Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Losing Control and Getting it Back

In Family Court

 © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015

Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
     Psychologically speaking, we often deal with dynamics of control, power, victimization and victim-hood in Family Court litigation.  For example, in domestic violence proceedings, we hear about domination and control wielded by an abuser over the victim in a relationship.  It is very difficult for someone, abused and controlled by an authoritarian, abusive partner, to break out of that pattern.  When that happens, it is often after a violent upheaval, or other cathartic event that takes place between the two.  An abusive partner (can be spouse, non-spouse, he, she, etc.) is often very controlling of the other person, using the victim’s fear, or enforcing the tight control of information (e.g. finances, income, expenses, etc.) as weapons against the victim or weaker party in that relationship.  In many cases, Police and Court intervention, a resulting restraining order, separation, divorce, supportive and interventional therapy and a termination of the abusive relationship will be essential for the victim to take control of their life, perhaps for the first time. 
     The control of knowledge makes for a gross imbalance of power between two people in a relationship.  If a divorcing spouse has no idea how much income the other makes, where the money goes, how much is spent, how much cash is in the bank, etc., then that spouse is at a disadvantage.  Some sneaky spouses, planning a divorce without telling their mate, may move money around, hide assets, try to make it look like they earn less than they do, and set up bank accounts in their own name or in a relative’s name, to build their own war chest or secret nest egg for a subsequent life after marriage.  In divorce, there is a discovery process, meaning that each party must divulge all of their assets and expenses, debts, property, etc. and certify to the Court that it is true, complete and accurate (under penalty of perjury).  If an account is purposely left out of the list, the Court will be prone to look at this as an attempt to defraud the Court, with potentially very negative consequences. 
     Another control issue intrinsic to Family Court actions is related to children: custody and parenting time.  A malicious custodial (residential) parent who wants to sabotage the other parent’s time with the children can do so.  A malicious non-custodial parent can also control time by showing up late with the child, among other things.  But such actions are at the peril of the sabotaging parent.  Examples of wrongful control of parenting time may include such items as scheduling a doctor’s appointment during the other parent’s time, signing up a child for ballet lessons that coincide with the other parent’s time, etc.  
     Attempts to control the affections of the child are not unusual, but they are very destructive to the child.  For example, a parent can disparage the other parent to the child, or in front of the child.  The worst form of this may include a parent who files false allegations of abuse against the other parent to gain some advantage either in Court or in parenting time.  A parent can also spend a ton of money on a child to compete with the other spouse (who is usually not in a position to compete equally) to be the “favorite” parent.  The other parent cannot control where the other parent takes the child (e.g. Disney World, cruises, etc.).  The more affluent parent, even if not the primary residential custodian, has the control of choice vacations, expensive presents, pets, expensive electronic devices, etc.  Access to money affords more control in many cases, if not all. But later on, the child resents it and is well aware of the manipulation.
     Substance abuse, alcoholism and serious mental health issues are dealt with in Family Court as well, especially when it involves spousal abuse or affects children.  One can superficially conceptualize substance abuse and alcohol abuse to be failures of self-control and good judgment.  Self-sabotaging behavior can be seen as relinquishing control of one’s future, one’s success, over one’s relationships, etc.  It is a passive relinquishment of control, perhaps due to a fear of failure, expectation of failure due to low self-esteem, and a habitual approach of relinquishing personal responsibility.  It is easier for some to play the victim role and to blame another, than to assume personal responsibility and to take the wheel on their own personal road to potential success.
     Whenever there is litigation in Family Court, whether in child custody and parenting time disputes, or in domestic violence, child abuse, or in high conflict divorces, there are usually issues of control, or the loss of control.  Court is the ultimate control.  Judges often tell litigants for example, that if they cannot figure out or agree on what is good for their child, that the Judge will do it for them, telling the parents that it is preferable for the parents to make these decisions rather than “a stranger in black robes” doing it for them.  But it is the Court’s role to take control when it is appropriate and necessary to do so, issuing orders that must be complied with.  A restraining order is an example of a complete reversal of the power dynamics, with the formerly controlling abuser now being restrained, controlled, kicked out of the residence, given strict parenting times, being forced to send support checks, or having bank accounts frozen by the Court.  Karma!
     Police exist to protect the public, partially (among other things) by taking control of situations that are out-of-control. There, the ultimate control is arrest and incarceration.  The mental health system also can assume control, perhaps by having a patient who is dangerous to themselves or others involuntarily committed as an in-patient until control and safety are re-established (perhaps with the assistance of medications). 
In acrimonious divorces, the Court attempts, through the implementation of its control, to level the playing field between two spouses, to ensure fairness, to make sure that no one is victimized by the other.  That can entail freezing accounts, or generating orders to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees, and other expenses.  Obviously it is better for two people to operate in good faith with each other before it comes to this, but if they got along so well, perhaps they would not be getting divorced in the first place.
      In child abuse and neglect proceedings, the paramount concern for the Court is the safety of the child.  That is one type of Family Court proceeding that is marked by a great amount of control, necessarily imposed upon the parent(s) to ensure no further incidents of abuse or neglect take place.  There, the Court acts in the place of the parent and in extreme cases, the Court can suspend all parenting time, order supervised parenting time, or terminate parental rights and have a child adopted by a foster parent.  That is total control. In that setting, the parents lost their parental control as a result of their own actions.  Clearly, when a parent (noun) cannot parent (verb), a Court will take over the control by ordering various therapeutic services such as anger management, parenting skills classes, substance abuse treatment, psychotherapy, etc.  Ultimately, that will be to the benefit of the parent and hopefully to the child.  The only way for this parent to take back control is to comply fully with the Court Orders in good faith.
     Taking personal responsibility is the first step.  Then, a person can begin to do whatever is necessary to improve, become stronger, acquiring better insight, improved judgment and better self esteem.  The goal should include leaving victimhood and blame behind, becoming more mature and stronger from the inside out.  The more a person relinquishes control, gives their life over to others (to control for them), to substances, to the Courts, or even to their children (who learn to control their own parents), then the more difficult it will be to break those patterns.  Looking to others to fix things is a short term, stop-gap measure, but depending on others to fix your life is a dangerous tightrope since there is always a great price to pay.  A person needs their own center of gravity, their own vision for the future, and a feeling of self-efficacy, independent of everyone else, while still being in concert with the world (as opposed to being “anti-social”).  Making good choices is the first step toward this end, even if they are small good choices, one step at a time.

Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
Copyright © Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2015
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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