One of my favorite movies is What About Bob, with Richard Dryfus as Dr. Leo Martin, a psychologist and author of a new bestseller (“Baby Steps“) and Bill Murray as Bob, the patient from hell. Bob convinces Dr. Martin’s whole family that he, Dr. Martin, is crazy, uncaring and self-absorbed, in the end turning his own family against him. And if you watch carefully, Bob is clearly manipulative.
As a family lawyer and mediator I talk to parents with Dr. Martin’s problem all the time. Yes, mom is manipulative, calculating and even abusive. But she’s somehow able to charm the pants off the family court services mediator or even the judge. Or, Dad is a total narcissist and alcoholic, but somehow is able to “get it together” in time for the hearing.
The difficulty here is rooted in the family court system of resolving disputes. Each side argues for their position in a relatively short hearing, and a noble but over-worked decision maker makes rapid judgments about witness credibility and the best interests of your children. If your ex can push your emotional buttons and make you look shrill, he’s already won. The secret is to keep your cool and decline the invitation to engage in a liar’s contest with your nutty ex. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Here are some suggestions:
- Get your children into therapy. A therapist is a mandated reporter of any child abuse, and if you suspect some form of abuse, they are the most credible source of information about it. When your children complain about your co-parent, you can be sympathetic, but by all means resist the temptation to blast your co-parent to the child. A therapist’s office is the place for your child to vent about your ex, and when the Family Court Services mediator investigates, they will contact the therapist, thereby empowering your child in the litigation.
- Allow your nutty ex to self-destruct. If they truly have a personality disorder, it will eventually show in the way they handle the schedule, help with homework, etc. As long as you try to control what happens in their world, they have the upper hand. If you let go and let the professionals do their work, sooner or later your ex will show her true stripes.
- Major in majors and minor in minors. Assess whether it is necessary to bring a co-parenting matter before the courts. Most of the time, it isn’t. If you don’t like your ex’s parenting style or his new girlfriend, it’s usually best to leave well enough alone. My rule is that unless the issue involves serious abuse or neglect, don’t involve the court. The courts expect most parents to cooperate, and court hearings provide an opportunity for your narcissistic ex to make you look like the crazy one.
- Take parenting classes or attend a high-conflict intervention class. Instead of being focused on what’s going on in her world, you be the hero. Take a class on Redirecting Children’s Behavior (RCB) or conflict-reducing strategies through organizations such as Cooperative Co-parenting. If the court has ordered you to go, don’t delay! Let your ex be the one who didn’t sign up for court-ordered parenting classes. And, don’t wait for the court order–take the classes now and keep proof that you did it.
- Focus on the child, not the other parent. I’m not a therapist, but I am a parent. I have observed that a solid relationship with one parent (you) can do a wealth of good for a child that periodically has to return to the crazy parent’s home. Yet most parents make the mistake of trying to control the other parent’s world. Don’t to that. Instead, take that energy and focus on being an exemplary parent to your children. Build relationships with them. Particpate in their education.
I have found that most parenting issues can be resolved if I have a chance to talk to both parents in my role as a mediator. A mediator can help you to resolve the disputes yourselves, instead of delegating decisions to dedicated but over-worked professionals and judges. And, who knows? As your children get older you may find that your Peter Pan ex has grown up a little, and that you can cooperate after all.
But if she’s the expert at making you look like the crazy one, and she’s really the crazy one, I urge you to use the tips above, and to go rent What About Bob. I remain …
Very truly yours,
Disclaimer: Thomas D. Ferreira is an attorney licensed only in the State of California. The information set forth in this blog or on our websites are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, nor are they intended as legal advice on your specific matter. This information is not intended to apply to cases or jurisdictions outside the State of California, and those viewing this information outside of California, or having business before jurisdictions outside of California, should consult a local professional or lawyer. The information in this blog is not a substitute for the advice of competent counsel, and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as a guarantee, warranty or prediction regarding the results of your legal matter.