by Bill Eddy, Esquire, L.C.S.W.
How Family Court Fits Personality Disorders
Family Court is perfectly suited to the fantasies of someone with a personality disorder: There is an all-powerful person (the judge) who will punish or control the other spouse. The focus of the court process is perceived as fixing blame — and many with personality disorders are experts at blame. There is a professional ally who will champion their cause (their attorney — or if no attorney, the judge). A case is properly prepared by gathering statements from allies — family, friends, and professionals. (Seeking to gain the allegiance of the children is automatic — they too are seen as either allies or enemies. A simple admonition will not stop this.) Generally, those with personality disorders are highly skilled at — and invested in — the adversarial process.
Those with personality disorders often have an intensity that convinces inexperienced professionals — counselors and attorneys — that what they say is true. Their charm, desperation, and drive can reach a high level in this very emotional, bonding process with the professional. Yet this intensity is a characteristic of a personality disorder, and is completely independent from the accuracy of their claims.
What Can Be Done
Judges, attorneys, and family court counselors need to be trained in identifying personality disorders and how to treat them. Mostly, a corrective on-going relationship is needed — preferably with a counselor. However, they usually must be ordered into this because their belief systems include a life-time of denial and avoidance of self-reflection.
Family Code Section 3190 allows the court to order up to one year of counseling for parents, if:
“(1) The dispute between the parents or between a parent and the child poses a substantial danger to the best interest of the child.
[or] (2)The counseling is in the best interest of the child.”
Therapists, in addition to being supportive, need to help clients challenge
their own thinking: about their own role in the dispute; about the accuracy of their view of the other party; and about their high expectations of the court. Further, therapists should never form clinical opinions or write declarations about parties they haven’t interviewed.
Likewise, attorneys need to also challenge their clients’ thinking and not accept their declarations at face value. More time should be spent educating them to focus on negotiating solutions, rather than escalating blame. The court should make greater use of sanctions under Family Code Section 271 for parties and attorneys who refuse to negotiate and unnecessarily escalate the conflict and costs of litigation.
The court must realize that the parties are often not equally at fault. One or both parties may have a personality disorder, but that does not necessarily mean both are offenders (violent, manipulative, or lying). A non-offending, dependent spouse may truly need the court’s assistance in dealing with the offender. The court should not be neutralized by mutual allegations without looking deeper. Otherwise, because of their personality style, the most offending party is often able to continue their offender behavior — either by matching the other’s true allegations for a neutral outcome, or by being the most skilled at briefly looking good and thereby receiving the court’s endorsement.
The court is in a unique position to motivate needed change in personal behavior. In highly contested cases, counseling or consequences should be ordered. Professionals and parties must work together to fully diagnose and treat each person’s underlying problems, rather than allowing the parties (and their advocates) to become absorbed in an endless adversarial process. Because their largest issues are internal, they will never be resolved in court.
William A. (”Bill”) Eddy is co-founder and president of High Conflict Institute, LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona and Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego, California. He is a Certified Family Law Specialist in California with fifteen years’ experience representing clients in family court. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years’ experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.
He is the author of several books, including “High Conflict People in Legal Disputes” (Janis Publications, 2006), and “Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist (Eggshells Press, 2004). Bill has become an international speaker on the subject of high-conflict personalities, providing seminars to attorneys, mediators, collaborative law professionals, judges, ombudspersons and others.
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* All content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Institute.