Updated: Mar 22, 2021
The utility of the “high conflict” frame is clear. It draws attention to the abundant research that confirms parental conflict is damaging to children and a significant predictor of poor outcomes.
But there is a shadow side of this frame. A big one. One that runs the risk of advancing children’s worst interests rather than their best.
The high conflict frame invites mental health and family law professionals to view parents in contested custody matters as more or less, equally culpable. It encourages us to see parents in “conflict” as simply those who cannot set aside their hurt and anger to do the right thing for their children.
We might shake our heads at just how often we see the same old, same old. Sadly, “high conflict” can begin to feel normal.
Through our training, we strive to help parents cooperate with each other and we explain that different parenting styles does not mean that one style is good and the other is bad, but simply different. Judges also encourage parents to cooperate, suggesting that this is synonymous with the promotion of their children’s best interests (Peter G. Jaffe, Claire V. Crooks & Samantha E. Poisson, “Common Misconceptions in Addressing Domestic Violence in Child Custody Disputes,” 54 JUV. & Fam. Ct. J. 57 (2003).
When faced with this reality, our minds turn to education, court applications, clinical interventions, assessments, parenting coordination, arbitration.
The need for these interventions should not be evidence of “high conflict” in the way the frame suggests. The common assumptions inherent in the “high conflict" frame blocks the necessary and appropriate analysis of the real possibility of domestic violence in all its subtle and patterned manifestations, especially the non-physical. The numbers are alarming and if they are not reflected in proportion in our files, something is amiss.
Domestic violence is not a co-parenting relationship problem. Domestic violence does not involve the equal contribution by both parents. It is not a matter of merely setting up a comprehensive parenting plan or imposing parallel parenting.
· Domestic violence does not end with separation.
· There is a significant overlap between domestic violence and child abuse.
· Parents who are psychologically intrusive, controlling or otherwise abusive are poor role models.
· Perpetrators may use interventions and litigation as a form of ongoing control and harassment.
· Domestic violence may negatively affect the victim’s parenting capacity.
· Domestic violence following separation can be lethal.
It is time to bring awareness to the shadow side of the high conflict frame, the assumptions within, and its inherent invitation to apply it without sufficient analysis.