the complexity and experiences of high conflicts challenge professionals in their assessments and development of solutions. Our conclusion is that the nature of the complexity, unpredictability, and instability of high conflicts fits within the framework of wicked problems.
... Building on in-depth interviews with 18 Norwegian parents (eight co-parenting pairs and two individuals), we examine how parents describe how they deal with and make meaning to their coparenting situation during the divorce process. While extensive research has explored parents in high-conflict divorce (e.g., Anderson et al., 2010;Bertelsen, 2021;Cummings & Davies, 2010;Harold & Sellers, 2018;Jevne & Andenaes, 2017;Stokkebekk et al., 2021;van Eldik et al., 2020), this study adds to the body of research on postdivorce parenting by exploring the experiences of low-conflict, cooperative parents. ...
Article
Full-text available
This article explores the transition of cooperative co‐parenting during the divorce process. Eighteen parents, representing eight co‐parenting pairs and two individuals who had just undergone mandatory mediation for parents applying for separation, participated in the study. Through in‐depth interviews with parents who were classified as cooperative during the mediation process, we examined how they reason and the struggles they face during the divorce transition. The study applied a sociocultural perspective, focusing on the cultural ideals of equal parenthood, and used the concepts of boundaries and shared care as analytical tools. A main finding is that maintaining cooperative co‐parenting requires hard work, even in no‐or low‐conflict divorces, but the parents do it for their children. The results showed that the transforming process involved efforts to (1) continue established parenting practices, (2) shield the children and (3) deal with their own emotions. The underlying premises for successful co‐parenting are trust in each other's ability to take care of the children and their own knowledge of the emotional bonds between the children and each parent. In turn, these premises motivate parents to manage their own emotional turmoil.
... For separating and divorcing families, a standard estimate is that between ten and 15 percent will end up in a pattern of entrenched conflict between parents (Haddad, Philips & Bone 2016;Helland & Borren, 2015;Hetherington, 2002;Mahrer et al. 2018;Wiik, Kitterød, Lyngstad & Lidén 2015). The concept of 'high-conflict divorce' refers to situations where parents remain in patterns of interaction characterized by long-lasting and bitter disputes over child-related concerns for several years after separation (Anderson et al. 2010;Birnbaum & Bala, 2010). Research has consistently demonstrated that such prolonged conflicts between parents after divorce can be detrimental for children's well-being and psychosocial health (Amato, 2000;Amato & Keith, 1991;DeBoard-Lucas et al. 2010;Emery, 1999;Fincham et al. 1994;Grych, 2005;Lansford, 2009;Visser et al. 2017). ...
Article
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The aim of this article is to explore Norwegian family counselors´ professional assessments when children are at potential risk due to enduring parental disputes. These disputes present complex clinical challenges and are often considered being in a gray area of whether the situation is a family matter or if there is a need for the assessment of child welfare services. The analysis builds on a survey and focus group interviews. Findings from this study show that family counselors are con�cerned for children involved in interparental conflicts, but this concern does not necessarily manifest in their reporting to the child welfare services. Rather, our findings show that the family counselors prefer to utilize their own services and that of other stakeholders in such situations. Enduring conflicts present significant challenges relating to the assessments and decisions of what is the most adequate help for the unique child and family. The article points toward professional thresholds for intervention and risk of child maladjustment as a challenging aspect of practice in high-conflict cases.
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In order to meet the crying needs of high-conflict families and professionals who work with them, a Canadian psycho-legal team developed an intervention protocol called Parentalité–Conflit–Résolution. Sixteen parents completed validated questionnaires to measure co-parenting, parental conflict, and psychological adjustment. Nonparametric analyses were performed to measure pre- and post-intervention effects. Results confirm the severity of communication problems and the high degree of hostility in families participating in the intervention protocol. Parents perceived fewer alienating behaviors in the other parent at the end of the intervention. Mothers perceived a more positive alliance with the other parent, whereas fathers perceived less parental conflict and fewer negative interactions. Longitudinal research should be conducted to measure the sustainability of changes over the long term.
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This paper discusses the extent of violence in high-conflict litigating families, differentiating between abusive relationships and high-conflict divorce, and describing the numerous ways that parenting is deficient and compromised. Guidelines for making access plans that minimise adverse effects on children, restrains further abuse, and protects parents who have been victimised is followed by a discussion of the specialised services needed, and the challenges in coordinating the efforts of family court and community agencies on behalf of these families.
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