Friday, February 18, 2011

HCPs, Loss and Violence

Family law attorneys and clients are grieving the shooting deaths two days ago (Feb. 16) of Judy Soley, CFLS and Sandra Williamson, both apparently shot by the separated husband, James Williamson, outside of Fresno, California. They had been to court that morning and the victims were at a restaurant for a lunch recess, when he came and killed them. He then went home and killed himself, all of this according to the local paper, The Fresno Bee (Feb. 18).


The paper also reported that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder (manic depression), but wasn’t taking take his meds. (Ironically, my blog was about that disorder just last week.) The divorce had been off and on over the past seven years, including a dispute over their lake-front property. Apparently, he had forged Sandra’s signature on a deed and had obtained a large loan based on it. He also had a history of domestic violence against Sandra (and also against his first wife). This was labeled a “contentious divorce.”

Should lawyers and clients be scared of contentious divorces? I believe we do need to be very cautious with high-conflict people (HCPs). They have a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior, which increases rather than resolves conflicts. HCPs in legal disputes often create their own conflicts, because “the issue’s not the issue” – their personality is the issue. Some people with personality disorders also have bipolar disorder, but most of them do not kill anyone.

However, HCPs have a particular problem with loss. They don’t grieve and heal losses the way that most people do. They often get stuck in the anger stage of the 5-stage grieving process. If loss upon loss stacks up, they can become dangerous, especially if they have a pattern of aggressive behavior that includes violence. One thing that can be anticipated is that HCPs will become more aggressive, not less, after another loss. Family court hearings often represent the likelihood of loss, even if it is exaggerated in the HCP’s mind. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we often hear of such violent incidents right before or after an important hearing when someone may lose a house, custody of a child, or other loss.

The lesson to be learned is that HCPs have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that is somewhat predictable, and that there are times when such behavior escalates. Lawyers and separating spouses need to learn the pattern and take precautions at times of many losses or perceived losses, regardless of the issue in dispute. The issue’s not the issue – the personality pattern is the issue.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

10 Myths About High-Conflict Divorce

After working with divorcing families for over 30 years, first as a social worker and then as a family law attorney, I believe the following myths are stronger than ever. The first list is what some professionals think. The second list is what some parents think. Make sure to read both lists, then let me know if there are any you don’t understand or want explained further. You can see how these myths trigger defensiveness and increase conflict – yet they continue to exist.


10 Myths about High-Conflict Parents (by some Family Law Professionals)

1. They’re not very smart.

2. They don’t care about their children.

3. If one parent is high conflict, then the other must be too.

4. Public lectures and shaming will motivate them to use good parenting behavior.

5. Allegations of abuse are always false and a manipulation to get control.

6. Allegations of alienation are always false and a smoke screen for true abuse.

7. If you just ignore high-conflict parents, their children will do just fine as adults.

8. Children’s preferences are not influenced by either parent in high-conflict families.

9. They all have personality disorders and nothing will reach them.

10. They’re both lying anyway, so you shouldn’t listen to anything they say.


10 Myths about Family Law Professionals (by some Divorcing Parents)

1. Professionals should agree with me and give me whatever I want.

2. The judge will immediately see through the other party, even though it took me many years.

3. Criticizing or yelling at my professional will motivate him or her to listen and work harder.

4. They all want to increase the conflict so they can just make more money.

5. They’re all arrogant and none can be trusted.

6. The entire family law system is corrupt and many professionals are taking bribes.

7. Administrative actions against professionals are always valid, but fail because of corruption.

8. Public exposure and blame will motivate them to use good professional behavior.

9. They’re not very smart.

10. They don’t care about the children.

Some of these may be true in a rare case, but in many (most?) cases they are not true. Yet these myths continue and are just making things worse. We need to check our own thinking and avoid splitting people into all-good and all-bad. Let’s treat everyone with respect and make no assumptions, so we can work on accurately understanding each families' specific problems. What do you think?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bipolar Disorder and High-Conflict People

I’ve been asked how to deal with High-Conflict People (HCPs) with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder causes wide mood swings of depression alternating with manic episodes – which sometimes include confrontational, high-conflict behavior. It’s an “Axis I” disorder in the DSM-IV manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Most HCPs have traits of personality disorders which are Axis II disorders. But there’s an overlap with bipolar disorder for almost 40% of those with borderline personality disorder and/or narcissistic personality disorder.


How can you deal with them in relationships, at work or in disputes? The most successful treatments have included medications, which often help Axis I disorders but not Axis II. In my book “It’s All YOUR Fault!” I describe a man with bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. He received treatment for his bipolar disorder with medications that were successful, but he was still a high-conflict person because of his personality disorder – and he had his license to practice medicine taken away.

Managing the high-conflict behavior of those with bipolar disorder usually involves getting them on medications, into individual counseling and getting family involvement. When a person is well-managed with this disorder, they can function very well and there are many books written about and by people with bipolar disorder. However, if they stop taking their medications and go into a manic episode, they can be quite difficult and may be unable to resolve conflicts in a rational manner. It is best to avoid attempts at conflict resolution – such as mediation or court hearings or couples counseling – during these episodes.

When they are stable, but struggling, all of the methods for dealing with HCPs can be helpful – from using E.A.R. statements to focusing them on tasks to setting limits to educating them about the possible consequences of their actions. It helps to point out that they always have choices, but that each choice has consequences. When I have mediated conflicts involving a person with a known bipolar disorder, I have encouraged bringing a support person to help him or her think through proposals and decisions.

What has helped you?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Can Halle and Gabriel Share Nahla?

Once again we have a famous couple starting to fight over raising their child. (See last week’s blog about Bristol and Levi.) Unfortunately, the idea of solving the conflict by cutting out one parent is again being discussed – a popular all-or-nothing solution which drives many modern custody disputes. I know, as a family lawyer and social worker. How are we going to teach children to share if their parents can’t?


While they started out peacefully, news reports suggest that Halle Berry would rather exclude Gabriel Aubry from their daughter Nahla’s life, or have him only see her under supervised visitation. Friends and strangers are lining up on each parent’s side. This is the tragedy of custody disputes – they grow in opposite directions, rather than everyone working together to manage three key problems:

Problem 1: What if one parent is dangerous to the child?

Answer: Safety first! When a parent is dangerous, children need to be protected (from child abuse, domestic violence, severe alienation, neglect, drug abuse, etc.). The most common method is to require supervised access (“visitation”). This protects the child from danger, while protecting the child’s relationship with both parents.

Problem 2: Is it better for High-Conflict parents to share parenting or better to exclude one of them?

Answer: Research shows that it’s best for both parents to be involved in the child’s lives. But shared parenting doesn’t have to mean equal time. It does mean making both parents important to the child in every way possible, given their strengths and weaknesses. It’s in the children’s best interest to learn skills for dealing with life (what to copy and what not to copy) from both parents, to develop self-esteem (I’m loved, not rejected), to develop flexible thinking (not all-or-nothing solutions) and how to deal with difficult people.

Problem 3: Can parents improve?

Answer: Some can and others can’t. It’s better to put both parents into some form of parent education or counseling right away – before any custody battle – rather than having their parents (and friends and family allies) fighting over custody from the start. At High Conflict Institute we developed a short-term program exactly for this purpose called New Ways for Families, to help Family Courts see if parents can learn skills first BEFORE making the big custody decisions.

What do you think?