When I was a young family law attorney, an older, wiser man once told me, “Son, in those nasty cases, the issue is not the real issue – it’s about something much deeper.” It took me about five years and many hours of sitting in MCLE courses on family dynamics, psychology, the domestic abuse cycle, along with reading books on personality disorders to truly understand what the old man meant: there are often core childhood issues we deal with in high-conflict divorce cases that are more deep-seated than any issue being fought over during the divorce.
The real problem is beyond our role as lawyers, and many psychologists will agree that it is beyond theirs as well, because personality-disordered people have a low rate of success in treatment. Therefore, the value we can bring to our clients is a strategy to deal with the abuser and try to contain the damage as much as possible.
How to Represent a Targeted Spouse Experiencing PTSD
Personality disorders come in many types, but the two most common that we see as family law attorneys are the narcissistic (NPD) and the borderline personality disorders (BPD). Narcissists are often experts at making themselves look good. They recast facts and events in their favor, and reality has little value to them. The borderline personality tends to act in the relationship like an on/off switch; from the “Oh my God, you’re perfect!” in the initial stages to, “You’re the worst, most incompetent, betraying, evil person on the planet!” near the end.
For the non-personality disordered person who finds him or herself in a relationship with either the BPD or the NPD, they often simply lack the skills, cunning, and emotional fortitude to survive without some degree of post-traumatic stress.
Representing a client who has been emotionally abused requires bringing them back to a place where they can take strong action. Lawyers need to help clients overcome their hesitancy to provoke the abuser. The targeted spouse will need a clear strategy for the fallout, and oftentimes this is where new technologies are our best tools. Being able to document in text, email, and even voicemails from the abuser precisely what is expected is key for the targeted spouse in legal strategy and in recovery. When dealing with a NPD/BPD spouse, the most effective tool we have is to constrain them with boundaries of time, place, and specifics.
For the targeted spouse, having the ability to point to an incontrovertible fact is crucial to:
a) being able to express to a judicial officer that the other party is not doing what they said; and
b) for their own mental health to come back to a belief in their own sense of reality, which oftentimes has been destroyed.
Plotting a strategy for the fallout for the targeted spouse gives them the sense of control they have lacked and provides a roadmap for how we will constrain the other party. In these cases, child custody is generally the area where the abusive behavior will erupt the most. Sometimes we have to employ nannies, assistants, or private investigators to act as third-party documenters for both the target and the abuser.
Birds of a feather flock together. For the peacemaker lawyer, these high-conflict cases are initially hard to understand and deal with, as oftentimes the lawyer representing the client with the disorder is equally difficult. They might engage in the same type of fact rearranging and polarized thinking that their clients do, and you – as the advocate for your PTSD client – must identify it and then engage in the same type of boundary setting and containment strategy with the opposing party.
Once it’s clear that the opposing counsel is behaving in a manner similar to that of their client, you’ll need to employ a strategy where you only put things in writing and with as much specificity as possible. No concessions should be made without being fully documented and equaled with a concession from the other side.
The opposing counsel will usually engage in a firehose strategy of pouring on the allegations, statements, and misinterpretations in an effort to bully you into their version of reality. This is why the lawyer for the targeted spouse has to have a strategy for their own well-being.
How to Care for Yourself in a High-Conflict Case
Self-care for lawyers in high-conflict cases is crucial. You need to have a strategy to maintain your own sense of reality and equilibrium, as well as a strong support network to keep on an even keel. Having a regular therapist is mandatory in my mind if you are going to work in the difficult world of family law – even more so if you are going to take on high-conflict cases with clients who suffer from narcissistic or borderline personality disorders.
Creating personal space and downtime is crucial for any lawyer, but in this high-conflict world, taking time for physical outlets of the stress is essential. Avoid the easy fixes of drugs like Xanax or a good scotch, because there are no benefits once they wear off and they can in fact lead to a false sense of reality – creating more problems than they try to solve.
David T. Pisarra is a Los Angeles family law attorney who specializes in men’s and father’s rights and hosts the Men’s Family Law Podcast. David is also the author of four books and does trainings for other lawyers across the nation for Thomson/Reuters on topics as diverse as family law for men, international child custody, domestic violence, and podcasting for professionals. www.davidpisarra.com