Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reigning In The Adversarial Process

It occurred to me today, while working on several divorce cases and then reading the news, that family court and the presidential election have a lot in common. They are both adversarial systems that often produce more heat than light. The extreme statements we hear about each parent’s/candidate’s character contain lots of distortions, emotional reasoning, and “splitting.”

“My client/candidate is all-good and yours isn’t fit to parent/run the country.” “Your client/candidate is an evil monster who has manipulated everyone, is certifiably crazy, is lying and getting away with it, and would destroy the child/country.” Most people don’t buy these extreme statements, but there are enough Negative Advocates for each parent/candidate out there to influence a sizable minority with these extreme statements.

Somehow the “character issue” has grown in politics, but not in a meaningful way. Judging someone’s character as somehow good or bad, strong or weak, honest, loyal, etc. misses all the important points. There are no clear-cut “all-good” or “all-bad” characters. Instead, there is a wide diversity of personality traits and we need more of certain traits at different times, in different political environments. The question is: what personality traits would help us now the most? Rather than: who has “good” character and who has “bad” character?

Sometimes someone who is preoccupied with being strong is the wrong person to have as a parent/leader in a complex world. Strong domestic violence perpetrators are generally not good parents. Yet the same traits seem to be popular in the leaders of many countries today.

Years ago, President Bush said he looked into Russia’s President Putin’s eyes and could see his character, and saw that it was good. That settled the matter. Then Putin lead the invasion of Georgia and President Bush saw that his character was actually bad. To me, Putin was consistent throughout: as a leader with a history in the KGB, he has authoritarian personality traits and a history of deception. This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be a negotiating partner and run a very popular government, but it means that he will always need to be contained—even while we talk to him. Rather than splitting, and viewing him as all-good or all-bad, we need to understand his personality and take a balanced approach from the start.

Now, as we consider Barack Obama and John McCain for president, I hope that we will avoid “judging their character” as all-good or all-bad. Instead, I hope that we will assess their personality traits in terms of open-mindedness, ability to reflect on their own behavior, willingness to consider others’ opinions, ability to respect and contain aggressive HCP political leaders, and most of all: able to learn and adapt as today’s world changes rapidly over the next four years.

The same thing applies when it comes to parents in high conflict divorce cases. I hope that we will avoid fighting over who’s the all-good parent and who’s the all-bad parent. We need to contain the worst behavior and respect them and help them to change where possible. We need to define and teach good skills to use for parenting in today’s world. The adversarial process teaches people to fight, to manipulate, to lack empathy for their enemies, and to think in all-or-nothing terms. It’s up to us to rein in this process and resist the urge to judge character in childlike extremes. I hope we succeed in both settings.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I found your book as a fluke while searching for information on how to "handle" my husband's ex-wife who seemed to have a "high conflict personality". The information was extremely helpful as I was completely uneducated about personality disorders. I knew her behavior was extreme, but needed to learn more in how to approach her and interact with her.

Over the last several years, it has become very clear there are some individuals (such as this person) who are neither good, nor bad, as your blog indicates. However, the reality is her behavior choices are detrimental to the well-being of her children. When children are allowed access to alcohol, teenaged girls are introduced to sex very early, boys are allowed to spend the night in the home, and there are no filters established to protect young children from adult content in an adult world, it is abuse.

I become very frustrated as I read information which tends to sound "can't we just all learn to get along" when some people with personality disorders (not acknowledged or diagnosed)have no intention of trying to become better, to co-parent or to even parent in a socially acceptable manner.

Our judicial system is set up to avoid holding parents such as this accountable, particularly when they are the mother. We are doing our children a great disservice when we have mentally and emotionally stable and well fathers capable of caring and raising children in stable homes, but we continue to subject the children to these, least we say "BAD"?, environments because it's not politically correct.

While many divorce cases are a matter of parents attacking each other and trying to create a perception that one parent is the "bad" parent and the other the "good", let me assure you there are cases where one parent is completely unfit and the other parent is fit. It needs to be o.k. to identify this and state it. Judges, attorneys and the judicial system has a moral obligation to protect children.