© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
This week, on May 13 and 14, I presented a 2-day training on managing high conflict personalities in divorce and family violence to over 75 social workers, therapists, lawyers and mediators in Ottawa. It was a very experienced group, and we had several good discussions of the overlap of divorce and violence. I emphasized my belief that people who engage in ongoing spousal abuse and/or child abuse have personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Of course, this has been controversial in the past, as some abuse professionals have said for years that there is no mental disorder associated with domestic violence and child abuse.
However, I believe that we are seeing research now that explains that “coercive controlling violence” may be associated with personality disorders, although lesser forms of family violence may not involve personality disorders, such as “situational couple violence” (in which both partners engage in pushing and shoving when they have conflicts) and “separation instigated violence” (1-2 incidents which occur at the time of separation, but there is no prior history of violence in the relationship). Any of these types of “intimate partner violence” may be involved in a divorce. Understanding the difference between cases involving personality disorders and those that don’t is important.
When a case of domestic violence involves a personality disorder for the “perpetrator” or “dangerous person,” then verbal directives from a judge or other professionals will have no impact. Long-term change is needed, which takes long-term practice of new behaviors, such as managing impulsive behavior, changing how one thinks in conflict situations and managing one’s own emotions (and not blaming them on the victim or other people). Batterers’ treatment groups have been shown to make a difference in 26 weeks or 52 weeks, precisely because they address long-term change with lots of practice changing thinking, emotion management and restraining one’s own impulsive behavior.
On the other hand, those who don’t have personality disorders and who may be involved in situation couple violence or separation instigated violence generally don’t need such intensive programs and may instead need conflict resolution skills and restraining orders to stay away from the other partner. Of course, one of the overall lessons of this training was that most partners, even those with personality disorders, appear able to change their behavior with an emphasis on learning small skills in small steps, with lots of repetition and encouragement. What doesn’t work is shame and blame, because it triggers the “defensive brain” which shuts down logical thinking and problem solving, and makes it very unlikely that the person will learn and change. Unfortunately, our adversarial system of dispute resolution (family court) often triggers more defensiveness (and less learning) than out-of-court methods.
Since I had two days, I had time to give the family professionals present some practice opportunities for teaching clients skills for managing their own emails (BIFF Responses), making proposals and practicing structured mediation – some of the skills that we teach in the New Ways for Families method and the New Ways for Mediation method. What was interesting about Ottawa is that three family service agencies have been trying out the New Ways for Families method with clients over the past two years, even though the court has not been involved up to now. One evening, about 25 people gathered to discuss their experiences with New Ways and to ask me questions about how it is working in other locations. It was exciting for me to discuss New Ways with counselors with actual experience with the method. I look forward to them communicating more with family courts and showing them that this method can divert a significant portion of their high-conflict court cases if the courts will give it a try.
Over lunch on the second day, we also had a presentation by the local Collaborative Practice Ottawa group, which included discussing how this method may be more appropriate than court for many cases in which there are concerns about family violence. The benefit of this collaborative approach is that all team members can help calm the parties and reinforce using positive skills, as compared to family court where the parties are placed in an adversarial structure, which tends to escalate their negative behavior more than it manages it.
Overall, it was a great visit to a new city for me! I didn’t realize how beautiful and relatively small and manageable Ottawa is, given that it’s the national capital of Canada. Everyone was very welcoming and they gave me some brief daily tours. Most of all, they showed a very strong commitment to helping children, families, victims and perpetrators to overcome violence and to protect children from future family violence.
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.