Saturday, February 25, 2012

Should Your Divorce Go To Trial

Yesterday, I was sure that I was going to spend the entire day in a divorce trial; my first in a quarter century of practice. Didn't happen.

Why? Because trial in divorce rarely makes sense. This case, in Genesee County, had it all: a GAL for the minor children; a joint bankruptcy in the middle of the proceedings; two [failed] mediation sessions; motions from each side, jousting for the entry of temporary support and parenting orders.

The case was positioned for trial because both sides held onto rigid positions on many of the issues important in any divorce proceeding: custody, parenting time, child support, alimony and debt apportionment. My law clerk, a third year student at Wayne State, prepared an excellent trial brief; she had compiled a trial notebook, and we were prepared and ready to go.

As the case was the oldest on Judge Kay Behm's docket [18-months], I knew it was going to resolve one way or another.

The case did resolve, after 8-hours in the courtroom, because each of the parents made common-sense, strategic compromises. In the end, the parents each looked past their own personal wounds, and their self-centered agendas, and took into account the best interests of their minor children.

Don't get me wrong, I would rather conduct a trial than spend the entire day as I did yesterday, painstakingly going over, discussing, negotiating, and resolving every aspect of a failed marriage and the flotsam that goes along with it. But as a divorce lawyer, I keep the best interests of the client in mind. Trial almost never makes sense.

So it may be that when I finally retire, I will have never conducted a divorce trial. Actually, that is a client-service goal of mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Narcissus Gets A Divorce

Narcissus admires his reflection.
In my decades of divorce practice, I've encountered folks who, if a psychological evaluation was completed, would be characterized as having narcissistic personality disorder.  A few of these peeps have been clients; others have been on the opposing side.

Either way, everyone involved is in for a rough ride.

Over the past several years, "narcissism" has also taken on a connotation-du-jour.  The diagnosis being made by dime-store psychologists (i.e. parties to family court litigation) whenever the object takes an opposing or contrary view. 

What is narcissim, really?

According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is "characterized by dramatic, emotional behavior, which is in the same category as antisocial and borderline personality disorders."   A person with this personality disorder may exhibit some of the following characteristics, according to the Clinic:
  • Believing you are better than others;
  • Fantasizing about your success, power and attractiveness;
  • Exaggerating your achievements or talents;
  • Expecting constant praise and admiration;
  • Ignoring other's feelings and emotions;
  • Believing and acting like you are really, really special;
  • Taking advantage of others;
  • Expecting others to go along with your often super-sized schemes and plans;
  • Exhibiting jealousy toward others;
  • Believing others are jealous of you;
  • Unable to maintain healthy inter-personal relationships;
  • Easily hurt or rejected;
  • Fragile self-esteem
If you know someone with more than a few of these traits, run.  If you are married to such a person, get ready for the inevitable divorce proceeding when you finally throw in the towel, realizing that your spouse will never change. 

If you are a lawyer representing such a person, affix your chin strap and bring a lunch.

In the divorce context, the narcissist fares quite poorly.  The above-listed features of this personality disorder are routinely identifed and rigorously addressed by family court professionals. 

In this process, the personality flaws of the narcissist are forced itno the lab for a full-on forensic evaluation.  Many of the tools in the family court professional's arsenal will be brought to bear upon the conduct of the narcissist in an effort to force short-term modification, and to achieve a stable platform.

Some red flags that I've gleaned over the years: a narcissist will change lawyers often, blaming the status of the case on the mistakes of prior legal counsel.  Also, the register of actions in the case of a narcissist will often be a mile long, peppered with hearings, motions, and more hearings.

When a narcissist is embroiled in a divorce proceeding, the children are used as pawns.  Any input from the Friend of the Court [either via a referee, family counselor, or social worker] or from a therapist, is rejected; the narcissistic parent must be dragged to court, kicking, screaming and cursing.

In the years leading up to such a divorce, the other spouse will often report being chronically verbally abused and bullied by the narcissist.  In fact, this dynamic will set the initial tone of the proceeding.

The process will next feature a series of attempts, which will take some time, where the professionals try to arrest the insidious and pervasive conduct of the narcissist.  Arrest, but not change; this person will not change.

The other spouse many times will exhibit classic signs of emotional abuse during this painful process: low self-esteem, exhaustion, a desire to give up or give in.  This person needs a strong focused divorce lawyer.

And counseling. 

During the divorce process, the other spouse is well advised to minimize the face-to-face contacts with the narcissist.  If children are involved, then communicate through emails and texts. 

If you feel threatened at home or during parenting exchanges, seek exclusive use of the marital home.  If you are separated, use a neutral transition point for the parenting exchanges; most family court judges will grant such a request simply to err on the side of everyone's safety.

Finally, stay focused on the process knowing that the process will eventually come to an end.  The Michigan Supreme Court has mandated that county family courts conclude divorce proceedings within a year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nagging Outstrips Adultery as Primary Engine of Divorce

Toward the end of last month, you may have noted the stir that a WSJ article caused over the issue of nagging and its toxic effect on marriages. The article concluded that nagging may have more potential to bust apart couples than adultery.

As a divorce attorney in the third decade of practice, I’ve witnessed many clients complain about their spouse’s nagging; and about their cheating.  It is impossible to say which is more toxic to a marital union.

Nagging, as a relationship dynamic, is all about a breakdown of communication, and an attempt to reassert control.  The article clearly stated that it was women who did the nagging while men were on the receiving end.  The “experts” interviewed for the article opined that this was because of a woman’s role as a “manager” of the family; meanwhile men tend to, “feel like a little boy being scolded by his mother.”

For their part, women complain that, when they ask about something, they just want it handled. 

Problems arise, however, when a couple takes it to the next level, and begin to argue about the nagging, rather than the root problem.  Communication breakdown.

If a couple, even a committed couple, does not learn how to cope with the dynamic, they often wind up divorced in the long-run.  Professor Howard Markman of the University of Denver, cited and quoted in the WSJ article, says nagging is the “enemy of love”.

The real barometer here is the 400-plus comments on the article; they are hilarious.  Take a look for yourself.