Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Watching Your Back in Family Court
(and your Thoughts, Emotions & Behavior too!)
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

          There is a fine line, sometimes an ambiguous grey zone, that divides mean-spirited behavior from self protective behavior in family court.  In life, almost everything can be rationalized.  People have a tendency to justify their own actions and to distort reality based on their needs.  This is crucial to understanding why people seem so convinced they are right in whatever it is that they are doing.  The greater the emotional need and degree of emotional upset, pain and fear, then the more a person may tend to distort their perceptions of reality.  Needs significantly drive perceptions.  As previously discussed, people who feel abandoned, betrayed and hurt by another person may experience reactive narcissistic behaviors (RNB) for an indeterminate period of time.  This, in an otherwise “nice” person can result in a lack of empathy for others (including their own children), emotional tunnel vision, feelings of grandiosity or victimhood, destructively vindictive behavior and obsessive brooding about fantasies of harm befalling the betraying party.  Being consumed by such thoughts and feelings can be a powerful motivator for some, justifying a pointless or self-defeating quest of vanquishing the “enemy” in the family court arena.  I say self-defeating or pointless because most of the time, the outcome is not satisfying, and is more or less the same as would have resulted in a less acrimonious, negotiated settlement.  After throwing away tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars in vengeful, self-righteous and ill thought-out litigation, the legal outcome is the same. Instead of civility and mutual respect, however, everyone including the children leave with bitterness and emotional scars that are long lasting. 

Planning for your Divorce In a Mentally Healthy, Adaptive Way

The Emotional Parachute:

            Avoiding viciousness does not mean that you have to put your head on a chopping block, waiting for the blow of the axe.  You may be the “nice one” with your soon-to-be ex experiencing most of the rage, distortions of reality and vindictiveness.  It doesn’t have to be rational on the other person’s part.  Don’t do too much guilt-ridden self- searching and walk around with your head hung low like a defeated person.  Rather, try your best to remain centered and focused, accept reality as best and as fast as you can, and make your own plan for survival.  Your mantra should be “I am not a victim.”  In other words, you need to construct a mental parachute because life as you’ve known it is about to crash, like it or not.  For this you will need to start by constructing a checklist of things to do, and then implementing or doing them without delay.  Oh, and don’t be so certain that you are the “nice” one, since if you are feeling like a victim (and maybe in the case of domestic violence, for example, you actually are), you may be distorting reality yourself.    Just because someone may have victimized you doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to feel like a victim.  Feeling and thinking like a victim is disabling and makes you feel helpless.  Identify your thoughts to ascertain the source of your helpless, depressive feelings.  You may be telling yourself that you are defeated and helpless.  That doesn’t make it so in reality.  Only if you believe it.

Self-Monitoring and Beware of Your Support Network:

It is good to self-monitor your thoughts and actions and to make mid-course corrections as appropriate.  How do you know what is “appropriate”?  Don’t ask (or overly rely on the opinions of) your friends or your parents or siblings because in most cases, they are very biased in your favor, will “egg you on” and will not be prone to take you by the lapels and shake you when you are acting irrationally.  Your immediate supports, cheering squad and closest admirers and family may also vicariously feed into your victimhood, getting angry with you, and encouraging you to do things that really are not in your long term best interests.  (“Destroy the bastard in Court, etc.”).  They mean well, they are angry for you (maybe they are angry for themselves too for their own reasons) but they may be wrong and may be churning you up needlessly and sending you down the wrong path.  Your friends and family will also suddenly acquire law degrees, as they give you free “legal” advice based on fragments of knowledge or upon something they may have seen on TV.  Don’t fall for it, even though they love you and mean well.   You can go down the wrong path and regret it later.  At the end of the day, they don’t have to live your life or walk in your shoes-you do.  You and your children will be left with the consequences of your decisions and actions.

Thoughts and Emotions:

Self-monitoring means that you do a periodic assessment of how you are feeling and try to ascertain what beliefs or thoughts are causing the feelings you have.  I previously said that needs drive perceptions.  Here, we are talking about how perceptions drive emotions.  Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Therapy (now mostly called, among other things, RBT or Rational Behavior Therapy), quoting Epictetus said, “We are disturbed not by events, but by the views which we take of them.”  A few decades later, with the popularity of cognitive behavioral therapies growing in acceptance and in use, it is well accepted that an event is not what directly causes the emotion, but rather the perception of that event by the perceiver.  In other words, if you took 100 people off of the street and subjected them to the same experience, you would get perhaps 100 different emotional reactions.  Some of this is biological, but the most important explanation is that people have differing views of external events.  Some people say it is horrible, some say it is not horrible but disappointing.  Some people think, “I can’t stand it when…” and others think, “I don’t like this but I can stand it”.  Some people cry, “Why me?” (victimhood) and others accept “Why not me, this is something that happens to people and I am not superhuman or so Divinely special that it should not have happened to me, even though it would have been much better if it hadn’t happened to me.”  It’s mostly one’s habitual way of thinking that will determine their emotional reactions to external events.  Habits can be changed.  It all starts with a recognition that you think certain things that cause an immediate emotional reaction.  Once you identify those automatic thoughts, you can monitor your thoughts, interrupt them, and perhaps substitute more reasonable thoughts in their place.   It is very hard to do this with well-meaning people reinforcing irrational or self-defeating thoughts by repeating them to you over and over every time you see them or speak with them.  The best time to monitor your thoughts is when you are feeling emotionally upset because the upset invariably follows the perception and thought.

This is not to suggest that you dump everyone who loves you and cut yourself off from your family and friends.   On the contrary, it is comforting to know that people care about you and are here for you   But you need more objective advice than what “your people” will give you.  It might be good to check with your clergy-person, a therapist, or a friend/relative who you know will give you more objective advice and constructive criticism.  Your attorney will also give you legal advice.  If you are unsure if your attorney has your best interests at heart, or is unresponsive to you, you should get a second opinion in a consultation.  But realize that it is easy for another attorney to criticize your attorney.  If you fired your current lawyer, you might hire the consulting attorney.  So the advice you are getting may not be totally without a conflict of interest.  It is best to discuss your concerns and any discomfort with your current attorney to see if you can get a satisfactory answer, express and work out your concerns, and hopefully get on the same page.  If you believe after this talk, that your lawyer is not adequately representing you or is not hearing you, then perhaps you should cut your losses and find another one before too much time and wasted money goes by.  I have been retained by numerous clients who told me that they already spent over $7,500 or more on a previous attorney, and accomplished nothing and now had to pay another retainer and start all over again.  Time already went by and opportunities were missed.  In some circumstances, although it is not equivalent by any means, you can make the analogy to cancer treatment where the commercials for the big cancer centers claim that it matters where you first get treated.  With improper medical treatment, or with improper or inadequate legal representation, bad things can develop and it is harder (and sometimes impossible) to reverse the process—whether medically or legally.  It is better on day one, to hire a competent specialist in any of these scenarios, with whom you have a good report and trust.

How to Self-Monitor - The Basics:

To return to the theme of this section, how does one do self-monitoring in the family court arena?  Well you can start by setting a regular schedule for taking an inventory of your thoughts and actions.  Maybe Sunday night before the new week begins, or perhaps on Thursday night as the week winds up; it is up to you, but you should insist that you do this, even if it is for five or ten minutes.  Do the checklist:
a.    What am I doing (actions, behaviors) and where am I going (goals)?
b.    Why am I doing it (or why am I embarking or traveling on this path?)
c.    What is my emotional state this week, or how was it generally?
d.    On a scale of 1-10, how good or bad did I feel?
e.    What is the predominant emotion that I experienced this week (some examples):
i.              Anxiety (generalized, unspecified)
ii.            Fear (of a specific event; obsessive about it)
iii.           Depression
iv.           Anger
v.            Are there mood swings? From what to what? And how frequently do I do that?  (Have you always been prone to mood swings and if so, is it worse now?)
f.     What do I think about the most?
g.    When do I think that? (in bed?  during the day?  all the time?);
h.    What emotion is associated with that thought (or those thoughts)?
i.      Does my thinking boil down to just a few horrible assumptions?  What are those assumptions?  Familiar ones: 
i.        I am a victim of so-and-so;
ii.      He/she is the bad person and I am the nice one;
iii.     He/she ruined my life; I feel sorry for myself, etc.;
iv.     This is truly horrible, a disaster of epic proportions from which I  will never recover; my life is over;
v.       I can’t do this;
vi.      My children will hate me; love him/her more; reject me, etc.
vii.     He/she will find someone/has someone to love and I will be alone; It is horrible if the kids have a relationship with his girlfriend, her boyfriend, etc. (a variation: I am no longer needed. The kids will abandon me for the girlfriend/boyfriend/ex’s fiancé.)
viii.    It is horrible that my children love their father/mother, don’t see who he/she really is, don’t know that it’s his/her fault, etc.
ix.       He/she is a truly evil, horrible person, deserving of punishment and misery.

j.      Has my behavior changed; have I develop new habits or has my dysfunctional behavior worsened (examples: obsessive thoughts, buimia, drinking/substance abuse, anger outbursts, not getting out of bed, phobias, etc.);

k.    What thoughts can I identify that are associated with my dysfunctional behaviors (e.g. What was I thinking right before I went on a drinking binge?  What was I thinking right before I started purging? What was I thinking or feeling right before I had that violent episode? etc.)

Needs v. Wants:

          For the sake of accuracy, it should be pointed out that needs are different from “wants”.  We need air, water, food, shelter, (and money to get most of them), etc. The basics. (That’s why they are needs.) We tend to elevate “wants” to needs without batting an eyelash, and then our perceptions of reality change automatically.  You may very much want love and affection, you may very much want your kids to be loyal to you, you may very much want to “win” in court over your soon-to-be ex, but you don’t need for these things to happen.  You won’t die if you don’t win.  You will die without food and water.  You won’t die if your kids love your ex’s fiancé because she/he is so nice to them.  (Actually it’s better than the fiancé/boyfriend/girlfriend abusing your kids, right?).  If you find yourself fantasizing about your kids coming home and bitterly complaining about your ex’s new friend, maybe you are not on the right path.  In reality, your children will not write you off in favor of the other parent’s new partner. They just want to have fun and feel comfortable and secure.  If you are experiencing jealousy and resentment, or worse over this, you are probably going to cause your children to feel anxious, guilty, conflicted and angry.  You could actually be pushing your kids away with all of that.  It’s not the end of the world if your children have a nice relationship with a new partner.  It’s probably inevitable and may actually be a good thing.  

          In general, you should question your assumptions and ask yourself if you are feeling insecure, abandoned or betrayed by your children.  If so, go to your thinking and question your assumptions and the origins of your thoughts.  Ask if it would truly be the end of the world if you don’t get what you want, and most of time the answer will be no.  “Will I die if I get one less day parenting time?  No, I may be disappointed but it’s not the end of the world.”  It is possible to create a pseudo-reality in your head, based on irrational thoughts, and if so, you could easily react inappropriately to what is the real reality, causing you to sabotage yourself with your kids and with a Family Court Judge.

Getting Ready for Divorce or any Breakup (top ten list):

            Without being vicious or crooked, there are prudent things you can do to prepare for a divorce.  If you are initiating it, you don’t know what your spouse’s/partner’s reaction will be.  While you may be rational and decent, you can’t always predict how someone else will react to a rejection.  Even if your relationship is dead, people sometimes react with surprise, devastation or rage reactions.  Sometimes people go from depression, crying and great sadness to anger.  Moods change over time.   So you have to accept that the other person may not handle your lawyer’s letter or divorce papers very well.  This also assumes you are still living together.  Here are some tips in anticipation of possible acting out by the other person.  These should be done in advance, before you take any overt action, when things are still calm and hopefully civil.  They are not necessarily in any particular order of importance and they may not all apply to your situation.  There may be more that you can think of.  So read carefully and discern what applies to you and what does not.  Remember, this is not legal advice, just general practical guidelines for you to consider as you embark on your divorce journey.

1.    Get a post office box or arrange with a friend/relative to have your mail sent there.  Remember that the post office sends a confirmation card to your home, so make sure you are home to receive the mail so your spouse/partner doesn’t see it before you do.  The P.O. Box is important so you can receive personal mail or bills without worrying about the other person opening it, reading it, or destroying it.  Getting your attorney’s bills (for example) sent to your home is asking for problems.  Or an important house bill may arrive and your partner/spouse could throw it out to sabotage you or your credit score.

2.  Discretely remove any of your important papers documents (e.g. your honorable discharge papers, naturalization papers, diplomas, love letters, etc.) to a safe place (a desk drawer at work, your parents’ or sibling’s house, a safe deposit box, etc.). It is good to have a copy of all of your bank account’s recent statements.  It is good to know where your spouse keeps his/her own money (so the bank records can be requested or subpoenaed.

3.  Get a safe deposit box and keep the key out of the house.  You can put your important personal papers, mementos, tapes, photos, personal jewelry, etc., into it.  Important point:  You should realize that you will have to declare (for the Court’s discovery process) that you have such a box, and list what is in it.  Your spouse’s personal property is his/hers and your property is yours.  But there is joint marital property that will need to be inventoried and divided up fairly.  You can argue later about what is joint marital property and what is yours, and what is pre-marital property.  Just do the right thing by not using your safe deposit box to hide things to cheat your spouse out of what might be rightfully his/hers.    All cash will have to be declared and taxes will have to be paid if you haven’t yet done so.  The Judge may be obligated to inform the IRS if cash is not reported or if there is evidence of tax fraud.  You cannot expect your attorney to participate in that either.  On a related topic, you cannot expect the Judge to believe your monthly budget is $8,000 ($96,000 per year) while you are only showing an annual income of $70,000 before taxes on your returns.  Also parenthetically, in Discovery, you will have to list whatever photos and tapes and other documents you intend to utilize if the case goes to trial, and to provide copies to your adversary attorney. 

4.  If you have a joint checking/savings account, you cannot just wipe it out and take all the money for yourself.  Whatever you take will have to be accounted for in the divorce and the bank statements will show all of the transactions, obviously.  If you are in a State that equally divides the marital property, then for example, if there was $10,000 in an account and you took it all out, $5,000 belongs to your spouse and he/she will have to get a credit for that amount at the time of settlement or trial.  In many cases, a judge will order that you return it all now unless you can show that you only took your half and left half for the other party.  Keep receipts and recent bank statements.   If you are the primary wage earner, you will most likely have to provide support (spousal and child) as well as mortgage and other house expenses before the divorce goes through, to maintain the status quo until things can get sorted out.  You should not (and in many states you cannot) cancel health insurance, auto and homeowner’s insurance, life insurance, etc., without judicial permission.  Don’t start out on the wrong foot by sending a message to the Judge that you are vindictive and trying to hurt your spouse.  Especially provocative to the Judge will be the primary wage earner who tries to deprive the children of health care, child support and other necessary items.

5.  Get an attorney and legal advice before you say anything to your spouse/partner about the divorce.  Do not admit any wrongdoing, fault or reveal any confidences or fears you may have.  Your spouse/partner will no longer be your friend, may be enraged with you, may be recording everything you say (which can and will be used against you), in person and on the phone,  and may be planning how to gain some imagined or hoped-for advantage.  Do not confide in or admit anything to any of his/her friends or relatives.  They are no longer your friends or family.  They will not be loyal to you. They also could be recording your conversations and will not hesitate to testify against you if necessary.  Your relationships with them may change rapidly, sorry to say, and you should be emotionally and mentally prepared for this when it happens.

6.    Do not post anything about this (or about your thoughts and feelings) on social media such as Facebook, or blog about what a creep the other party is.  The photos and posts you put on social media are frequently brought into Court and used as evidence.  Lawyers routinely scan for incriminating statements for their clients.  Sometimes a blog post can be interpreted as threatening or harassing and can be used in a domestic violence proceeding as evidence of harassment or making terroristic threats.  Just because you are upset does not mean the whole world has to know about it or why.  You cannot try your spouse/partner in the court of public opinion on social media because it cannot help you.  Your friends on Facebook are not members of your jury (if there was one in Family Court).  Talk to your friends in person, rather than on the computer.  Delete previous posts or blogs that can be used against you.  Go back as far as you can and delete as much as you can.  Those cute comments you made 3 years ago about wanting to wring your child’s neck, or saying that you are a better parent after drinking a pint of vodka will be provided to the Judge in a child custody dispute.  Don’t underestimate the wrath of anyone scorned, rejected and abandoned.    Expect that in a bitter custody dispute, you may be ordered to submit to a urine sampling in Court.

7.  Change all of your passwords!  Take your laptop with you to work every day.  Make a backup copy of your computer’s hard drive (desktop and laptop) and keep the copies out of the house.  Password protect your laptop/desktop and smart phone so that no one can get into your emails or other accounts, or even sign onto the computer without your knowledge.  Make a copy of all of your photos on digital media and keep the copy out of the house if you value those pictures.  Take your camera out of the house.

8.   It is possible that your spouse/partner put a locator application on your phone, or other applications that show where you’ve been, who has been calling you, and what web sites you have been visiting on your personal computer or phone.  It might be a good idea to take your cell phone (and laptop) to a spy shop or other service that can scan your phone for bugs or foreign applications.  I have seen this happen to clients just like you, so don’t be surprised if the person you are divorcing has been so mistrustful and paranoid that your phone was tinkered with.  Don’t let your phone out of your sight.  Password protect the entire phone so no one else can use it without knowing the password. 

9.   Organize all of your financial records, make a list of your assets and debts with account numbers, locations, etc.  You will have to file a detailed financial disclosure form in the beginning stages of the divorce, and then probably an updated one later on.  You will need to provide information about insurance policies, bank accounts, pensions, 401k’s, retirement plans, timeshares, airline mileage rewards programs, lists of real estate owned, values of real property, personal property,  joint property, collectables, jewelry, furs, etc.  Might as well start now with collecting this information.  Organize it, keep receipts and recent statements in an expanding folder with labeled sections.  Keep the folder at work or at a friend’s/relative’s house for safekeeping.  Whatever you can’t obtain can be gotten later, but the more work you do now, the less you will have to do later and you will save money on attorney time. 

10.  When your spouse is away from the house, make a photo or video inventory of every room in your house, showing all the furniture, wall hangings, clothing in the closets, appliances, dishes, bar stools, etc.  Don’t leave anything out.  It would also be helpful if you could get proof of what you laid out from your premarital money for the down payment on the house. Photograph your autos, boat, etc.   If your mother loaned you $50,000 that you will have to pay back, it would also be good if you signed a promissory note when you did that, and began making payments.  Cancelled checks and writings regarding family loans (could be handwritten or email) increase your credibility in Court. 


            Preparing for divorce/dissolution of a relationship involves cognitive, emotional and legal factors.  They are all important to recognize and to deal with appropriately.  The top ten preparation tips listed above can be done in a methodical and sterile manner, without great anger, vindictiveness or drama.  The more drama, the more your legal fees will be.  The more preparation on your part, the better it will be for you on many levels.  It is important that you not allow your emotional reactions govern how you conduct your divorce.  Although it is upsetting and is a major stress and a big loss, it is essential that you try your best to self-monitor your thoughts, your emotions, your behavior and evaluate your strategies on a regular basis.  You can mount an effective strategy with your attorney and the more you work it that way, the less drama.  You should know what your strategy is, what you want to accomplish, and what means are going to be used to accomplish your goals.  You should question your thoughts, feelings, emotions and strategies on a regular basis to make sure you are on course and conducting yourself in a manner that you can be proud of under the circumstances.   It is possible to retain your humanity, dignity and emotional stability throughout your divorce.  If the other party acts badly, you should take rational and lawful steps to protect yourself.  Don’t let that person drag you down to a lower and unacceptable level of functioning.  What do you think?  Tell me- Post a comment.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

While this is not an attempt by any means to review the concept of karma in depth, I will try to employ this concept as an illustration for behavior that is manifested in Family Court.  I am also not attempting to review each religion’s definition of Karma, or the historical origins derived from each religion, but rather to make a point as it pertains to Family Court issues.  So with that proviso, here goes.

The concept of karma, simplistically, can be seen as a consequence of one’s actions, as a stream of cause and effect.  The Hindus see Karma as thoughts, words and actions that cause a direct effect. But the consequences of one’s actions (Karmically speaking) are mitigated by other actions, and it is the totality of one’s actions that will determine one’s future course.  It is the law of nature, if you will, that brings the effects of one’s actions back to the actor.  It is similar to the Newtonian physics concept that every action causes an equivalent, opposite reaction.  Buddhism conceptualizes Karma as a person’s actual intention, as contrasted with their overt behavior.  Good intentions cause good effects while bad intentions cause evil effects.  Doing good acts for selfish motives causes bad Karma.

Western culture adapted the karma concept which essentially has the same or similar themes in concepts such as “what goes around comes around”, “reaping what you sow” and “live by the sword, die by the sword” (Christian).  A more modern view, such as that discussed by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, suggests in his concept of synchronicity that things that happen simultaneously are related.  He suggests that any act resulting from cognitively unresolved emotions (cognitive dissonance) causes Karma.  (Note: I previously discussed cognitive dissonance in my post about “Dog Wars”.)  Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Breslev Chassidism and his followers discuss “A turn for a turn” which is conceptualized as the message that is sent from G-d to teach a person why he/she is suffering.  For example:  “An employer who unjustly accused an employee of stealing (to withhold his wages) was soon thereafter accused by the tax authorities of cheating on his income tax.” ( There are numerous discussions in the Talmud and other Jewish commentaries regarding why people experience suffering and tragedy, in the context of “a turn for a turn” or for purifying one’s soul (this time around).  Whether or not the person recognizes his/her suffering as a message or as a consequence of an action (Karma) varies from person to person.  Sometimes, especially in times of great duress, it is difficult to discern the correct course or to figure out why things go in a particular direction, despite one’s certainty of what seems fair and just at that time.  “A wise mind will know time and justice.  For everything has its time and justice, for man’s evil overwhelms him. Indeed, he does not know what will happen, for when it happens, who will tell him?” (Ecclesiastes 8:5-6).

Whether it is called karma, or poetic justice, a turn for a turn, or reaping what you sow, it all represents a widespread belief across cultures and religions that in one way or another, one is responsible for-and will be held accountable for-their actions and intentions.  How does that apply to Family Court actions?  It is common to see hatred expressed freely in Family Court.  It is often a place of great sadness, disappointment, betrayal and hurt.  Divorces happen there.  Marriages end.  Spouses and partners recount their subjective pain, their traumas, their addictions and perversions, rejections, physical violence, the allegations of abuse and neglect of children, etc.  Day after day mud is slung from one side to another, either to gain some perceived or hoped-for advantage, or most importantly to get essential relief from the Court.   Regarding the latter, sometimes the only language someone will understand is a Court Order.  The Family Courts are, among other things, charged with protecting the best interests of the children.  These courts also protect litigants’ rights, enforce previous court orders, ensure fairness in the financial aspects of marital dissolution, protect battered spouses, etc. (to name a few).  When one party is dishonest, disturbed, violent or uncooperative, a person may have no choice but to make an application for Court assistance (i.e. filing a motion or petition).   That is not the primary focus here.  Rather, the issue of Karma is one that can help guide a person through very difficult circumstances.

In general, a person’s self perception can determine their reactions to difficulties.  For example, an angry person who perceives him/herself as a victim may be driven toward vindictive behavior by a sense of self righteous indignation.  If a person feels justified, that person may indulge in unnecessary and harassing litigation that was not necessary.  This is sometimes done just to punish the other party, to make them spend their last dime on legal fees, to try to humiliate that other person in court, etc.  Sometimes a person who feels betrayed, abandoned  or otherwise screwed-over by the other, gives him/herself a license to beat up the other party in court over and over again.  Sometimes the issues are not clear and it takes time for the Court to see that this is frivolous and harassing.  This is bad legal Karma and can come back to bite the offending party.  We see this when a Judge who may have once been sympathetic, begins to realize that the complaints are never-ending, without merit, are trivial, mean-spirited, untrue and represent a continual process of legal harassment and vilification of the other person.  The Court won’t indefinitely allow this to take place.

Very Bad  Karma- Some Examples:

Alienation of Children from the Other Parent:

            One of the worst things a parent can do is to alienate a child from their other parent.  Regardless of your opinion of the other parent, as long as he/she is not dangerous, violent, neglectful, a drug addict or alcoholic, or possesses some other terrible characteristic, you do not have the right to deprive the child of that parent.  The definition of “neglectful” can be very subjective.  We are not talking about who is the better parent.  Even though you may consider yourself to be the better quality parent, your concerns probably do not rise to the level of abuse or neglect.  Purposely alienating a child from the other parent is a form of child abuse.  The child will eventually realize what the alienating parent did to them (maybe much later in life) and what that alienating parent did to the child will come back to haunt him/her.  The child will want to know why the alienating parent did that to them and will usually seek out the other parent anyway.  The maliciously alienating parent goes down a destructive as well as self-defeating path.  A parent in the throes of a dissolution of a relationship may become so reactively narcissistic that he/she cannot see the damage this does to the child. There is a selfish loss of empathy.  Every bad behavior becomes justified in that person’s mind.  Being consumed with hate, anger, vengeance and a sense of personal victimhood creates bad Karma.  It is a disabling and destructive force and is hurtful to children who need two parents to love.

Trying to impoverish the other party:

            Whether it is a wife who feels betrayed by a philandering husband or a husband who hates his seemingly unlovable wife (these are just for illustration; could be the opposite scenario, or one of many others), the more powerful spouse’s sense of victimhood and self righteousness may act as self-permission for--or rationalization of mean behavior.  Trying to “take him/her for everything he/she’s worth” is just mean.  Being selfish, uncaring, punitive and vindictive to the other party is sometimes acted out financially.  One of the parties may try to make sure the other person—possibly the other parent of the child they both created—has “nothing” at the end of the day.  It is sad to see one party enjoy their apparent victory when the other person is ordered to pay an inordinate amount of support, beyond what the recipient really needs and what the payor can comfortably afford.  Sometimes it works that way and while it might be unfair, it gets put into place and one party is enriched parasitically off of the other.  The Courts try to prevent this, but do not always see how one party is being disproportionately enriched.  This often happens when the larger wage earner is able to hide their income and to make it look like they have less than they do to avoid paying the support they should be paying.  This is mean, unfair and creates bad Karma.

Gordon’s Rules of Family Court Karma:

            What goes around comes around sooner or later.  When it does, you may or may not be there to see it.  Justice doesn’t always show up at your convenience for you to witness. You just have to trust that it will occur eventually.  That may entail some spirituality on your part to believe that things get taken care of one way or another in this world (or in the next), and that you do not have to be the one to mete out justice.

            It’s bad Karma to want to witness someone else’s bad outcome, just to get satisfaction that they “got theirs”.  Believing that life balances itself out one way or another for the best should be enough.

            Don’t do the right thing for the sake of being rewarded by some supernatural force, like getting a prize for good behavior.  That will lead to disappointment and bitterness.  Living your life in a positive way with minimal expectations for reward will create inner positive effects.  You will like yourself more and be a happier person living in the light.  That is your reward.

            It is bad Karma to try to control and manipulate others for your own benefit.

It is bad Karma to walk around chronically angry, feeling victimized, blaming others, not taking responsibility for your actions, relying on magical solutions, lying to others, making promises you don’t intend to keep, manipulating and misleading others, obsessing, scheming, plotting, being vengeful, etc.

It is bad Karma to threaten, verbally or physically abuse another person.  Bullies create bad Karma.

It is bad Karma to steal, cheat, deceive, manipulate, lie, defy court orders, not show up for appointments (passive-aggressive behavior), hide things from the court or  from your estranged partner/ex, exaggerate, be a drama queen, say inappropriate things in front of your children and their teachers, withhold parenting time, etc.

It is good Karma to tell the truth, allow others to be who they are (as long as they are not trying to hurt you), take responsibility for your actions, make amends, be fair, respectful and reasonable.

It is good Karma to be forgiving, kind, charitable, civil, respectful and sensitive of the feelings of others.  This includes your ex, your children, and those around you.  Getting more with honey than with vinegar holds true most of the time.  When it doesn’t, you can be satisfied knowing that you took the high road and acted in a way that you can be proud of.  You want to be an example and a good role model to your children who observe you and who absorb your attitudes and copy your behaviors.  On the other hand, taking the high road does not mean that you have to subject yourself to abuse and be taken advantage of repeatedly by a mean person.  There is a time for understanding and civility and there is a time for litigation.  Knowing and recognizing the difference is important.

It is good Karma to allow and to encourage your children to love their other parent, enjoy their time with that parent and his/her family without being made to feel guilty or uncomfortable.  You should assume that your child(ren) will not always be with you or under your control since they also have to be with the other parent.  The other parent has other rules and other ways of doing things.  Accepting the other parent’s differing parenting style and philosophy of life amounts to accepting reality on your part and that is a good thing.  Fighting the other parent on inconsequential parenting issues or on other things you cannot control, such as differing religious observances, creates bad Karma and makes your child anxious, guilt-ridden and depressed.   It is good Karma to accept that you cannot control everything, don’t have to, and that things will usually turn out for the best regardless of what you do.  You cannot control what goes on in your ex’s house when your child is there.  Your child is not as fragile as you may think. Think about other things and let go.  We are not, however, talking about abuse, neglect or other extreme conditions.  That is an entirely different subject requiring a different approach. 

There are probably many more examples I could use, but hopefully this makes the point clear.  Even though Family Court litigation is unpleasant, comes with hurt, betrayal and sadness, it does not, and should not have to be a place where one party is trying to maliciously and vindictively destroy the other, hurt the other, and alienate the children from the other.  Keeping a sense of personal balance, perspective and decency is key.  Asking one’s self, “Is this going to generate bad Karma?” is a good way to self-check one’s actions.  There was once a time when you loved the other person, perhaps created a child with that person, and now if the relationship is over, it is still a good thing to part civilly, respectfully and fairly to each other.  That way, you can look in the mirror at night and like what you see, not have to feel guilty. If you don’t feel guilty (because the other person had it coming) then at least not having to deal with the inevitable consequence of the bad Karma you created, later down the road.  Even in Family Court, light is better than darkness, mutual respect wins over vilification, forgiveness wins over victimhood and retribution, and all of these allow you to more quickly move on with your life for a better future.  What do you think?  Post a comment.

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.

Dog Wars and other Family Court Drama
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

            As we discussed previously, there is no end to what couples will fight about when their relationship ends.  For simplicity, I will use the context of divorce, but it just as well may be the conflict born of any dissolving relationship.  As we know, the demise of a love relationship often results in feelings of abandonment, betrayal, huge disappointment, anger and general emotional injury.  Psychologists sometimes make references to “narcissistic injury” in this context, where a person’s sense of self, their ego or self esteem is damaged by some major rejection or abandonment or other traumatic event.  This can be caused by the meltdown of a relationship as well as by losing one’s job, or some sort of public humiliation.  The injury in the loss of a relationship, however, is akin to that of the abandonment of a young child who feels adrift, terrified, alone and unsupported.  In an adult, this frequently manifests itself similarly during a breakup.  It is not uncommon for a rejected partner/spouse to feel these same intense feelings when a relationship implodes. It also conjures up old wounds from childhood which open up and unleash primitive, overwhelming emotions.   Accordingly, a breakup can result in childish or self-defeating behaviors as the person struggles to get their feet back on firm ground, and to regain their sense of personal efficacy and control.  Some find it easier than others, depending on their underlying mental health and stability.

            As previously discussed (see blog post of Feb. 2, 2012), when adults are abandoned, rejected or otherwise betrayed by their partner/spouse, their intense feelings can bring on an acute tunnel vision that I called Reactive Narcissistic Behaviors (RNB).  A person experiencing RNB is (hopefully) temporarily incapable of seeing the big picture, having appropriate empathy for others (such as their children), often feel self righteous and (in their view) justifiably angry as well as perhaps paranoid and vindictive.  In extreme cases, a person will continue to fight with their estranged spouse/partner indefinitely, even after the divorce is long over.  Inappropriate behavior can result and in some cases, a restraining order must be filed for the protection of the other person.  There is often an ongoing relationship that never ends, seemingly now through anger, competition, the inordinate need to win, to punish, to be vindicated, to attain “justice” for everything they went through at the hands of the other former partner.  Sometimes this is also acted out in a protracted child custody battle or in long term attempts to alienate the children from the other parent, etc., as we previously discussed in greater detail (See blog post of April 17, 2012 for example).   As we know, child custody battles cost many tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, sometimes into six figures for each of the respective parties.  It is not unheard of for a couple to each spend 2, 3 or $400,000 on legal fees fighting each other in court over children (or even over a marital estate or alimony).   Some cases top over a million dollars.

            When there are no children to fight over, people often turn to property.  Or sometimes a divorcing couple will fight over the children in addition to fighting over their property.  This can include a huge marital estate or only a few items they managed to attain over the years.  I have sat in courtrooms watching other cases being argued, with expensive attorneys arguing over who gets the dishes or silverware.  Maybe the dishes cost $3,000.  The two attorneys, including their preparation time, that day cost $4,000.  It doesn’t matter.  It becomes “the principal of the thing”, whatever that means to any one person.  The Judge gives half the dishes to each of the parties (service for six or four?) in disgust.  Logic is thrown out of the window and emotions rule the day.

            It is more newsworthy when a couple fights over pets.  It is no secret that people become very emotionally attached to their pets.  A family animal can become like a child to some, especially when there are no children for whatever reason.  There are popular cable channels and shows devoted to animals, pets or wildlife.  It is very easy to get attached to a dog, or cat especially when they are very cute, loveable and provide us with unconditional love.  That is probably more love than maybe someone received from their disappointing, now-estranged mate.  A dog will not reject its owner but will keep coming back to give more love and companionship to the one who pets him and feeds him.  In today’s news, we are hearing—not for the first time—the story of a couple fighting over their dog.  The couple-a former boyfriend and girlfriend—split up, and the girlfriend, Sarah Brega moved to California with their dog, Knuckles.  Craig Dershowitz claims the dog is his and that she kidnapped Knuckles, and he is fighting for the dog’s return in Manhattan’s New York State Supreme Court.   He has already spent over $60,000 in legal fees and related costs to get the dog back.  Ms. Brega has an attorney who is fighting against the return of Knuckles in both California and the New York Courts.  Mr. Dershowitz is now trying to continue his legal fight, by fundraising on the Internet, soliciting contributions, selling T-shirts, etc.  The couple has been on national TV, being interviewed, explaining their respective positions, including what they believe to be in the dog’s best interests.  Incidentally, the dog is incredibly cute.

            Although a Court may look at an animal’s best interests, the animal is considered to be property, like a couch or a car.  Accordingly, the Court will have to sift through evidence and testimony to determine who is the rightful owner of the pet.  Contracts, emails, receipts, photos, etc. may be offered into evidence to determine issues such as whether the pet was a gift by one party to the other, was a joint asset owned by both, was a pre-marital asset, etc., to name a few.  In the case where, for example, a dog was purchased by a couple during the marriage and was cared for by both, there may be other considerations.  These can include how attached the children (if any) are to the dog, who walked the dog and fed it every day, who takes the dog on vacations, etc.  In some cases, it may be in the children’s best interests to have the dog with them most of the time.  In that case, perhaps the Court may consider having the dog accompany the children for parenting time/visitation with both parents.  In other words, in this scenario, the dog would go where the children go.  When there are no children, and when the Court cannot figure out if any one person has a better property claim to the pet, then the Court may decide to order visitation for the pet, having the dog split his time with both parties.  This could be a problem for a split-up couple who live long distances away from each other like Dershowitz and Brega.  Each case has its own circumstances and needs to be looked at within the context of its unique set of facts and within the structure of the Law as it applies to the case at hand.

Although this may all seem ridiculous to some or for those who are not interested in pets, for the divorcing or splitting pet owner, it is dead serious and worth fighting for.  Mr. Dershowitz said that he spent his life savings already on this case and has decided to raise funds on the Internet to enable him to fight for as long as it takes to win his case.  There is no doubt that he intensely loves his dog, but that is not the standard under which the Courts will decide this case.  It is possible (and I do not know this to be true at all in this case) that in general, a pet custody case—or other similar cases—will become protracted through anger and driven by power struggles to win or to be punitive, at all costs.   A person could easily lose their life savings through litigation.  When children—not pets—are the prize, however, the damage that is inflicted upon them in the course of the legal battles, can be huge and long-lasting (if not lifelong).  Another psychological factor, cognitive dissonance, may also control the course of the litigation. Loosely,  when a person already invested a substantial amount of money on a dubious cause (or a cause with a dubious outcome) that now appears not to be close to resolution, that person will often up-value his/her opinion of that endeavor to reduce cognitive dissonance.  It is almost like a little voice in the back of one’s head saying, “How could I spend so much money on _____?”  Instead of feeling that discomfort (i.e. cognitive dissonance), the person upwardly changes their perception of their behavior or goal to be more in line with the efforts or costs they have already expended on its attainment.  It is more than a rationalization, it becomes a new belief about the behavior.

No doubt that the intensity, ferocity and time spent fighting over a pet in an animal custody battle will incur great legal costs.  When a couple is locked into their divorce cage-fighting tournament (mixed marital-martial arts?), however, they won’t care about the costs and will do whatever they can to find the money to win.  Dogs are fortunate that they don’t engage in deep thinking about what the owners are doing to each other.  When children are the subject of the litigation, however, the sky’s the limit when it comes to psychological damage, heartbreak and legal fees.  Nothing to bark at.    

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

Please note, this blog is for information purposes only. It is not legal or psychological advice and it does not create an attorney/client or psychologist/patient relationship. If you have a question about a specific matter you should seek out an attorney or mental health expert to assist you.

Web Site:
Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw
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