Written by Hyunjoo Shim, Licensed Clinical Psychologist (USA)
Interparental conflict plays significant roles in the lives of divorced family members, particularly for the child(ren). It is crucial for parents to be aware of the types of conflict and how it impacts child(ren)’s thoughts and feelings, as well as their parenting and continued relationship with the child(ren). Parents will also need to learn how to manage their emotions as they adjust to their new role as a (co)parent- not as a spouse, and how to manage conflict to promote the children’s wellbeing, in the process of re-negotiating healthy family boundaries.
Research has consistently shown that interparental conflict before, during, and after parental divorce is a robust predictor of children’s psychological functioning. Of the numerous forms and/or types of interparental conflict, overtly expressed conflict (e.g., being physical with each other, yelling, threatening, and bad-mouthing), and covertly expressed conflict (e.g., having children relay messages for parents, putting children in situations where they feel conflicted and guilty over loyalty, and using children as a way to get back at former spouse) are especially harmful to various child outcomes. Interparental conflict of these kinds are associated with delinquency, conduct problems, depression, anxiety, emotional insecurity, as well as more subtle distress including feelings of loss and blame.
Unfortunately, children are likely to be exposed to this type of conflict when parents separate or divorce. While divorce may be an ending to the conflict for some families, conflict may begin for some families, and can endure during and even long after divorce. Importantly, post-divorce conflict tends to center around child-related issues (as opposed to the parents’ relationship), as former spouses are left with only a parental role.
Overall, behaviorally manifested post-divorce conflict tends to become less frequent as everyone gets used to their new roles. However, acrimony and bitterness between parents can still remain over time, leading children to feel caught in the middle and even to feel like they are the source of on-going conflict. Children who internalize the views and messages that their presence is not welcomed or is a burden to the parents are vulnerable to have pervasive guilt, shame, and fear that later develop into more sustaining mental health issues and relationship struggles.
In order for the parents to be able to promote their children’s post-divorce adjustment, it is crucial for the parent to grieve the loss of their spousal relationship while learning to manage their various emotions including anger, guilt, sadness, fear and feeling lost. Then, with less intense emotions and conflicts among parents, they could establish and maintain a business-like co-parental relationship to raise their children together more effectively.