Family Law Matters Must Be Handled With Care

By: Mark B. Baer, Esq.
Last Update: October 29, 2016

Shame, bitterness, and betrayal generated by the way in which family law matters are handled either by the individuals themselves or through their attorneys often creates a great deal of unnecessary conflict. For example, it is important to keep in mind that the other parent is not necessarily a bad parent just because both parents are not able to agree on a parenting plan or some other issue pertaining to their child(ren). However, when correspondence and pleadings associated with such matters are drafted, there is typically such a preoccupation in showing the other parent in a bad light, that very rarely is it acknowledged that he or she may actually be a good parent overall.

Unfortunately, in doing so, the other parent may well experience shame by seeing themselves through the eyes of their co-parent as a "bad parent." Such an approach also tends to cause them to feel as though they are being treated unfairly, which leads to bitterness and a sense of betrayal. Misunderstandings lead to conflict or at least an increase in the level of conflict, which typically increases the financial cost of addressing the issues and negatively impacts people's ability to co-parent going forward.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, "shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change."

There is a huge difference between telling someone that their parenting could use some improvement and telling them that they are a bad parent, either explicitly or implicitly. During the course of her research, Dr. Brown discovered the following twelve categories of shame:

1. Appearance and body image

2. Money and work

3. Motherhood/fatherhood

4. Family

5. Parenting

6. Mental and physical health (including addiction)

7. Sex

8. Aging

9. Religion

10. Speaking out

11. Surviving trauma

12. Being stereotyped and labeled

Do you realize that when dealing with the dissolution of relationships where families are involved, at least five categories of shame can potentially come into play? Interestingly enough, Dr. Brown is by no means alone in finding that shame may result in hurt, bitterness, anger and betrayal. Shame also happens to be "associated with a host of issues including addiction, violence, and depression."

In his article titled "Anger Disorder (Part Two): Can Bitterness Become a Mental Disorder?," Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. defined bitterness as "a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, and one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. Bitterness is a kind of morbid characterological hostility toward someone, something or toward life itself, resulting from the consistent repression of anger, rage or resentment regarding how one really has or perceives to have been treated. Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization."

Clare A. Piro addressed the topic of bitterness stemming from the manner in which family law matters are handled in her article titled "Are You Angry or Are You Bitter?" In that article, Ms. Piro stated the following:

"When I litigated matrimonial matters, I saw that clients who were angry tended to move on with their lives after their divorce. Clients who were bitter, not so much. It always saddened me that clients who 'won' and got what they thought they wanted, were still not satisfied, still bitter, still evoking sarcasm and negativity.

Litigation doesn't help anyone to move on in a constructive way. Instead, the goal to 'win' and exact vengeance encourages a battle with a spouse in which holding onto negativity propels one to go to an even darker place. When the litigation is over, those feelings don't go away, and without the outlet of the battle, those dark emotions prevent one from moving forward.

That is one of the many reasons I shifted to mediation many years ago. Of course, I see clients who are angry, and yes, clients who show signs of bitterness. However, if you choose to engage in a process that by its very nature seeks to achieve a mutual result and not a one-sided 'win,' the focus shifts from the past to the future. And so do the emotions."

It is also important to mention that even though people may be divorcing or otherwise ending their romantic relationship, some degree of trust between them may still exist. However, that trust will likely be completely destroyed by doing something that betrays it.

In her article titled "Betrayal, Rejection, Revenge, and Forgiveness: An Interpersonal Script Approach," Julie Fitness stated as follows:

"The Macquarie Dictionary (1991) lists a number of different, though closely related, meanings of the term 'to betray,' including to deliver up to an enemy, to be disloyal or unfaithful, to deceive or mislead, to reveal secrets, to seduce and desert, and to disappoint the hopes or expectations of another. Implicit in a number of these definitions is the rejection or discounting of one person by another...

Essentially, betrayal means that one party in a relationship acts in a way that favors his or her own interests at the expense of the other party's interests. In one sense, this behavior implies that the betrayer regards his or her needs as more important than the needs of the partner or the relationship. In a deeper sense, however, betrayal sends an ominous signal about how little the betrayer cares about, or values his or her relationship with, the betrayed partner...

Betrayal may occur in any kind of relationship context if one or other party violates salient relational expectations or 'breaks the rules' in some way...

Whether or not an act of betrayal involves lies, deception, or infidelity, one important aspect of the experience that intensifies its severity and painfulness is humiliation, or the perception that one has been shamed and treated with disrespect, especially in public (Gaylin,1984; Metts, 1994)... Fitness and Fletcher (1993) found that being mocked or publicly shamed by one's spouse evoked strong feelings of hatred for him or her, and several researchers have noted the link between perceived humiliation and physical violence in marital and dating relationships (e.g., Dutton & Browning, 1988; Foo & Margolin, 1995; Lansky, 1987)." It should be noted that when such allegations are documented in some form of writing and shared with others, including lawyers, judges, individuals present in the courtroom during the hearing or trial, or accessible to anyone who seeks to view the court file, there is little doubt that the information has been made public. Family law court files are matters of public record in many jurisdictions, including California.

As John Amodeo, Ph.D. noted in his article titled "Dealing with Betrayal," Betrayal is one of the most painful human experiences. Discovering that someone we trusted has deeply hurt us pulls the reality rug from under us.... A damaging aspect of betrayal is that our sense of reality is undermined. What felt like solid trust suddenly crumbles. Our innocence is shattered. We're left wondering: What happened? How could this happen? Who is this person?"

Since shame, bitterness and betrayal are such toxic and destructive emotions, careful deliberation should be given both to the approach taken and the way in which information is conveyed. This is especially true, considering what is typically involved in helping people to work through these emotions.

For instance, according to Brene Brown, "empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. In fact, it is the most powerful antidote to shame. Empathy involves understanding another person's situation from their perspective. As such, you must be able to place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they are feeling and without judging them. Empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective." Nevertheless, people don't tend to talk about their shame. "According to Brown, shame is a silent epidemic, and the more we keep it secret, the firmer its hold on us." Unfortunately, if people keep their shame to themselves, it is unlikely that they will receive the antidote.

According to Dr. Diamond, "most mental disorders stem either directly from--or secondarily generate--anger, rage, resentment, hostility or bitterness.... There is no question that, if left to fester unconsciously, anger, rage and resentment about having been traumatized become bitterness and hostility, which in turn give rise to self-defeating, sometimes passive-aggressive, destructive, vengeful or even violent behavior. Pathological embitterment is a dangerous state of mind that can and does motivate evil deeds...." He then goes on to suggest that in order to help people to overcome their bitterness, treatment should focus "that which is believed to underlie it." Once again, we run into the problem that "shame is a silent epidemic."

With regard to betrayal, Dr. Amodeo states that "repeated expressions of heartfelt sorrow and regret by the betrayer may offer some hope for healing...." This is consistent with what Charles Feltman says in "The Thin Book of Trust." In that book, Mr. Feltman states as follows:

"The only known antidote for betrayal of someone's trust is to acknowledge it and apologize for it. To acknowledge the betrayal means recognizing what you did was wrong or damaging in the other person's eyes. Even if you didn't intend it, whatever you did hurt them in some way, and they want to know you realize and take it seriously.

To apologize is to take responsibility for what you've done, ask forgiveness, and declare your intention to redeem yourself. This, in turn, opens the possibility of a conversation about how you can make amends. Redeeming yourself in the eyes of someone you have betrayed usually means making a commitment to not repeat the action that led to betrayal. It may also entail helping fix whatever problem your actions created.

Acknowledging and apologizing are essential to restoring lost trust...

Trust is fundamental to our sense of safety, autonomy and dignity as human beings. It is also an integral part of every relationship we have. When we trust someone we feel safe to share what is important to us including our thoughts, ideas, efforts, hopes, and concerns. When others trust us they reciprocate in kind. It doesn't mean we always agree, just that we listen to, respect, and value what each other has to offer. In fact, trust allows us to disagree, debate, and test each other's thinking as we work together to find ideas and solutions."

While there are "antidotes" to destructive and toxic emotions, such as shame, bitterness and betrayal, it is unlikely that the "antidotes" will avail themselves under the circumstances. Therefore, it might be best not to induce such emotions in the first place, if at all possible.

Disputes can be effectively resolved without generating shame, bitterness and a betrayal of trust, but it takes effort. In fact, it is even possible to effectively advocate in such a manner. In so doing, you significantly increase the likelihood of resolving a dispute outside of a courtroom. Moreover, you improve your credibility, in the event the case does proceed to court. After all, judges don't believe that everyone in their courtroom is as bad as they tend to be portrayed by the other party.

Like it or not, if there are children of the relationship (regardless of their age), the family still exists after the relationship ends. The manner in which you end a relationship determines whether your family will be functional or dysfunctional from that day forward. Parents need to understand that what they do, say, and how they act toward the other parent has long-term consequences. The things people do with or without the assistance of their attorneys, have consequences that will last for generations to come. Since divorce is a fact of life, we should do our best to to make it a less destructive process.

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