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Constance Ahrons has identified several patterns established post-divorce in “bi-nuclear families.”

Perfect Pals remain very close and friendly. However, this may be more common before one or both find a new partner. A remarriage requires some shifting from the “perfect pal” position.

Cooperative Colleagues separate their parenting responsibilities from their feelings about one another, coping with the disagreements in productive ways. These parents do not have a high-conflict divorce.

Angry Associates are different from cooperative colleagues because their anger about one disagreement spills over into all the relationships in the family. Each parent tends to be critical and frequently complains about the other.

Fiery Foes are the “high-conflict divorce” cases. They seem unable to give up their battling, remaining connected through conflict. These conflicts may be carried out through the children, the court system, and the community. These parents tend to have problems in remarriages as well.

What makes ex-lovers into Fiery Foes? The answer lies in the convergence of several factors: each partner’s family of origin history, personality makeup, a prior history of violence, addictions, abuse or other environmental factors. People with damaged personalities rely primarily on the defenses of denial, projection, and splitting—and all these defenses are central to the dynamics of high-conflict divorce.

Continuum of Parent-Child Relationships, post-divorce

Parents in high-conflict divorce do not protect the children from their differences. Usually, they involve the children. One of the most common complaints is that the other parent is “turning my child against me.” This may be true.

However, differences in gender and temperament may also be factors that you can work with. For example, an introverted, intellectual father may not know how to play with his extraverted eight and ten year old daughters; an extraverted mother may think that her introverted son is “depressed about the divorce” when he actually just wants a little solitary time in his room.

After divorce, siblings may have different relationships with each of the parents, ranging from:

Equal relationship/comfort with both parents

Affinity with one parent, while attached to the other

Alliance with one parent ( a clear preference for one parent without entrenched hostility toward the other parent)

Estranged from one parent (having deeply conflicted feelings about that parent and little or no contact)

Alienated from one parent (having only negative feelings about that parent with no desire for contact with him/her). These children may have highly irrational or impaired viewpoints which they will defend vigorously, even when not coached by the preferred parent.

If possible, it is important to hear from the children first-hand how they view their relationships with both parents. Even when children say they have an “equal” relationship with both parents, we must assess for the degree of anxiety behind that statement.

In high-conflict divorces, timid children often respond to their warring parents by sacrificing their own needs. These children often tell professionals they want “50/50 custody because it’s fair.” Some children will elaborate that they mean fair to each parent, which may keep the fighting down.

In cases where they is an alliance with one parent or an estrangement with another, each parent will interpret this situation as being caused by the other parent. It will be important in your work with the parents to help each on focus on his or her own contribution to the problem, as well as the child’s specific complaints about the strengths and deficits in his or her relationship with the favored and less-favored parent.

One of the common dynamics in these cases is that the favored parent has more time with the child and tends to be more lenient in discipline. Another factor may be gender or temperament difference. The less-favored parent should be encouraged to focus on the child’s viewpoint rather than see it as “brainwashing” by the other parent.

Some of this can be normalized. You can point out that even in intact families, there are often preferences based on introversion, extraversion or other temperament styles.

What issues do parents typically fight over?

- Other parent’s fitness as a parent; worries about child endangerment

- Inadequate or inappropriate discipline in the other home

- Other parent’s meddling in their home

- Other parent’s unreliability regarding visitation or exchanges

- Other parent’s withholding information or badmouthing

- Unwelcome behavior by a step-parent

We must remember to focus on the issue, and not the relationship, when working with parents stuck in high-conflict divorce. Each of the above issues can be addressed in a logical manner, and each parent can be educated about what are reasonable expectations to have of the other parent post-divorce.

Remember that the underlying emotion that fuels these fires is anxiety,
which manifests as fear and/or anger. HCD parents often have difficulty separating out their feelings from facts, and their children from themselves. They may over-function or under-function—and the ex-spouse is sure to focus on their shortcomings without seeing the bigger, systemic problem.

Those who re-marry quickly are likely to bring in the new spouse as an advocate. Many HCD battles escalate with the first re-marriage. The parent who re-marries first tends to believe “We are now the most stable household and therefore should have custody.”

On the other hand, the unmarried parent often becomes highly anxious that the children will be swooped away. This can be explained as another system stressor which will affect both households—but a re-marriage, by itself, does not mean that a change in custody should ensue.

“Unwelcome behavior by a step-parent” is a very common dynamic after one or both parents remarry. Some parents have very valid complaints that the new step-parent is overstepping their legal and emotional boundaries. This is often done out of ignorance rather than maliciousness, but only careful interviewing of the new spouse will reveal his or her assumptions about the step-parent role.

Also, the remarried parent’s expectations of the new spouse are part of the mix. Many avoidant parents marry a more aggressive partner (again) who will sympathetically “take on” the avoidant parent’s resentments and step into the role of rescuer or advocate.

For example, let’s say that a year after Lisa and Tony divorced, Tony married Meg, who saw Tony as “run over” by his ex-wife. Tony is relieved to have someone take his side and is more than happy that Meg wants to initiate contact with Lisa regarding the care of Lisa’s and Tony’s daughter.

Lisa, on the other hand, always felt Tony was under-functioning and she is doubly angry now that he appears to be foisting his parenting responsibilities off on his new wife. The dynamic here is set up that the two women will vie for dominance, while Tony sits quietly in the background.

In this case, the child’s therapist will want to work with Tony to make him more assertive as a father for this child. Neither woman can substitute for a father.