Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What the System Creates

I recently attended the New Zealand Family Law Conference. As an outsider, I noticed a few things. First, I know nothing about New Zealand trust law, but the presentation about Family Trusts was still interesting. Second, and this really came as no surprise, family law is the same whether it happens in New Zealand, the United States, or anywhere that allows divorce fairly easily and especially in places that are, at their core, adversarial.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that the final presentation of the conference was about dealing with difficult people, specifically about recognizing and responding to people with diagnosable personality disorders. It was humorous as the presenter showed video clips depicting characters who fit each stereotypical diagnosis. But we all know that dealing with people who have personality disorders is rarely funny and sometimes downright frightening.

A few days after the conference I read an article called “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike.” For those of you who do not know who Lt. John Pike is, he is a police officer at the University of California Davis (or he might be a Davis City Police Officer) who pepper-sprayed student Occupy protestors while they were sitting down and already handcuffed. There is a photo in the article. Since the incident, there have been cries for his termination, and people have called for the UC Davis Chancellor to resign as well. As the article says, he “has become the new face of evil among people following the Occupy protests around the country.”

But the article presents a different scenario. Lt. John Pike is a byproduct of a system that has gotten completely out of control. More importantly, the article suggests that while being pepper sprayed is awful, what happens to a normal guy like Lt. John Pike to turn him into someone capable of nonchalantly pepper spraying restrained students is possibly much worse.

And no, I am not suggesting Lt. John Pike has a diagnosable personality disorder. I am, however, suggesting that we look to the system as part of the cause of the personality disordered clients we see in the family law system. These people come to the system with certain propensities, have been harmed by other systems all their lives, and then are asked to be rational and non-emotional during one of the most difficult and emotionally intense times of their lives. Do we really expect to get different results?

The system fails these people. Lawyers, who are often the front line of the public’s interaction with the family law system, are never trained to understand these people. Lawyers are part of a system that asks us to rip emotion and humanity out of the case in order to focus on “relevant facts.” While many, and probably most, family law professionals take up the work is because they care deeply about people, the system ensures we take a “healthy” distance from that caring.

And so we are left with a system attempting to get people with personality disorders, often resulting from incomplete emotional attachment as children, to emotionally detach and combining them with lawyers forced to detach from the human side of the case to focus on the legal side. We stir these groups together with a system that is overburdened and has no time or resources to respond to the people involved.

What do we expect to happen?

We should be asking a different question. How can we learn to respond to these issues? How can we create a system that is more responsive? How can we have more interdisciplinary understanding? How can we provide the space for clients to feel heard and understood? There is no question that dealing with people with diagnosable personality disorders is difficult, extremely difficult. But how much of how they act is a direct result of the system in which we force them to operate?

What do you think we could do to improve it?

© Rebecca Stahl 2011, all rights reserved.


  1. Rebecca,

    You are so right on. I often teach about personality disordered parents in high conflict situations and talk about generally good people on their worst behavior. Nearly 50 % of people go through divorce and the system is foreign. When you add to it that it is expensive (thus people fear losing their money), it is contentious (and people fear losing their kids), and it is shameful (people fear being blamed), this fear makes it extremely difficult not to have intense emotions. A very small percentage of people have diagnosable personality disorders but many more have features or traits that make it look like they are disordered by how they interact in this difficult and scary (to them) system.

    Good counseling / therapy for many of these folks at the right time could help. If children are involved, good parent education at the right time and mediation can always help. But most of all, some compassion from the system and people to listen to their fears and shame can help these people feel less guilt and blame and may actually cause them to blame their ex and take more personal responsibility for what is going on in their lives.

  2. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  3. As always, thank you, Phil, for the insight. Well said!