The idea that “you will have your day in court!” and get justice is a myth. At least that’s how I see it.
Now in my SEVENTH YEAR of court after getting out of a toxic marriage, I’ve had so many appearances that I’ve lost count. Most of these have been after the divorce, in an attempt to get my ex-husband to simply abide by our separation agreement. And I’m not even close to being done.
We would like to think that our legal system works. But for many domestic violence victims, family court instead allows abuse to continue on a broader stage, often traumatizing the very people seeking relief.
When you decide to finally leave an abusive marriage, it can become the beginning of a whole new war if you must continue to deal with that person in the legal system.
Logic does not apply…
Being rational usually does not work when dealing with a high-conflict personality. You already know this from your marriage. Using reasonable strategies to resolve conflict with an unreasonable person (and their unreasonable attorney) will often cost you much more in time, money, and energy, and most especially in the legal system.
In a normal divorce, both partners generally accept that to get through the process, it’s best to spend as little money as possible, and cause the least amount of damage to the kids.
This will probably not be your reality.
You may find that every step you take in an attempt to move toward resolution is met with more difficulty. It probably feels as though your ex will do anything in their power to keep the process going, no matter what the damage is to you, your children, and sometimes even to him/herself.
The issue stems from a loss of power in the relationship, and they will fight to do whatever it takes in an attempt to regain control.
People like your ex often have a deep fear of abandonment. This is why, even if they are the ones who initiate a separation, the act of moving toward a conclusion means a loss of your attention.
Finding the right lawyer
Divorce is a major money-making industry, and a large part of the pie goes to attorneys. It is essential that you choose well.
From the very beginning, you need to find a lawyer who “gets it,” and who you feel comfortable with, as you will be paying this person to be your ally.
It is essential that your attorney understand the nature of high-conflict personalities in the system, and know-how to appropriately deal with them, or you will end up wasting huge amounts of money, and becoming completely frustrated (which, by the way, can happen anyway, depending on other factors).
For example, your lawyer should recognize that some of the techniques used in normal divorce will have the opposite effect in a situation like yours. Whereas the goal for a typical divorce is quick resolution, a toxic person (and their lawyer) will feed off impossible negotiation, leading to endless back and forth, driving up your own bills.
For specific tips on issues like finding the right attorney and what to know at the beginning of the process, join our Legal Abuse Support Group (learn more here).
As so many cases involving a high-conflict person will return to court after a dissolution, your number one goal should be to stay organized. This advice from my own divorce attorney has served me extremely well in the past few years. The more prepared you are, the more able you will be to help your attorney, or possibly even represent yourself, saving money in the process.
During my divorce, my ex-husband refused to cooperate with financial discovery and hid assets, a classic behavior of abusers in court. He actually showed up to nine consecutive scheduled court hearings without court-ordered documents, and the judge kept bending over backward, giving him chance after chance, with empty threats. It was appalling, but there wasn’t much I could do, except to keep showing up and note repeatedly on the record how many times his behavior had been excused.
At some point, my ex dismissed his then-attorney, and (wouldn’t you know it?) the next hearing the judge announced that she’d had enough. We finally began a three-day trial then and there and, luckily, I was ready to go.
Armed with clearly organized documents, I was able to submit valuable evidence into the record which the ex’s subsequent attorney unsuccessfully tried to erase. This preparation was the basis for my first big win in court as a pro se (self-represented,) which led to the modification of our support orders in my children’s favor.
And keep your cool…
A lot of judges assume that it “takes two to tango” in high-conflict cases. They will often view both of you as difficult.
Therefore, your main goal within the courtroom should be to stay calm. The less emotional you are before a judge, the more likely what you say will be perceived as reasonable.
This can be extraordinarily difficult. Brace yourself for outrageous claims and false accusations from not just your ex, but his/her attorney. Who could believe that anyone, especially lawyers, would lie on the record? Anyone familiar with family court will tell you that it is commonplace and usually goes unpunished.
However, if you’re lucky, as time passes, it should become apparent to a judge exactly what is going on. Sadly it may take many court appearances before this occurs, especially as judges often change and you have to end up repeating your story to many different people deciding your fate. Chris went through at least five judges during the three years that it took for him to finalize his divorce.
No magic wands…
Though we want to believe that the court will fix everything, the truth is that most judges have neither the time nor interest in hearing most of the details of your case. Their goal is limited: to divide assets and figure out what needs to happen regarding custody and college for your children. Do not expect sympathy from a judge whose main purpose is to get to the next case on their docket!
So why bother?
Although court can often be a harrowing experience, especially for those of us experiencing legal abuse, there are actually some things you have control over.
Focus on what you can do to strengthen your own case. One of the best ways to do this is to keep excellent records. If you have the tenacity and support to keep going, over time you should be able to establish patterns of behavior, which can significantly affect judgments.
Most people agree that the family court system needs a lot of work. Unfortunately, there are not many other options to resolve issues with a high-conflict person. Be prepared to get less than a completely fair outcome. Pick your battles. Remember, your goal should be to get out of the legal system as quickly and efficiently as possible, while keeping yourself and your kids physically, emotionally, and financially safe.
For support on how to navigate your way through the legal system with a high-conflict ex, join our Legal Abuse Support Group (learn more here).