Monday, November 18, 2013

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

© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

 People get into a lot of trouble when they do not set proper boundaries.  Boundaries exist for just about every type of relationship.  To exist in a relationship without boundaries (it’s usually not “all or nothing”) is to become enmeshed, co-dependent, or to merge into the other person’s identity, or at the very least, to give up a certain amount of one’s own identity to the other.  In relationships, especially in bad marriages, we see this phenomenon frequently.  When a relationship begins to deteriorate, very often there is a period of time when either one or both parties goes into denial or simply does not “deal with it”.  “Dealing with it”, requires setting boundaries, perhaps confronting the other person, saying "no", and then applying reasonable consequences for boundary infractions.  The boundaries in this essay do not include work-place boundaries such as in sexual harassment, or bullying for example, which are subjects for another discussion.  The boundaries (or lack thereof) we speak of here are pertinent to divorce or other relationship dissolution, as well as in child custody matters.

Some Examples of Defective Boundaries that Cause Problems Seen in Family Court:

I.              Financial boundary issues:
One of the most frequent is when one spouse has a spending problem, buys things on a regular basis that the couple cannot afford, creates significant credit card debt, and creates a lifestyle that entails living beyond their means.  How can that happen? There are two people in this relationship.  Perhaps the spender is intimidating to the other party and a discussion would predictably end up with an argument, or worse: verbal or physical violence.  Someone who spends excessively, without the approval of the other party, may be doing it because it is a compulsive behavior, or out of hostility to the spender’s partner, or because the spender actually believes (or acts as if) there are funds with which to pay the credit card bills.  Some people must purchase things to help with their depression. Sometimes, preparatory to a divorce, a vindictive spouse may purposely run up a tab on a credit card, knowing in advance that the debt will have to be split in half at the time of the divorce.  Examples would include a spouse buying tons of clothing (or electronics, etc.)  from January to June and then filing a Divorce Complaint that September.  When discovery (court-ordered financial disclosure) starts coming in around November, surprise surprise: There is $7,000 (or $25,000 or more) of marital debt!  This is referred to as the intentional dissipation of marital assets.
What about the spouse who knows this is going on, however?  Right under his/her eyes.  I have seen this in divorcing couples where a spouse saw this happening and six years went by and nothing was really done about it.  That does not include the periodic nagging or criticism, such as “Honey why do you need that (item)?  Or “We can’t afford this, how are we going to pay for it?”  But nothing really is addressed therapeutically or in a way that will establish the marital boundaries.  Eventually that will lead to divorce or bankruptcy, or perhaps it is a symptom of an already damaged relationship going through its demise.  There is such a thing as peace and harmony in the home.  In Hebrew, it is called “Shalom bayit”.  It is a universal value, namely that you choose your battles and hopefully avoid criticism of your spouse/partner to avoid fighting, especially in front of the children, if any.  But peace and harmony can be very expensive if one of the parties is taking advantage of, or acting out against, the other.  I will never forget a case where arduous negotiations were taking place in the courthouse every day and we were haggling over the marital debt incurred on credit cards by the wife.  The husband was almost crying about the enormity of the debt and the wife’s lawyer told my client (the wife had stepped away), “Shame on you for allowing this to continue for years.  Now you have no right to complain, as if you didn’t know what was going on. You were part of this irresponsible behavior by letting it happen.”  Even her attorney was appalled.

II.            Interpersonal Boundaries and Walking on Egg Shells:
If you allow another person to abuse you and/or take advantage of you for whatever reason, you will have to live with the consequences and not complain later that you are a victim.  That applies in all interpersonal situations, whether financial or emotional.  People will treat you as you allow them to.  You set the rules; the other people/person acts accordingly.  Many people living with a difficult person fall into a pattern of avoiding confrontation, keeping their feelings to themselves, going along with someone else’s controlling behavior, etc.  We learn from example and sometimes will model our parent’s (or both parents’) acquiescent behavior.  It may come from low self esteem, a sense of worthlessness, inadequacy or fear (fear of being disliked, disapproved of, rejected, etc.).  When a person is imprisoned by the bonds of fear or acquiescence, it results in a denial of the self.  The self—one’s own identity, needs, desires, aspirations-- become subservient to another person and their demands.  It can become a lifelong pattern.  One can live an entire life, in this prison, denying the self, pleasing others, feeling victimized, overburdened and oppressed.  This is not only depressing, but unnecessary.  It is in violation of basic human rights.  But as was already said, you get treated as you allow others to treat you.  A person in a relationship cannot violate your rights without your participation.  But you may have known this would happen before you committed to this relationship, and you committed to it anyway.  
We often hear about a spouse with borderline personality disorder, which is sometimes loosely applied (like bi-polar disorder is used in name-calling) as a pejorative label by an angry spouse (as opposed to being properly diagnosed by a mental health professional).  This term is, however, often used to describe a spouse who is prone to explosive outbursts (a “rage-aholic”) or severe mood swings, among other things. Often the other spouse will tread carefully (walk on eggshells) to avoid triggering the explosive spouse.  This effectively allows the explosive spouse to control the acquiescent one for years, decades or for an entire marriage under this structure.  Unfortunately, this constitutes a lack of boundaries by both parties.  The aggressive spouse, by exercising dominance and control through intimidation or by the implied threat of an angry outburst, is overstepping appropriate boundaries.  The acquiescent spouse who keeps feelings hidden, has to “swallow” it, keep quiet and compromise their own interests by the failure to set appropriate boundaries.  The aggressive spouse blames, often plays the role of victim, takes no responsibility for his/her actions, is self-righteous (maybe narcissistic) and has little if any insight. That can be due to having a personality disorder, and this can be exacerbated by the acquiescent participation of the other spouse/partner.  The receiving partner typically feels unheard, invalidated, unappreciated and hopeless.  He or she may also feel inwardly angry or depressed (or alternating), be prone to psychosomatic illnesses or complaints, be prone to overeating, drinking or to the overuse or abuse of prescription medication to dull the pain of feeling helpless, hopeless and dis-empowered by the aggressive spouse/partner.
Boundary Issues Involving Children:
            A very destructive form of poor boundaries involves children.  When spouses or two unmarried parents are involved in the dissolution of their relationship, and there are issues over custody and visitation, it is important to insulate the children from the parents’ conflicts or litigation.  A boundary involves a rule:  I don’t go there.  This is not allowed.  It is against the rules.  It's my ex's parenting time, not mine.  Talking to children about the litigation is a boundary violation.  Confiding one’s feelings about the other parent to a child is a boundary violation.  All of these inappropriate boundary violations, among others, do untold damage to children.  In some cases, the children become alienated from one parent due to the actions of the other.  When alienation does not occur, the child at the very least will suffer emotionally.  This can take the form of conflicting loyalties, anxiety, guilt, depression and anger.  Children who are overly involved in their parents’ dissolution can be at higher risk for acting out behaviors (e.g. antisocial conduct, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, etc.).  Of course, much of this depends on the individual child’s pre-existing emotional strength or fortitude and many other factors related to the parents’ behavior, length of time the child is exposed to it, age of the child at onset, etc.  It is not a simple formula.  Sometimes, a distraught parent will cry to a child, lean on the child emotionally and confide too much personal information (TMI) to a child.  This child, depending on the age, can be placed into an inappropriate role vis-a-vis the parent, and can become a "therapist" for that upset parent.  This child, due to the lack of appropriate parent-child boundaries, becomes pressured to take care of the parent, feels guilty when the parent is upset, and gets overly involved in the dysfunctional relationship of the parents.
          Most people will agree that it is inappropriate and damaging to involve children in your marital or relationship dissolution.  This may take a lot of self control on the part of a parent who is very distraught, suffering, angry, etc.  Self control and boundaries go hand in hand. 

Pre-existing Tendencies:
Setting boundaries early in any relationship will establish the rules under which the relationship is based.  Assertive behavior does not mean being aggressive or hurtful of someone else's feelings.  It means that a person is able to comfortably express their needs in an appropriate way that does not entail an abuse of the other person.  But it clearly communicates one's wishes and feelings to the other.  It is the ability to calmly say no, or “I want…”.  It involves calculated risk-taking, and boundary-setting, risking the possibility that the other person may not like it or may not comply.   Just because you want something, does not mean that the other party must comply.  That also works both ways.  In a relationship, both parties are better off making some sacrifices for the benefit of the other, giving to the other, trying to attend to the other's feelings and desires.  A partner, however,  who is overly fearful of disapproval and rejection by others, may be generally unassertive and tend to avoid confrontation with others.  That ostensibly unassertive person may bring those patterns into the marriage/relationship and continue the same dysfunctional role they played prior to the relationship’s onset.  These patterns can be established in childhood and sometimes will be exacerbated in children of alcoholics or in children who were molested or were otherwise abused (physically or emotionally) in childhood.  Sometimes, people will unconsciously seek out a partner or spouse who is similar to their abusive or alcoholic parent.   Not all spouses who do not set boundaries are unassertive in all of their relationships.  It may be situation-specific with only that one person (who may evoke real fear).  A person can be assertive at work and intimidated at home, for example.  That is really a therapy issue.  To develop healthy boundaries, one needs motivation, hard work and a willingness to develop insight and courage to change old, dysfunctional and self destructive patterns. When  you expect others to respect you and to treat you in a healthy way, you respect yourself and enhance your self esteem.  This can only benefit you and your children.  
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © 2013 by  Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
Please note, this blog is for information purposes only and should not be relied upon or taken to be legal or psychological advice nor does it 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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Tweet Me:  @jdgordonlaw
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Deciding Whether or Not to Litigate in Family Court-

"The Equation"

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

"The Equation"
© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

          When trying to make decisions in the Family Court arena, it is good to ask one’s self several questions prior to choosing a course of action. Sometimes decisions are thrust upon you. There is not much choice. For example: You receive a notice from Court that an application for relief was made and you are summoned to Court for a hearing or arguments on a particular issue. Even in that scenario, however, you are not a total victim of the other party. There might be several options available to you. The option not to show up, however, is not one of them because you then can default and the Court will issue an order you won’t like. If you don’t show up, the other party can often have granted all of the relief they sought (within reason).

You can try to mediate the disputed issues. You might be willing to concede on a point that is not that crucial to you. You may decide that it would be better on many levels to just give in on this particular battle, depending on what it is. These should be discussed with a competent attorney who can advise you as to the pros and cons of those options. You should not only listen to your attorney, but to your own gut feelings. It is your life and no one else can live it for you. Your attorney is there to advise you. He or she is not your parent. Whether or not you take the advice is under your control. If you are unsure, see another attorney for a consultation to get another perspective. Your friends and relatives are biased and often will not give you sound advice. They may simply egg you on, without adequate knowledge of your case and without any knowledge of the Law. Ultimately, however, you are the only one who can decide your own course of action. Doing nothing is also a decision, and that too, has consequences—not all of them good ones.

Your adversary (spouse, ex spouse, or partner, etc.) may have done something that angered you or frustrated you. There may be a lack of cooperation, control issues, dominance over the children, failure to keep promises, failure to comply with prior agreements and orders, failure to pay child support on time, problematic parenting time issues, and on and on. These unfortunate interactions, failures to cooperate, failures to adequately co-parent, irrational competition for the affections of the children, etc., are a continuation of the previous dysfunctional interactions that characterized the marriage (or at least the end of it). Perhaps these ongoing failures to cooperate, competitiveness and passive-aggressive behavior (e.g. sabotages) represent an inability to let go of the other party; an inability to fully“break up” with that person. Accordingly, the “hanger-on” has a need to continue the contact, the relationship, the interactions—albeit dysfunctional and unpleasant ones. Continuing the marital drama is not in your best interests. How much of that you want to participate in is, at least partially, under your control. But let’s first look at it from the equation of the aggressor, if you will.

The Chronically Angry Litigant:

If you are filled with resentment, anger or even hatred, and you can afford it, you have the choice to fight with your adversary via litigation. Although you may indeed have a legitimate cause of action such as your adversary’s failures to cooperate, failure to pay Court-ordered support, etc., then you might have to file an application in court. But that is not necessary fueled by destructive anger. It should be a rational, well thought-out decision. There is quite a difference between the litigant who initiates an action and who is resigned to the necessity to do so, and the angry litigant who wants to beat up the other party via court. The latter person often threatens taking the other person to court, “going after” that person in court, having their lawyer“drag” the other party through endless litigation, etc. You’ve heard these phrases and terminology: “drag”,“going after someone”, taking so-and-so “to the cleaners”, etc. I previously mentioned the common fantasy that “if only I can tell my story to the Judge, she/he will understand. . .” This fantasy is irrational and based on a person’s self-righteous sense of victimhood and indignation. Most of the time, the Judge won’t be impressed by that person’s story. Sometimes, maybe, but most of the time, there is a story from the other litigant as well. Your story, argued by your lawyer in a motion hearing, is not sworn testimony, and there probably is no corroborative evidence to back up your story. The Judge is not your friend who will sympathize and believe everything you say. If you want to roll the dice and take the chance that you will prevail in court, you can do so, but this course of action should be well thought out and a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted. What costs do I need to expend on this course of action, and what is the likelihood that I will succeed? Am I willing to risk losing the money spent on legal fees with no guarantee of a successful outcome? Maybe yes, maybe no. Your righteous indignation, anger and sense of victimhood is not part of the equation, although you may feel motivated to act, based on those feelings. If you act primarily based on your emotions, anger, hatred, sense of victimhood, you are taking a very big gamble with your time, money and status. Angry, self righteous people tend to be overly optimistic that they will prevail. Your estimation of the probability of success will be inflated. This is huge. I do not know the statistics (and this would be a good research project), but based on experience in Court, I do not see that there is a strong correlation between the degree of anger or sense of victimhood with a positive outcome for that person in Family Court. The one possible exception to this is in Domestic violence actions, where one of the actors was actually victimized by the other, it’s not fabricated, and he or she is justifiably angry. A black eye is a black eye. (But you don't want to get one in Court.) In divorce, child custody and parenting time disputes, however, there is less of a correlation and more risk of failure in Court. I see so many people leaving Court devastated and crying because the anticipated outcome they expected did not occur. The judge may have been dismissive and fairly unsympathetic to the client’s story (which costs a small fortune in legal fees to prepare and submit to the court. An attorney should go through this with a client ahead of time, should discuss the costs and possible realistic benefits of litigation vs. settlement so that the client can make informed business decisions as to how the legal fees will be spent. Finally, you cannot simply go back to court over and over again with trivial or nonexistent claims. This can be deemed to be harassment via litigation, an abuse of the process, and possibly frivolous litigation. If the Judge agrees that your application is frivolous and brought in bad faith, you can be liable for the legal fees of the other party. So your cause must be brought in good faith and represent a real issue appropriate for the Court.

The Decision Tree in the “Equation”:

It is the client’s responsibility to construct the equation with the attorney. Ultimately, as I said previously, the decision is the client’s. It is your life and no one else can live your life for you. You are responsible for what you decide to do, just as you are responsible for having previously linked up with your ex partner. Most decisions have consequences. You might be paying now for the earlier decision to choose your partner (who is now your adversary). But you can try to cut your losses in the present by making better decisions and choices so that you can move on with your life in a healthy manner. Here are some essential elements you might want to consider in your decision making. There may be overlap in the columns below, but these concepts represent basic thoughts you should entertain before embarking on litigation (unless obviously and truly emergent):

     Identify the                                Facts and                                                Problems to overcome:
       Scenario:                           Basic Principles:                           Arguments pro/con:Decision Making:
Emergency (e.g. refusal to return a child after parenting time; refusal to hand over a child’s  passport prior to other parent’s vacation, etc.).

Your being very upset is not—in and of itself--an emergency if there is no imminent, irreparable harm to persons or to property.
Usual definition of emergency involves a showing of imminent, irreparable harm. If a true emergency, the likelihood of success is better. If child abuse, call your child protective services agency or police immediately. If you are a victim of domestic violence, call your local police or visit your court’s domestic violence office.
Your definition of emergency may be very different from the Court’s.  Check with your lawyer as to the legal definition and criteria. Here, the emergency may compel that you respond and take precedence over any anticipated costs. Sometimes problems come to your front door, like it or not. Is there any possibility of getting relief without court action?
If the legal criteria are satisfied, likelihood for success is good. In many cases, such as in issues directly affecting children, or danger to any person, you should act swiftly or face criticism yourself for doing nothing.  If it an emergency regarding dissipation of marital assets, your failure to act quickly may cause you a financial loss.
Financial Issues (e.g. litigation over child support, spousal support, court ordered or agreed-upon reimbursement for expenses (e.g. college costs, extracurricular expenses, medical expenses, child care, etc.)
How much do you seek? Are you already entitled to this money by court order? Why wasn’t it paid?  Is there a plausibly good reason (extenuating circumstances) the other party didn’t pay you?

Is there a factual dispute over the issues? (If so, there will be a trial on those issues).  With conflicting factual arguments by both sides, the Judge may need to conduct a trial with testimony and evidence to make findings before rendering a decision.

Is an existing order in place and is the other party clearly in violation of that order? Can you show that clearly with your exhibits attached to a motion, clearly showing that you are owed a specific amount of money.
Do the arrears exceed the expected legal costs?  Have you tried speaking with the obligor or tried mediation?  Do you have paid receipts for reimbursement? Do you have clean hands and have you complied fully with your obligations? Did you submit the receipts (if required) within the time limits (if any)? What are the arguments against you getting paid? On what basis  (if any) could your adversary argue that paying you would be unfair or not required under the current circumstances?

Paying in cash and relying on verbal agreements is foolish.  You need everything in writing and should pay by check so you have a record of everything.  People lie in Family Court and often deny that the verbal agreements and cash payments ever happened.
If the money was previously ordered and not paid, and the amount is mounting and already significantly exceeds expected legal fees, it may be worth pursuing. Don’t wait years to seek reimbursement or you may lose it. A ­lot of time passed can be considered to be your waiver of getting these funds.  Prepare a list of your adversary’s expected arguments against you even if you disagree.

In pre-divorce settlement negotiations: balance the cost of attorney time vs. the amount or item you seek (e.g. spending $2,000 on joint legal fees  to obtain a $1,500 benefit).

Are you willing to risk the costs of litigation against the possibility you will not get the relief you seek? Sometimes it is a toss of the dice. Weigh the odds of success first.
Child Custody: Legal custody differs from primary residential custody in many states.  You can potentially  have joint legal custody and be primary parent of residence (PPR). Ask your lawyer about this and what are your obligations if joint legal.
Getting sole custody is rare. 

Some scenarios:

(a) You seek
 sole (legal and residential) custody:  
You will generally NOT succeed unless the other parent is an unstable addict, alcoholic, criminal, mentally ill, abusive, missing, or significantly neglectful of the child’s needs.

(b) You seek  
to be PPR.  Ask your attorney for your State’s criteria to be PPR.

(c) You want to
 Expand your current parenting time (visitation). 

     (d) You want to move out of State with or without the child.  Need custody and/or  parenting time to be changed.

     (e) Are there  issues of child abuse, neglect, substance  abuse or alcoholism in the other parent (old issue, or new relapse, etc.)?
Are you prepared to pay-in addition to legal costs of a likely custody trial: the costs of psychological evaluations ($5-10,000), depositions of the expert(s).  A custody trial can cost anywhere from $25-$50,000 or significantly more.

Is the current PPR uncooperative, sabotaging your parenting time, actively alienating the children, not taking care of them, being abusive, neglectful, etc.? 

Are you looking for more overnights with your child to reduce your child support?  Because you are angry at the other parent?  Because you are in competition with the other parent?  To punish the other parent?  OR:
Because you already have a fairly close relationship with your child, you are involved in the life of your child, and you honestly want to spend more time with your child because you love your child and want to be closer?

Important: Are you available to handle the duties that come along with more time with young children (e.g. preparing dinners, taking child to activities, pick up at bus stop, etc.). Is the other parent trying to alienate the child from you (really)?  What arguments will the other parent make against you having more time?

What is your definition of parental alienation? The other parent spending lavishly on the children and not setting the same limits with them that you set, is likely not parental alienation although the child may prefer the more permissive, gift-giving parent.  Discuss with your lawyer.
Very clearly identify your motives.  Talk frankly with your lawyer and perhaps see a therapist to get feedback as to why you are going down this road, and the possible bad effects on you and on the children. Weigh this against the likelihood of a beneficial result.

Count how much money you have to spend on this, or how much money you can raise from friends, relatives or via a home equity loan, etc.  Custody litigation is extremely expensive because it almost always leads to trial, requires experts, and often depositions. 

Consider that the Judge may need to interview your child, possibly in chambers, but recorded.  A transcript will be made of the interview.  You may or may not want to go that route and you may not want to see what is on that transcript.

If parental alienation is ongoing, you may not have much choice, except perhaps to wait until the child is an adult and hope for the best later.  There is no guarantee that litigation over alleged parental alienation will result in the outcome you desire.  You may also have to hire expert(s) in parental alienation in addition to the local expert who does the psychological evaluation.

Your credibility is important.  Don’t tell the judge that the other parent is a terrible parent when you relied on that parent for child care for years previously, or that the other parent is a drunk.  The question you will be asked is why you left the children in the care of a drunk.  Discuss with your attorney.  Your facts may be complex.

So perhaps the decision to litigate equation could be conceptualized this way:

Litigate (L) = How Compelling (C factor): (scale of 1-10) +  legal fees-costs
                                                                                               available funds (F factor)
 X        probability of success (S factor)

L = C + F  x  S

          What about doing nothing?  The most important question is whether you will get to the same desired result (or close to it) if you do nothing, or settle on a compromise position.  Imagine how frustrated you would be after spending a small fortune and litigating for months, only to get whatever could have been obtained by settlement negotiations anyway.  You are in the same place you would have been in anyway, but you are much poorer and possibly beaten up emotionally.  Or you could get a home run, who knows?  

          Your estimate of the likelihood for success should be based on what does the Law provide, what are the facts of the two relative positions of the parties, what is the need or necessity for relief, and if you have the emotional and financial wherewithal to go through the litigation process.  Home runs in Family Court are very rare. Most of the time, the outcome represents a Judicially-imposed compromise between the two positions.  Often, both parties get something they want while both parties also get disappointed in some way. Settlements will be similar, but without the high costs of litigation in Court.  There is no substitute for competent legal advice.  Depending on the circumstances, it may also be advisable to get a reality check-up from a therapist to help you to obtain some insight into your subconscious motives.   As was already said, sometimes troubles will come to you and there is little choice but to respond.  But deciding when and how to respond should  be done after using a cost  vs. benefit equation to see if it is worth going through the difficult process of litigation in Family Court.
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

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

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Family Court Destroyer-False Accusations

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
The Family Court Destroyer-False Accusations
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

Important Disclaimer:  Please note that for the purposes of this discussion, I am absolutely not negating all of the legitimate complaints people make regarding spousal abuse or child abuse.  When it is real, it is real.  This discussion is only related to when people make up false accusations to destroy another person. Even if it is real most of the time, when it is false, it is still very destructive, nevertheless.
What should you do when someone is trying to destroy you in Family Court?  There are many different scenarios and motivations.  The emotional and financial effects can be the same in each.  I tend to get referrals for very high conflict cases because I am also a Psychologist besides being an attorney.  The high conflict is often about children:  child custody and parenting time (visitation) disputes, parental alienation, relocation out of state with children, choice of religion and religious education disputes, to name a few.  These can be in the context of divorce as well as in unmarried couples with children.  Regarding the latter, I have found that this is more difficult than in divorce because the couple often splits up long before one of them goes to court for relief.  In a traditional divorce, the parenting time plan is often carved out in the process of the divorce process under the court’s scrutiny and deadlines.  Unmarried couples who split and have children often (but not always) have informal methods, or no methods to deal with their children until they go to court and get a court order, if they need one at all.  I will talk about this in more detail later.  In contrast, some amicably divorcing couples may carve out a detailed parenting time schedule at the divorce but create another informal system later that works for both of them and for the children. 
            Besides child custody disputes, there are high conflict divorces where one person may try to destroy the other financially.  The more powerful (often the sole or primary wage earner) party in the divorce may—if playing the role of destroyer—hide assets, lie about his or her financial ability, dissipate assets (e.g. by running up a credit card bill for a couple years or months prior to the commencement of the divorce), put away joint income or savings gradually in the form of cash hidden in a vault someplace, or give money to a sibling or friend to hold, title property in the name of others (e.g. siblings, parent, etc.), stop paying the mortgage, go into foreclosure, file bankruptcy, etc.    And the list can go on and on.  There are books written about finding hidden assets for the purposes of getting adequate alimony and child support.  But the assets often remain hidden nevertheless, often to the extreme detriment of the children and the former spouse.  There are many ingenious and creative methods that people devise to deprive their spouse or child of support to which they are entitled.  In almost all cases, the actor justifies their actions because of their anger and feelings of victimhood by the other.  In some cases, it can simply be selfishness and narcissism as the depriving party wants as much comfort and spending ability as possible, regardless of the cost to another person.  Sometimes divorce brings out the worst in people.
Hatred can drive a person to act very badly.  In a chronically narcissistic person who has always been like that, it is unlikely that there will be much hesitation to take what he/she wants and leave the other person to fend for themselves.  There is no empathy, no compassion.  There likely never was.   So this is nothing new in the parties’ dynamics and is likely an underpinning of why they broke up in the first place.  Indifference, lack of empathy and selfishness can help an angry person justify malicious behavior and vindictiveness.  Vengeance and rage is destructive and the destroyer can self-justify any type of bad behavior.  Someone who lacks empathy, who is selfish and indifferent to others will do what they can for their own comfort and advantage.  Someone who is vengeful and malicious will go out of their way to hurt another person with whom they are angry, sometimes just to get even.  Not all angry people are vengeful or malicious, however.  Anger is a normal emotion.  When it goes out of control, beyond acceptable limits, however, it is dysfunctional and sometimes dangerous.  It is also self defeating and often self destructive.
            A destroyer can be motivated by feelings or abandonment and betrayal, as I spoke about previously.  Reactive Narcissistic Behavior (RNB) is all about that.  That person has acute tunnel vision caused by their perception of having been victimized by the other person.  This causes rage and vindictive behavior, regardless of the consequences to others, especially children.  I have seen numerous domestic violence complaints like this.  When the parties should have—and could have--just gone their separate ways, one or both of them could not peacefully do so.  Instead, perhaps one party threatens the other, assaults the other, posts photos or private information on Facebook, shows up at a new girlfriend or boyfriend’s residence to confront that person or the old partner, etc.  People damage their ex’s cars, throw rocks through windows, and tell lies about that person (or expose intimacies), either on Facebook, to other friends, or in Court. 
Lies are truly horrible methods.  When a person throws a rock through a window, you can always replace the window.  The listener in Court, perhaps a Judge however, does not initially know if an allegation really happened or not.  Outsiders (usually not Judges) most often assume an allegation is true until proven false.  Sometimes, however, even a judge will tend to believe an allegation if it is disturbing enough and if represented sincerely and passionately in court.  You see that when a judge reacts emotionally to an allegation and when there is no readily available proof that the allegation is a lie, especially regarding children.  Most judges, however, will be tentative and will want proof or documentation that the allegation really happened.  With false allegations of sexual abuse, most people will be perceived as guilty until proven innocent, and even then, there is always a lingering doubt in others.   A destroyer will lie for revenge.  That person will invent new realities for the Court to hear.  It is akin to terrorism in the court since generally the purpose of terrorism is to destabilize, surprise, cause chaos and anxiety in others and to disrupt normal routines and economies.      
People often lie in Family Court.  Perjury is sadly commonplace and sometimes hard to identify.  Of course, it is not condoned and if a Judge finds out they were lied to, the liar had better watch out.  That person will have zero credibility from that point onward.  People sometimes lie about being assaulted or threatened.  Sometimes a person will invent a false accusation of assault or terroristic threats (domestic violence) or child abuse or neglect against the other party.  They lie about statements the other parent allegedly said to a child during their parenting time.  They lie about what time the other parent showed up to pick up a child, they lie about a parent not being able to adequately care for a child.  The list is endless, but there are recurring, common themes: fiscal irresponsibility (e.g. spouse overcharging on credit), child abuse and neglect, spousal abuse, the other spouse’s supposed addiction to illicit substances, alcohol or pornography or other dysfunctional sexual practices or demands. 
Sometimes a person will convince themselves of their own fiction and act (and feel) as if it really is true.  Some people with severe emotional distress or with underlying personality disorders often distort reality and perceive things differently from the way they really are.  They routinely distort reality, see things as they aren’t, and believe with all sincerity that it happened that way. One common example is the belief that the other parent is not capable of safely and independently parenting their child.   People are capable of distorting reality to meet their emotional needs.   In extreme cases, such as in paranoia, some people can actually be delusional with regard to believing that someone else is trying to hurt them (or their child).  A truly delusional person has a thought disorder, a serious psychiatric problem that requires medication or at the very least--intensive psychotherapy.  A person who distorts reality under stressful circumstances, such as in a divorce, may sincerely believe their perception, but it falls short of being a delusion.  There is a qualitative difference between being delusional and distorting reality under stressful circumstances.  The bottom line is that someone with great rage who feels vengeful, can consciously or unconsciously talk themselves into a justification for their bad, destructive behavior.    That is the narcissistic tunnel vision that I frequently speak about.  Unfortunately people who are like this, can do a lot of damage to others, including children.  An easier way to understand example of this twisting of reality is when a person doesn’t want to go to work on a particular day.  They get themselves so worked up before calling the boss, that they convince themselves that they don’t feel well.  A person can develop a stomach ache, headache or feel dizzy under these circumstances—until the phone call is made, of course.  Then they have a miraculous recovery.  In child custody disputes, when a misguided parent begins waging an unnecessary and unjustified war against the other parent, either they don’t care or they have no insight into what they are doing.  And the damage to the children and to the other spouse is the same, regardless.  Most of these wars are misguided and unnecessary.  But they happen nevertheless.
A judge tries to assess credibility while hearing the arguments of the attorneys and listening to testimony of the parties in court.  The lies and distortions are paraded in front of the judge and the judge knows that someone is lying.  It is more difficult to discern who it is, however.  Lying through tears with the utmost sincerity can make a damaging impact and then it will (often unfairly) be the other person’s burden to show that the accuser was lying.  It shouldn’t be that way, but it is the reality in this context.  
In family court, one is often tentatively guilty until proven innocent in some subject areas.  This includes being accused of sexual molestation, domestic violence, seriously poor or irresponsible parenting and neglect, to name a few.  A judge who hears very serious accusations impacting the safety of a child is put into the position of having to act immediately to protect the child until the accusations are proven or disproven.   Having a shred of confirmatory evidence can clinch the decision against that parent.  That “shred” of evidence can be finding porn on the computer, a previous DUI arrest or psychiatric treatment, even years ago, etc.  The judge has to err on the side of caution to protect a child.  In a case alleging that the child may be at risk, a false accusation can result in a parent having their parenting time suspended with visits having to be supervised until all of the forensic assessments are completed. Child protective services may be called in to investigate.  In that case, the investigator will interview the children, the pediatrician and the school staff.   Imagine the damage a false accusation does to a child, and to the parent-child relationship when the accusation is malicious and false.  It comes with the humiliation of people, based on a false allegation, asking others if they have reason to believe that child abuse or neglect has occurred.  It does happen, and when it does, it is devastating.  Of course, at other times when the accusation is true, it is the wrongdoer’s direct actions against the child that does the damage and the allegation against that parent can save the child’s life! 
It would be nice to say that justice and fairness are always accomplished, but sadly they are not, always.  Not meaning to be discouraging, it is important however to understand that if there is enough intelligence, skill, cunning, money and determination in the vengeful person, serious damage can result.  On the other hand, the vengeful spouse can be discovered and identified by the Judge and by the forensic psychologists, and that person is then put in check by the Court.  Sometimes it may be necessary to make a business decision to determine if you seriously want to wage this battle, depending on what is at stake.  In the financial arena, you may be about to embark on thirty thousand or more dollars worth of litigation (a trial over a dispute of fact—he said vs. she said) which can be waged over a potential outcome worth half of that or less.  You may never be able to find that cash that you think is in the unknown safety deposit box.  Sometimes it will make more sense to negotiate a settlement of those issues since you will end up saving money in the long run. 
Financially, and practically, it is almost always better to settle a dispute than to litigate it.   The difficult part of this is the emotional.  Watching your ex (or future ex) smirking at you after signing such an agreement (favorable to the other spouse) can be very painful for some.  Litigating just to wipe that smirk off of the other person’s face is common, but irrational and self-defeating.  That’s tunnel vision.  You lose your money fighting in a senseless power struggle for a small pot at the end of that imagined rainbow.  There is a net loss, rather than a gain.  You can also win a battle but lose the war in the big financial picture.  Sometimes it is better to save the money you know you is guaranteed (e.g. equitable distribution), rather than to gamble on getting a home run in your legal battles.  Very often the other party is more well-equipped then you to litigate without too much financial pain because they earn more, have more stashed away, or have wealthy (vindictive) relatives who are funding their litigation.  While that is not fair, consider that the financial ability and the desire to litigate, plus anger, is a very bad combination, and that can and will be used against you in Court. 
When it comes to children, it is unusual for a parent to walk away from the litigation, and it is often impossible or extremely difficult for a person to do so.  Walking away from the litigation often means walking away from the children, walking away from precious days or hours of parenting time, walking away from what is most important to you.   While I am not suggesting that you do this, the point here is that the vengeful, malicious person in a high conflict custody or parenting time dispute can do damage to you, to your children, and to your relationship with the children.  Even when you can prevail in the litigation, often it is after many weeks or months of forensic assessments, taking your kids to a psychologist to be evaluated, having the parents and siblings evaluated, rendering and analyzing expert reports, attending depositions, and eventually going through the trial.  By the time that half year (or longer) passes, everyone is stressed out and certainly not enjoying life to its fullest.  The saddest part is that the children are suffering.  They are well aware of their parents fighting over them and they are anxious, nervous, conflicted, feeling guilty, confused, angry and depressed to name a few.  These children often develop behavioral problems, become aggressive or depressed, and their school performance suffers.  Over a period of years, the damage can be irreparable.
The destroyer-parent wants to marginalize or eliminate the other parent as a parent.  The destroying parent makes malicious remarks to the children about the other.   For example, there are cases where a parent tells the children, that their other parent is an idiot, a bad parent, and unnecessary in the household.  Besides telling children insulting things about their other parent, some destroyers make up fictional events designed to create anger in the child.  Imagine how a child feels, being told that it is their other parent’s fault that they did not go on a particular vacation, did not get the sneakers they wanted, did not get to go on the school trip, etc.  It is not hard to imbue resentment in a child against the other parent, especially if the child is young.  Unfortunately the alienating parent doesn’t care much about the effect this has on the children; it is all about power and winning.  It is about control over the other (hated) spouse, and about domination and vengeance.  It is sick.  It is also a form of child abuse to manipulate information and emotions to alienate a child from their parent.   It is a form of terrorism and child abuse and does great damage to children.   
What should you do if you are embroiled in this type of scenario?  Try to:
• Remain focused and centered on your long term goals.  If you are not sure about what your goals are, this is the time to define or re-define what they are.  You cannot just be randomly reactive to the attacks of your adversary, bouncing around like a cork on their ocean.  You need direction, goals, a course of action.
• Make sure you have realistic goals.  Ask your attorney if your goals are readily attainable and what the odds of success are.  Perform a risk-benefit analysis. Risks and costs include the loss or expenditure of money as well as the emotional toll on you and your children.
• Try not to let the other party push your buttons so much that you react emotionally or impulsively.  Re-think your initial decisions, impulses and inclinations.  Get feedback from others who will not simply egg you on, but who will give you intelligent and fairly objective advice, even if it’s not what you want to hear.  If necessary, get a consultation with another family law attorney just to make sure your attorney is on the right course.  Be a little skeptical, however, regarding the information you receive.  It is very easy to criticize someone’s attorney from the outside, especially if that consultant might stand to gain a client in the process.  Ask specific, pointed questions regarding strategy and possible outcomes.  You want to know all of the possible scenarios so that you can make an informed decision.
• Ask for help or advice from a therapist, clergy, or a trusted, intelligent friend.
• Don’t let the court battles define you.  Continue to pursue all of your other goals so that you have a life outside of the courtroom.  Make sure your job is secure, that you perform your job in a satisfactory manner, and that you are centered and functional.  If you are working, you must not let your job performance suffer.  If you do not work, try to find a job and throw yourself into your job search.  Keep proof of your applications (and rejection letters) in case you later need that proof for the Court (showing that you are making an effort).
• Get organized, watch your diet and your alcohol intake; maintain structure in your life.  Get rid of clutter in your home.  Continue to maintain social contacts and maintain your grooming and hygiene.  In other words, don’t let yourself be destroyed or deteriorate simply because your spouse or partner wants to destroy you.  Refuse to be knocked off balance, no matter what, even if it takes effort.  Do things one step at a time and ask for help when you need it.  Try to keep balance in your life.  Do not post information about your legal problems on FaceBook or other social media sites.  Do not send angry emails or texts. They will all be printed out and brought to Court to show the Judge.  In some cases, what you post on the Internet, text or say on the phone can be considered to be a form of harassment and possibly domestic violence. 
• Set realistic limits.  There is only so much you can do, only so much power you realistically have, only so much energy, only so much money to be spent, etc.  Understand the reality of your limitations, and you might need to resign yourself to getting less (from Court) than you expected.  Survival with stability is sometimes a good goal when home runs just don’t exist. 
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2013

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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