Can We Afford High Conflict Divorces in 2009?

© 2008 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

According to news reports, on December 24, 2008, Bruce Pardo dressed up as Santa Claus and killed his soon-to-be ex-wife, her parents, and six other people at her parents’ home outside of Los Angeles while they were enjoying a Christmas family gathering, then killed himself. A week earlier, Pardo and his wife were at court where they signed a court-form settlement agreement, which included terms that he pay her $10,000 the next day. Apparently he was unemployed since July 2008, was desperately seeking work, and had difficulty making spousal support payments (although they were waived in the final lump sum settlement). His neighbors, a new girlfriend, and members of his church reported that he was a friendly, cheerful man. However, the divorce was described as bitter. She got the dog he loved and the wedding ring he wanted back.

Most divorces don’t end this way. But in 2006, a survey of 131 family law attorneys in San Diego County showed that during their careers approximately half experienced having a client or opposing party seriously injured or killed. And in 2003, a few blocks from my home, a father killed his 14-year-old son and then himself, after being served with a restraining order after many years of an acrimonious custody dispute. He was also unemployed for much of the previous year.

In 2009, I am concerned that we are facing many stressors as a society: growing unemployment, growing home foreclosures, many troops returning from overseas with post-traumatic stress disorder, and more high conflict divorces. What is to be done?

This past year I attended a seminar on preventing youth mass murder, such as school shootings, shopping malls, etc. The presenter, James Garbardino, made a very powerful statement. He said that they can’t predict exactly who will commit a mass murder, but they have identified several factors that place a youth at high risk. Perhaps the key factor is whether there is at least one adult in the youth’s life who really cares about him – has a secure bond with him. This is a highly protective factor even for those who have many other risk factors. Having someone with a secure bond really seems to matter.

When people go through a divorce, some lose the most secure bond that they ever had – especially if they had an insecure childhood. This is no small event, even if it can be summed up in brief court papers to sound like a minor event. Add to that: loss of close contact with children and important relatives, loss of your income, loss of your house, and even loss of a beloved pet. Who can you turn to?

Current research shows that about 20% of the U.S. population meets the criteria for a personality disorder. And personality disorders are often “attachment” disorders – the result of insecure early childhood attachment. For those with these disorders, finding a secure bond with someone in adult life is much harder and the loss of this bond is much more devastating than it is for the average person.

So, where am I headed with all of this? I think there’s hope and opportunity for changing our divorce culture. Over the past several months, Megan Hunter and I and several others have been discussing a new approach to Family Court disputes over children, called “New Ways for Families®,” a 3-Step method for making decisions about parenting without becoming a high conflict court case. This method includes a relationship with a confidential counselor for six weeks, followed by three sessions of Parent-Child Counseling, followed by family (or court) decision-making. New Ways for Families is designed to immunize families from becoming high conflict. For more information, see our website Home Page.

Perhaps this secure bond approach can reduce the trauma of divorce and protect children from being at the center of a high conflict case – and protect them from developing personality disorders themselves. Recently, family courts have been told to be less adversarial and attorneys have been told be more civil. Let’s start out the New Year giving people hope, rather than taking it away.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high-conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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