Family Law CLE in Austin, Texas
Last Friday I spoke all day to over 100 family lawyers (and a few family therapists) about managing personality disorders in family law cases. I gave them all our techniques for handling high-conflict clients, but I was also asked to address handling high-conflict opposing parties and high-conflict opposing counsel. I asked for a show of hands about how many of the attorneys thought they were seeing less, the same, or more high-conflict cases now than ten years ago: most of them raised their hands with MORE. I asked how many had dealt with a high-conflict person in the past week, and over half raised their hands. The reality is that high-conflict personalities are increasing in family law and in society. We talked about the impact of today’s culture on personality development - especially images of violence, disrespect and narcissism on TV, movies and the Internet – which is much more than we were exposed to growing up. I explained about “mirror neurons” (which few had heard of) and how we tend to mirror in our minds the behavior of everyone we see around us. This means that children learn the behaviors that they see, and tend to imitate them. Even if they don’t do these behaviors now, they become part of their repertoire of potential future behavior. So if a child grows up seeing violence – such as domestic violence – now they know how to do it. They also know how to shoot a lot of kids at a school, how to blow up a crock pot with nails, and other extreme behaviors. They are being instructed almost every day on TV – especially in the news!
During lunch, there was a judges’ panel, which discussed issues around diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders and personality disorders. The conclusion seemed to be that a diagnosis could be helpful, but that the facts of the case were still the most important thing. This supports what I advise clients and lawyers – focus on explaining the patterns of concerning behavior, rather than focusing on a diagnosis. After lunch I gave an example of a client I had with borderline personality disorder who had made a serious suicide attempt, but then worked hard to put her life back together and won primary custody in court – because she actually became the better parent.
The judges also addressed “alienation” (“child alienation” or “parental alienation” – the issue of a child refusing to see one parent) and the frustration of having few resources for helping in these cases. During my session after lunch, I explained my theory of alienation contained in my book Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce. I said that alienation is primarily learned in the same manner as racial prejudice, so I often refer to it as “parent prejudice.” It comes less from conscious instructions to a child and more from the unrestrained sharing of intense negative emotions, off-hand comments, opinions, jokes, and the same from other family members. This means that the treatment of this problem requires the whole family to be involved, as just sending a child to individual counseling fails about 100% of the time, and sending the rejected parent and child to “reunification counseling” also fails nearly 100% of the time.
Therefore, of course, we talked about New Ways for Families and I emphasized that people with high-conflict personalities (often narcissistic personality disorder and others) need to learn small skills in small steps with lots of encouragement and structure – and they can! New Ways can get clients into short-term counseling at the start of the case, when there is a much better chance that people will learn new skills (and also prevent the growth of alienation). Intensive evaluations tend to make these people act worse, so it is often more helpful to just start out teaching them skills without having to focus on “who is to blame” – who is the all-bad person and who is the all-good person. New Ways gets right to work at the start of the case, teaching conflict resolution skills and decision-making skills to both parents, which they can then teach their children. There seemed to be a lot of interest in developing a New Ways for Families program in the Austin area. Overall it was an enthusiastic group – eager to try new skills right away!
Bill Eddy is the President of the High Conflict Institute and the developer of “New Ways for Families,” “New Ways for Mediation” and “New Ways for Work.” Each of these methods is designed for managing high conflict situations with more structure, simple conflict resolution skills that anyone can apply right away, and less stress on professionals, co-workers and family members. He is the author of several books for family lawyers and clients, including: High Conflict People in Legal Disputes and SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. See www.HighConflictInstitute.com.