Understanding parenting disputes after separation

Research Report No. 36 – August 2016

1. Introduction

Promoting and maintaining child-focused principles during parental separation, against a background of high emotions, is a key challenge for decision makers and family welfare professionals. Despite that, until recently there was little empirical data on how Australian separated parents were relating to each other, as well as data on the link between quality of relationship and the level of disputation over the children.

The seminal study of parenting relationships and arrangements after separation was conducted by Maccoby and Mnookin (1992). These authors found that post-separation relationships and parenting styles could be described according to levels on a spectrum, with “cooperative” at one end and “highly conflicted” at the other. In between, the authors identified a significant group of separated parents who engaged in “parallel parenting”. These parents were more business-like in their approach. They generally refrained from overt criticism but also maintained minimum contact with each other.

The most comprehensive data on how Australian parents manage separation and divorce was published as part of a major evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms (Kaspiew et al., 2009) conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS). A key source of data in this regard came from the Longitudinal Study of Separated Parents (LSSF). Since that time, evidence from two further waves of the LSSF has also been published (Qu & Weston, 2010; Qu, Weston, Moloney, Kaspiew, & Dunstan, 2014).

Following the 2006 family law reforms, various initiatives in Australian family law have, where appropriate to do so,1 aimed to discourage the conflation of adult-focused interpersonal difficulties with the management and resolution of parenting disputes. Initiatives have included: the funding of Family Relationship Centres (Parkinson, 2013); greater collaboration between relationship practitioners and lawyers (Moloney, Kaspiew, Deblaquerie, & De Maio, 2013); and less adversarial processes within courts (Harrison, 2009). These initiatives are consistent with long-standing evidence linking child wellbeing after separation with the level and persistence of parental conflict (Cummings & Davies, 1994; Emery, 2012).

The present report adds to our knowledge of the behaviour and motivations of separated parents by interrogating three independent data sets.

The first, the “Caring for Children after Separation Study”, covered in Chapter 2, collected Australian data on the dimensions, predictors and outcomes of parent–child contact after parental separation.

The second, covered in Chapter 3, reports on family law professionals’ experiences of, and attitudes towards, separated parents.

The third, covered in Chapter 4, presents the results of face-to-face interviews with highly conflicted separated parents who had presented at community mediation centres.

Finally, Chapter 5 contains some concluding observations that link these data sets together and place them in the context of the 2006 family law reforms.

1 We acknowledge the important distinction between interpersonal conflict and entitlement-driven controlling behaviours that are commonly associated with a pattern of violence towards partners and children.