How easy is it to
“win” custody of your children? Is there
such a thing, is it even possible? And if so, at what emotional and financial
of all, there is a presumption of joint legal custody in a divorce or relationship
breakup in which there are children, at least in New Jersey where I
practice. It is unusual for a parent to
get sole custody which implies legal and residential. We’ll discuss under what circumstances that
can happen. But some clarifications are
custody is different from residential custody.
Two parents can share joint legal custody with one parent being the
primary parent of residence or PPR.
This is often the case when the working spouse does not have enough home
time to be consistently available to the children, such as after school, clubs,
car pooling, etc. More often than not,
the parent who does not have primary residential custody will enter into a
visitation or parenting time arrangement that will give that parent a scheduled
and regular schedule for spending time with the children. Pickups and drop-offs of children take place,
either at the door, curbside or at a neutral location in some cases when close
proximity between the two parents is not desirable. “Traditional” parenting time is often thought
of as being every other weekend with a weekday dinner time, such as a
Wednesday. There are alternating
holidays and a couple weeks vacation per year.
But every case has its own individual needs and there is nothing sacred
about the alternating weekends. Some parents have more, or less parenting time
with their children, depending on the circumstances as we will discuss. Sometimes parenting time is shared equally or
nearly so. And sometimes parenting time
is supervised, such as in the case of child abuse or spousal abuse. To
help a couple avoid litigation, the parents may go for parenting time mediation
so that a neutral third party can help the parents construct a reasonable
parenting plan that they might agree upon by consent.
Frequent Reasons Why Custody
Warfare Breaks Out:
Let’s first look at some dysfunctional reasons: I would define this as being an emotionally
unsound basis for a child custody conflict.
This can include—but is not limited to—motives for warfare based on one parent’s personal needs
that have little to do with what is good for the child. I previously discussed a phenomenon that I
labeled RNB: Reactive Narcissistic Behavior is when a parent going through a
marital or other breakup acts selfishly because they cannot see the entire
picture. They have lost their sense of
reasonableness and fair play since they are acutely consumed with anger, and
only see their actions from a very narrow perspective. This is a (hopefully temporary) emotional
tunnel vision that keeps a person from seeing the effects of their behavior and
decisions on others, especially on the child.
Without repeating all of what I previously said about RNB in my previous
blog (please read it when you can), suffice it to say that one or both parents
can fail to make good decisions for themselves and for their child(ren) in the
context of a custody conflict in Family Court.
A parent experiencing RNB, or both parents, often feel victimized,
angry, self-righteous, paranoid and obsessive about their opponent. If both parents were able to see what is
truly in the child’s best interests, there would not be a custody war in most
cases, because a custody war is a negative experience for a child, as well as
for the parents (to say the least). It
is rarely a benefit for the child. Also
important to mention is the fact that often a parent will embark on a child
custody war as an act of vengeance against the other parent. In this case, it has nothing at all to do
with the best interests of the child, but rather, it is about one parent
“winning” against the other parent. The
child becomes a pawn in the parents’ quest to beat the other parent down out of
revenge. This is often masked in self
righteous pronouncements about what is in the child’s best interests, but it
really is not about that whatsoever in the kind of case I am describing.
It’s Not That Easy to “Win
When a vengeful parent says “I’m going to take the kids
away from you”, it is merely a button-pushing maneuver or manipulation to hurt
(freak out) the other parent, with certain exceptions mentioned below. I have received numerous inquiries from
prospective clients who were terrified of this happening (usually the mother). It’s not that easy to obtain sole custody
unless the other parent is a drug addict, active alcoholic, psychiatrically
impaired (not under control with medication), has had episodes of child abuse,
neglect, spousal abuse or has been “missing in action” for many months or years
with no contact with the children. Like
I said in the beginning of this article, the presumption is one of joint legal
custody when there are two fit parents.
What constitutes “fit”, however, is the important question and often is
left to a judge to decide after assessments are conducted on the parties and on
the children. Let’s say that two
parents, whether in a divorce or in a non-marital relationship breakup, show up
in court with opposing applications for court assistance. Both parents or one of the parents is asking
the court to designate him/her as primary parent of residence (PPR), or sole
custodian for the child(ren), or some other relief that would severely limit
the other parent’s access to the child. Some
basic rules should be kept in mind:
The Judge will not award custody on a simple motion
unless it is an emergency such as (but not limited to) one parent being jailed,
hospitalized, or precluded from contact with the child through a domestic
violence restraining order (ie. order of protection), allegations of sexual or
other physical abuse/neglect or though the State’s child protective
services. An emergency motion or
application (for the court’s assistance) is called an “Order to Show Cause” in
most places and enables a Judge to make quick decisions in an emergent
situation. Often these decisions are
deemed to be temporary until the parties can get back into court once the
situation at hand is stabilized for the time being. The Court has to ensure the safety of the
child and will err on the side of caution until more information can be
gathered on what exactly is in the child’s best interests.
There are very few things worse than one parent making
false allegations of sexual abuse against the other parent (usually against the
father). Often, these allegations take
on a life of their own, with the child being fed a steady diet of comments and
questions. These comments and questions
(e.g. “Did Daddy ever touch you in your private area and made you feel bad?” or
some variation of this). We will talk
another time about suggestibility and false memories of abuse in children. This is not to imply that abuse does not
occur. But when it did not occur, and
one parent leads a child to believe that maybe it did, that is destructive to
In non-emergent situations, a Court application (ie. a
motion or petition in some states) for a change in custody, or for sole
custody, or for primary custody may be just the beginning. The Judge usually does not know what is the
proper course of action to take in the beginning (unless the Judge knows these
parties from past dealings with them, knows the history, and this is just
another chapter for them). The Judge
will hear two competing certifications from the parties, detailing how the
other parent is negligent, uncaring, selfish, emotionally abusive or cold, gets
the child to school late, etc., to name a few common allegations that tend to
pop up. Sometimes there are
unsubstantiated allegations of physical abuse or neglect against the other
parent. The Judge usually has no idea
what is accurate, what is real, what is not real. So the Judge will have to enlist the
assistance of professionals who specialize in doing what is called “forensic”
(used for courtroom purposes) child custody evaluations before making any final
decisions. This forensic expert is
usually a psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.), but can also be a licensed clinical
social worker (LCSW), a psychiatric nurse, or a psychiatrist (M.D.). The parties will typically be ordered to
submit themselves to this professional for a formal assessment. For this assessment to be helpful to the
court, it must involve both parents, all the children, anyone living in the
house who plays a caretaker role (e.g. a grandparent who lives there and
babysits), etc. The evaluations can take
many hours or days of sitting in the expert’s office, being interviewed,
undergoing formal psychological testing, and being observed interacting with
your child. Finally, usually after two
to three months in many cases, a voluminous report is produced giving the
expert’s recommendations to the two opposing attorneys, eventually to be used
in a trial if necessary. In many cases,
and this really does happen, one of the parties may not like the court-ordered
results and may ask for their own (hired gun) evaluation with another
professional. The worst case scenario is
when both parties insist on getting their own private evaluations and there are
three in total. This can take four to six months to complete, and the cost is
staggering. Here’s why:
Some Financial Factors:
is not unusual for a forensic child custody evaluation to cost anywhere from
$5,000 to $7,500, and that does not count court time if that expert has to
testify in a trial or depositions, or both.
If you have a joint expert, or a court-appointed expert, it is common
for the parties to split the cost of that expert, sometimes 50-50 and sometimes
in proportion to their relative incomes (e.g. 60-40% or 35-65%). You pay for your own forensic expert that you
hire privately, including the cost of courtroom testimony. These experts typically charge from $250 to
$350 per hour for courtroom time, and some require a minimum of three hours per
day if they are going to testify. Of
course, their testimony can be 5 hours, but if they are going to cancel all of
their appointments for a morning or afternoon to be available for your trial,
they may want you to pay for that entire morning or afternoon. You will likely have to pay your expert a
retainer, such as perhaps 75% of their fee, up front. The report will not be released until the
entire fee is paid. If you paid half of
the joint or court-appointed expert’s fee (let’s say half of $5,000) plus the
entire fee for your own expert, you could be on the hook for at least $7,500 or
more for the two evaluations.
costs: Your attorney’s fees will be
astronomical for a child custody trial.
This is the most expensive thing that a family law attorney does. This is because there are experts, expert
reports to review, depositions of the experts, trial preparation, research, and
many days in Court to conduct your trial.
A deposition is when lawyers obtain testimony in a less formal setting
than a courtroom, such as an attorney’s office.
The proceedings are recorded by a court stenographer and your testimony
or the expert’s testimony is transcribed and provided to the parties with a
written transcript. The testimony can be
used at trial and will give the attorneys a better understanding of how this
witness will testify at trial. A one day
deposition can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500 or more. You pay your attorney for the hours it takes
for your attorney conducting the deposition of your opponent’s expert. You also pay for the stenographer and the
transcript. You pay your expert and
your attorney if the opposing attorney is conducting the deposition because
your attorney has to be there too. It is
not unusual for a child custody trial, from beginning (evaluations and all) to
end, to cost anywhere from $20,000 to $75,000 or even double that, depending on
the circumstances. Sometimes in a case where—for example—one of
the parents is a stay-at-home dad or mom, and the other parent is the primary
or sole wage-earner, the Court could establish a “litigation fund” from home
equity or other money (e.g. savings, etc.) to “level the playing field” between
the parties in the litigation. The Court
could order the release of $25,000 or even $30,000 or more to the attorneys, to
guarantee their fees get paid. You
should know all of this going in, before you embark on an expensive venture
that will bankrupt you or use up all of your marital or other funds.
Reactive Narcissistic Behavior (RNB) can motivate a parent to spend all of their life’s
savings on lawyers to fight with their estranged spouse over the children. The outcome is dubious and the collateral
damage can be staggering:
The Emotional Costs:
As you can see from the process described above, your
children may be required to spend many hours being interviewed or tested by a
forensic child custody expert, or more than one expert. Depending on the age of the child, this can
be more or less stressful, but it is always stressful. In many states, depending on the age of the
child, the judge will interview the child (often in his/her office or chambers)
to get a better feel of the child’s best interests. In New Jersey, the
attorneys are usually invited to submit suggested questions to the Judge as a
guide. Often a transcript of the
interview is produced for both sides to read. And the parents get to see what
their child said about them to the Judge. Not pleasant for anyone. And many parents will choose not to read that
transcript because it will be too painful to read.
Judge will be especially interested in finding out from the child if they were
coached, coerced or bribed to express a certain opinion to the court. The Judge will want to know if the child has
seen the litigation papers, what mom or dad says to them about the other
parent, or what other family members such as grandparents say in front of the
child. Sometimes when the child is at
one parent’s residence, that parent and the grandparents and sometimes other
extended family conduct a bashing of the other parent within earshot of the
child, if not in front of the child. The Judge wants to know all of this and will
act against a parent who is behaving inappropriately by needlessly exposing
that child to the details of the litigation.
The child feels either stressed out,
violated or validated, depending on the circumstances and depending on
if the child actually wanted to express his/her opinions to the Judge.
many cases, the children are locked in a loyalty conflict between both parents
who are loved by the children. A child
who knows full well that one parent despises the other parent is made to feel
like it is not ok to show affection toward the despised parent: It is not ok to enjoy their time with that
parent, it is not ok to bring home presents the other parent bought for the
child, it is not ok to call the other parent on the phone to have a
conversation in private about anything, and on and on. So the child has to inhibit their feelings,
hide how they feel, act constricted with the despised parent so as not to show affection
toward that parent (for example at a school event, etc.), and on and on.
will talk more about some of these issues in the future. Suffice it to say, that a custody battle
should be well thought out before it is begun. Carefully consider the emotional
costs, financial costs and potential outcomes.
A cost-benefit analysis should be conducted, to weigh the costs against
the potential benefits of custody litigation.
Of course, you might not have much choice if your estranged spouse or
former partner fires the first legal shot into your court. When there is a disparity in financial
ability, the parent with the money has an advantage because that person can
afford to litigate, sometimes indefinitely.
More about this later.
GOOD LUCK! Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq.
Please note, this blog is for general 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.
See my Web page: http://www.jdgordonlaw.com/
Follow me on Twitter: @jdgordonlaw Linked IN: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jdgordonlaw
People who are unfamiliar with the way that the system works often have unrealistic expectations. To help orient clients to their journey in family court, I have prepared a simple but realistic 15 point guide, in blunt & realistic terms, to have in one's mind when embarking on a divorce or other family court action. Not in any particular order:
1. THE SYSTEM DOES NOT ALWAYS WORK FAIRLY. IT IS VERY IMPERFECT AND SLOW:
(So don't be shocked when this happens. There may or may not be recourse (ie. filing an Appeal), but usually, the parties do not walk out of Court euphoric with a "home run". Everything will take much longer than you expect or wish for. There will be unanticipated postponements by the Court, judges and attorneys have illnesses and personal emergencies, and there are always snow days when your case will be bumped to the next month or 6 weeks later).
2. THE JUDGE WILL NOT NECESSARILY BE ON YOUR SIDE OR FAVOR YOU, EVEN IF YOU ARE THE “GOOD GUY” IN YOUR OWN EYES:
(The Judge is supposed to be impartial and fair to both parties, even if you consider the other party to be totally evil and deserving of harsh treatment. The Judge isn't your friend, or your adversary's friend. The Judge is there to make sure that you both get a fair and just result (e.g. compromise) and that the children, if any, are protected and having their best interests met.)3. THE JUDGE WILL NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING ANYONE SAYS (EVEN YOU) WITHOUT PROOF:
(In Court, Rules of Evidence and the Rules of Court (i.e. your state's code of Civil Procedure) have to be followed and enforced by the Judge. Allegations without credibility or adequate proof are not much more than noise to the Judge and baseless allegations may backfire if the Judge starts to get annoyed at you for making too many allegations that go nowhere. Be prepared to prove your allegations with witnesses, documents, etc.)
4. THE COURT DOES NOT CARE HOW MUCH YOU SUFFER(ED), AND YOU WILL NOT GET MORE MONEY OR A BETTER OUTCOME BECAUSE OF IT. IT IS AN UNFAIR REALITY:
(Unless you can show actual damages such as physical injury in the case of domestic violence, or serious dissipation of marital assets, or some truly horribly shocking behavior that would shock any reasonable person, then you will most likely not recover anything for your suffering. Your emotional journey, the betrayals you suffered, and the loss of your relationship will likely not be compensated by the Court.)
5. THE COURT DOES NOT CARE HOW MANY PEOPLE YOUR SPOUSE SLEPT WITH:
(Since virtually nothing the Judge hears will be shocking to him/her, it is highly unlikely that the Court will favor you just because your spouse/partner was sleeping around some of the time or on a regular basis, as long as the children were not exposed to anything inappropriate such as sleepovers with lovers when the children are there too. Multiple infidelities are not something you will be compensated for.)
6. THE COURT DOES NOT CARE IF YOUR SPOUSE IS BISEXUAL OR GAY:
(Should be self-explanatory. At least this is the case in New Jersey where I practice. In this day and age, the Courts are prevented from discriminating based on gender or sexual preference. So if your partner or spouse left you for a same-sex partner, it will not be a factor in your divorce unless there are other reasons why that "other" person would not be good to have contact with your child. But that is already getting into other issues such as substance abuse or psychiatric. Sexual preference, in and of itself, will not be a factor unless there is some other harm to the child that can be proven.)
7. THE COURT IS USUALLY NOT INTERESTED IN PUNISHING YOUR SPOUSE/EX, ETC. REGARDLESS OF HOW UPSET YOU ARE AT THE OTHER PARTY. THE COURT DOES NOT--AND WILL NOT--SHARE YOUR OUTRAGE AT YOUR SPOUSE, EXCEPT IN RARE OCCASIONS SUCH AS IN CHILD ABUSE OR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE. YOUR CASE PROBABLY IS NOT RARE. “IF ONLY THE JUDGE COULD HEAR ME OUT” IS NOT REALISTIC AND DOES NOT HELP YOU AT ALL. IT COULD, HOWEVER, DRIVE YOU TO GO TO TRIAL, USUALLY A BAD IDEA IF SETTLEMENT IS POSSIBLE.
(As was mentioned above, it doesn't matter much how you perceive your spouse, partner or ex. What matters is what the Court decides is fair and just, and what is in the best interests of the children, if any. Your personal pain and anguish, years of suffering and misery with a no-good, rotten spouse is not factored into the Judge's decisions, even if you really did suffer living with this person. The Court is more interested in the parties moving forward with their lives rather than re-visiting what happened in the past. If you insist on the Judge hearing your story, you will end up in a trial which costs a ton of money, and you will not be allowed to just tell your story the way you wish to. You will be limited by the Rules of Court and the Rules of Evidence, and you will be cross examined on anything you say. Not a very pleasant experience to go through, for dubious results.)
8. YOUR LEGAL BILLS WILL BE HIGHER THAN YOU EXPECTED:
(Much of this may be driven by your
adversary/spouse, etc., as well as your own insistence on litigation, and the
amount of time you spend on the phone with your lawyers. An attorney cannot
always predict what the other side will do, but usually your lawyers have to
respond to it in some way and that costs you more money. Your attorneys have to be
paid for the time working on your case, even if your spouse/ex initiated the litigation or caused the
problem. If you are fighting for custody or relocation out of state with the child(ren), for example, it will be extremely expensive. (More on that later in another post.)There are no quick solutions and you won't necessarily collect attorneys' fees at the end of the case from your adversary, either. Judges are not quick to award attorneys' fees unless there is clearly bad faith or a willful violation of a previous agreement or order.)
9. YOU WILL GET LESS MONEY (OR PAY MORE) AT SETTLEMENT THAN YOU WANTED:
(No matter what you think you deserve, the end settlement or findings of the Court after trial will represent a compromise and most likely will not be what you had hoped for. Unless the Judge made a significant error of law, an appeal will most likely be unsuccessful since in Family Court, the Appellate courts usually give great deference to the Family Court Judge's decisions related to the factual disputes in a case. They allow significant discretion to the Judges regarding their decisions, so long as the Judges don't abuse their discretion and go beyond recognized standards or case law.)
10. SINCE YOU MAY HAVE TO PAY MORE (RECEIVE LESS) ALIMONY OR CHILD SUPPORT THAN YOU WANTED TO, YOU WILL PERCEIVE YOUR PARTNER, SPOUSE OR EX TO BE HAPPIER THAN THEY TRULY ARE. THEY WILL TRY TO PLAY “HEAD GAMES” WITH YOU, SNEER AT YOU AS YOU LEAVE COURT AND PUT ON A HAPPY FACE JUST TO FREAK YOU OUT:
(This also should be self-explanatory. But you cannot expect the person who made your life miserable for the past few years to act differently now. If the other party wants to emotionally hurt you, they can continue to push your buttons for years to come, if you allow yourself to be upset by their attitude, demeanor or the show that he/she puts on in front of you just to make you feel like you "lost" and they "won". It sounds dysfunctional because it is. Try to get rid of the buttons that the other person pushes, by ignoring this behavior and thinking your own thoughts, not what they want you to think or feel. Try to be happy that you are not living with this person any more.)
11. YOUR EXPECTATIONS WILL ALWAYS BE HIGHER THAN THE (UNFAIR) REALITY THAT YOU WILL EXPERIENCE:
(This is related to the previous sections. Namely, you don't know what this Judge will think or feel about your case. You don't necessarily know what issues, facts or proofs are going to yield positive results for you, without legal advice. Not everyone listens to what their attorney counsels them, perhaps because in some cases, it goes against what the client has their heart set on. The breakup of your relationship is tragic and painful. You cannot escape that fact. Expecting to punish your spouse, get adequately compensated for your pain and suffering, maintaining your previous lifestyle, as well as your expectations of how much time the children will spend with the other parent, are just expectations and wishes at this point. You can talk with your attorney about your wish list, and some of it, or all of it may be appropriate and reasonable. It is just a wise course of action not to get your hopes up too high to avoid devastating disappointment later if your wishes do not come true. Your success in this litigation is highly fact-dependent and depending on your proofs and credibility, you may have a more or less easy or difficult time getting the great result you want, depending on the circumstances of your case.)
12. COURTS USUALLY TRY TO GIVE EACH PARTY SOMETHING THEY WANT, AND THEY TRY TO APPEAR OBJECTIVE AND FAIR. BUT DON’T EXPECT FAIRNESS OR HOME RUNS. SOMETIMES YOU'LL THINK THE JUDGE SIMPLY DOES NOT “GET IT”.
(Itis unusual for a Judge to "not get it" with regard to thoroughly understanding the complex issues of your case, along with the applicable Law. Judges in almost all cases are hard-working, sincere individuals who read all of the papers before them (sometimes late at night) and who will do their best to do the right thing for you and for your children. There are occasional exceptions, however, in some courts and on some days. Even a Judge has an occasional bad day when they may be less patient or Solomon-like. They are human too. Most likely, however, your perception that the Judge doesn't get it may stem from your unrealistically high expectations, or possibly because the other side also had a compelling argument--maybe as compelling as yours, to your Judge. The decision you get may not seem fair to you, but may be seen as fair by most other people. You always can appeal a clearly wrong decision, but appeals can be very costly and time consuming. Judges' decisions are usually affirmed on appeal. You should discuss all of the issues and options with your attorney before coming to any conclusions about what happened in Court.)
LAWYER DOES NOT HAVE MAGICAL POWERS AND MUST FOLLOW THE COURT RULES, THE
LAW, AND THE COURT’S DIRECTIVES EVEN IF YOUR LAWYER DOESN'T LIKE IT
OR BELIEVES THE JUDGE IS WRONG. FRIENDS WILL TELL YOU WHAT YOUR
LAWYER SHOULD BE DOING (OR SHOULD HAVE DONE) BUT THEY DON’T REALLY KNOW
YOUR CASE, NOR DO THEY KNOW THE LAW OR ALL THE FACTS SURROUNDING THE
well-intentioned supporters/family get you unnecessarily upset. Your support
group clearly means well but may not be acting in your best interests by inciting you
to feel worse than you have to feel, during very difficult circumstances.
They may have expectations that are
unrealistically high because they are in pain that you are in pain. If you question things to your attorney, you should receive a clear answer that explains things to your satisfaction. Understanding why the result occurred the way it did, is different from agreeing with or liking the result.)
14. YOUR LAWYER WILL MOST LIKELY INTERACT WITH THE ADVERSARY LAWYER CONGENIALLY. YOUR POSSIBLE (INTENSE) DISLIKE OF OTHER ATTORNEY WON'T NECESSARILY BE SHARED BY YOUR ATTORNEY.
(Regardless of the congeniality, your
attorney should do what is necessary to zealously advocate on your behalf. If you are uncomfortable with or confused by the interactions you see, discuss it with your attorney. There should be no difference in your lawyer's advocacy for you regardless of who the adversary attorney is. Lawyers try not to take the adversary attorney's aggressive or unpleasant words personally. For you, it is personal, but the lawyers regularly appear in court and have numerous interactions with the same attorneys and judges, day after day, year after year. This should not affect the outcome of your case. The opponent attorney would be acting the same on your behalf if he/she was working for you, and vice versa.)
15. IT IS BETTER TO SETTLE YOUR ISSUES THAN TO TAKE IT TO TRIAL.
(If you take the above paragraphs to heart, you can readily see why it is better to settle than to take the chance of a trial. Almost all divorce matters settle before trial. Most of the time, if a trial does occur (less than 5% of the time), the Judge will not do much differently than what could have been agreed-upon by consent of the parties months earlier. The cost of a trial is huge. Preparation of documents, depositions of potential witnesses, time spent in court, all costs a lot of money: tens of thousands of dollars. Even the cost of months of bickering and arguing before settlement costs a lot of money and usually gets the parties to the same place they would have been at months earlier. If your opponent won't compromise and has outrageous demands, you may not be able to help going to trial. If their settlement position is so unreasonable, the Court may later award attorney's fees to you if the Court believes that the position taken was unreasonable and in bad faith. But a trial is usually a roll of the dice. Judges would rather you work things out by consent, because it is your life (or lives) and you know your case better than the Judge does. If you cannot or will not settle the issues amicably, then the Judge will do it for you. That is the Judge's job. But someone, or both parties will most likely not be happy with the outcome. If possible, you should try to have some control over your destiny by being willing to compromise (hopefully the other side has the same idea) to reach a fair settlement that will also benefit the best interests of your children.
Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq.
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.
needs during divorce often overshadow norms of acceptable behavior, sometimes ignoring the needs of their children. In many cases, these new "needs" lead a person to suppress or be blind to common decency and common sense. Some divorcing couples allow these new needs to
control or drive the entire process. Usually, we think of needs as those necessary for life, as differentiated from desires or "wants". A need is more compelling than a desire. Air, food, sustenance, shelter, sex are needs. They are necessary for survival and for the regeneration of people over time. Perceived needs are those that we subconsciously add to the list of actual needs. Thus, having re-defined these goals (wishes, desires, etc.) as needs, people then act accordingly when they are deprived of their satisfaction.
What are these new perceived needs that spring up in the dissolution of a relationship? In my experience, there are four new, divorce-specific needs
that spring up during a divorce or dissolution of a relationship generally: the need to be right, the need to be in
control, the need to punish, and the need to win. When these complementary and
interconnected needs take over, then civility, the best interests of children, the rules of fair play, moral and ethical behavior often take a back seat.Anything goes because the stakes are so
high to that person.
marital or relationship breakup, with its acute feelings of loss, tends to create paranoia, fear and insecurity as divorcing/disconnecting spouses or partners suddenly find themselves in uncharted territory. Along with perceptions
of betrayal and abandonment, the individual is overwhelmed with feeling adrift,
out of control, frightened, and at war in a swamp of dysfunctional behavior. Everything
that was once taken for granted (such as trust and security) is now in question, an unsettling condition that
devastates one’s self-esteem. Adults
who once felt reasonably secure or in control now face unfamiliar and confusing challenges. Now it is hard to determine the right answers and correct choices.
Everything is cloudy and uncertain, except for those new needs driving impulses that all of a sudden feel compelling. In this context, one can fluctuate with black-white thinking between opposite self-perceptions: fragile vs. powerful, out of control vs. in-control,
victim vs. attacker, loser vs. victor, etc. This all-or-nothing thinking grows out of the new needs I
referred to above.It becomes the life
force, the life and death aspect of everyday life.It is to die for, go down fighting, make the
last stand, spend every penny (on lawyers), sink or swim, defending that need with every
ounce of strength.
Re-opening Old Wounds:
This new, acute reaction to one's world falling apart controls too
often in dysfunctional ways. This current loss or betrayal may also resemble--and become--a re-creation of previous losses experienced earlier in life. It can conjure up old feelings of loss, betrayal and abandonment that a person may have experienced in childhood. The abandoned spouse/partner may have also come into this relationship with poor self esteem as a pre-existing condition. This new loss, while possibly being perceived as a newly devastating event, may also cause a re-opening of earlier devastating events in a person's life. Regardless of the etiology of the feelings however, this new flood of raw feelings and the newly-perceived needs begin to run the person’s behavior. These new needs become the obsession and the center of gravity for that person--the axis around
which everything else revolves.And like
the sun shining in your eyes in the morning, blinding you to the road ahead, that
is how overpowering these needs can be.They
obscure one's vision, and judgment becomes impaired.The spouse or partner now will do almost anything, even if ugly, to
be right, to be in control, to punish and to win.
feel betrayed and victimized, often becoming vengeful and self-righteousness. If so, that person may self-justify punishing the “bad” spouse/partner who they believe hurt them. It becomes all about one's "needs" and it becomes quite difficult if not impossible to see things from other points of view. This is what I call Reactive Narcissistic Behavior (or RNB) stemming from the dissolution of a relationship. It is a reaction to this particular traumatic event. With RNB, a usually sensible person may become narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned and appear to be very selfish. The person experiencing RNB perceives himself (equivalent to "herself" throughout this article) to be the victim. The victimization is perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be caused by the other party. Of course, the person's pre-existing personality characteristics and emotional stability will affect the intensity or manifestation of this syndrome. If a person was narcissistic to begin with, or had a narcissistic personality disorder, the behavior will be worse than it already was. But in a previously, seemingly stable person with no personality disorder, he or she could appear to have such a disorder when they lose their relationship. This is why it has been said that in divorce, we see good people acting at their worst and sometimes out of character.
How is RNB Manifested in Parents?
I discussed previously that it hurts children when their divorcing parents try to out-do the other regarding parenting time, competition with regard to gifts, vacations and fancy bedrooms with plasma TV's, etc. Most hurtful is the competition for the child's love that is sometimes manifested by making demeaning the other parent to the child, or in front of the child, or allowing others to do so within earshot of the child. Even subtle feedback like facial expressions and eye-rolling, convey to the child that the parent does not like the other parent and doesn't like to hear the other parent's name, etc. The child learns that, for example, Mommy hates Daddy, and learns to feel guilty when that child wants to be with Daddy or wants to express something positive about the father (or the reverse, of course). This can be happening in both homes also, and ultimately the child becomes torn, in a loyalty conflict, anxious and eventually angry. Sabotaging the other parent's parenting time or activities with the child, as well as making derogatory comments about the other parent to the child (or in the child's presence) usually comes back to bite the offending parent later on. It is actually self-sabotaging for the offending parent to act that way since the child will not forget how uncomfortable that behavior made the child feel.
A divorcing spouse or parent experiencing RNB will spend their last cent on legal fees, fighting against their estranged spouse over seemingly trivial issues. Imagine spending literally thousands of dollars fighting over a couch that costs less than the legal fees. Imagine spending thousands of dollars fighting over an extra day of parenting time that comes and goes. Or making a Court application costing thousands of dollars to fight over a family pet. Years later, looking back, it might seem surreal in retrospect. But now the parties may be filled with feelings of victimization and anger. Righteous indignation is sometimes misplaced and in the context of this article, it is born of narcissism. People fantasize that if only they can get in front of the judge to tell their story, that the judge will side with them and punish their spouse. This seldom happens. The Courts don't often care about things that you may believe are very important, such as who committed adultery or how much you are hurt or feel betrayed. The Court listens to both sides and tries to reach a fair outcome that is beneficial for the children, not necessarily what is going to make one of the parties happy or feel vindicated. During this time of great duress, people are at risk or prone to become tunnel-visioned and to act selfishly, even if that was not their nature prior to these events. More on these issues later. 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.