How Family Courts Get "High-conflict" Cases Wrong

High-conflict cases have always baffled family court.  Family law professionals have tried to resolve these cases through mediation, collaboration, and the traditional adversarial process, but nothing has worked.  This had created a serious backlog of high-conflict cases, frustrating family law professionals and traumatizing vulnerable families.  Family court dockets are bulging from new high-conflict cases that are piled on top of ongoing cases with no end in sight.  Family law must adopt the evidence-based science of high-conflict in order to understand and effectively resolve these troublesome cases.

Family law has not been able to resolve high-conflict cases because they misinterpret the meaning of the word “high-conflict.”  Family law and mental health professionals mistakenly believe that high-conflict means that both parties are contributing to the conflict.  After working with hundreds of high-conflict families, I know that this is simply not true.  High-conflict does not refer to the interaction between parties,  it means that one party is causing the conflict because he or she has an untreated high-conflict personality.   

Respected high-conflict expert Bill Eddy states that most…“high-conflict families have only one parent with a high-conflict personality who is driving the dispute, while the other parent is mostly acting reasonably and just trying to protect the children from the high-conflict parent.1.  Author, Dr. Karyl McBride further explains how family courts misinterpret these types of cases.  “A common perception among divorce lawyers, therapists, parenting-time evaluators, judges, and other professionals is that, whenever you have a “high-conflict” divorce, both parties are responsible for the conflict. Many professionals assume that difficult, drawn-out custody battles are caused by two parents who are each stubborn, selfish, and perhaps a bit crazy.” 2

When family court professionals make the mistake of assuming that both parents are responsible for the conflict, it puts the case into a never-ending tailspin.  This is because the high-conflict parent doesn’t want the court to resolve real and relevant issues.  Instead, he or she wants to enlist the help of the court in blaming and punishing the other parent.  In court, parents with high-conflict personalities constantly create conflict, chaos, and suspicion around the other, reasonable parent.  They distract the court with irrelevant and confusing accusations and innuendos without a shred of real evidence.  The problem is that the court often accepts these empty verbal character assaults at face value and wastes precious time chasing lies around in circles while the reasonable parent tries to defend him or herself.  Sadly even though there is no truth to the high-conflict parents’ stories and lies the accusations alone begin to shed suspicion on the reasonable parent, further complicating the case.

If family court wants to stop the nightmare of high-conflict divorces and disputes, they must understand the scientific nature and the relational dynamics of parents with high-conflict personalities.  The National Alliance for Targeted Parents urges all family law stakeholders to take advantage of the increasing number of educational programs and books designed to help family law understand and effectively manage high-conflict cases.

1. Eddy, Bill. (2010). Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising resilient Children While Avoiding High conflict divorce.  HCI Press. Scottsdale AZ.  P. 198.

2. McBride, Karyl. (2015). Will I Ever Be Free of You?: How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family (p. 4). Atria Books. Kindle Edition, NY,NY.