© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Last week I spoke to over 100 California Family Court judges and mediators in Los Angeles. My topic was “Managing Challenging Personalities in Family Law.” It’s been five years since I spoke to them and I focused less on personality disorders this time and more on what to do in the courtroom and in mediation. They were particularly concerned about the parties that keep coming back to court. I started with a quick survey of which characteristics of these personalities they are seeing in Family Court these days (only one of which I believe is a valid reason to go to court – see if you can pick it out):
Have fewer conflict resolution skills?
Dependent on others to solve problems?
It’s easier to let the judge decide, than to deal with the other party?
It’s easier to come to court than to struggle with making and responding to proposals?
In court, you might “win” so why bother compromising?
Are unrealistically afraid of the other party?
Are realistically afraid of the other party?
Seek Court to judge and criticize the other?
Seek Court to vindicate themselves?
Seek to dominate, humiliate the other party?
Seek attention and drama in court?
To satisfy family, friends who say to fight?
To satisfy lawyers and/or counselors who say to fight in court, when clients don’t want to?
Many of them agreed that they are seeing all of these characteristics in cases today. This is tragic, because these are a misuse of our court system and taxpayer dollars (except for number seven); and because children are being raised in families that remain stuck in high conflict divorce or separation, because their parents lack conflict resolution skills and have high conflict personalities. I pointed out the three combinations that they are often seeing:
1) two dysfunctional parents fighting in court;
2) two decent parents, but they’re fighting over who is better and this affects their kids; and
3) some of these families truly have one reasonable parent and one dysfunctional parent.
When personality disorders are involved (most frequently borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder these days), it’s often very difficult to determine which scenario they are dealing with. Even when the court makes a decision, we are frequently seeing that such parents will not follow court orders.
So the suggestions I made emphasized teaching these parents more conflict resolution skills, to learn before hearings and to help them stay away from court as much as possible. I suggested that two of the biggest problems high conflict personalities have is all-or-nothing thinking about the other parent, and managing their own emotions under stress. These emotions often spill over to their children. I suggested that there are two things they can easily do to help reduce these problems a little bit: they can require that each parent tell the Family Court Services mediators and judges at the beginning of a mediation or a hearing:
“Tell me 3 positive qualities of the other parent” (this helps discourage all-or-nothing thinking)
“Tell me 3 things each of you will do to protect your children from your upset emotions during the separation and divorce process” (to help them think about managing their emotions more)
I mentioned that I believe that “child alienation” (or “parental alienation” or just plain “alienation”) is not a gender issue now (if it ever was) and is more the result of these intense parent emotions rather than one specific comment that a parent makes. (For more on this, see my book “Don’t Alienate the Kids: Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce”).
I also emphasized the four skills that we teach in the New Ways for Families® program: Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behaviors and Checking Yourself! This is a good time for family court mediators and judges to be encouraging parents the get these skills, because we are seeing very good results out of the two programs in Canada that are using the court-based counseling method and workbooks of New Ways for Families.
We will be presenting these preliminary results at the AFCC conference in Los Angeles on May 31st. We hope to get Southern California jurisdictions interested in trying this interdisciplinary method, as no one mediator or judge can teach these skills alone – but one mediator and one judge can reinforce these skills, once the parents have been through this method. Most of all, if parents are expected to learn, practice and demonstrate skills of Flexible Thinking, Managed Emotions, Moderate Behaviors and Checking Yourself, we’re finding that most of them don’t return to court – possibly at a 90% success rate. For more about this method, see our website: www.NewWays4Families.com.
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.