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

High-Conflict Divorce
Janet R. Johnston

A Theoretical Model Predicting High-Conflict Divorce

Currently, there are no adequate studies that attempt to critically evaluate the various factors which are hypothesized to create and maintain highly conflictual postdivorce relationships between parents over the custody and care of their children. The theoretical explanatory model that is proposed here, however, is a complex, interactive, and reciprocal one, as diagrammed in Figure 1 and illustrated in the accompanying inset (see Box 1).11

At the individual level, separation-engendered conflicts (the humiliation inherent in rejection, the grief associated with loss, and the overall helplessness in response to assaultive life changes) interact with vulnerabilities in the character structure of some divorcing individuals, making them especially prone to unresolved hostility and ongoing disputes. At the interactional level, a combination of the destructive spousal dynamics that are a function of these intrapsychic conflicts, the history of the prior marital relationship, and the legacy of an ambivalent or traumatic separation experience causes the parties to construct negative, polarized views of each other. Consequently, these parents continue to be highly distrustful of each other and are convinced that they are fighting to protect the children from the perceived negative effects of each other's parenting.

In addition, there are realistic concerns about parenting capacity in individuals whose functioning and judgment are compromised by their own emotional distress and the continual criticism and undermining of their parenting by the ex-spouse. The dysfunctional family relationships that are a product of these intrapsychic and interparental conflicts, especially disturbances in parent-child relationships, can result in emotional and behavioral symptomatology in children (particularly in vulnerable younger children and boys). This, in turn, fuels the interparental dispute. At the external social level, these disputes can be both provoked and maintained by socioeconomic and cultural stressors and by coalitions formed with significant others: extended kin, new partners, and mental health and legal professionals. The traditional adversarial process in the courts is particularly fertile ground for the polarization of perceptions and for the hostility and combative stance which are hallmarks of this group.