High-Conflict Versus Low-Conflict Divorce

The liberalization of divorce in the 1970s made divorce a fact of life for most Americans. About 1.25 million marriages end in divorce annually, and over a million children under 18 become the children of a broken family. In all, two in five children experience divorce before they reach 18, and about 25 percent of all children spend some time in a stepfamily. About 60 percent of all divorces involve minor children.

Research on the long-term effects of divorce on children is divided and politicized, but what now seems clear is that the negative impact of divorce depends at least in part upon whether it ends a marriage characterized by either high conflict or low conflict.

Some researchers now suggest that the children of low-conflict marriage that ends in divorce fare worse than children of a failed, high-conflict marriage, and they argue that staying together for the sake of the children may be a better course for a low-conflict couple.

Like the research on short-term and long-term effects of divorce on children, low-conflict and high-conflict divorces have generated arguments that troubled low-conflict marriages should be saved because "future generations would be well served if parents remained together until children are grown."

Like the arguments about short-term and long-term effects of divorce on children, the discussion of impact of low-conflict and high-conflict divorce has become politicized. Social conservatives tend to interpret the data in pessimistic ways, citing the damage that divorce does; liberals tend toward more optimistic views, seeing divorce as an opportunity for a fresh start for everyone involved.

Most research now strongly suggests that divorce has long-lasting consequences for children. "Children raised outside of intact marriages are more likely to be poor, to have trouble in school, to report psychological problems, to commit violence against themselves and others, to use drugs, and to experience sexual and physical abuse. As adults, children of divorce report lower levels of satisfaction, more depression, and more physical problems; they also, on average, obtain less education and hold less-prestigious jobs. They are more likely to get divorced themselves and to bear children outside of marriage."

High-conflict marriages are very stressful and even dangerous places for children. Hostile, aggressive and destructive fighting characterizes a high- conflict marriage. When a high-conflict marriage ends in a high-conflict divorce, the former spouses continue the battle in all manner of ways: ongoing, unremitting hostility between them, drawn-out or frequent court actions, custody battles, allegations of domestic violence, restraining or no-contact orders, and failure to communicate with each other about their children and their care. Like a hurricane drawing heat from the ocean below, high-conflict couples fight about everything: money ("for starters, there is almost never enough of it"); parenting styles (married spouses present a united front); unresolved feelings (people don’t marry with the idea of getting divorced; lovers marry with stars in their eyes and forever); status ("who is the better parent?"); power/control; and dating; the introduction of a new significant other. In short, a high-conflict divorce means that the war is over but the fighting continues.

On the other hand, low-conflict marriages often seem more troubled than fatally flawed. By comparison, low-conflict marriages are ones where either or both spouses encounter rough patches that make one or the other of them unhappy. Arguments in low-conflict marriage do not become physical and third-party intervention is not the norm. Couples may contemplate divorce in low-conflict marriages when they come to believe that the marriage "just isn’t working." Couples in low-conflict marriages often feel that they have "drifted apart." Couples in low-conflict divorces do not hate one another; rather they may feel they have fallen out of love and that they would be happier apart from each other. In short, in low-conflict divorces at least one spouse is unhappy and believes his or her marriage is the reason why. When one spouse tells the other the marriage is over and that spouse is blindsided by the announcement, the chances are that the marriage is low-conflict.



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