Saturday, March 31, 2012

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

Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2012

            A recurring theme in Family Court is the anger.  It is palpable, you can almost touch it.  It’s everywhere.  Bottled up, contained, but yet oozing through the pores.  Sherriff’s officers stand by, just in case the containment is breached.  It is almost like you can stick a pin in the person and all the rage will explode.  You see it in their eyes:  the hurt, the betrayal, the resentment, the loathing.  Attorneys and Judges almost, but not quite, get used to it.  It is emotionally draining to be there and watch the seemingly endless parade of perceived or actual victimhood, self-righteousness, sabotage, the lack of veracity (ok: lies), the selfishness.  As I discussed in earlier posts, a person going through a divorce or dissolution of a relationship or custody battle can become acutely narcissistic, maybe more than before if pre-existing, but certainly the tunnel vision sets in for many who walk into Court.  The reactive narcissistic behavior (RNB) of a person can blind them to the “big picture”, can obliterate the values of fairness and generosity, can make a person seem hateful and malicious, and can do untold damage to children and to former partners.
            Judges are quite good at seeing this and will not hesitate to scold, warn and even punish a litigant who is being obtuse, stubborn, selfish, and certainly if they are acting in a way that is harmful to the emotional well-being of a child.  But the person who has his coat pulled by the Judge often doesn’t get it.  He (it can just as well be a “she”) will often leave court feeling misunderstood, feeling “screwed” by their former partner, by the judge who is “biased”, and by the system.  You see it in the hallway, right outside the courtroom doorway.  People leave crying, or bitter, muttering under their breath, cursing, yelling at their attorney, vowing or demanding to appeal, planning further sabotage to the other side.  It is warfare.  It is blind hatred fueled in the tunnel of narcissism, born of the loss of love, the perceived abandonment, the loss of control, the betrayal of trust they once had, the rage of the vulnerable one who let their guard down in a relationship--and got less than they expected, or worse.  How does one go on in a rational and constructive way?

Two Kinds of Scenarios:
            In scenario #1, you have two reasonably healthy people:  emotionally healthy with little or no serious psychological history, no substance abuse, domestic violence or child abuse issues, past or present.  This is what is seen most of the time.  Seemingly nice people whose relationship declined—either slowly over time, or abruptly with infidelity or other acute events (e.g. sudden financial collapse or loss of employment, IRS problems, major health problems, etc.).    Matrimonial attorneys get inquiries all the time from prospective clients who just discovered their spouse was having an affair.  Although the Courts these days do not really factor that into the financial outcome of the divorce, and usually do not care at all how many people the other spouse slept with, it is important as an attorney not to gloss over the devastating meaning of this discovery to the client since it will affect the course of the litigation in many cases.  It is also important to acknowledge and validate the pain of the client.  The discovery of infidelity or other major secrets and subsequent betrayals is a life altering event for many.  It deals a crushing blow to a blind trust formerly bestowed to a spouse/partner.  The “victim” of this betrayal will often feel alone, lost, adrift and frightened.  Once the initial shock wears off, the depression will often turn into anger—sometimes persistent and at a level that drives the person to self destruction, or to the extreme detriment of their children.

            Individuals whose relationship declined over time, may have participated in the benign neglect of the relationship with their spouse/partner who also watched it happen as they both passively swept it under the rug.  It may have been due to having children and immersion into one’s career, lack of chemistry (perhaps from the onset of the relationship), infrequent lovemaking if any, a sense of helplessness or depression, or possibly due to growing apart from each other for a variety of other reasons.   There is less of a sense of betrayal to either party when there is time to see it coming, and the parties have already become “comfortably numb” to each other and to their plight. (“Comfortably Numb”, From The Album The Wall, Written By David Gilmour and Roger Waters, © Columbia ® Records, 1980.)

            With scenario #2, one or both of the parties may have chronic issues or histories of psychological disorder, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, arrest histories, etc.  Some parties have been in and out of “the system” for years, or for life.  Sometimes their children are in foster or relative placement, or in treatment themselves.  Some people in this situation are too busy trying to cope with their own lives to be angry.  They don’t have many choices available because they are under scrutiny by the courts, by agencies (such as child protective services or parole) or treatment centers.   Here, there is an external structure imposed on the individual by a court, or by an agency that has rules that must be followed, or else.   Even the abuser in the domestic violence matter, who may tend to be a controlling person, someone with a short fuse, a rage-a-holic who blows up violently when frustrated, may not be chronically seething with anger on a day to day basis.   Scenario #2 clients are sometimes easier to represent, because the rules, consequences and procedures are so clear in most cases.  Clients in the “system” know what is expected of them and in many cases, they work hard and get their children returned to them, or supervised parenting time becomes unsupervised parenting time if they work at it.  If they cannot comply (for example, they continue to show positive urine tests for drugs, or they do not attend meetings or parenting time appointments, etc), then they remain where they are, and that parent will be in no position to “win” anything in Court.

You Have to Recognize there is a Problem to be Able to Deal With it.
            Scenario #1 parents have a harder time resolving their issues because they don’t see that they have issues.  To a scenario #1 parent with reactive narcissistic behavior (RNB), the litigation can go on interminably, or episodically in the long term.  The individual who feels “screwed”, victimized, betrayed and hurt can expend huge sums of money and effort trying to “punish” the other party or to be vindicated themselves.  People experiencing RNB can be self-righteous and may think that if they can just get in front of a Judge to tell their story, then the Judge will hate their spouse/partner and punish him/her.  The self-righteous, angry person who feels victimized, also feels perfectly justified in their crusade against that other party.  No matter how much it costs, no matter the emotional cost to the children and to the respective parents’ families, the battle is relentless, never-ending and vicious.  Judges hate cases like this, often grow to dislike both parents, and will sometimes change custody to protect the child from the dysfunctional machinations of a vengeful parent.  Parenthetically, some years ago, I saw a judge temporarily put a child in foster care out of frustration with both parents, until they could both complete psychological evaluations and comply with recommendations.  They just could not stop sabotaging each other, including their respective parenting time and planned vacations with the child.  They both couldn’t stand that their child had a relationship with the other.  They both had no idea the effect their behaviors were having on their child because their tunnel vision made them blind to anything else besides their chronic rage at the other.  They did not see that their child was suffering as a result.

Some Thoughts:
            I’ve previously discussed the huge legal and emotional costs of constant litigation and the emotional damage this does to parties and to the children.  What about ways of re-formulating one’s thought process, to create a self-imposed intervention that might change the course of where things are going?  It is possible to refuse to play the “game” at some point.  One can take back control of one’s life and walk away from the arena of legal jousting, or walk away as much as realistically and reasonably possible.  One doesn’t have to run toward these battles like a lemming running toward the cliff.  The imagined or wished-for rewards of litigation often have little relationship to the true outcomes.  That is often (but not always) why some people leave the courtroom in tears.

Anger as a Positive or Negative Force:
Anger is a human emotion and within certain limits, it can be a positive and a constructive force. Those limits can be measured in the realms of intensity, mode of expression and duration.  Usually a person becomes angry for a reason that is identifiable and maybe justifiable.  Optimally, the angry person will express their displeasure in an assertive, socially appropriate manner, and then eventually get over it and move on.  The assertive and constructive expression of anger to another person in a relationship can help change the other person’s behavior and improve the relationship.  The expression of anger here is not inappropriately or aggressively intense, is expressed by assertive communication, and does not linger so long that it becomes punitive or destructive to the other person.

At worst, however, the angry person will freak out, rage (used as a verb) at the source of their displeasure, and walk around with residual amounts of anger toward that person.  This can result in chronic loathing, vilification and demonizing of the other person, as well as acting in a vindictive and malicious manner toward that person.  We see the demonizing of one parent by another parent quite often in Family Court.  It is hard to believe all of the allegations that are replete in the Certifications of litigants, seeking the Court’s intervention.    Hard to believe:  That is why Judges discount most of those allegations unless there is convincing documentation to support the allegations.  People think that if they could just tell their story to the Judge. . ., but that is not how it works.  Maybe you can tell your story to your friends and family and receive huge support, but telling the same story in Court will fall flat if you do not have any proof.  And even if you do have proof, it had better be important enough for the Judge to act on, or it will still be skipped over.  What is important to you may be trivial to the Judge.
Some Tenets to Live By, to Cope in Family Court:
a.    One of the parents is probably the better parent, whatever that means.  It might be you, it might be the other one. It depends on who you are talking with. So what? As long as there is no child abuse or neglect or other horrible things occurring, it will not matter that much, legally speaking.  In pure parenting (whatever that is), even though you might objectively be the better parent if you could get a score, you still have to be available to pick up the child at school or activities, and to spend the time needed to properly care for the child.  That is why most people think that a child needs two parents, so that they can back each other up, make sure that the child’s needs are met, and to provide some consistency in the child’s life.  Trying to marginalize the other parent is destructive to the child although it might make you feel better in the short run.  It will also make the child resentful of the parent doing the demonizing their other parent.  The self-righteous (RNB) parent strongly believes in their parenting superiority.   The parent who marginalizes the other parent will predictably be disliked by the Judge.  That’s a bad strategy.  Short-sided and self-defeating, not to mention emotionally destructive to the child.

b.    I’ve said this many times before:  The Court does not care about the ethics and morality of your spouse as long as that person is not committing any crimes or exposing the child to anything inappropriate.  The Court does not care how many affairs your spouse/partner had or what gender they were.  The Court cares about consistent and appropriate parenting; being there, showing up, being kind, keeping the child safe, well fed and clothed.  Those are essential.  The Court wants you to have good judgment and to be careful how you act and talk in front of and to your child.  Being consumed with anger at the other parent gets in the way of appropriate parenting, and clouds judgment. 

c.    The Court does not enforce religious beliefs.  When your child is with the other parent, that parent can take the child to any (reasonably sane) house of worship they want to regardless of which religion you practice, even if it is different.  The Court will allow the child to practice whichever religion is practiced in the home in which they are residing on any particular week, with either parent.  Your exasperation about it will have no effect in almost all cases.  An exception to this is if the parties already have a written agreement or divorce decree saying that the parties agree that the child will be raised in the _______ faith, and all of a sudden a couple of years later, one parent changes their mind.  Otherwise, you are probably out of luck if you wish to enforce a particular religion for your child, when the child is at their other parent’s place.

d.    Don’t make the Judge hate you.  Take a step back, look at how you are coming across.  Ask yourself how you would perceive someone else being you, if you could be a spectator.  How not to make the Judge (or your children) hate you?  Don’t act hatefully.  Don’t be overly annoying with petty complaints about the other parent’s parenting (e.g. “Our daughter came to my house today with messy unkempt hair”, or “the other parent lets our daughter watch ____on TV”, etc.). As long as the child is not being exposed to porn or R-rated violence, etc., you will not be able to control which children’s shows your child watches (e.g. iCarly, who a former client insisted was overly suggestive).   The judge is not going to change custody or scold the other parent unless there are serious and potentially dangerous things going on in the other parent’s house.  Complaining that your ex is marrying the person he had an affair with also will not matter.  That is a therapy issue, not a legal issue.

e.    Try not to react.  In Family Court you will hear allegations against you.  Some true, some false, some with an element of truth.  For the most part, you can let it go.  Don’t be defensive, be factual.  Don’t feel obliged to hurl your own allegations back to the other parent.  When it goes back and forth like that, the Judge steps in.  Read paragraph “d” again.  Don’t act hatefully.  Try not to be horrified at the allegations or misrepresentations. Expect them. Try to step back, breathe and look at the bigger picture.  Try to imagine watching this from the gallery, or from the bench where the Judge sits, and try to place a wedge between what you are hearing and what your emotions usually are in this scenario.  A wedge of time to think rationally, like a sandbag at the levee before the flood.  Don’t react.  Let it be if you can and if legally advisable or possible.  Let it flow over you like a wave in the ocean.  It passes by.  You don’t drown.  Take the control away from the accuser by not letting your emotions overflow, like the buttons they always pushed in the past.  Remove the buttons and look at the goal, not at the moment.  Choose your battles wisely.

f.      What is the “goal”?  The goal to the self-righteous parent with RNB is usually to win, to squash the other parent like a bug, to get the advantage, to deprive the other parent of an extra hour of visitation, to sabotage, to marginalize, to get the child to like him/her more than the other parent.  What if the goal could be changed to feeling calm and content, confident that the child will still love you (we are assuming no active attempts to alienate the child against you here) long after the divorce/litigation, etc. is over.  What about the goal of being rational, loving, and fair, or setting a good example to your child of what is a good person?  A “good person” means different things to different people.  A person behaving narcissistically may believe he/she is a good person, doing the right thing against the forces of evil.  It is sometimes necessary and  important to try to get objective feedback from a third party as to what you are doing and if your game plan or course of action is a good idea.  That third party can be a therapist, clergy or someone who will be honest with you and who is not drinking the kool-aid of your tale of victimhood at the hands of the other parent.  Your friends and family are an important support network, but they will often side with you no matter what, and will not be objective. They are on your side, unconditionally and may egg you on, unwittingly, to your ultimate detriment.  You need honesty too, not just blind support. Both are important for different reasons.

g.    The fact that you “went down that road” doesn’t mean you can’t change course and find another route to take.  Your strategy or way of thinking and reacting may be doing more harm than good.  Take a fresh look, talk with an objective, neutral outsider who has no axe to grind, and then look in the mirror and make a course correction if appropriate.  Don’t let your ex’s attitude get to you.  You may be perceived as giving up or losing.  But in your mind, you’d be better off thinking that you took control back and you are driving your own bus.

What About Forgiveness?
            This is particularly difficult for a person feeling betrayed and victimized.  The betrayed person can be walking around seriously in emotional pain over whatever happened.  Forgiveness can be liberating.  Walking around angry can be obsessive and burdensome.  It can eat away at a person and occupy one’s waking hours (and even enter one’s dreams at night).  When a person is unable to let go of their anger, get over it (so to speak) and forgive the other person, it becomes a weight that they have to carry, and it is a destructive force.  This is way beyond an assertive expression of appropriate anger at a person.  Here, however, the dysfunction is the chronic nature of the anger.  Forgiving does not mean ignoring or forgetting.  Depending on the other person’s behavior, it might be very wise not to go into denial and  some should take appropriate self-protective measures.  We see this issue frequently with battered spouses who repetitively forgive their abuser and put themselves in jeopardy over and over again by going back to a dangerous situation, hence “the cycle of violence”.  Forgiving a betrayal is different, however.   

            Regardless of the event or events that led to the perceived betrayal, whether it was adultery, alcoholism, substance abuse, eating disorder, lack of attention, lack of sexual desire, abandonment, business failure, serious illness, refusal to go for marital counseling, etc., there is little point in remaining angry.   Remaining angry feeds into a person’s sense of victimhood and is not an enabling strategy; rather, it is disabling.   Imagine not needing to prove the other parent’s incompetence, or saving the amount of time and energy it takes to marginalize the other parent to exclude that person from your child’s life.  Imagine wondering if your child would be a happier person if she knew that it was ok to love both parents.  Imagine not caring if your child went to the phone to call the other parent and you just let her sit and talk to her other parent in privacy.  Imagine how easy it would be if you didn’t have to worry about what clothing or toys from your house travelled with your child to the other parent’s house, and vice versa.  (I have handled cases where the other parent would not allow a gift from my client or the grandparents to the child to enter the other parent’s house when the child returned there.) 

Forgiveness means having to say that it’s ok, even if it was not ok when it happened.  Forgiveness means saying that it is ok that you are where you are at now, regardless of the past.  Forgiveness means letting it go, walking away from the past and allowing it to be.  It is what you tell yourself about the event, not the event itself that drives your emotions.  A chronically angry person who loathes, hates and despises (are they all the same thing?) the other person is driven by self talk and beliefs that the other person is bad, evil, horrible, a demon from Hell, etc.  Not many people on the planet are deserving of those labels.  You might try to question those beliefs and see the other person as merely a fallible human who may be driven by their own dysfunctional childhood, early experiences and irrational thoughts.   Maybe it is ok to let go of that.  He/she doesn’t need to be punished, admonished, shamed or compromised to learn their lesson. The other person doesn’t need to learn a lesson from your hand. 

The Court won’t help you punish your ex.  Almost never. The Court will only do what is in your child’s best interests: emotionally and physically.  That actually might go against your current interests, since you may not have been previously aware that the angry behavior is destructive to your child.  Don’t take the chance that the road you are on leads to a dark, sad place.  Forgiveness is a process that takes time, but it is also a decision you can make, and you can decide at least to begin that process.  Breathe, take another look at the bigger picture, or ask a neutral party or therapist to assist you with a mid-course evaluation of your approach to this entire difficult situation.  You used to love the other parent and you created a child or children together.  You owe it to your child to try to focus on the positives in both of you.  You used to have much in common, and you still do, since you have a child.  To do the important work of parenting that is ahead of you, you both would be well advised to try to begin to work together civilly and cooperatively.  You can’t do that if you loathe the other person.  Try to say in your mind that it’s ok for you to be where you are at in the present.  Don’t focus so much on what you lost although it is sad. Try not to perceive yourself as a victim of the other person any more. Let yourself live in the moment and look toward the future.  You will never win trying to get even.  

There is no winning in vengeance and malice. Everyone loses.  It is a destructive, dark force that harms you as well as those around you, especially the children.  Try a different approach.  You will also save a ton of money on your legal bills.  You will be freer, your kids will be happier, and you can get on with your life, unfettered by the yoke of chronic anger and victimhood.   You cannot control your ex’s feelings or behavior, and you cannot control your children's love,  but you can potentially control your own life course.  You also do not have to react to the ex’s agenda, nasty remarks, allegations, or put-downs.  Taking the high road is the usually the best road to be on with children in Family Court and in life generally.  Good luck.

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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