Parental Alienation

Southern England Psychological Services

Understanding 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 (Klein, 2005).

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 concerned:

  1. What influence do parents’ attitudes towards divorce have on offspring’s attitudes?
  2. How are offspring’s attitudes towards divorce influenced by parental divorce, and do the effects vary depending on the gender of the child?
  3. 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 violence.

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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