By Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D.

Joshua Ehrlich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, has a private practice in Ann Arbor. He sees children, adolescents, adults and couples in psychotherapy and conducts court-related psychological evaluations. He also is a Candidate at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute in Farmington Hills.

Losing Perspective: A Danger in Working with High-Conflict Divorces

High-conflict divorces-- involving protracted litigation and continued acrimony between spouses-- stir intense feelings in all who deal with them. A recurrent problem in these divorces is that individuals surrounding disputing couples often are drawn into warring camps (Johnston and Campbell, 1988). What begins as a charged emotional dispute between one man and one woman becomes a battleground, pulling in increasing numbers of individuals who are swept up by the empassioned, one-sided arguments that each spouse makes: he or she has been mistreated, he or she is justified in seeking vengeance, the other spouse is a villain of unparalleled proportions. The alignment of professionals and others on one side or the other tends to escalate spousal conflicts, contributing to the damaging effects of the divorce on family members, especially children. Increased understanding of psychological factors that underlie this process can help those on the periphery of such divorces maintain a more even-handed stance.

Spouses in high-conflict divorces tend to distort reality in their perceptions of family circumstances. This distortion generally involves self-aggrandizement and exaggeration of the spouse's liabilities. It is common for a parent who valued a spouse's role with the children during the marriage to devalue that role at the time of the divorce. Similarly, an individual's view of his or her partner as a husband or wife. Where once the partner was viewed mainly in positive terms or as a mixture of good and bad features, he or she is now cast as all-bad, lacking in redeeming features. At the same time, the spouse is likely to view him- or herself as above reproach. When one encounters a divorce in which a spouse offers a rigid, black and white view of a marriage-- one person is responsible for its demise, one person is blameless-- one is likely encountering distortion and the potential for protracted conflict. When professionals (and other community members) fail to recognize the distortion in high-conflict divorces, they are more vulnerable to accepting one spouse's views at face value and thus aligning themselves with a skewed view of family circumstances.

The distortion in these divorces can be understood in terms of the painful emotional process of trying to disengage from a loved one (Johnston and Campbell, 1988, describe these processes in detail). Unable to cope with overwhelming feelings of grief, many individuals, particularly those with a history of traumatic separations or loss, need to deny their attachment to their spouses. Because feelings of grief are aroused most acutely by an awareness of affection and appreciation for the spouse, such awareness must be denied. Instead of undergoing the gradual, painful process of coming to terms with memories and giving up certain dreams of the future-- elements of normal grieving-- the individual attempts to forestall what feels like an overwhelming grieving process. By becoming enraged and hateful, he or she attempts to blot out feelings of love and respect and thus deny the pain of loss.

The denial of the partner's positive features-- as a breadwinner, parent, lover-- also is linked to the divorcing man's or woman's often desperate need to maintain self-esteem when a love relationship fails. Feeling inadequate, ashamed, and rejected, divorcing partners often are driven to diminish each other in an effort to recoup their self-esteem. Schematically, the psychological process works as follows: I am worthless because the person I loved has rejected me; however, if that person is worthless, then I am not worthless. Admiration and appreciation for the spouse that felt enhancing and enriching during the marriage come to feel unbearably painful as the marriage comes apart. Thus, they must be denied. Additionally, awareness of one's own shortcomings and contributions to the demise of the marriage can feel unbearably humiliating and also are denied.

Some spouses in high-conflict divorces distort intentionally in an effort, for instance, to sway the opinion of the court or a custody evaluator. However, much of the distortion that one observes-- e.g., the denial of the spouse's positive attributes-- is unintentional. It can be framed in psychological terms as a defense mechanism that individuals utilize in an effort to deal with overwhelming feelings of grief and vulnerability. Defense mechanisms, while adaptive, have a cost. In the high-conflict divorce, individuals who distort find some relief from painful feelings associated with the divorce. However, they also relinquish their ability to see the spouse as a textured individual with strengths and weaknesses and to take account of their own contributions to the difficulties. Unfortunately, these new views of the spouse and the self often are not simply passing perceptions but are held fiercely and incorporated into rigid, longstanding views. The process is akin to a person with highly sensitive eyes putting on dark sunglasses: the protection is necessary but the view of the landscape is altered. The situation is more complicated, however, because, like all defense mechanisms, these distortions are not conscious. Struggling to deal with intense feelings, the individual is neither aware of having put on the glasses nor how they color his or her world.

Desperate people in desperate emotional circumstances tend to implement defenses that are extremely rigid. Individuals with rigid defenses tend to view the the world in black and white terms, show little capacity for self-reflection, and cling to their defenses tenaciously. The rigidity of the defenses reflects their fragility-- that is, the individual's unconscious dread that the defenses will break down and he or she will be flooded with overwhelming feelings (e.g., a massive deflation in self-esteem, a major depression, etc.). In more benign circumstances, with healthier individuals, one sees more flexible defenses. For instance, a parent, deeply hurt about a divorce, might become somewhat disparaging of the other parent's relationship with the children. However, if pressed, that parent can recall that he or she valued the other parent's role prior to the divorce and that the impact of the divorce has distorted his or her view.

In employing rigid defenses against overwhelming feelings, individuals urgently seek ways to keep their defenses intact in order to maintain some semblance of emotional equilibrium. Often, this involves bolstering the defenses by drawing in others to reinforce one's own distorted views. In high-conflict divorces, in its most insidious form, this includes the use of children: turning them against the other parent, for instance, to bolster one parent's desperate psychological need to maintain the view of the other parent as evil or inadequate. Often, individuals in high-conflict divorces urgently seek to draw in the court, attorneys, mental health professionals and others in order to gain support for the view of the spouse as destructive or negligent and to bolster their own sense of being unfairly victimized. Terrified of their grief, these individuals often litigate furiously and repeatedly, which, in turn, forestalls the more normative grieving process that eventually would allow them to stop battling.

When dealing, then, with an individual mired in a high-conflict divorce-- as a family member, an attorney, a psychologist, a friend, etc.-- one is exposed to powerful, often unstated pulls to align oneself completely with that person's often distorted, unidimensional view of marital/family circumstances. Because the person's stake in maintaining a particular view of family circumstances is extraordinarily high-- that is, maintaining his or her emotional equilibrium-- the pull that he or she places on the outsider is extraordinarily powerful. He or she often sends out an implicit message: accept my views completely or abandon me completely. The outsider who questions an individual's view in these situations, even gently, often is met with outrage, shock, despair, or ridicule. He or she is told angrily that he or she has not listened or is biased, insensitive, or incompetent.

Many mental health professionals, attorneys, judges and others take pride in a view of themselves as sensitive individuals who understand the dilemmas of individuals in distress and can offer recourse. To be confronted as grossly insensitive, damaging or incompetent if one questions a divorcing individual's view of events can be highly distressing and bewildering. From my clinical involvement over time with high-conflict divorces, I have observed that outsiders who come face to face with spouses in high-conflict divorces often, and inadvertently, align with one spouse's rigid, distorted views of events in order to avoid the emotional fallout that they implicitly understand will follow if they do not. The anxiety that leads to a complete alignment with one spouse's position often is briefly conscious. For instance, the outsider may be aware of a vague discomfort that elements of the spouse's account do not quite make sense or a disconcerting sense of puzzlement that the spouse's convictions are so intense and rigid. Or, the outsider may be aware of a fleeing worry about being humiliated or dismissed if he or she calls into question any element of the spouse's account. By completely adopting one spouse's rigid views of the family circumstances, the outsider, often without awareness, pushes such uncomfortable feelings out of consciousness.

An additional emotional factor comes into play. In dealing with individuals in high-conflict divorces, those on the periphery are exposed to overwhelming feelings of grief, shame, and humiliation. Awareness of these feelings can be terribly uncomfortable for the outsider because they resonate with his or her own emotional experiences that are similar (i.e., memories from childhood, experiences within love relationships). It is easier emotionally, then, for the outsider to attune him- or herself to the divorcing person's angry attacks than to resonate with the grief and shame that underlie them. In doing so, however, the outsider aligns him- or herself with the divorcing individual's rigid defenses-- the angry denunciation of the partner, the denial of grief, the self-aggrandizement.

Family members, therapists, friends, attorneys all are asked to play supportive roles to one spouse in the midst of high-conflict divorces. While being supportive and, for example, serving as an advocate can be helpful and necessary, aligning oneself completely with the distorted views of an angry husband or wife tends to be inflammatory and, in the long run, destructive to family members. A child therapist who succumbs to the pull to take sides and unreflectively aligns with one parent's view that the other parent is destructive-- without ever hearing the other parent's viewpoint-- can contribute to the escalation of a conflict and cause irreparable damage to a child. Similarly, an attorney who gets swept up by a client's rageful wish for vengeance on a spouse and espouses aggressive litigation might escalate a simmering feud and, in the long run, damage his or her own client emotionally.

Awareness of how distortion arises in high-conflict divorces, and of the powerful pulls to align completely with one or the other parent, can help mitigate against such alignments and their costly fallout. It can lead those on the periphery of divorces to step back and recognize that the bitter name-calling that characterizes the high-conflict divorce usually represents an effort by spouses to deal with the terrible emotional pain that breakups entail. Rather than aligning fully with one spouse-- in essence, aligning with that spouse's self-protective distortions-- the outsider might consider a more moderate response that will help to calm the storm and facilitate that spouse's grieving. The child therapist might recognize, for instance, that working with both parents together to reduce conflict can be the most important intervention for a child under siege. Attorneys might consider alternatives to aggressive litigation, such as mediation, which offers the possibility of reducing conflict, to the long-term benefit of all family members. While those on the periphery of high-conflict divorces may be forced to deal with disturbing feelings by not aligning fully with one spouse's distorted views, they often can save such individuals a great deal of heartache in the long run.

References Johnston, Janet R. and Campbell, Linda E. G. (1988). Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York: The Free Press

Posted on Sunday, May 6, 2007 at 02:11PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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