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)
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.
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.
Web Site: www.jdgordonlaw.com
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