Understanding the Three Types of Divorce
By Vassilia Binensztok, Phd, LMHC, NCC
You might know a few people who have been divorced and had varying experiences. Some were able to come to agreements with their former partners relatively quickly, while others seem to be in a never-ending battle. Relationship dynamics, built-up resentments, the reasons for divorce, and partners’ personal characteristics can all contribute to the level of stress and conflict experienced during the divorce process. Conflict in divorce is usually caused by a combination of factors and is not attributable to just one variable. Divorces usually fall into one of three categories: amicable divorce, strained divorce, and high-conflict divorce.
In amicable divorces, there is little to no conflict between divorcing partners. Partners mutually agree that a divorce is in their best interest and neither one blames the other for the marriage’s downfall. In these divorces, partners often feel the marriage did not work out because of mutual differences. In these cases, conflicts were often not evident to outsiders and unhappiness brewed over years. People who tolerate divorce well have supportive loved ones and friends, and often both partners engage in therapy to help them navigate their divorce experience. These partners might still like each other as friends but are no longer in love and do not wish to remain in a relationship with each other. Children in these cases can still experience the stress of divorce but are not exposed to conflict and do not feel they have to take sides in the divorce.
Similar to amicable divorces, partners in strained divorces typically attribute their breakup to personal differences and long-standing unhappiness. There might have been betrayals or other damaging interactions in the marriage but partners usually explain this in terms of the conditions of an unhappy marriage. In strained divorces, there is a higher level of dislike and disagreement between partners than in amicable divorce, but no intense negative feelings between partners. In terms of children, these parents can put aside their differences and agree on coparenting decisions. In these cases, children can still grieve the changes in the family unit but do not become entangled in anger and bitterness between parents.
In a high-conflict divorce, there have typically been many negative experiences and interactions like dishonesty, infidelity, and fighting. These partners often have intense animosity and anger towards each other and show it outwardly. They can view everything the other does in a negative light, fling accusations at each other constantly, insult each other, and threaten to cause each other more problems. These partners might engage in erratic behavior and find it difficult to move past the divorce and their resentments. Conflicts can endure well past the finalization of the divorce, particularly if there are children. In these cases, children often witness parental conflict and feel like they must choose sides or blame one parent. Children can also learn too many sensitive details about their parents’ relationship difficulties. High-conflict divorces are a risk to children and can lead to negative psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems into adulthood.
Being in a high-conflict divorce does not mean that the situation must remain this way. Partners might not be able to achieve amicable divorce, but this does not mean there are not many things they can do to improve the conflict within their divorce. Working through resentments, identifying healthy goals, and using conflict resolution strategies can all help reduce the stress of a divorce, regardless of how bad things have gotten. Speaking to a therapist for divorce therapy, individual therapy, or coparenting therapy can all be helpful for improving divorce for partners and children.
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