High Conflict Divorce – Understanding the Parent’s Emotional Pain

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Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

As a psychotherapist who has worked with children and adults from high conflict divorces for over twenty five years, I want to acknowledge how vital this work is. A therapist has the opportunity to heal deep seated wounds and support clients in finding their sense of wisdom, confidence, compassion and empathy for others.

High conflict divorce can be horrendous for all parties. A high conflict divorce is a battlefield of accusations, feelings of betrayal, deep feelings of abandonment, a sense of personal assault, a profound sense of loss and an intense distrust of the former partner. This wounding produces psychic wounds that often lead to a hardened hatred of the former spouse who is now their ongoing coparent.


The high conflict divorce is one where both partners participate in an ongoing war with each other. This disruption can last years and take place in endless courtroom haggling and massive attorney bills. It is not uncommon that the children in these dreadful situations become pawns in this high stakes contest. Most parents do not intend to use their children in this manner, but it does seem to occur routinely in this scorched earth strategy. In divorce literature, the most discussed research topic is that this conflict is extremely toxic to children.

Some adults in these situations feel so hurt by the other party that they spend much of their time engaging in a campaign of revenge. For example, if the mother wants the child to be with her during the mom’s birthday, the father will go to court and state why that is a bad idea. He is not really thinking what’s best for his child; only about that his former wife will feel joyful if her child is with her during her birthday. The very image of her being joyful causes him to attempt to damper that enthusiasm.

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What’s in the best interest of the child is often obscured by what is best for the parent or what can be done to hurt the other parent. This phenomenon often blinds parents in the ability to assess what their kid’s needs truly are.

It is easy to pathologize the parents and then label them as impossible to treat. This way of looking at the problem is not accurate and a clear hindrance to working effectively with these families. When trying to understand the level of antagonism one parent holds towards the other, it is important to empathize and understand their positions. It is perhaps even more important to gain their trust.

Can you imagine feeling so hurt and betrayed by another person that you spend almost all your energy planning how to make your former partner feel as bad or worse than you do? This is what happens during a hostile divorce and its aftermath. Looking at this dynamic closely is akin to sticking your head in the middle of a tornado and this is often the experience of the children in these situations.

But, as therapists, we need to be understanding of all the parents’ pain, but not be pushed around by its brutal velocity. We need to keep our boundaries and advocate for the needs of their children. We need to guide the parents in a healing direction where they can learn to separate their own issues from those of their ex-spouse and their kids.

It is also common for the therapist to feel the internal tug of war their children feel. This pull in opposite directions is harmful to the children’s mental health. Children want to achieve the impossible goal of pleasing both parents. This goal is unfeasible because high conflict divorce parent’s have an unwritten agenda to defeat the other parent. The child is actually in the position that if he pleases one of his parents; he may be disappointing the other one. For example a father may want his son to play lacrosse, but his mother is opposed to any activities that take away from his studies. The child may want to play lacrosse, but risks disappointing his mother if he outwardly agrees with his father. It is important that the therapist point out that this these wrenching loyalty pressures the therapist is experiencing is also occurring ongoing with their children. If the parents can actually take in the experience of their children, they may be willing to change their overall stance.

Parents in high conflict divorces are similar to all of us because we all carry baggage that has not been adequately addressed. Many parents have had abusive childhoods which cause them to become emotionally triggered in intimate relationships. The fear of being abandoned may be the most common trigger for those in high conflict divorces. When these folks actually experience abandonment, they may act out in physically and emotionally abusive ways.

Individual therapy may help parents to become self-aware of what triggers them and they can learn techniques not to act aggressively or not withdraw from others. Instead, they can interact with their ex-spouse with calmness rather than anger or fear.

Co-parenting sessions with a trained co-parenting therapist may be a good way to mediate child centered disputes. In some circumstances, parents employ the services of a parenting coordinator who can issue court ordered directives that have to be followed.

These services can be very expensive and for the most part are cost prohibitive for many who could use any of this assistance. There is a huge need for affordable, accessible services for children of divorce and their parents.

Working with parents who are going through a hostile divorce can be soul crushing, but when you observe them suddenly not wanting to fight or making real efforts to connect with their former partner, when they truly put their kids need first; a belief in miracles enters the world and for that one moment, the world is a beautiful place to be in.

Special Thanks to Mathew Sullivan PhD for contributing to this article. His website is californiaparentingcoordinator.com. Stay tuned for my next blog: The Different Ways Children from High Conflict Divorces Cope

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