The Pull to Take Sides in a High-Conflict Divorce
© 2014 Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D.
Divorce at its core usually involves a wrenching experience of loss. A divorcing person loses his or her spouse, extended family connections, an established way of life. Even when a marriage has been difficult and unfulfilling, divorce still spells the loss of hope for a stable, loving marriage to one’s spouse. Much of the literature on divorce describes loss in simple terms: the loss of the partner, economic loss, social dislocation. In actuality, the loss of a relationship is multi-dimensional and depends on the meaning of the loss for a particular person. For instance, the loss of a marriage is inevitably the repetition of earlier losses. When a person has suffered early, traumatic losses, divorce can be traumatic, too. The possible meanings of divorce are infinite. When children are involved, divorce has even more complicated and troubling ramifications for adults, as we all are aware.
In my book on divorce, Divorce and loss: Helping adults and children mourn when a marriage comes apart, I argue that, in order to move on with their lives, people need to mourn the losses in divorce. Mourning is a gradual, often painful process that includes bearing the difficult feelings – hurt, regret, shame, sadness – that loss catalyzes. All of us erect defenses against painful feelings. For instance, some divorcing people turn to frenzied sexual activity or substance use as ways to keep more painful feelings of sorrow and loss at bay. Most divorcing people, though, even in fits and starts, are able to bear the painful feelings associated with loss sufficiently that they progress through a constructive mourning process and emerge ready to re-engage new relationship and new ventures with energy and eagerness.
Some people (with early losses or other traumas, for instance) are unable to tolerate the affects associated with the losses in divorce and thus are unable to mourn and move on. Johnston and Campbell (1988) explore this issue at length in their book, Impasses of Divorce. These people create powerful defensive structures to push overwhelming feelings out of awareness. For instance, some people fend off feelings of hurt and sorrow through protracted, furious litigation. While such behavior effectively blocks out overwhelming feelings, it also interferes with a constructive mourning process because it blocks access to the feelings that have to be integrated (Ehrlich, 2011). Such a persistent interference with mourning contributes to the frozen quality one finds in the high-conflict divorce. I refer to this in my book as the Groundhog Day experience: Every day is exactly the same as the last one.
People who cannot tolerate painful feelings urgently need others to buttress their defenses, ensuring that these feelings do not enter into awareness. They create powerful pulls on others in their environment to align with their often black-and-white perspective on the marriage and divorce. This helps to explain what Johnston and Campbell refer to as “tribal warfare”—the process through which family members, attorneys, community members and others get drawn onto one side or another of a bitterly-contested divorce. Here is a brief example:
A woman who is flourishing in her work, parenting, and other ventures decides to divorce a man who is stuck in all domains of his life. Unable to tolerate his feelings of hurt and rejection, he lashes out at her, accusing her of callously abandoning him and the children. He hires a ferocious attorney and seeks full custody, though the mother has functioned well as the children’s primary caregiver. He demands that their circle of friends and his extended family agree with his angry narrative about the causes of the divorce. If they do not, he furiously accuses them of betraying him.
In order to work effectively with children, adolescents and their parents in a high-conflict divorce, therapists must be able to carve out a middle space between parents. Unless therapists maintain a positive relationship with each parent, they run the risk of escalating already damaging polarization. However, because these parents urgently need others to bolster their fragile defenses, they tend to insist that therapists align with their black-and-white visions of reality. In contrast to most divorcing parents, whose desire for guidance from therapists is genuine and who are at least reasonably amenable to feedback, fiercely feuding parents tend to seek confirmation of their views on the bad behaviors/character of the ex-spouse and vindication of their own behaviors/character. Therapists, in order to form alliances with their patients, work hard to attune themselves empathically to them, even those who are not easily likeable, so the formidable pressures high-conflict parents place on them dovetail with their natural tendencies to form alliances. Ex-spouses mired in high-conflict indicate that their views regarding the ex-spouse are obvious and that anybody with sense – much less a therapist with presumed diagnostic acumen – will see the situation as they do.
Therapists discern immediately, though not always consciously, that parents who create simplistic views of a complex marriage and divorce are under enormous internal pressure– desperately erecting barriers against being flooded by their underlying distress like a person frantically stacking sand bags to protect a home from onrushing water. Therapists want to help and, like others in the helping professions, want people to appreciate their skills, including their capacity for empathy. They become aware that they will face a parent’s disdain, if not outright rage, if they do not accept that parent’s views of the marriage and divorce, including the harsh assessment of the ex-spouse. They will be labeled insensitive or inadequate– one more hurtful person in the parent’s life. Such an accusation can be hard to bear; some clinicians avoid it by aligning with one parent.
Given our well-established knowledge that high-conflict divorce damages children (as well as adults), it is incumbent on clinicians (as well as attorneys, mediators and others) to avoid contributing to escalating conflict. Doing so demands an understanding of how people get ensconced in protracted conflict and monitoring our own reactions to the powerful pull to take sides in a High-Conflict Divorce.
Ehrlich, J. (2011). Litigation as a defense against mourning: A perspective for attorneys and judges. Michigan Family Law Journal, 41 (3): 31-33.
Ehrlich, J. (2014). Divorce and loss: Helping adults and children mourn when a marriage comes apart. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Johnston, J.R. and Campbell, L.E.G. (1988). Impasses of divorce: The dynamics and resolution of family conflict. New York: The Free Press.
Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst who practices in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is on the faculty of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and is adjunct faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Dr. Ehrlich has worked with hundreds of divorcing families as a therapist, mediator, and custody evaluator. He is the author of Divorce and loss: Helping adults and children mourn when a marriage comes apart.