The NeverEnding Divorce

Once upon a time a parent filed for divorce in hopes that family court would end the pain and trauma that the children were experiencing from the ongoing conflict in the home.  Each parent got a lawyer.  The lawyers filed motion after motion to try and stop the conflict from devouring the health and well-being of the children.  The Judge ordered action after action according to the motions, but nothing worked. The parents were contesting custody and emotions were running high.  The divorce was labeled “high-conflict”.  The case went on for years as lawyers tried to come to a final judgment and end the divorce.  The family, the lawyers, and the judge believed that the final judgment would resolve the conflict and that then the family could live happily ever after.  Sadly, the final judgment came and went and nothing was resolved.  For a short time, the family was not in court.  But soon the case reopened for modification and enforcement of the orders that didn’t work the first time.  The divorce case reopened again and again until, the children turned 18 and the court closed the case. 

The divorce was never resolved.  The children remained imprisoned in the high-conflict environment for their entire childhood.  As they grew up, the children began to suffer from predicted mental and physical health problems associated with prolonged interpersonal trauma.  In particular, the grown children struggled with difficultly maintaining and repairing their own relationships. This eventually led to their own never-ending divorce.

This story is based on the reality that never-ending divorces occur much more frequently than anyone realizes.  Unresolved high-conflict divorces severely traumatize millions of children and parents every year.  The cost to the individuals and society is immeasurable.  According to a recent study by the National Center of State Courts, more than 1/3 of divorces never get resolved in family court despite the fact that they reached a final judgment.  High-conflict divorces re-open over and over for modification and enforcement of previous orders until the children age out at 18.

Divorce is a 50 billion dollar a year industry, the majority of which is spent on high-conflict cases. Why then, can’t these cases be resolved? High-conflict cases do not get resolved because family law attorneys and judges don’t understand that usually one parent has a relationally difficult personality disorder that is driving the ongoing conflict. Instead, the majority of family courts think that high-conflict cases are situations in which both parents just can’t get along and therefore they both are contributing to the conflict.  The simplistic assumption that high-conflict cases are driven by two normal, healthy, but stubborn parents, wastes precious time and resources by never getting to the cause of all of the conflict. 

Because family court lawyers and judges don’t recognize that the cause of high-conflict divorces is usually one parent with a high-conflict personality, such as narcissistic personality disorder, they throw an arsenal of orders at the parents and hope that one or more will work.  Parents in high-conflict cases jump through time-consuming and expensive hoops that do not bring the divorce any closer to resolution. Some of the strategies that family court uses in high-conflict cases which are NOT effective include mediation, parent education programs, therapy, placement schedules, custody evaluations, and engaging parenting coordinators.  These strategies often make the conflict worse and delay realistic intervention and resolution.  But, family courts keep doing these same things over and over expecting to get different results.  This is why high-conflict divorces appear crazy, chaotic, and confusing and are never resolved to the peril of the children, family, and society.

Resolving high-conflict family court cases is not rocket science but does require using the scientific of problem solving. The first step in problem solving is to analyze the cause of the problem. 

Let’s look at how health care problem solves.  A woman goes to her doctor complaining of severe back pain and fatigue. What does the doctor do?  He or she looks for the cause of the symptoms by thoroughly assessing the patient’s history and running additional tests. 

The most important thing to the doctor is to get an accurate diagnosis so that the treatment will be effective and efficient.  Without a sure diagnosis the doctor’s actions would be at best a waste of time and money and at worse, they could be lethal.  The point is that medical professionals are careful not to make any assumptions or try any treatments until they have made a thorough assessment of the patient and have identified the cause of the symptoms. Once a medical professional identifies the cause, then he or she can directly treat the problem with confidence and the symptoms will resolve themselves.  The final step of problem solving in this example is After Care, in which the medical team follows up with the patient to make sure that the problem has been fully resolved.

 Unresolved high-conflict divorces severely traumatize millions of children and parents every year. These cases put a serious burden on family court and society and cause life-long harm to the children.  Family court can resolve these cases by correctly identifying the problem through psychological testing conducted by a psychologist competent in personality disorders.  Psychologically evaluating the parents is not an attempt to assign blame or stigmatize a parent, but is the only way to get valid evidence about the cause of high-conflict cases.  Once the parental mental illness is understood, the court can order treatments that will finally resolve these never-ending divorces.