© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
The following is an excerpt from the book: The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress
The Trouble with Making Decisions
Most judges like making decisions and are very good at it. However, with high-conflict people, the issue’s not the issue! As the case in Chapter 2 demonstrates, with HCPs the issue is their personality-based lack of conflict resolution skills and insecure relationships. They bring one issue after another to court for the judge to decide. Ironically, the better you are at making decisions for them, the more likely they are to depend on you for more in the future.
Yet the court never satisfies them – and cannot satisfy them. What they are really looking for is:
Vindication – that he or she is the “good parent” and that the other parent is the “bad parent,” for everyone to see, once and for all. Court is where vindication is officially bestowed in our society. (Particularly characteristic of Borderlines.)
Respect – to make up for all the disrespect the person has received in his or her life. Court is where one can prove that he or she is a superior person and that the other parent is grossly inferior in every way. Being granted custody is the ultimate award. (Particularly characteristic of Narcissists.)
Revenge – for abandoning the relationship, which may have been the most secure relationship the person ever had. Humiliation in the public process of Court is the most powerful weapon in today’s society that is accessible to anyone. (Characteristic of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Antisocial HCPs.)
Protection from internal fears – to help insecure people feel safe from their frequent and extreme fears. Court has the power to lock people up, keep them away, and teach them a lesson so they will stay away forever. In today’s frightening world, the courts will protect you. (Characteristic of Paranoid HCPs.)
Dominance – to put the other person in their place and dominate them again. Court is where one can regain control of someone who is beginning to act too independent. He or she can draw the person back into their life by serving papers requiring attendance at hearings, by serving subpoenas, by taking depositions, by delivering documents requiring responses, by demanding hundreds of personal documents, by seeing each other at court for hearing after hearing. (Characteristic of Antisocial and Borderline HCPs.)
Attention – to finally be able to tell one’s story to the person with all the power. To have one’s “day in court.” Court is where one is allowed to freely use all of the drama one can muster, including tears, anger, charm, vulnerability, witnesses and evidence on one’s behalf to exclusively focus on blaming an “all bad” person. (Particularly characteristic of Histrionic HCPs, but all of the above.)
It is for these reasons that you don’t want to create a dependency on you for making their decisions. You cannot get it right, because you are missing the point. The decisions they want are based on feelings – such as feeling vindicated, protected, dominating of the other party. Since legal decisions cannot meet such personality-based feelings, they will never be satisfied in court.
Strongly Promoting Settlement
Hopefully by now it is clear why I am promoting settlement efforts in cases of HCP parents – who lack settlement skills. This is a huge opportunity for family courts to help children by requiring their parents to learn conflict resolution skills and to practice them in their parenting and at court. This may only be at a very minimal level, but this must become an expectation of the court. When judges and other professionals make brilliant decisions for parents, it removes the motivation for them to learn to make any decisions themselves for their family. Therefore, judges should repeatedly quiz parents on what they have learned and how they have practiced their skills.
The more that judges send the message that settlement is the standard expectation, the more that parents will try to fulfill that expectation. Praising them for their successes means a lot to HCP parents, who are constantly looking for validation from the court. It’s better to give validation for small successes in reaching agreement with the other parent, than for big “wins” against the other parent.
Treatments for personality disorders have been showing us that many HCP parents may be able to change, with sufficient structure, learning small skills in small steps, and enough encouragement. Therefore, courts should shift the burden to parents to acquire and practice their skills in making decisions about their children. Judges should resist the urge to just make the decision for them, as much as possible.
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.