Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Symbolic Origins of Conflict in Divorce

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Symbolic Origins of Conflict in Divorce

Article excerpt

Divorce often constitutes a dramatic transformation of a close, personal, and usually harmonious relationship into one that is deeply antagonistic and bitter. Explanations among family researchers typically focus on opposing material interests, the adversarial nature of the legal system, latent or manifest conflict in marriage, or psychological reactions to the pain of divorce. A broadly designed fieldwork investigation of divorce suggests an important dimension largely ignored by these explanations: the symbolic or cultural. This article describes the process by which a sample of divorcing subjects confronted and solved major interpretive dilemmas posed by virtue of the shared meaning they and those around them had of marriage. It shows that the ways in which they solved such dilemmas created an oppositional structure by which they subsequently effected divorce.

Key Words: accounts, conflict, divorce, marriage, meaning, symbolic-interactionist.

Fieldwork and clinical studies suggest that a large majority of divorces, even those that are settled out of court, are characterized by high levels of conflict (Ahrons, 1981; Erlanger, Chambliss, & Melli, 1987; Johnston & Campbell, 1988, 1993; Kressel, Jaffee, Tuchman, Watson, & Deutsch, 1980; Weiss, 1975). Divorces may be characterized by any number of battles, including property disputes, verbal fights, custody battles, kidnappings, noncooperation with court orders, burglaries, physical threats and violence, property destruction, name calling, harassment, and stalking; a substantial portion (estimated at one third) of divorced couples continue in prolonged and bitter disputes for many years after their divorces (Ahrons; Arendell, 1986; Dillon & Emery, 1996; Johnston & Campbell, 1993). Not all divorces are highly conflictual, and a number of studies have begun to explore the varieties of process and outcome (Ahrons, 1981, 1994; Ahrons & Rodgers, 1987; Goldsmith, 1980; Isaacs & Leon, 1988; Masheter, 1997). But even researchers who have focused on the possibility of "good divorces" report that couples who manage to negotiate workable and friendly postmarital relations generally must overcome an initially hostile and oppositional dynamic (Ahrons, 1994); indeed, a "smooth" divorce, as Kressel et al. report, is still likely to be infused with hostility, anger, and hatred (see also Erlanger et al.).

Previous research has suggested at least four explanations for this conflict. First, conflict may stem from resource or power differentials. Conflict is frequently a product of each side trying to maximize his or her take of money, property, and scarce resources (including children) in a situation where much is at stake and outcomes potentially lopsided (Weitzman, 1985). Gender may play an important role to the extent that women are disadvantaged in terms of money and power and must fight hard for an equitable outcome. Second, conflict in divorce may be generated by the adversarial nature of our legal system and by the procedures and practices of attorneys who serve as its functionaries. Researchers have cited the accusatory nature of motions, the requirements of generating evidence and filing briefs with the court, and the definition of interests as separate rather than joint; because nearly all divorces must be processed through this legal system, such practices may create enemies out of spouses who were otherwise getting along (Johnston & Campbell, 1988; Knox, 1990; Sprey, 1979; Felstiner, Abel, & Sarat, 1981). Third, conflict may originate out of psychological responses to being hurt, shamed, or humiliated by divorce. Considering the way in which marriage encompasses one's total personality, divorce cuts to the core of one's sense of self and dignity (Johnston & Campbell; Simmel, 1908/1955). Individual psychopathologies also may play a role, such that aspects of the divorce begin to "resonate with long-standing vulnerabilities" (Johnston & Campbell, p. …

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