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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

High-Conflict Divorce
Janet R. Johnston

Definitional Problems

In much early research, no conceptual distinctions were made among types of conflict. Spousal and interparental conflict were simply equated with divorce, or with various measures of marital dissatisfaction, hostile attitudes, and physical aggression. This failure to distinguish among types of conflict has confounded the debate about the extent to which different kinds of divorce conflict are normal and functional, and the extent to which they signal pathology and are dysfunctional, especially for children.

Divorce conflict has at least three important dimensions which should be considered when assessing incidence and its effects on children. First, conflict has a domain dimension, which can refer to disagreements over a series of divorce issues such as financial support, property division, custody, and access to the children, or to values and methods of child rearing. Second, conflict has a tactics dimension, which can refer to the manner in which divorcing couples informally try to resolve disagreements either by avoiding each other and the issues, or by verbal reasoning, verbal aggression, physical coercion, and physical aggression; or it can refer to ways in which divorce disputes are formally resolved by the use of attorney negotiation, mediation, litigation, or arbitration by a judge. Third, conflict has an attitudinal dimension, referring to the degree of negative emotional feeling or hostility directed by divorcing parties toward each other, which may be covertly or overtly expressed.1 The problem of measuring incidence of conflict in divorce is complicated further by the facts that a specific domain of conflict may be perceived to exist by one party and not by the other, the parties may employ different conflict tactics (for example, one may avoid and the other may litigate), and one party may harbor greater hostility than is reciprocated by the other.

The duration and developing pattern of each form of conflict are relevant to its characterization as either normal or pathological. For instance, higher levels of most types of divorce conflict are expectable and relatively common beginning at the time of marital separation and filing for divorce and continuing until the issuance of the final decree—that is, encompassing the time when the family is in the process of fundamental reorganization from an intact to a two-household family structure.2,3 Postdecree divorce conflicts, on the other hand, are sometimes considered to be intractable and indicative of preexisting individual and family dysfunction.4

The question of which dimensions and patterns of parental conflict are associated with poor child adjustment is of particular importance. For instance, are children negatively affected by ongoing legal battles, by parents' inability to coordinate their postdivorce child-rearing practices, by living in a hostile family environment, or by witnessing overt verbal and physical aggression? Is a mother's conflict behavior typically different from a father's? Is conflict manifested differently in different cultures and ethnic groups? And are children differently impacted because of age, gender, or temperament?

Finally, it is important to consider the relationship of the various dimensions of conflict to one another, especially when designing programs and policies for divorcing families. One critical issue is the extent to which conflict in one domain (such as financial matters) spills over and activates conflict in another domain (such as custody and access). Especially relevant is the extent to which postmarital hostility decreases the capacity for coparental cooperation regarding the needs of children.

Unfortunately, divorce research is still in its infancy with respect to making many of these conceptual distinctions and addressing these questions. In particular, there are virtually no data available about cultural and gender differences in the parents of high-conflict divorce and about effects on children of different ages. The review of research which follows focuses only on the domain of conflict over custody, access, and child rearing after marital separation.5

In each study referenced, careful delineation is made of the type and measurement of conflict, and the nature of the sample is specified. The reader is cautioned against generalizing the findings beyond the specific dimension of conflict to nonrepresentative populations of divorcing families. The review includes only empirical studies which either used standardized measures, had comparison groups in the design, or made systematic post hoc comparisons within the sample (that is, the review excludes an extensive and informative literature based on clinical observations and theoretical speculation about the children and families of divorce, as well as articles motivated by social advocacy).