Healthy and Unhealthy Friendship and Hostility between Ex-Spouses

Article excerpt

Using two indicators of postdivorce attachment, preoccupation and hostility, this article distinguishes between divorced survey respondents' (n = 232) healthy and unhealthy friendship and between healthy and unhealthy hostility toward the ex-spouse. The preoccupation indicator ranges from low (low scores) to high (high scores), whereas the hostility indicator ranges from high friendship (low scores) to high hostility (high scores). Respondents with low preoccupation and high friendship have significantly higher emotional well-being (M = 46.0, SD = 7.6) than those with high preoccupation and high friendship (M = 31.6, SD = 11.8). Respondents with low preoccupation and high hostility have significantly higher well-being (M = 47.4, SD = 9.0) than those with high preoccupation and high hostility (M = 38.1, SD = 6.8). Low preoccupation appears to be crucial to healthy postdivorce relationships, whether friendly or hostile. These quantitative findings confirm previously published qualitative findings based on research interviews and clinical cases.

Key Words: former spouses, friendship, hostility, postdivorce.

Though the divorce rate in the United States has leveled off and even decreased slightly, every year approximately 1.3 million couples divorce (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991). Former spouses, as well as their children, face major changes and adjustments in their lives. Recent interest in the fostering of healthy, ongoing, postdivorce relationships between children and both of their parents has led to increased interest in the relationship between the former spouses themselves.

Most research on postdivorce relationships has emphasized hostility between former spouses, on one hand, and long-lasting bonds between them, on the other (Isaacs & Leon, 1988). In the interest of identifying healthy postdivorce relationships that could benefit former spouses, this article distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy friendship and between healthy and unhealthy hostility toward the ex-spouse using two indicators of postdivorce attachment: (a) preoccupation and (b) hostility.

In the following review, I consider postdivorce relationships between ex-spouses, their prevalence and intensity, how they are measured, and associations among them and individual variables, such as emotional well-being, gender, and parental, employment, and remarriage status.


Attachment as a Concept

Bowlby's (1969, 1973) and Ainsworth's (1982) original concept identifies both secure (healthy) and anxious (unhealthy) attachment between infants and their mothers. Both securely and anxiously attached infants seek contact with their mothers. Securely attached infants use their mothers as a safe base from which to explore the world and other people. Anxiously attached infants cling to their mothers, express prolonged distress when separated from their mothers, and tend not to explore the world and other people. Numerous divorce scholars have conceptualized attachment to the ex-spouse in terms similar to anxious infant attachment (see Kitson & Holmes, 1992, for a recent review). Investigators have defined postdivorce attachment in terms of separation distress (Parkes, 1973); separation anxiety and ambivalent feelings about the ex-spouse, such as missing the partner and wishes for reconciliation that oscillate with anger and hostility (Weiss, 1976); preoccupation with or intrusive thoughts about the exspouse or marriage (Berman, 1985; Tschann, Johnston, & Wallerstein, 1989); bereavement, mourning, or loss (Hazan & Shaver, 1992; Kitson, 1982, Kitson & Holmes, 1992); anger, blame, and the inability to achieve a balanced view of the ex-spouse (Tschann et al., 1989), as well as dependency and counterdependency (Johnston & Campbell, 1988). These definitions of attachment between ex-spouses, although not contradictory, are not synonymous. Nonetheless, rarely have investigators examined healthy or secure attachments between ex-spouses, an omission that this study attempts to remedy. …