J.D. Harvard Law School ‘73
M.A. Columbia University
B.A. Yale University
Mediator, Judge Pro-Tem
Certified Family Law Specialist
licensed by the State Bar of California
Stan is a member of the
San Diego North County Bar Association.
Licensed to practice in California, Maryland, Washington D.C., & Georgia
High conflict cases usually involve child custody and visitation. The parties cannot agree on anything and fight about everything. The cases go on interminably through numerous motion hearings and are resolved only by trials. I'm neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrists, so I'll keep my comments on this phenomenon in plain English.
Consideration of mental illness may help answer some puzzling questions in high conflict cases where one or possibly both parents posses a high conflict personality. For example, why is Mom so convinced after separation that Dad is a terrible parent who should get supervised visitation only, when prior to their separation Dad's parenting skills seemed acceptable? Why is there such a disconnect between the available evidence and Mom's accusations of Dad's unfitness? We could easily reverse the genders.
We now understand that some parents sense of self-worth is excessively and intimately bound up with their children. They are overly dependent upon them. If they feel threatened with the loss of a child to the other parent, they feel threatened as well with the loss of their own identity and their reason for being. They can't let go, and consequently tend to view the child as their exclusive personal property.
This inevitably produces a battle with the other parent over the child's affection and loyalty, which in turn harms the child's own sense of self-worth, reduces the child's ability to trust others, and generally makes the child miserable. The overly invested parent will probably try, figuratively or literally, to take the child away from the other parent.
Assuming we decide that the overly dependent, overly invested parent is abnormal to the extent of mental illness, what do we do about it? The courts can do very little to help such a parent. He or she can only be ordered to outpatient "counseling," and for no more than a year. The court can also order a psychological evaluation and a custody evaluation, but neither is therapeutic.
From a practical standpoint, introducing mental illness into the mix may do little more than provide the court with something else to lean on when it makes child custody and visitation orders in high conflict cases. Genuine mental illness suggests the potential futility of attempting to settle high conflict child custody and visitation disputes by negotiation. Unfortunately, it also suggests that aggressive advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill parent before and at trial will be counterproductive for both parents and for the child.
In my practive I remain mindful of these consideratins at all imes in high conflict cases. When mental illness appears to be a factor in my client's behavior, I do everything possible, with tact and discretion, to induce my cleint to recognize his or her problems and voluntarily enter long tern serious therapy.
San Diego Divorce Attorney Stanley D. Prowse is a California Certified Family Law Specialist. We welcome your legal inquiries.