Family Court is a Bitch

Family court is a place only high-conflict cases usually end up using. So if a family is in family court for years, there is something very wrong, often with one parent conflating family court with co-parenting. What is behind this and why are women involved in family court so concerned?

It’s because family court is a mess and the last place you want making decisions for your children. It is a place where you hand over influence, and often, a woman who does not have an ex-partner skilled at leadership and influence, she is forced into situations with her children that are counter-intuitive to good parenting.

I’ve established a group of women who have been impacted by family court injustice. There are plenty of online groups dedicated to supporting women through family court nightmares. It’s not enough to escape a controlling or violent husband because abusive men will keep their reign of terror going through family court. However, family courts are largely subjective, biased (hence the perception that they are biased in favor of women, when the research shows mixed results), and have large gaps in psychological knowledge.

Here is what women with high-conflict exes wish family courts knew.

1. We just want peace.

During our marriages, we tried to keep the peace before we knew what we were dealing with. Being obsequious didn’t work to stop any weird control, criticism, physical restraint and violence, financial constraint, shaming, projection, gaslighting, dishonesty, or other forms of abuse. We tried therapy, we worked harder, we fought back or we didn’t fight back when legitimately threatened. None of that worked to create peace in our homes.

However, we still crave peace. We deserve respect as mothers. PTSD from marital abuse is real.

We wish you knew that women are not the enemies of men you make us out to be. We are concerned for our children and wish you did a better job of protecting them. We wish you would believe us when we speak out against abuse and wish you understood that allowing children to witness a lifetime of their father manipulating and harassing their mother is doing children a disservice.

2. We wish you embraced psychological science instead of pseudo-scientific theories.

“Parental alienation syndrome” is not a real syndrome. It is heavily debated by the American Psychological Association, but as a psychology student and an abuse survivor, I will give my take on it.

I doubt many fathers have been accused of alienation, suggesting “PAS” is a gender biased theory. And it is just a theory, not a fact. It is a distraction from established knowledge about abuse dynamics, of which family court personnel know little.

Let’s take my case, for example. My dad was so abusive a judge gave my mom a gun permit and told her to move. The judge’s answer to my dad’s abuse was to punish US by making us uproot our home and in today’s family court parlance, “alienate” us from our dad. But we NEEDED to be alienated from him. For years, I struggled with our culture’s tendency to blame the mother when things go wrong. I went through a phase where I blamed her for my dad’s behavior. But her anger, sending back gifts, alternately supporting and preventing communication with our dad were actually understandable responses to an unpredictable, charming, violent, and dishonest person. As an adult, I came to see that abuse disorganizes a family in ways that are difficult to untangle. For me, I untangled myself from my dad, choosing instead to embrace relationships that are reciprocal in nature and to work on healing from the damage of abuse.

While not every father is physically violent like my dad was, even the ones that are seem to be preferred over no father. There is no psychological research that equalizes that-no proof that an absent dad is worse than an abusive dad.

What about disordered dads? A woman who sits in her therapists’ offices and is told her ex’s behavior is entirely consistent with a personality disorder is going to want to protect her children from the effects of that disorder. But you seem to have no concern for the long term impact of that in the families you serve.

Family court, we wish you saw us as the protective, intelligent, upright women that we are, instead of moralizing us as vindictive and unthinking. With your resistance to learning how abuse and personality disorders are what drives high conflict cases, and your holding to unproven theories, you are placing children in situations where their quality of life is compromised and you become unwitting supporters of abuse of women and children.

3. We wish you knew the impact of poverty on women and children.

Often, a high conflict ex-spouse, who is fueling a family court tirade, is well-funded. If he has no scruples in controlling a spouse during marriage, he will have no scruples in taking resources away from his children. This is through inflicting excess debt on his ex-spouse, ensuring that the children are only supported in what he wishes them to be supported in, and he will not consistently care for the expenses of raising children, preferring instead to divert his finances and the finances of his family to the business of family court.

This is the worst kind of madness imaginable. The deleterious health effects of poverty are well researched and documented. Why a man would want to create that for his children indicates an abusive mindset-one that prefers the victories of lording warful punishment of an ex-spouse over the very real needs of his children. Instead of working positively to support them and create a secure environment for them, he destabilizes the family through moving them towards poverty. Symmetry is not the same as fairness or justice. Symmetry is a lie that serves abusers and those in power.

Symmetry often perpetuates cycles of poverty in families. Impoverishing one parent through withholding resources, creating crippling debt in the name of conflict and drama, and recklessly spending what is, in effect, your child’s future so the legal system can reap more benefit from you than your own children is just wrong. Supporting a person to do that puts society back to an era of barbarianism.

When you sit down to your nightly dinner- a dinner you had no trouble paying for, a dinner you didn’t have to worry would be there, in your nice clothes you earned for yourself that no one tried to ever take away, with a car that works all the time, in a nice house in a safe neighborhood, think on the single mothers you serve. Think about how their exes are hiding money and you worry about that, but your hands are tied. Go further. Think about having to budget for legal issues, and deny your children things they need and want in order to pay those legal fees, fees you did nothing to provoke. Try to do a budget for a single mother on a salary at least 1/4 of what you make. Add legal fees in to that. Can you make ends meet? You will most certainly have to sacrifice braces, your own healthcare, extracurriculars for your children, and food, clothing, and transportation from time to time. Consider this state and struggle for your children happened not because you didn’t work hard enough or employ yourself fully or go on a reckless spending spree, but because your ex set out to sabotage you. consider how you can no longer parent the way you dreamed of parenting, and how it is inconceivable someone you loved, who is supposed to love and care about your children, has allowed this to happen.

If you knew how much you played into creating poverty for women, minorities, and children, you would be ashamed. Please work to correct this issue and inform yourselves thoroughly about financial abuse as a huge part of domestic abuse.

4. We wish you knew how much we bear for the sake of men, and how you could help lift men up instead of infantilizing their fathering.

From Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (p. 58):

“In an HBO documentary about Eastern Kentucky hill people, the patriarch of a large Appalachian family introduces himself by drawing strict lines between work acceptable for men and work acceptable for women. While it’s obvious what he considers “women’s work,” it’s not at all clear what work, if any, is acceptable for him. Apparently not paid employment, since the man has never worked a paying job in his life. Ultimately, the verdict of his own son is damning: “Daddy says he’s worked in his life. Only thing Daddy’s worked is his goddamned ass. Why not be straight about it, Pa? Daddy was an alcoholic. He would stay drunk, he didn’t bring food home. Mommy supported her young’uns. If it hadn’t been for Mommy, we’d have been dead.”

Family court often romanticizes the deadbeat, saying, in essence, “at least he shows up” and “a disordered father is better than no father-his rights trump the children’s rights to psychological health” and “he must never be responsible for his behavior.” While this passage illustrates one family, so many of us can relate to having to constantly take up a man’s slack in some way, while supporting his right to have his addiction (in this case, alcohol, but it could just as easily be addiction to power.) My own mother grew  this way, as did I to a certain extent, and also to a certain extent repeated that pattern in my own intimate relationships.

What is important about this passage is that this shiftless man was given patriarch status, despite the fact that he had done nothing of import in his life or his leadership of the family. He was simply given respect and privilege without earning it, while the mother in this picture worked to support him so he could reap the benefits of respect. He had actually earned nothing.

If family court personnel were more educated about the dynamics of poverty, domestic violence, and psychological health, they would support men to support their families instead of allowing them to use the family court system to punish their WHOLE family (spend your parents’ retirement much?) They could move abusive men towards a mindset of gaining the rightful respect of their families through effective leadership. Effective leadership never included coercive control tactics or avoiding work in order to bring everyone down to your level. It also never involved expecting someone else to do your dirty work and take the fall when things went wrong.

5. We wish you’d stop stereotyping us

Some women really have been abused and when we speak up about it, it is often from a place of intelligence, research, and more importantly, protection for our children. We know it is a lot to ask, but we wish you’d trust our knowledge and desire to do what is best for our children. We understand our children need their fathers. We just don’t want his abusive behaviors and attitudes to negatively affect our children either in their thinking or quality of life. We want what is best for our children in all things and when you assume we are vindictive liars and work to punish us through upholding an abuser’s right to abuse, you are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and put yourself in the position of co-abuser. If your goal is to protect children, you must stop favoring fathers and support mothers as well.

We’re not all the overly emotional, overprotective, irrational and hair-trigger creatures you make us out to be. We are thinking, successful, strong parents who do all we can to give our children a good life and would go to the moon and back to have an actual partner working WITH us in that instead of AGAINST us.

6. We wish you’d stop lying to us about bias.

Bias in family court happens towards mothers and fathers because family court is so subjective. However, in cases where a father claims alienation and a woman claims abuse, the bias is so heavily in favor of an abuser it is heartbreaking. Bias against women has gone too far and it’s only a matter of time before #metoo and #timesup catches up with you.

You tell us you are for the best interests of children, yet your system is inherently classist, racist, and sexist. Stop lying to us that the system unilaterally serves children. Individual judges do indeed serve children. But your system as a whole does not.

See: https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/faculty_publications/1283/

7. We wish you’d stop letting yourself be gaslighted.

One of the obvious ways you do this is financially. A man can spend untold thousands on litigation yet the only resources you believe he has are the ones on cherry-picked pieces of paper.

This man who walks into the courtroom and presents himself well is often manipulating you. It’s hard for everyone to believe he is abusive, and isolating his victim by making her look crazy is what he does very well. And you play into discrediting a woman, because of the gender beliefs that are so common.

Refusing to look at the facts within the context of a bigger picture allows lies to proliferate. The other lies you allow is that a father can abuse a child’s mother and still be a good father. A father can refuse to support or respect a mother and still be a good father. A father can be abusive, misogynistic, and have a personality disorder but still be considered a good father. Now, I’m all for open mindedness but I think only paying attention to the micro without appreciating the macro is a mistake. To combat this, education about personality disorders helps, but you also need strictures in place to get children of disordered and abusive parents into therapy, more therapists need training, and learning to identify all forms of abuse before cases get out of hand will help you.

8. We wish you knew that we thank you.

We wish you knew how much we love and care about our children, and understand that many of you truly are working side by side with us and agree wholeheartedly with what I’ve written here. Many of you are up against a system that seems overwhelming and insurmountable at times, with colleagues who sometimes work against you, are dishonest,  or don’t uphold the law. We know it is often difficult to take heart in our situations, and that we sometimes behave in ways that make you question our sanity. Like I said and like I lived, abuse is a severely disorganizing force on a family. It’s hard for anyone to make sense of an unreasonable and extreme situation. Those of you who are working to improve conditions for our children, we thank you. This was not written for you.

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