Overview of High Conflict Relationships

The feelings of rage and helplessness and sadness which arise when a formerly intimate relationship ends are only amplified when there are children born to the couple. Some movies have tried to capture and express some of these feelings and many of those are comedies. Without humor they would otherwise be too hard to watch. There may be no relationships which experience more intense conflicts than those between formerly married persons who have children.

What is conflict?

We use the term conflict in two closely related ways. One is that it is a strategy for addressing an unpleasant circumstance. The other is that it is the circumstance itself. Sometimes we refrain from addressing a conflict (the circumstance) because we don't want to start a conflict (the strategy). We shy away because the conflict is so intense that we are afraid anything we do to address it will only make things worse.

We address and resolve conflicts all the time. But when they become too intense we get scared and we back away from them. This doesn't make them go away. To the contrary, it often gives them greater power. It is the very things that make conflicts intense that makes them important to resolve. Failure to address and resolve the most intense conflicts between parents will inevitably harm the children.

At the core a conflict is simply a difference we don't like. When others are not as we would have them be, we are in conflict with them. But in many cases the conflict is not so great that we even notice, much less take action. When the other is my former spouse and the issue has implications for the long-term welfare of my children I cannot ignore it.

Intensity is a function of the level of our commitment and the disparity of our perspectives

The intensity of a conflict we experience in a relationship with another around any given issue is a product of two factors in how we each relate to the issue or circumstance. One is the degree of commitment or attachment we each feel toward the circumstance. The other is how much agreement there is in the perspective we each have toward the issue. The more we both have a high level of attachment or commitment, the more intensity there will be for us around a given issue. The more we see things differently from each other, the more intensity there will be. If, on the other hand, it is something one or both of us doesn't really care about, or if it is something we see the same way, there will be little conflict.

In the case of parents the issue is the welfare of our children. If one parent doesn't really care about the kids, is happy to relinquish custody and allows the other parent to make most of the decisions about the children's welfare, then there is little opportunity for conflict. Or if both parents maintain pretty much the same perspective on what their kids need and are willing and able to act in harmony with each other about what is required of the children and what the children will be supplied with, then there is little to fight about.

But if each is strongly committed to providing the best for the kids but they are not able to agree on what the best is, and especially if they see the other as opposing what they believe to be best for the children, then they will have some very intense conflicts.

What does it take to resolve conflicts?

We all have conflicts all the time. Most of the conflicts which arise for us are so small and we are so good at addressing and resolving them that we may not even notice them as conflicts. Sometimes conflicts appear just as a misunderstanding. Once we have clarified what actually happened, the conflict is resolved. Sometimes conflicts arise because we have both taken on responsibility for something and we have different ways of addressing the issue. Once we know the other will take care of it and be responsible for the outcome we can let go of it and allow the other to take care of it...or they may let us do it.

But sometimes the issue is so important to both of us that neither is going to let the other handle it and we have very different ways of seeing what is going on and thus have very different strategies in mind for addressing the issue. We will abandon neither our kids' welfare nor our own perspective on what is best for them.

These conflicts do not require that one of us lose in order to resolve them. Indeed, we will not get what we need, nor will we construct what our children need, if we are making each other lose. All we need to do is to see the other's perspective so clearly that we can understand how the other's point of view is valid for the other. This sounds simple, but it is very difficult. It is both possible and helpful when we do so...and our kids are worth the effort.

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