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The Construction and Transformation of High-Conflict Divorce Involving Children

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
Date created
Despite a proliferation of research, policies, and interventions aimed at mitigating inter-parental conflict after separation, approximately 10 percent of divorcing parents contend with ongoing legal disputes. Most research, policy discussion, and intervention is based on outsider-expert understandings that tend to categorize divorces as well as parents enmeshed in “high-conflict” in polarized and individualized terms. The purpose of my study is to understand how mothers and fathers who have experienced a high-conflict divorce process make meaning of and navigate the experience. I seek insights about how varying social locations, tensions in broader social discourses of gender relations, and collective meanings and norms shape personal meanings and experiences of divorce as well as how positive change can occur. This interdisciplinary and qualitative study, undertaken from a critical-feminist perspective, employed in-depth interviews with 25 parents residing in British Columbia, who at one time experienced a high-conflict divorce and later identified surviving or navigating the experience as transformative. Three key themes emerged: the interrelationship of financial and child-related issues; the construction of expert knowledge and implications for justice and voice; and that positive personal change occurs over time when supported with personal, social, and material resources that address a parent’s needs and challenges. Gendered meanings were particularly apparent in participants’ accounts. My central thesis, which draws on relational autonomy and Fricker’s epistemic injustice, is that the dominant discourses upon which parents draw to make sense of the high-conflict divorce process and their personal experiences are socially constructed and embedded in broader power relations, especially in gender relations and encounters with experts, and further promulgated through neoliberal conceptions of autonomy and choice. This often results in parents not feeling heard, their concerns going unaddressed, and a lack of access to needed services. Nevertheless, individuals change, make sense of, and respond to their circumstances across the life course, thereby exercising agency. Since this process occurs in a social, political, and legal context that also changes over time and across generations, my thesis includes the social dimension of transformation. I conclude that policies and practices that provide the supports and resources identified by parents as helpful would promote agency, autonomy, and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances, facilitating personal transformation and family flourishing.
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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes.
Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Pulkingham, Jane
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