The phrase “high conflict” pervades the family court system. Interactions between parties are “high conflict;” separations may be “high conflict;” even parenting practices are labeled “high conflict.” Given how often the term is used in the family court system, it is surprising how little consensus there is about the term “high conflict” itself. The ambiguity of the term leads to interventions that can be at best ineffective, and at worst traumatizing, for survivors and victims.

To the court, “high conflict” can refer to cases that just won’t settle. To many mediators, it can mean that parties are unable to communicate effectively. To custody evaluators, it can refer to anything from frequent disagreements to severe, long-term domestic violence. It’s not just that people from different disciplines understand “high conflict” differently—even people trained in the same field often have different definitions of it.

These distinctions are important. Labeling a case as “high conflict” can often distract from what is actually going on and discourage serious consideration. It can also disguise things as “high conflict” that are not conflict at all, like intimate partner abuse, child abuse, and child sexual abuse. Without a clear understanding of the nature and context of abuse, it is impossible to know how to correct it.

When cases are wrongly characterized, those in the family court system may prescribe unhelpful interventions. Couples counseling or relationship-building classes, which may be effective in some cases, can be unhelpful or even harmful to victim-parents and children who are experiencing domestic or sexual abuse. Such interventions can also be damaging for abusive parents, because they do not effectively help them become non-abusive. 

It is essential to distinguish intimate partner abuse from “high conflict” situations, so that interventions and outcomes can be connected to the reality of a case. Rather than labeling people or cases using ill-defined, amorphous terms, advocates and professionals must identify the context, scope and effects of people’s lived experience in order to determine the most effective responses.

The Battered Women’s Justice Project created a systematic approach that does just that. SAFeR guides family court professionals through a process of screening for IPV, assessing the context of existing abuse, analyzing its effects and responding accordingly to address underlying problems.

Learn more about SAFeR here, and contact us to set up a training for your organization or community.