How to Reduce Conflict and Litigation and Improve Father Involvement After Separation

Monday Apr 30, 2012

Fathers are more likely than mothers to suffer disruption to relationships with their children after divorce (Ahrons 2003, Hetherington 2002). However, research has shown that less adversarial approaches to divorce tend to result in more and higher quality contact between children and non-resident divorced parents (Emery, 2001), the majority of whom are fathers (Robinson, 2009, Juby, Marcil-Gratton, Le Bourdais 2004). Thus, it seems likely that programs designed to reduce litigation and promote more collaborative approaches to divorce and separation should tend to enhance father involvement after family break-up.

Research from the Collaborative Divorce Project (CDP), a co-parenting intervention led by Marsha Kline Pruett, Professor of Social Work at Smith College, shows not only that this is true, but also sheds light on the specific ways that less adversarial approaches to divorce enhance father-child relationships after divorce.

Pruett and her colleagues randomly assigned 142 divorcing families with children under 6 years to one of two conditions. Half of the families entered an alternative dispute resolution program, which combined mediation, orientation to the legal system, parenting education and legal conferencing. The other half received standard court services.

Previous analyses of data from the CDP showed that involvement in the program tended to reduce conflict, increase parental cooperation and improve father involvement (Pruett 2005). The goal of the more recent study (Pruett et al 2011) was to see which aspects of the program contributed to reduced levels of legal involvement measured by indicators such as number of court motions filed and number of appearances in court or before a judge.

Results showed that the intervention reduced court involvement via two specific mechanisms. Involvement in the CDP led to mothers being more supportive of father involvement during the divorce process, which was in turn associated with lower levels of legal system involvement. The other key finding was that fathers who participated in the intervention were more likely to end up with parenting plans that included consistent schedules and overnight child/father visits, which was also associated with lower levels of court involvement.  

Pruett says these results strongly support the idea that divorce/separation-related family interventions that promote co-parenting, consistent schedules, and overnight visits between young children and the non-resident parent can not only benefit children, they will also reduce the costly effects of continuing legal battling between parents. "We also believe that our results show that divorce interventions that focus on improving perceptions of co-parental support will enhance father involvement after divorce in families with moderate levels of conflict and may prevent families from moving into higher levels of conflict that can be harmful to children and damaging to parent child relationships."


Ahrons, C., Tanner, J.L. (2003). Adult children and their fathers: Relationship changes 20 years after parental divorce. Family Relations, 52, 340-351.

Hetherington, M. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. W.W. Norton and Company.

Emery, R.E., Laumann-Billings, L., Waldron, M., Sbarra, D.A., and Dillon, P. (2001). Child custody mediation and litigation: Custody, contact, and co-parenting 12 years after initial dispute resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 323-332

Robinson, P. (2009). Parenting after separation and divorce: A profile of arrangements for spending time with and making decisions for children. Juristat. Statistics Canada.

Juby, H., Marcil-Gratton, N., Le Bourdais, C. (2004). When parents separate: Further findings from the national longitudinal survey of children and youth. Department of Justice. 

Pruett, M.K., Insabella, G.M., & Gustafson, K. (2005). The collaborative divorce project: A court-based intervention for separating parents with young children. Family Court Review, 43, 38-51.

Pruett, M.K., Ebling, R., Cowan, P.A, (2011). Pathways from a U.S. Co-parenting Intervention to Legal Outcomes. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family (2011) 25 (1): 24-45.