When you first see either of both of the divorced parents, it is important to get a marital history. The relationship dynamics will give you important information about the quality of the divorce. Just because the marriage is over, the dynamics are not. Therefore, it is likely that people in a very emotional marriage will continue to interact in a very dramatic way post-divorce.

Here are some of the most common marital dynamics which you may now see operating in a high-conflict divorce.

Distancer/pursuer: This dynamic is associated with the highest rate of divorce. One partner is less communicative or less committed, and the other partner “pursues” more closeness. Although the partners may switch roles, the dynamic is deeply entrenched.

Example: Ronnie courted Tandy very romantically for two years before their marriage. Tandy was looking forward to a life filled with excitement and activities. However, once they married, Randy returned to a busy work schedule and his boyhood love of hunting with the other men in his family.

After their first child was born, Tandy became increasingly angry and disappointed as now being seen only as mother and housekeeper. Ronnie complained that he was a good provider and deserved “time off;” Tandy started calling him numerous times daily to “pick fights” just because she felt she was losing him.

Ultimately, Tandy filed for divorce and Ronnie seemed relieved. One year later, he is remarrying, and Tandy is furious that he and his new wife want to have the children every other weekend. She says, “He was never a father before; why should he try to start now?”

Disengaged: Divorce often occurs at midlife in these marriages, as the partners realize they have little in common, or because the children have grown. (It may seem odd that this dynamic can lead to conflict, but if one or both parents refuse to communicate about children, this can lead to court battles. These parents would prefer someone else do their communicating for them.)

Example: Marian and Cy married in graduate school and had one daughter.
Both were rather introverted college teachers. Both came from very abusive backgrounds and each relied on avoidance as a defense. When Marian discovered that Cy was having an affair with a colleague, she took Cynthia (age nine) and moved into her parents’ home without any discussion.

The couple only communicated through their attorneys. A vacuum developed because of estrangement and lack of communication. Each mounted an attack on the other’s parenting skills, and a custody battle ensued. Although Cynthia ended up living in a 50/50 shared custody arrangement, her parents don’t speak to one another, and Cynthia is developing severe anxiety symptoms.

Operatic: Consisting of two people with histrionic or borderline characteristics, these marriages are based on drama—and so are the divorces. Partners in such relationships have great difficulty in getting closure. They are most likely to involve their children and others in their conflicts. Grandparents, friends, private investigators, and police are often called as “witnesses” to exchanges or other tense situations. Domestic violence often occurs in these types of marriages.

Domestic violence is a very serious red flag. A divorce does not mean that the violence will stop; in fact, women who are separated from their husbands—especially women aged 20 to 34—experience the highest rates of violence. The next highest rate is for divorced women (Rennison, 2001).

According to Websdale (1999), men are considerably more likely than women to commit “familicide”—the murder of the ex-spouse and children before committing suicide. The homicide rates of wives killed by their husbands tripled between 1976 and 1995 (Puzone, 2000), while during the same period the homicide rates of husbands killed by wives decreased by 75%.

Separated and divorced women, especially young ones, have the highest rate of being victimized because their ex-spouses may be determined to control them and panic when the women finally leave.

According to Kurz (1993), 70% of men who beat their wives also physically abuse their children. The period just after divorce may make the risk of physical abuse of ex-partners and children much higher, since fear and tension is high.

Also, the parents may be stressed by financial chaos, working longer hours, and relocation of the household. Stressed parents also affect the children, and an irritable, hard-to-soothe infant, may be more prone to be abused by an exhausted, fragile parent.

Example: Charles and Anita both came from families with alcoholic parents. Charles had some minor scrapes with the law as an adolescent and met Anita when he was 18. They partied through their freshman year at the local university and broke up as sophomores. Each continued partying and dating, and the two got back together at age 21.

After only two months of renewed dating, Anita became pregnant and the couple married. Both continued drinking and using party drugs. After the birth of Toby, Anita became unhappy with the couple’s lack of money. They lived with Charles’ parents for a while, but Charles had difficulty keeping jobs as a construction worker.

Anita ultimately got a part-time job at an architecture firm and filed for divorce. Within one year, she was married her boss, Sam, and filed for sole custody, alleging that Charles was addicted to marijuana and alcohol. He countered that she was “an unfit mother” because she had allowed Sam to spend the night when Toby was present.

Each parent had also alleged being physically abused by the other, and there are multiple police reports and restraining orders. Both claim the other is still using drugs. Despite this, at times Charles and Anita get along with each other and even talk about reconciling, now that she’s divorcing Sam.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Fear of child abduction to a foreign country? The fearful parent should consult his or her attorney about acquiring passports for the children. Only one passport is issued per person. If the fearful parent has possession of the passports, the other parent cannot take the children out of the country. If passports have already been issued, the attorney may be able to help the fearful parent get custody of the passports.

Step-family marriages: These marriages include children from at least one previous union. In high-conflict step-family divorces, alliances are made along bloodlines. A step-parent who has raised a step-child from infancy may be denied access, or the child may feel loyal to the biological parent and “drop” the step-parent. This is particularly painful in cases where adolescent children had previously seen the step-parent as a “real parent.”

Example: Lynda and Tom divorced when their children were 6 and 8 years old. Tom married Denise one year later, and moved into Denise’s home, where they live with Denise’s 14-year old son Matt.

Lynda is furious that Tom allows Denise to pick up and drop off their two daughters. Lynda refuses to talk to Denise when Denise calls about school matters. "Tom is the parent, not Denise, and I won’t let him get away with this," says Lynda.

The daughters complain that Matt gets special treatment.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

By age 30, 75% of American women have been married and about 50% have cohabitated outside of marriage.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7/24/2002.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Unmarried cohabitation overall is less stable than marriage. The probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce within 5 years is 20% but for premarital cohabitation it is 49% within 5 years. After 10 years, first marriages end at a rate of 33%; cohabitations fail at a rate of 62%.—National Survey of Family Growth in “Cohabitation, Marriages, Divorces and Remarriages in the U.S., published by the CDC, Series 23, #22.

High-Conflict Divorce Factoid:

Marriages don’t always end in divorce—many end in separations. —National Survey of Family Growth in “Cohabitation, Marriages, Divorces and Remarriages in the U.S., published by the CDC, Series 23, #22.