The American Journal of Family Therapy, 39:11–27, 2011
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0192-6187 print / 1521-0383 online
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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;
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
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;
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.,
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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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