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HCD8186 - An Introduction to High-Conflict Divorce: Dynamics and Interventions for Parents presents


by Leslie Todd, LCSW, ACSW

Leslie Todd serves as a parenting coordinator in high conflict divorces cases for the Family Court of East Baton Rouge Parish. She is a licensed clinical social worker with 15 years of private practice. She has also taught graduate courses as an adjunct instructor at Louisiana State University as well as a sociology course on marriage and family for Our Lady of the Lake College.

This course is the copyrighted property of and may not be copied in part or in entirety without the express written permission of For information on how to secure permission to use this course or any part of this course, contact us at:



Course Objectives

The objectives of this course are to provide the trainee with an overview guide to high conflict divorce. When the trainee completes this course he or she will:

1. Understand the intra-psychic and relationship dynamics between parents engaged in chronic custody litigation;
2. Recognize the ethical boundaries guiding professional work with couples in high-conflict divorce;
3. Comprehend the proper focus of this work as problem-solving, rather than relationship-building;
4. Learn useful intervention techniques to help the families engaged in conflict.

This beginning to intermediate level course is primarily designed for clinicians in the early stages of their career, or for clinicians reviewing basic concepts in this treatment area.

Course length:
3 contact hour: Core clinical

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Between 8-15% of American divorces are “high-conflict,” meaning the parents will engage in legal battles and involve the children in their conflicts for 2-3 years. Of that group, some will continue battling through the entire course of their children’s childhoods.

Source: Joan Kelly

Section One: The Dynamics of High-Conflict Divorce
Section Two: Types of Marriages Prone to Divorce
Section Three: Post-divorce Parenting Styles:
Section Four: Maintaining Professional Boundaries in High-conflict Divorces
Section Five: Interventions with High-conflict Parents
Section Six: Analysis of High-Conflict Divorce Scenarios
References and Test

 Section One: The Dynamics of High-Conflict Divorce
Most couples handle their divorces with a minimum of acrimony, and most children of such divorces go through an adjustment period and recover well. However, high-conflict divorces are characterized by unhealthy adjustments that compromise the children’s right to a happy childhood.

Research shows that children from high-conflict divorce (HCD) are more vulnerable to emotional and psychological problems as adults. Many of them have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships themselves. In addition, the adults locked into chronic conflicts are usually miserable, too. New marriages are at great risk of re-divorce, since so much energy is being directed toward battling with the ex-spouse.

There are many factors which lead to HCD, and we must understand them before we can help the parents find a healthier way to relate to one another and the children. Let’s begin with the four factors which create the high-conflict dynamics:

- Each parent’s individual personality traits
- The marital history and dynamics
- The separation experience
- The present circumstances

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 71% of children of divorce were living with their mothers, 15.5% were shared by their parents, 8.5% were living with their fathers, and 5% were living with other relatives.” (in Watnik, Child Custody Made Simple, p. 39)

Parental Personality Traits

This is by far the greatest determinant, because parents in high conflict divorces are frequently limited by their ability to perceive others as separate from them and their ability to change their perspective, defer gratification, and have empathy.

One of the obvious characteristics of HCD is that each parent becomes entrenched in a position: “I am right and you are wrong” or “I am good and you are bad” or “My way is right and your way is unacceptable.” Sometimes the position is “I am all my child needs and you are unnecessary.”

The inflexibility of these viewpoints is often rooted in personality traits such as:
- A rigid sense of right and wrong;
- “Black or white” thinking
- An over-inflated sense of importance, or deep-rooted sense of shame
- An inability to differentiate self from others
- A lack of empathy or remorse
- An inability to separate facts from feelings

You may notice that these are all common characteristics of personality disorders. However, it is important to remember that under the severe stress of divorce, even mentally healthy parents may exhibit some or all of these traits.

Intimate romantic relationships - by their nature – are constructed so as to connect with powerful and primitive attachment needs. This is what forms the connecting emotional bond in romantic relationships.

However, the loss of these relationships can create serious attachment wounds, and trigger powerful and primitive reactions – even with relatively healthy individuals. The inner child – or the inner borderline – can be released when the attachments go sour and feelings of rejection and abandonment are created.

If these traits are exhibited during the first phases of divorce, but have not been life-long traits, it may indicate a simple adjustment reaction. In such cases, these parents will often be more easily directed away from high-conflict patterns.

For example, a couple who married ten years ago as high-school sweethearts might engage in considerable acting-out for a while to “prove” their independence from one another. This may be driven in part by the incomplete separation from their own parents at the time of their early marriage.
Your history-taking will provide some idea of whether these traits appear to be long-standing, or more reactive in nature. In either event, if you are going to be working with cases in which divorce is a component, it is very helpful to be familiar with object relations theory, attachment theories, and some degree of understanding concerning personality disorders and their treatment.

For example, Marsha Linehan's work with borderlines, formalized into a treatment approach called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) (Linehan, 1991), may be a useful source of beginning information in this area. This treatment approach, which has been validated through research, appears to offer some promising results in managing the splitting and acting out behaviors common to patients with borderline personality disorder.

It has as one of its key objectives helping the patient improve his or her interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance/reality acceptance skills, emotion regulation, and mindfulness skills. Each of these skill building approaches can make contributions to easing the patient towards positions that take better care of the well being of the children.

It is beyond the scope of this introductory training to offer a more comprehensive overview of this treatment approach, or other theories of working with object relations problems. However, for clinicians who wish to learn more about DBT, a link to further information has been made available at the end of this course.

If your client does exhibit moderate or more serious symptoms of a personality disorder, it will likely be necessary to adjust your therapy accordingly. If the purpose of treatment is to focus on parenting arrangements, it may become a challenge not to be moved off-task by emotional or behavioral manipulations.

The most important thing to remember in dealing with personality-disordered people in high-conflict divorce is to deal with the parenting issues, not the relationships. In other words, it is not your task to make these parents “get along” better; it is your goal to teach them each to focus on the child’s needs in a businesslike partnership.

There are significant obstacles to this occurring when one or both of the parents exhibit personality disorders. There may be serious perceptual biases, difficulties in emotional control, splitting, and other object relations problems.

The therapist's task will always include looking for a deeper understanding of the client's important driving forces and motivators, so that more constructive choices can be put before the client - framed in a way that helps the client act in accordance with the better angels of his or her nature.

However, because the personality-disordered client may not be able to act upon – or even visualize - goals that require future planning or delayed gratification, the key lies in finding ways in which this larger goal aligns with the more immediate or self-centered needs and aspirations of the client.

For instance, people whose personality disorders are marked by acting-out may be helped by having you emphasize that no matter what the “bait,” the person who indulges in the bad behavior is likely to appear foolish or be punished by the Court and legal system. The motivation for acting in the best interest of the children can therefore be found in terms that resonate more clearly and more immediately in the mind of the client.

In other cases, persons with significant avoidant traits may need to be encouraged to "step up" in order not to get victimized or run over by the requests or demands of the other parent. In this case, the motivation for facing one's fears and working on increased assertiveness will lie in more primitive needs for control.

A more straightforward way of approaching this issue is to help the client formulate the well being of their children as an ideal – one whose achievement will allow the client to feel proud of and good about themselves and their parenting commitment. In this way, the therapist identifies good parenting as part of the ideal contained within the "good self-object" of the client.

In line with keeping the focus on the parenting issues, it is likely that this intervention will become part of the ongoing dialogue within the high conflict divorce, with the therapist championing and reinforcing the ideal repeatedly. When the intervention is used, however, it is important that the clinician frame it in terms of the "good object" – the parent who is working hard to reach for the ideal, as opposed to the "bad parent" who frequently fails to reach that ideal and harms the children in the process.

This understanding about the importance of a slant towards the positive is key in almost any goal directed therapeutic approach. It is perhaps even more important in high conflict divorce, where the object relations issues can be so raw.

For the clinician who wishes to wade into this territory, it is probably wise to familiarize yourself with a particular style of communication called "unconditionally positive" communication. In this approach one does not focus as much on the problems, failures, and shortcomings of the client. Instead, one identifies the goals, ideals and strengths of the client, and supports the client's attempts to reach for the goals and ideals with optimism and positive support.

There are many styles of therapeutic intervention for which this technique is a key element. Solution Focused Therapy is a widely utilized approach that is composed largely of this technique.

For the more curious clinician, this technique has been incorporated into a well-researched and validated organizational consulting approach called Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an approach to creating growth and change in organizations through "the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential." (Cooperrider and Whitney, 1997)

The tools and techniques of Appreciative Inquiry should be familiar and comfortable to anyone with a background in psychotherapy. However, the developers of AI have done a good job in creating a well-integrated and internally consistent system of approaching systems in need of positive change.

This is relevant to the work of mental health clinicians - as change agents for complex systems – and may be useful when working with systems that are particularly resistant to change. High conflict divorces operate in just such systems.

For clinicians who wish to learn more about AI, a link to further information has been made available at the end of this course.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Although all 50 states have gender neutral child custody laws, a study of judges in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee indicate that the judges exhibited continuing favoring of mothers . “These results were very consistent, with the means on every item of the questionnaire indicating a greater preference toward mothers than fathers.” Leighton E. Stamps, “Maternal Preference in Child Custody Decisions,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol 37 (1/2), 2002, p. 1.

As you help direct the client towards the better angels of their nature, you will likely be put in the position of having to process some of the client's strong feelings about parenting, specifically shame and guilt. It may be useful to protect the client from the full weight of these feelings by reframing where the characteristic difficulties come from.

In recent years, researchers and clinicians have worked to de-stigmatize these characteristics. In their seminal research on HCD, Johnston and Roseby (p. 81) refer to “fragile parents.” They state that these parents may have suffered disruptions in their own separation-individuation process in childhood, and may therefore be re-traumatized by divorce - experiencing it as another abandonment. They may be terrified of being on their own and desperately cling to their ex-spouse, or to their children.

Oftentimes, fragile parents, who have suffered difficulties in their own childhood, lack adequate skill sets to conceptualize, then work through these problems. While being careful not to excuse the fragile parent from the ultimate responsibilities of making better choices for the rearing of their own children, it may be necessary to address the losses, guilt and shame in a supportive and directive way.

Again, this is similar in approach to some of the key elements of DBT, where a reframing of the borderline's difficulties is undertaken in order to prevent the patient from being overwhelmed by powerful sensations of worthlessness and shame.

Symptoms of fragility are:

- Experiencing a chronic sense of emptiness
- Dependency on others (including the children) to fend off fears of abandonment
- Believing others are more powerful
- Being highly vulnerable to loss, rejection, intrusion, or demands

Please note that fragility does not necessarily equate with timidity. It is interesting that although such parents are labeled “fragile”, they are often very aggressive in initiating and maintaining conflict with their ex-spouse.

The “match” for the aggressive partner is often the very dependent and/or passive-aggressive partner. (Garity and Baris, Caught in the Middle, p. 11) In the literature, these types of parents are referred to as the “easy-to-victimize ex-spouse.”

This type of parent usually believes that others are more powerful than they and they therefore rely on avoidance or passive-aggressiveness as defenses. They tend to be highly ineffective at addressing the inappropriate behavior of their ex-spouses—and their children.

They continue to be victimized through the years by their more aggressive and confident ex-spouses, who usually know how to manipulate the legal system to their advantage. Unfortunately, the children will usually protect themselves by siding with the strong parent, and will mimic the lack of respect shown to the easy-to-victimize parent.

Work with avoidant or passive-aggressive parents may require helping this parent to develop assertiveness skills, along with help in processing and coming to terms with whatever dependency needs and fears may be contributing to the problems.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Mediation is not an appropriate technique for high-conflict divorce resolution. Several studies have shown mediation fails with highly conflicted couples having personality disorders (Ehrenberg et al., 1996; Kressel et al., 1980; Perason & Thoennes, 1980; Waldron et al., 19874, Walters et al., 1995) in Johnston and Roseby, p. 231

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) offers training in working with high-conflict divorce. See

The Presence of Mental Illness

Another factor that must be assessed is the presence of mental illness. Parents who suffer from mood disorders or schizophrenia are likely to have great difficulty coping with the stress of divorce. If they lose custody of their children or have only minimal supervised visitation, they may suffer from a deep sense of shame. When their symptoms clear, they may then experience great rage and wish to punish the other parent for this perceived humiliation.

In instances where mental illness is present, the clinician's task will be twofold. It will involve addressing and the effects of the mental illness on the client, and addressing the impact of the mental illness on the relationship with the ex-spouse and the children.

We must again point out that it is beyond the scope of this introductory course to present a comprehensive overview of the approaches to working with mental illness in general. However, in a way similar to what must occur with a personality disordered client, the clinician must find a method of helping the mentally ill parent locate sources of self-esteem and self-worth through acting as a responsible parent.

Behavior of a Fragile Parent toward the child

The fragile parent may over-identify with the child and jealously guard the child’s affection. This parent may misinterpret the child’s feelings about the other parent, or project his/her own hostility or anxiety about the other parent onto the child, believing that the child has negative feelings about the parent.

A fragile parent may also:

- Leave the child isolated and vulnerable to the parent’s own unpredictability.

- Feel rejected by the child’s natural striving for independence or an attachment to the other parent.

- Vacillate between engulfing and abandoning the child.

- Attempt to alienate the child from the other parent by controlling access to the other parent

- Demean the other parent to the child, enlisting agreement

- Create anxiety in the child regarding the other parent (by hinting at possible violence, neglect, manipulation)

Consider the following examples, and take a few minutes to give some thought to the complexities presented in these cases. Some remarks will be presented subsequent to the case presentation.

Example 1: Valerie is a 23-year old mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 2. She has been previously diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. The children’s father, Connor, has just completed a jail sentence for distribution of methamphetamines. They never married. Valerie has sole custody and lives in an apartment close to her mother’s home.

Valerie is unable to be alone, afraid of what it means to be without the possibility of a romantic relationship, and so is absorbed in her dating. She leaves her children with her mother five nights out of seven, and dates a variety of men of questionable character. She is shocked when Connor returns to court to claim she is neglecting the children, and that he is filing for a change of custody. “How can he say I’m a bad parent when he’s a criminal?” she asks her lawyer when they are in court.

You have been asked to see Valerie for individual therapy. What should be included in the assessment, and what do you think will likely need to be considered as you develop your treatment plan? What steps might be involved in helping her focus on developing her own emotional independence and maturity while protecting against further impulsive behavior and bad judgment in new relationships?


A few of the many possible components of the overall approach with Valerie might include:

- Help Valerie develop ways to cope with her anxiety and fear of being alone, so that she may develop increased protection against further impulsive behavior and bad judgment in new relationships. This may require both skill building and supportive therapeutic approaches.
- Help her gain a more objective and businesslike approach to dealing with Connor. Early on, this may be framed in terms of the more immediate effects of tilting the custody hearings in her favor; later, it may require increasing her capacity to look beyond her own immediate needs.
- Work to improve Valerie’s own parenting skills. This simultaneously works to improve Valerie's position with the court, protects the well being of her children, and can serve as a way to enhance her self-esteem.
- From a practical perspective, guide her through what will likely be a stressful custody evaluation process, utilizing the immediacy of the evaluation by other professionals to enhance motivation to work on her own issues.

Example 2: James remains furious at his ex-wife for divorcing him 4 years ago. Their twin daughters are now 14 and show little desire to spend time with James. On the advice of his attorney, James has consulted you to understand why his daughters are so disrespectful.

He describes himself as “strict” and describes the twins’ mother Jan as “a lazy good-for-nothing.” He admits to badmouthing Jan to the children, and to trying to be overly strict “so they don’t turn out like their mother.”

Neither parent has re-married, and James intends to stay “in Jan’s face until she respects me.” The parenting plan calls for the girls to be with their father every other weekend and alternate Wednesdays, and James is trying not to change it due to his work schedule.

What should be included in the assessment, and what do you think will likely need to be considered as you develop your treatment plan? What steps might be involved in helping James to modify his positions and focus on his own feelings and needs?

How do you refocus James’s attitudes and perceptions so as to:
- Help him complete his “emotional divorce?”
- Separate his psychological merging of mother and daughters?
- Realistically assess his future relationship prospects given his daughters’ developmental levels and constraints of visitation?

Finally, do you try to include the daughters in the therapy process?


A few of the many possible components of the overall approach with James might include:

- Help James complete his “psychological divorce” from Lisa by working through his anger at her and focusing on his present life functioning, both as a single man and as the single father of two adolescent girls who need him.
-Assist James in separating his psychological merging of Lisa and his daughters. You might educate him regarding the likely point of view of two 14 year old girls who are now living part-time in their Dad’s “boring” apartment. Be sure in your assessment to check on James’ understanding of the girls’ social world and his willingness to enter their world by meeting the parents of their friends, hosting, or assisting in hosting, social events and attending their school and extracurricular functions.
- Because a parent who lives with his children only 4-6 days a month does not enjoy the same level of family cohesiveness as found in a nuclear family, James will need help in shifting to a different parenting model. His preference for an authoritarian model will lead to his being very ineffective, because he doesn’t have the time or power to “back it up.” James would benefit by learning to foster more affective bonding (using more praise, warm interest, and affection) and shift to an assertive, rather than authoritarian, discipline style). Emphasize that he needs to create an environment that the children will enjoy, because in a few years they will have more control over whether or not they wish to stay with him. Remind him that he wants a long time relationship, not “victory” in the short run. The two-household conflicts are really a short-term problem; the children will have more freedom in defining their relationship with each parent when they reach 18. If James emphasizes strictness over affection, he may find himself in the large percentage of fathers who lose their precious bonds with their daughters.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

The “perpetually dumbfounded parent” is usually at an impasse with an angry, attacking parent. The dumbfounded parent usually had a poor family of origin experience and relies on conflict avoidance. Often they will attempt to enlist numerous “experts” to do their fighting for them. (Baris, Coates, et. al, p. 75.)