Louis and Holly got a divorce after four years of marriage and one child. But two years later, they still acted toward each other as if the wounds of divorce were fresh. Their fights and arguments were so hostile they exchanged five-year-old Rachel at the local police department.
Darin and Charlotte handled their anger toward each other differently. Like Louis and Holly, they couldn’t resolve their resentful and bitter feelings toward each other, but they both vowed they would no longer engage in the intense arguments and fights that on two occasions led to the police coming to Holly’s apartment. They agreed, for the sake of 10-year-old Richie, they would only communicate by email or by text messages.
In my work with co-parents who engage in angry conflict after a divorce, I have numerous times told high-conflict couples that their continuing mutual hostility and fighting will have serious negative effects on their children. Perhaps many of the parents I’ve cautioned about the hazards of intra-parental discord and fighting believed me. As a result, some co-parents worked hard at becoming less hostile with each other. However, there were other co-parents who were just not able to stop their bitter fighting – or if they did it was apparent that their anger was seething just below the surface.
It makes intuitive sense that if you and co-parent fight that this will bother your child and interfere with his or her healthy development. But, how exactly does that happen?
Some psychologists have hypothesized that when co-parents continue to fight with each other long after the divorce is over, that this undermines their child-rearing skills. What this theory suggests is that if you’re engaged in on-going bitter conflict with your co-parent, your frustration, your preoccupation with your anger, and your distress over the situation will rob you of the ability to be a warm, supportive, and emotionally available parent.
Specifically, if you’re more or less consumed with the conflict with your ex-spouse and you’re not able to be the warm and supportive parent you’re capable of being, then you are not going to be available to guide your child toward normal development.
An article in the journal Child Development presented the results of research with more than 200 families. The findings of this research are consistent with the theory I just described.
This study, which was done by psychologists at the University of Rochester and the University of Notre Dame and reported in Child Development in December, 2006, shows that destructive intra-parental conflict does lead to parental emotional unavailability. Parental emotional unavailability, in turn, is associated with increases in psychological disturbances in children.
For instance, the three types of child problems that come about because of parent unavailability are (1.) greater internalizing problems, which generally means anxiety and depression; (2.) greater externalizing behavior, which often includes aggressive behavior problems; and (3.) greater difficulties in school achievement.
One of the more surprising aspects of this study is that when co-parents handle conflict with each other by withdrawing, there are increases in all three types of child maladjustment. In other words, co-parent withdrawal is a more powerful predictor of children’s problems than is outright co-parent hostility and aggression.
What does this mean for you if you are experiencing significant conflict with your co-parent?
One possible interpretation is that when you’re involved in on-going bitterness and conflict, your frustration and disengagement from your former spouse will spill over and affect your whole family. So, even if you withdraw – whether out of frustration, as a way of managing your anger, or in an effort to protect your child – your resources as a parent are more limited. You have less emotionally to give to your child. And your child suffers.
The bottom line is that if you’re divorced and you continue to have a hostile and conflicted relationship with your co-parent, whether you’re handling this with open hostility or aggression or whether you are trying to suppress it and keep it to yourself, your child is at risk.
You need to find a way to defuse your anger and hostility and get on with the more important job you have of mutually co-parenting your child – and always being emotionally available.