Next season, Family Matters is dedicating an episode to the topic of high conflict divorce. Only 5% of separated couples end up litigating against each other in a courtroom. These long, drawn out battles can be damaging to any children involved in the divorce, a severe issue many experts are calling attention to. Children get trapped in the “war zone” between the parents that these divorces create, either forced to pick sides or scared from telling the truth of the situation.
Many people are concerned about the impact high conflict divorce has on the parent-child relationship. In high conflict divorce, parents often attack each other and argue about why the other is not a good parent. Children often have a difficult time dealing with this conflict, and feel pushed to believe one side over the other, resulting in difficulty or inability in having a loving relationship for that “other” parent. Many experts have huge concerns for this parental alienation, as it can have extreme negative effects for both the child and the alienated parent. The difficulty or inability to have a meaningful relationship with one parent often results in emotional and psychological problems for children. They can develop difficulty in developing and maintaining meaningful relationships, as well as expressing and dealing with their emotions in a healthy manner. The alienated parent whose marriage has failed, and now has lost their children as well, can easily fall victim to depression, substance abuse, and other emotional and psychological problems.
Explaining why some couples end up in such long-term disputes, while others can come to an agreement is not an easy task. Divorce itself is an emotionally trying process, where many people feel betrayed, angry, or depressed about their ex-spouse and failed marriage. Long-term conflict is usually over issues of child custody and access since decisions and agreements over these issues frame ex-spouses’ relationship after divorce. Conflict sometimes is fueled purely by acrimony between the ex-spouses, but other times there are genuine concerns over these issues of child custody and access. Many experts stress that these different kinds of divorces should be handled differently to make the process easier. However, distinguishing between different types of cases is not always an easy task since people often have more than on motivation when dealing with their divorce.
The legal system tries to take into account these issues and deal with them effectively. Usually courts will order a Custody and Access Assessment to help determine the issues present in the family and the concerns each person has. This allows issues to first be discussed outside of the adversarial courtroom, and can provide guidance to arranging a settling agreement between the parents. If a settlement can’t be reached, this assessment provides guidance to the judge as it holds the assessor’s recommendations on these issues. As for parental alienation, the law imposes some duties on a custodial parent to prevent parental alienation from happening. If the other parent has a court order for access, the custodial parent should try to ensure that children have a relationship with the other parent. Evidence that a custodial parent is not fulfilling that duty is not well received by judges, and can support a contempt of court charge. People facing conflict with their ex-spouse about child access should always seek a lawyer’s advice to protect their interests in these matters.