Social markers of high-conflict divorces involving children
Forensic social work, recognised as a specialised field in South Africa, entails the evaluation of individuals grounded in legal principles, and these experts serve as court-certified witnesses. In South Africa, where forensic social work is relatively emerging, available literature addressing topics in this field is limited. It is not uncommon for couples to encounter negative outcomes and emotions during the divorce process. However, when children are part of the equation, it becomes crucial to identify divorce scenarios that could escalate into high-conflict situations. This study aimed to pinpoint social markers that may contribute to the emergence of high-conflict divorces, with the intention of providing forensic social workers with the necessary information to offer the court informed guidance for addressing and mitigating elevated conflict levels in advance.
There is a limited body of literature addressing the potential explanations, specifically social indicators, and comprehension of the social cues associated with ongoing parental conflict. While the presence of social markers for couples immersed in intense conflict is acknowledged, research in this area appears to be primarily in its preliminary stages. Consequently, there is a pressing need for further empirical research into the social indicators of high-conflict divorces. A more comprehensive empirical grasp of these social markers could enable us to distinguish between mere noise and the indicators that genuinely contribute to the escalation of conflict in divorce situations.
Additionally, there is a noticeable absence of literature examining the markers of high-conflict divorces within the context of South Africa. It is plausible that the social markers previously identified in international literature as contributing to chronic conflict may differ when applied to the South African context.
It is thus evident that there is a noticeable void in the existing body of literature, as no framework is available to aid forensic social workers in assessing individuals involved in a highly conflict-ridden divorce process in the South African context. To achieve the study’s objectives, the main researcher sought to gain a comprehensive understanding of the social markers associated with high-conflict divorces that involve children. In undertaking this research study, the researcher established the objective of addressing the following research question: “What are the social markers of high-conflict divorces involving children?”
A qualitative research approach was employed. This approach was well-suited to the research study and enabled the researcher to identify the experiences and observations of participants who were forensic social workers in private practice, regarding social markers of high-conflict divorces involving children.
The research design was both descriptive and exploratory in nature. Despite various possible theoretical explanations in the literature for the occurrence of high-conflict divorces, descriptions of social markers related to this phenomenon are still lacking. The descriptive and exploratory research design allowed the main researcher to expand upon the limited information available on the phenomenon, providing a more comprehensive description.
The research study encompassed forensic social workers operating in both the City of Cape Town’s Metropolis and the Cape Wineland District. These professionals offer their services to individuals entangled in high-conflict divorce cases.
The research participants consisted of forensic social workers in private practice who specialised in working with high-conflict divorcing parents. The recruitment process targeted social workers registered with the SACSSP (South African Council for Social Service Professions). To be eligible, participants needed a minimum of five years of experience as a social worker, with specific expertise in providing services to individuals involved in protracted, high-conflict divorces that also included children.
A customised interview questionnaire was prepared to facilitate the gathering of additional insights on the research subject. The interviews were conducted in person, allowing for a deeper comprehension of the participants’ experiences, which will be further elucidated later in the study.
The research project was approved by the NWU Health Research Ethics Committee (HREC) with clearance number NWU-00931-19-A1.
The researchers analysed, ordered, structured and gave meaning to the research data.
The following aspects have been found to be social markers of high-conflict divorces involving children:
Theme 1: Intrapersonal factors
This theme explores the participants’ experience, knowledge and understanding of the role of intrapersonal factors in the development of high-conflict divorces and is divided into three subthemes.
Subtheme 1: Personality disorders
The participants expressed the belief that pathology, particularly in the context of personality disorders, is responsible for individuals’ destructive, irrational, inflexible, and self-centred behaviour. It seems that these individuals engage in such behaviour without being aware of it.
Subtheme 2: Emotional intelligence
It has been reported that the absence of emotional intelligence is a social marker of high-conflict divorces involving children.
Subtheme 3: Experience of loss
The participants stressed the significant losses associated with divorce and highlighted that the response to these losses, irrespective of the natural grieving process, could result in conflicts when parents lack the capacity to cope with their loss and progress through the stages of mourning in a constructive manner.
Theme 2: Interpersonal factors
This theme explores the participants’ experience, knowledge, and understanding of the role of interpersonal factors in the development of high-conflict divorces.
Subtheme 1: Individual history and family experiences
Individuals who have encountered early traumatic interpersonal experiences and exhibit potentially insecure attachment styles may serve as indicators of high-conflict divorces within the social context.
Subtheme 2: Lack of interpersonal skills
In high-conflict divorces, inadequate communication, listening, conflict resolution, or problem-solving abilities in one or both parents can serve as a social indicator. These deficiencies contribute to the emergence, persistence, and intensification of conflicts within the family dynamic.
Subtheme 3: Insufficient knowledge about divorce
In high-conflict divorces, it seems that a lack of adequate knowledge and comprehension regarding the divorce proceedings is indicative of a social characteristic among parents.
Subtheme 4: Domestic violence, allegations of child abuse, and substance abuse
Domestic violence, false accusations of child abuse, and substance abuse by parents have been reported to be social markers of high-conflict divorces.
Theme 3: External factors
This theme explores the role of external factors in the development of high-conflict divorces.
Subtheme 1: Judicial system
It was found that the way in which legal practitioners use the Western legal system is a social marker regarding high-conflict divorces.
Subtheme 2: Finances
The participants indicated that finances are a social marker regarding high-conflict divorces.
Subtheme 3: Co-parenting challenges: access to and handling of children
The participants believed access to and handling of children is a social marker regarding high-conflict divorces.
Subtheme 4: Additional persons
The participants reported that coalition formation between parents and other persons involved in the divorce is a social marker regarding high-conflict divorces.
Forensic social work, regarded as a specialised field, involves the systematic assessment of individuals based on legal foundations, and these professionals testify as experts in court. In South Africa, where forensic social work is relatively new, there is a scarcity of literature on specific issues. In divorce cases characterised by high conflict, forensic social workers may be tasked with evaluating the parental couple and making recommendations regarding the minors involved. Unfortunately, international or local literature on identifying potential signs, or social markers, of high-conflict divorces is currently limited. This research aims to fill this gap, providing essential literature that can support the conclusions and recommendations of forensic social workers during court proceedings.
The investigation identified social markers that could contribute to high-conflict divorces, categorised into three themes: intrapersonal factors, interpersonal factors, and external factors. The researchers concluded that these social markers manifest at multiple levels of parental functioning, and the underlying causes of these behaviours are complex and should not be oversimplified.
The study revealed that some parents’ reactions to their losses, particularly their inability to reach the stage of acceptance, can serve as a social marker of high-conflict divorces. Their persistent engagement in the aggression phase, adoption of a win-lose mentality, and a subsequent confrontational approach toward each other are indicative of this behaviour. The participants’ feedback also highlighted issues like domestic violence, allegations of child abuse, and substance abuse as social markers in the context of high-conflict divorces.
Additionally, the research highlighted that the involvement of third parties, such as individuals associated with one or both parents, can be a social marker of high-conflict divorces. These individuals often lack a comprehensive understanding of the parents’ needs, the other person’s perspective, or the family dynamics. They tend to become embroiled in the divorce conflict, promoting inflexible and uncompromising positions, reinforcing biased views of the other parent, drafting recommendations, and even testifying on behalf of their adult client.
Keywords: children; divorce; forensic social worker; high-conflict divorces; social markers
- This article’s featured image comprises a photo by Ferdinand Stöhr (Unsplash) and silhoettes by OpenClipart-Vectors (Pixabay).