Post-Divorce Conflicts and How to Resolve Them (Recent Research)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
What follows will consider a number of important issues relating
to divorce. It must be said that not all divorces are likely to
lead to problems or conflicts but unfortunately many do. This is
especially the case when there are children on the scene. This often
results in custody wars and lack of co-operation between the legal
and mental health professions (Gunsberg & Hymowitz, 2005). In
what follows we will consider the adjustment of parents to the best
interest of the child, the causes of conflict between former close
partners, prevention of these conflicts, the reaction of parents
to divorce and the conflicts which sometimes result in relation
to child/children. Finally we will consider the long-term effects
of such conflicts on children.
The best interest of the child and adjustment of parents to this
Whenever there are children on the scene it is vital to argue what
is ‘in the best interest’ of the children and how these
can be met by the parents who formally loved one another, or at
least wished to be together. No longer loving one another should
not in any way intrude on the love of both parents for their child
and the love of the child for each of these parents. Anything less
is not in the child’s best interest. Determinations about
what is in the best interest of the child are often difficult when
trying to decide between the wishes of the mother and father.
When a parent enters into a new romantic relationship, including
remarriage, decisions regarding the best interests of the child
must take into account three or possibly four care-givers. In some
instances, the issue becomes one of father versus step-father and
mother versus step-mother, regarding who will be the primary care-givers
and what role each plays in guiding the development of the child.
It is here that the distinction between parental rights and obligations
becomes more crucial for the forensic evaluator or expert witness.
The manner in which step parents have dealt with obligations to
their own children can provide important indicators about the way
that they will interact and influence the environment of the children
in a blended family. The willingness, as well as the ability of
the step-parents to assist in meeting parental obligations, is one
that should be given great weight in making custodial recommendations
There are relatively few objective measures available for assessing
the adjustment of parents and how best to deal with conflicts between
them. Zimmerman et al., (2004) have used the Divorce Adjustment
Inventory to assess the adjustment of custodial mothers or fathers.
The authors assess healthy or unhealthy levels of psychological
functioning. The Symptom Checklist 90-Revised (SCL-90-R) has also
been used. These tests provide a baseline for reported negative
symptomatology among divorced women, and confirm the efficacy of
a divorce education. The objective of the programme is in reducing
psychological symptoms, and support the use of the Divorce Adjustment
Inventory Revised in assessing post-divorce family functioning.
Kapinus (2004) asks three questions regarding divorce and individuals
- What influence do parents’ attitudes towards divorce
have on offspring’s attitudes?
- How are offspring’s attitudes towards divorce influenced
by parental divorce, and do the effects vary depending on the
gender of the child?
- How do the conditions surrounding parental divorce influence
young adults’ attitudes?
Results indicate that parents have the greatest influence on offspring
during their late teen years. Fathers have more influence on some
attitudes than mothers. The gender of parents has no effect on the
influence of parents’ attitudes on daughters’. In contrast
to prior research, this study finds that parental divorce continues
to influence offspring’s views of divorce after controlling
parents’ attitudes only for daughters, not for sons. The relationship
between family structure, cohesion and adaptability as well as parental
anger is associated with children’s behaviour problems. According
to Dremen (2003) high levels of family cohesion and adaptability
are predicted to be related to fewer behaviour problems. Post-divorce
conflicts and diminished closeness to father following the divorce
have different effects on sons’ and daughter’s attitudes.
Girls seem to have more problems at high levels of maternal anger.
The main impact on daughters concerns their view of the male figure.
This could mean that daughters may well have difficulties in establishing
a positive relationship with the opposite sex and view males in
a negative manner. Sons will have difficulties with not having identified
with a significant male such as their father they have problems
of self-esteem and feelings of abandonment. They will often have
behaviour problems due to a lack of clear hierarchies and parental
assertiveness. Boys in general take more notice of the male figure
than they do of the female figure. All these aspects are damaging
for the child when they reach their teens and also in the long-term
when they wish to establish a relationship with members of the opposite
sex and establish a family of their own. Difficulties with their
own attitudes and behaviour may have a significant impact on their
relationship problems and their responsibility within a relationship.
A number of examiners have assessed the negative and positive adjustment
of divorced custodial parents across several areas of functioning,
including depression, hostility, alcohol use, and well-being (Hilton
& Kopera-Frye, 2004). Differences among custodial mothers and
fathers were evaluated, followed by a series of hierarchical regressions
that were used to evaluate factors contributing to negative and
positive outcomes for the two groups. Compared to custodial fathers,
custodial mothers were significantly younger, less likely to co-habit,
and they had less income and more economic strain. In terms of their
functioning, mothers experienced greater depression and hostility
than fathers, but they were less likely to drink excessively. There
were no differences in the family functioning, life satisfaction
, personal mastery, or well-being of custodial mothers and fathers.
It was concluded that custodial parents differed in their negative
adjustment, but not their positive adjustment, and that custodial
fathers had fewer problems with adjustment than custodial mothers.
Several types of post-divorce parental relationships were discovered
by Baum (2004). Similar to previous typology three types of co-parental
relationships were identified: co-operative, parallel, and conflictual.
Causes of Conflict Between Parents after Divorce
Divorces do not occur ‘out of the blue’ or without
cause. Divorces are usually made up of strong emotions, mis-perceptions,
or stereotypes, and very often poor communications and repetitive
negative behaviour (Taylor, 2003). How adults behave following divorce
and seeking to avoid conflict depends on their level of narcissism
and self-differentiation and also their modes of conflict management
as well as the levels of these traits in their former spouses Higher
self-differentiation was associated with a lower propensity to use
the attack mode among both fathers and mothers. It was associated
with a higher use of the compromise mode among the mothers but not
among the fathers. Higher narcissism, according to Baum & Shnit
(2003) is associated with a higher level of the “attack mode”
among the fathers but not among the mothers. The differentiation
and narcissism of each ex-spouse contributed to the other’s
modes of conflict management style beyond the contribution made
by their own personality traits. High anger levels in mothers according
to Dremen (2003) are associated with more behaviour problems in
children, particularly adolescents. Girls have more behaviour problems
at higher levels of maternal state-anger. In contrast, boys are
found to have few behaviour problems at high levels of maternal
anger. It was concluded that an adolescent child’s needs are
for clear role hierarchies, stability, and parental assertiveness
to promote optimal adjustment.
Inter-parental aggression was found to have a significant and direct
negative direct impact on closeness. It also had a strong impact
on children and most especially adolescents. Winstock & Eisikovits
(2003) hypothesises that adolescents’ exposure to inter-parental
violence reduces affinity, a notion that may explain one link between
exposure to inter-parental violence and adolescent development.
Prevention of Problems Relating to Conflicts in Divorce
One of the main difficulties with divorced parents is the raising
of children in two separate households although frequently only
one of the parents has custody. Preventing problems of conflicts,
according to Most (2005) is to encourage parents to observe how
their children are doing and seek professional guidance for them
if they see struggles with education, emotions or behaviours. Parents
are also encouraged to reflect upon their new roles.
Knight (2005) recommends the use of parent co-ordinators which
includes education, assessment, intervention and monitoring post-divorce
parents. Ideally parents who use a parent co-ordinator are likely
to successfully identify difficulties in their post-divorce relationships
that have an impact on their children and will make changes that
improve their children’s adjustment.
Above all it is vital, when conflicts loom, for early intervention.
With such early intervention it is also important to include the
children and their experiences of the conflict between their parents
(McIntosh & Long, 2005). Anthony (2005) notes that anger management
for mothers and fathers are of particular importance since this
affects their children considerably. To understand anger within
the family one must understand the aetiology of anger. Concerns
for parents who are considering divorce, while at the same time
considering the prevention of conflicts, are about custody, visitation,
alimony and financial factors (Yilmaz & Fisiloglu, 2005).
A number of researchers, including Pruett et al. (2005) have noted
the importance of involving both parents in the care of young children
even before they begin their separation and preparing the children
for this process. These families had lower conflict, greater father
involvement and better outcomes for children than the control group
which did not have some form of intervention such as the Collaborative
Divorce Project (CDP). This project was designed to assist parents
of children 6 years old and younger as they began the separation/divorce
process. Court records indicated that these interventions led to
families who were more co-operative and were less likely to need
custody evaluations and other costly services. The CDP approach
illustrated how prevention programmes were located by the courts.
The CDP approach systematically evaluated, and aided by helping
the legal system function optimally for families with young children.
It is important in post-divorce families to promote resilience
and family well-being (Greeff et al. 2004). Family coherence was
used as an indication of the level of the recovery after the crisis
of divorce. Hence, family crises were prevented through relatives
and friends and a general support system. The result of their studies
showed that intra-family support, support from the extended family
and others, as well as religion and open communication, and financial
security were factors promoting resilience in families of divorce.
Reaction of Parents to Divorce
An interesting study entitled “What Grown Children Have to
Say About Their Parent’s Divorce” by Constance Ahrons
(2004) was considered by Nock (2005). It was felt most important
for children to consider that they were still a part of a family.
The author believed “good divorces” allowed adults and
children to continue to live more of less harmoniously as a family.
This view was based on a sample of 98 divorced couples and their
children. The author considered that divorce led to a reorganised
family but did not destroy it. He also reported that the majority
of these adults believed that their parents decision to get a divorce
was the right one and that most did not wish their parents to remain
married due to the acrimony and problems that existed at the time.
It is unfortunate that not all divorces end in such a positive
way. Frequently children suffer adjustment problems at home and
in school, most especially when parents are hostile towards one
another. A study by Wood et al. (2004) examined linkages between
divorce, depressive/withdrawn parenting, and child adjustment problems
at home and school. Middle class divorced single mother families
(n=35) and two-parent families (n=174) with a child in the fourth
grade participated. Mothers and teachers completed yearly questionnaires
and children were interviewed when they were in their fourth, fifth
and sixth grades. It suggested that the association between divorce
and child externalising and internalising behaviour was partly mediated
by depressive/withdrawn parenting when their children were in their
fourth and fifth grades.
Parental Conflict and its Effect on Children
The effect of divorce on children varies undoubtedly as a result
of the relationship which existed and continues to exist between
the parents. Bowling (2005) considers that there is no one truth
about how divorce affects children. The author concludes with a
call to allow children of divorce to have a voice and the opportunity
to tell their stories. There is therefore a relationship between
marital distress by either party and the adjustment of children
(Papp et al., 2004). Such distress has a linkage with depression,
withdrawn parenting, and child adjustment problems at home and at
school (Repetti et al., 2004).
Frequently following divorce there is an ongoing hostility between
the parents and this has adverse outcomes and reactions in children
in seeking to deal with parental hostility towards one another (Taylor,
2004). A British sample of families studied by Wild & Richards
(2003) aimed to compare child and parent reports of inter-parental
conflict. They also studied children’s emotional reactions
to this conflict. Children tended to have neutral responses to inter-personal
conflict if they expected that the arguments would be quickly resolved
and had no negative long-term consequences. On the other hand, greater
perceived frequency and intensity of inter-parental conflict, poor
resolution and more child involvement were associated with negative
emotion reactions in children. Such children often felt extreme
sadness and self-blame. On the other hand high levels of family
cohesion and adaptability were predicted to be related to fewer
behaviour problems in children (Dreman, 2003).
When there are severe problems and hostility between parents, the
results often indicate that such children of divorced homes have
higher rates of delinquency (status offences, crimes against persons,
felony, theft, general delinquency, and tobacco and drug use) when
compared to children from intact homes (Price & Kunz, 2003).
Other findings revealed that black and younger children were more
delinquent than white and older children. Samples included both
male and female children and upper class children who were more
likely to be involved in delinquency than samples with only male
and female children or children from other social classes. Hence
high levels of parental conflict in separated families had a devastating
impact on children and their development (Read, 2003).
Long-Term Problems for Children of Divorce
While divorces are never to be favoured there are “better”
divorces and “worse” divorces. The repercussions for
the parents as well as the children therefore also varies depending
on the hostility or lack of hostility which continues between the
parents. There is some research that indicates that people exposed
to parental divorce experience a number of attitudinal effects.
One such effect, is the inter-generational transmission of divorce.
This involves a greater risk of divorce among those adult children
whose parents were divorced (Segrin et al., 2005). The results replicated
the inter-generational transmission of divorce as well as higher
family conflict, more negative attitudes towards marriage, greater
likelihood of marriage to a previously divorced person, and a decreased
likelihood of currently being in a close relationship. Either family-of-origin
conflict or negative marital attitudes mediated many of these effects.
In other words, it is not parental divorce that is entirely responsible
for certain relational and attitudinal effects.
It has been well established that boys frequently lose their father
as a result of divorce. Divorce therefore is often a traumatic life-changing
event for children, especially for boys who often lose not only
a parent but also a crucial role model (Allen, 2005). Amato &
Cheadle, (2005) used data from the study of marital instability
over the life course to examine links between divorce in the grandparent
generation (first generation) and outcome in their grandchild generation
(third generation). Divorce in the first generation was associated
with lower education, more marital discord, weaker ties with mothers,
and weaker ties with fathers in the third generation. These associations
were mediated by family characteristics in the middle generation,
including low education, more marital discord, and greater tension
in early parent/child relationships. The results suggested that
divorce had consequences for subsequent generations, including individuals
who were not yet born at the time of the original divorce.
Vandervalk et al., (2004) examined the relationship between adolescent
emotional adjustment and the family environment, that is the family
status, the family process, and parental resources. 2,636 parent-child
couples were studied. They were both intact and divorced families.
The results indicated that adolescent emotional adjustment was clearly
based on the family as well as on the individual. Support for the
hypothesis was that growing up both in post-divorce families and
in intact families with a low marital quality related negatively
to adolescent emotional adjustment.
Mention has already been made of the likelihood of maladjustment
among male youth as a result of an absent father. Harper & McLanahan
(2004) measured the likelihood of youth incarceration among adolescent
males from father-absent households, using data from the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N=34,031 person-years). At baseline,
the adolescents ranged from 14-17 years, and the incarceration outcome
measure spanned ages 15-30 years. This study tested whether risk
factors concentrated in father-absent households explained the apparent
effects of father absence. The results from longitudinal event-history
analysis showed that although a sizeable portion of risk that appeared
to be due to father absence could actually be attributed to other
factors, such as teen motherhood, low parent education, racial inequalities,
and poverty, adolescents in father-absent households still faced
elevated incarceration risks. The adolescents who faced the highest
incarceration risks, however, were those in step-parent families,
including father–stepmother families.
It must be said that due to inter-parental conflict, impaired parenting
and the considerable pressures from mothers for the child to side
against the father, children and adolescents frequently feel they
are being caught in the middle and of having to take sides (Walper
et al., 2004). This affects adolescents later in their daily relationships
and suggests considerable continuity in relation to problems over
time including their own marriage when they are adults (Doucet &
Aseltine, 2003). Hence it must be stressed that the empirical literature
on the long-term adjustment of children of divorce emphasises that
there are stresses resulting from divorce and elevated risks that
divorce presents for children. This should assist parents of divorce
to institute more protective behaviours that may enhance children’s
long-term adjustment (Kelly & Emery, 2003).
As a consequence of acrimonious divorce or separation there are
considerable conflicts between parents that have drastic repercussions
in their children in the present as well as in the short and long
term. The causes of these conflict between parents is their emotional
incapacity to view the future of their own children as their primary
concern despite declaring that they do so. Their mutual hostility
affects the lives of their children especially when there is domestic
There is a need for early intervention to prevent the problem of
conflict continuing after divorce and to successfully identify and
improve aspects of post-divorce relationships.
More research is needed to map the long-term effects on children
of divorce and to identify how the children's lives may be influenced
by the poor relationships of their parents. There is therefore an
inter-generational effect of hostile divorces on future generations.
In the case of boys the loss of a father could have drastic effects
on their capacity to socialise effectively. Behaviour problems may
result. Fathers on the whole have more influence on son’s
attitudes than do mothers. In the case of girls the loss of a father
may effect how they view and interact with a male figure which in
turn will affect their future relationships and loyalty to a male
partner.… Pain and grieving and family resiliency are identified
as the major aspects of divorce that permeate children’s lives.
The loss of a mother produces insecurity for the child, depression,
lack of self worth and self-blame associated with abandonment, and
acting out behaviour. The cohesion and adaptability of the family
contribute to the amount of behaviour problems encountered.with
the highest level of cohesion and adaptability being related to
the fewest behaviour problems.
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