© 2009 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
After over 16 years as a family law attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist), preceded by 12 years as a therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), I believe that “high conflict” family court cases are characterized by one (or sometimes two) high conflict parents who:
Lack emotional boundaries,
Are used to all-or-nothing thinking,
Are preoccupied with blaming others,
Take no responsibility for their own behavior, and
Are constantly seeking validation for themselves through the legal process.
Such parents’ overall goal appears to be persuading professionals and the courts that the other parent is an “all-bad” person and that the complaining parent is blame-free or an “all-good” person. Their problems often include substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, child alienation, and/or false allegations.
Traditionally, family courts have responded to these problems by making findings and orders about these problems as legal “issues.” Traditionally, the court uses an adversarial litigation structure to reach an all-or-nothing solution (guilty or not) by evaluating past behavior, evaluating credibility regarding past behavior, and punishing past behavior. This process involves taking behavior out of context (to prevent unnecessary bias and irrelevant influences), only considering admissible evidence (to prevent improper evidence gathering), and the use of emotional exaggeration (passionate persuasion) to convince the fact-finder that one party is the guilty party (“all-bad”) and that the other party is the innocent victim (“all-good”).
For the average person and most legal professionals, this legal process can be kept separate from their sense of self and is (mostly) not taken personally. Arguments can be made and decisions can be made without it being about them as a person. As one of my reasonable clients said, after losing a court hearing and accepting it: “The judge doesn’t know me.”
For high conflict people, however, “the issue’s not the issue!” The issue is their way of solving interpersonal problems – their personality: their chronic all-or-nothing thinking, their unmanaged emotions, and their extreme behaviors. Their unstable sense of self makes them extremely defensive in the traditional court process and they are generally unable to remove themselves from the process, once it gets going. Since the adversarial process mirrors their own adversarial thinking, their “issues” become high conflict cases and they become stuck in the defensive behaviors described above.
“Splitting” is an unconscious defense mechanism identified for many decades as common to those with borderline and narcissistic personality traits. Nowadays, professionals and non-professionals recognize that these traits are present in many of our high conflict parents in family court. They “split” people into “all-bad” or “all-good.” They can’t see any good qualities in the all-bad person, and can’t see any bad qualities in the all-good person (usually him or herself). As described above, the process of litigation reinforces, rather than decreases, “splitting” for those with these traits.
Recent brain research shows that emotions are contagious. As borderlines and narcissists lack emotional boundaries, their children often absorb “splitting” unconsciously and non-verbally, especially during times of heightened stress. Some children start viewing one of their parents as all-bad and the other as all-good. This may appear to be intentional alienation, but more often it is caused by years of unconscious exposure to this splitting process. And daily life with one or both parent’s frequent all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extremely defensive behavior often becomes worse, not better, when their parents enter the adversarial court process.
Therefore, the New Ways for Families® method is designed in a manner designed to block “splitting” and shift the parents’ focus to learning new conflict-reducing skills (“new ways”), at each step of the court process, as described in the following chart.
(Focus on decisions re Fault)
(Focus on learning conflict-reducing skills)
Focus of parent energy and attention
Informing court of other parent’s all-bad past behavior; seeking validation as the all-good parent
Learning own skills for positive future behavior; demonstrating own new behaviors to the court
Focus on one parent as bad and needing restricted parenting and counselor; other parent as good parent and doesn’t need anything
Focus is equally on both parents to practice new skills; if one parent is reasonable they strength-en skills to deal with other parent
Admonishing one parent for bad past behavior; sometimes both for bad past behavior
Encouraging both parents to learn and strengthen skills for good future behavior
Preparing Affidavits (Declarations)
Unlimited pages, venting without restraint; all negative about other
Behavioral focus, 2 pages only. Must mention positives of other
Declarations sent to Counselors
Parents preoccupied with defending against tons of declarations and documents
Only 2-page Behavioral Declarations and 2-page Replies allowed to be sent to counselors
Role of Individual Counselors
Parent focuses on persuading counselor to take sides and write “splitting” letter to court; courts often consider these letters
Confidential counselor teaches client to use new skills to make own decisions and present own positive behavior to court
Role of Child Counselors
Court asks for recommendations; parents become defensive and preoccupied with persuading
Parent-Child Counselor assists parents in teaching children skills and listening to children
Custody evaluator writes report, may testify about detailed assessment of each parent and huge amount of adversarial documents; one or both parents forever dislikes the evaluator
Parent-Child Counselor may testify, but does not write report or make recommendations; only describes observations; may continue to work with family in the future on their skills
Emphasis of Decision-makers (Court Mediators and Judges)
Making the best decisions for the parents, including emphasis on past bad parent behavior, and structuring treatment and long-term restrictions for future parenting
Encouraging and pressuring the parents to make the best decisions for the family, including accepting problems and working on them, and over-coming restrictions on parenting as soon as possible
Input to Decision-makers (Judges and Court Mediators)
Rely on input from individual and child counselors for help in making recommendations; get counselor input that is often negative about parent hasn’t met and favorable to own client
Individual counselors kept confidential from court; parent-child counselor cannot recommend; separate evaluator if evaluator necessary.
For the above reasons, most aspects of the New Ways for Families® method are different from traditional litigation and traditional use of counselors in family court cases. Professionals using this method are encouraged to follow this new process as closely as possible. While there may be some tinkering in the application of this method, professionals are encouraged to keep these basic principles intact to provide the most benefit to high conflict parents and the courts. We welcome your input.
Ask for New Ways!
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.