Courts must provide structure by setting limits and holding parents accountable if they want to effectively manage high-conflict cases.

May 17, 2012


Hello, I’m Megan Hunter, publisher of a few books at HCI Press and owner of UnhookedBooks.com, your resource for all things related to unhooking from conflict.

While working at the Arizona Supreme Court in family law, I listened as family court judges, lawyers and mental health professionals bemoaned having to deal with the 10%-15% of litigants who took 90% of the court’s time and resources yet were mostly able to resolve their disputes and move on. I empathized with their frustrations as they explained the stress caused by these cases – inability to sleep, not knowing who was lying or telling the truth, making decisions for families who were fractured seemingly beyond repair and watching the children suffer greatly. Sadly, I didn’t have a solution for them.

On the other side of the coin, I witnessed the destruction of a friend’s children as she and her children’s father sought to destroy each other before, during and long after the divorce. Instead, the children suffered. Again, what drove them to behave this way?

In 2005 I happened upon an article by Bill Eddy, a California lawyer and therapist. With each paragraph, the light bulbs came on – brilliantly – and I knew he had figured out the root cause of their behaviors. They had high-conflict personalities (HCPs), which caused fear to drive their illogical behavior.

Well, I brought him to Arizona to train the judges and as they say, the rest is history. The judges “got it” and Bill and I hit the road to train family law professionals everywhere. We realized that they needed to understand the backwards logic of HCPs and how to flip their approach in dealing with them. The result has been phenomenal. Judges report that they are catching their zzz’s now.

ImageBill Eddy, LCSW, CFLS, is a leading international expert in helping professionals and parents understand high-conflict personalities in divorce and child custody disputes. In his newest book, The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress, he offers his perspective as a family lawyer, mental health professional, mediator and trainer of judges in managing high-conflict people in court. He offers helpful solutions and powerful yet simple tools that judges can immediately use in their courtrooms.

This book is written for judicial officers, but the tools provided are applicable to any family law professional.

Bill Eddy does a brilliant job at applying lessons learned from the mental health field to the family court system. Traditional court management methods do not work well in high-conflict cases because of the HCPs backwards logic. Sometimes one parent is an HCP and sometimes both are. Kids in these families absorb their parent’s negative emotions and learn to become abusive, abused and/or alienated in their present and future close relationships.

Courts must provide structure by setting limits and holding parents accountable if they want to effectively manage high-conflict cases. Just like raising healthy children by placing responsibility on them so they will learn skills, the courts must place more responsibility on the parents. By doing so, the parents learn necessary skills for resolving future conflict and be a positive influence on their children.

The issue’s not the issue in these cases – the personality is the issue.

My favorite chapter was about reducing STRESS on children. Research tells us that prolonged stress on children releases cortisol in the brain which can cause damage to brain development over time, especially the corpus collusum, which helps right and left brains work smoothly in problem-solving. By applying a different strategy in these cases, the courts may actually be able to be a part of reducing this stress on children.

NEW WAYS FOR FAMILIES was another tool Bill provides for judges. He created this method for courts to use with high-conflict parents with the goals of:

1.    Immunizing families against becoming high-conflict during separation/divorce

2.    Helping parents teach their children resilience in this time of huge and rapid change in the foundation of their family life

3.    Strengthening both parent’s abilities to make parenting decisions, while relying less on experts and the courts to make their decisions for them.

4.    Assisting professionals and the courts in assessing both parent’s potential to learn new, positive ways of problem-solving and organizing their family after a separation or divorce.

5.    Giving parents a chance to change poor parenting behaviors (including abuse and alienation) before long-term decisions are made. This method emphasizes learning new skills for positive future behavior.

Doing divorce the way we’ve always done it is not effective for high-conflict families. This little book gives courts the simple tools to adjust their strategy and effectively help families avoid the War of the Roses outcome. We hope the suggestions in this book can help create a shift in thinking about this problem and create a new paradigm in family court cases…..the children will thank us.

Click here to purchase your copy of The Future of Family Court: Skills, Structure and Less Stress by Bill Eddy, LCSW, CFLS, $9.95 through 6/30/12

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4 Responses to “Courts must provide structure by setting limits and holding parents accountable if they want to effectively manage high-conflict cases.”

  1. Chris Says:

    I have been following Bill Eddy’s books and webpage for about 3 years now. When a friend was going through a divorce with his BPD ex wife I gave him the book Splitting. He practices No Low communication as best he can although she is very good at roping him into high conflict emails. The question I have from what I have witnessed is many times the conflict is one sided especially in the legal arena. What can be done when one parent is always high conflict and keeps the law suites and motions before court going for years but the other parent has no desire to participate but is forced to because or the other parents continouse litigous nature? After trying to mediate with her to revise the parenting schedule do to a change in his job he has to file a motion in court to have it mediated because she refused to discuss it. Instead of agreeing to mediation outside of the court she hired the most expensive litigation attorney in her area. She has spent over $100,000 on her attorney in the past two years and there is no sign of it letting up. The judge is frustrated with the over litigation of this case but has allowed several of her motions to stand or has ruled in her favor even with blatent misinformation being presented and having benn corrected. Sometimes the judge rules on things without any It seams that the one who screams loudest is the one the judges listen to and rule in favor of.What’s the best way to handle this with out having to spend the same amount on an attorney to defend yourself over and over again? Do the courts every punish the one who over litigates and what about the attorneys who take on and purpetuate these types of cases?

    Frustrated with Injustice!


    • What can be done when one parent is always high conflict and keeps the lawsuits and motions before court going for years, but the other parent has no desire to participate – but is forced to because of the other parent’s continuous litigious nature?

      It seems that the one who screams loudest is the one the judges listen to and rule in favor of. What’s the best way to handle this without having to spend the same amount on an attorney to defend yourself over and over again?

      Do the courts every punish the one who over litigates and what about the attorneys who take on and perpetuate these types of cases?

      These are very common and important questions. In divorce and separation, parenting matters are handled by courts as civil disputes, with “rights” to an adversarial court process. This means that either party may bring a request for court action at any time; either party can say almost anything (so long as it is sworn to be “under penalty of perjury); and each new issue can start the whole process over again.

      Is this a terrible process for raising children? Absolutely Yes! Is this system abused by parents with mental health problems who project all of their own problems onto others, especially the other parent and/or the child? Absolutely Yes!

      This is the reason that many family professionals are working hard to get these decisions out of the adversarial court process and into mediation and other non-adversarial procedures. However, some cases need a clear determination of which parent is misbehaving, so that abuse can be stopped, false allegations can be exposed and other misbehavior can be indentified and addressed. Therefore, the adversarial court process remains an open door to make judicial determinations about which parent is misbehaving and what the consequence should be.

      Unfortunately, family law judges have to make decisions based on very little useful evidence – primarily “he said, she said” information – with very little training in family dynamics. Much of it is highly emotional and emotions can be contagious. Some judges have much more training and experience in seeing through a lot of emotional “loud” arguments, but others get “emotionally hooked” for a while.

      From my experience it can take several hearings to get the court to fully understand what is really going on when there is a “high-conflict personality” involved, which often includes personality disorders or traits. Their dramatic statements and all-or-nothing thinking can be very persuasive – especially when they honestly believe information that is totally inaccurate.

      What can you do?

      I believe that you need to focus on gathering and providing information to the court, which shows the patterns of behavior of the person who is misbehaving – be it over-litigating a case, or engaging in abusive behavior (domestic violence, child abuse, child alienation, etc.), or making false allegations of abusive behavior. By explaining the patterns of concerning behavior, you have a better chance of getting the court to realize that one or two incidents or problems are really part of a pattern of problems that will continue until the court steps in and makes orders to stop these problems.

      It helps to point out to the court 5-6 of the worst behavior problems with specific examples, so that the court gets what is really going on. But you can’t present this information with a lot of drama and emotion, or you might be seen as a “high-conflict person” yourself and lose credibility with the court. The focus needs to be on straight information describing the details of problems, not just “he was abusive” or “she was irresponsible.”

      One helpful method for explaining patterns of concerning behavior is our new method called HCI Pattern Analysis, developed to help people show professionals and the court what is really going on – in a simple and clear diary of problems on a computer screen. You show the pattern, then you show each event that has occurred as part of this pattern.

      Then, you need to present reasonable solutions to each problem (such as a parenting plan proposal or two), so that the judge realizes that you are the reasonable parent. It helps to realize that high-conflict people have a hard time making reasonable proposals, because they are so focused on blaming the other person rather than solving problems.

      Another helpful approach is for parents and professionals to seek changes in the family court system like those I recommend in my new book: The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress.

      Good Luck!
      Bill Eddy
      —————————————-
      Bill Eddy is a family law attorney (Certified Family Law Specialist), a therapist with children and families (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), a family mediator (Senior Family Mediator, National Conflict Resolution Center) and President of the High Conflict Institute (www.HighConflictInstitute.com). He has taught at the University of San Diego School of Law, the Pepperdine School of Law and is on the part-time faculty of the National Judicial College. He is the author of several books, including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress and It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. For more information about his books: http://www.UnhookedBooks.com.


  2. Bill — I am a great admirer of your work, but in my locale I have not seen any willingness in the part of the judges to be educated and change whatever their initial impression may have been of the case OR the parties…(And I have seen a LOT of cases like the one described above,) God forbid the parties be of a cultural group the Bar have a bias about.. say Middle Eastern.

    In a case I am trying to wrap up now (I seem to be the clean up batter as it were) my approach is try to downplay the YEARS of court hearings and ask the court to provide a nuetral ADR. Luckily,the kids are grown. One can hope!

    I VERY MUCH hope your book makes it to this set of judges!


  3. Reblogged this on ecarrollstraus and commented:
    I was glad to see the question about the persistent stirrer of the pot-I have seen it SO much for SO long. I hope this book get wide reception.


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