How can mediators best prepare for mediation with high-conflict parents? Researchers set out to understand dialogue-obstructing characteristics in high-conflict couples (HCL couples). This study is particularly relevant given that research shows that many children of divorced parents experience increased individual and social problems due to high-conflict levels between parents, in addition to economic instability.

The study looked at 38 cases of HCL couples within a mandatory mediation program in Norway. Findings showed recurring patterns during dialogue between HCL couples. One such pattern was chaos, characterized by interruptions, and sudden changes in topic. Yet another was one or both parent’s lack of trust, visible through acute alertness to the possibility of the other’s hidden motives. Lastly, HCL couples tended to defend and attack. These patterns created challenges to mediator’s attempts for constructive dialogue.  In contrast, low-conflict couples exhibited other dynamics such as acknowledging the other partner’s contributions, co-constructing narratives about the child, considering the child’s perspective without using it to bolster one parent’s preferred solution, attending to the other parent’s emotions, and searching for possible solutions.  The researchers also identified eight main sources of conflict for HCL couples: four relating to care of the child, two to the breakup itself, one on the influence of external parties on the mediation process, and yet another over differences in future plans.

Understanding of the main characteristics of conflict for HCL couples allows mediators to better support couples to identify challenges to constructive dialogue. This essential first step could improve the outcomes of the mediation itself, thus reducing the negative impact of divorce on children.


Gulbrandsen, W., Haavind, H., & Tjersland, O.A. (2018). High-conflict parents in mediation : An analysis of dialogues and sources to conflict. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 35(4), 335-349.