How healthy is divorce litigation for everyone involved: clients, their families, the lawyers and others? How healthy is it for anyone involved in these cases?
Paranoia is a profound distrust or suspicion of others, which goes hand-in-hand with the belief that one is being persecuted. In divorce, these feelings can have some basis in reality. There may indeed be someone out to get you. Usually, it is the person to whom you had hitherto been closest: your spouse.
Unfortunately, divorce causes some people to become irrational or even delusional. Their perceived “persecutor” is nothing of the sort and may actually be a spouse who wants nothing more than to move on with his or her life.
The painting above is called “Paranoia”. What are the figures in the painting staring at and so worried by? There is no-one visible outside, so what or who do they think may be coming in through the door? Are they right to be worried or are they paranoid?
Its painter, Neo Rauch, is a stellar artist who was born in East Germany. His parents died in a train accident when he was four weeks old and he has clearly been profoundly affected by his background. A collection of his art was exhibited under the title Para at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2007, to rave reviews. I was in New York and visited the exhibition with my son Ben.
I must confess that only recently have I come to appreciate Neo Rauch’s work. His paintings can be very difficult to understand. They need a lot of thought. They certainly appear to be telling a story, but Rauch denies this. His paintings pose questions. Rauch says that his pictures can mean “anything to anyone”. So it is up to each one of us to decide what they actually mean.
Likewise, the emotional rollercoaster that is divorce encourages different people to respond in different ways. Innocent spouses can be accused of harassment and misconduct. The accuser may then refuse to allow the other parent to see a child. Thus the paranoia continues to play out, all the way into the courtroom, with the hapless child caught in the middle. Sadly, this is not uncommon behaviour in my experience.
In other cases, paradoxically, what appears to be delusional or paranoid behaviour is actually a perfectly valid and healthy response to a sinister situation. In such cases the persecutor will stealthily, relentlessly and deliberately increase the pressure and the cost – financial and emotional – upon the victim, while going to great lengths to make others believe that the victim is to blame. When the victim complains, the complaints are dismissed and he or she is wrongly criticised.
In all cases the perpetrators may be assisted by others, frequently members of their own family, close friends and unwittingly, even their own lawyers. I recently saw a TV programme about this phenomenon, which is called “groupthink”. The word is used to describe what happens when a group of people support one another, without questioning their plan of action. Lawyers will be familiar with clients who insist on bringing a family member or close friend with them, to provide unquestioning support. Lawyers, who act on their client’s instructions, may also become part of that unconditionally supportive group. But is this healthy?
Divorce causes emotional turbulence, which can affect the minds of both parties and their supporters. Profound love can turn into profound hate. Most people come through the divorce process bruised – but recover. But in a few, thankfully rare cases, those with controlling personalities may find it difficult to let go. Supported by their ‘group’, they may stalk their former partner playing mind games, determined never to stop until the spouse is worn out, exhausted and beaten.
All this of course, is why we have our Courts of Justice. The judges are there to level the uneven playing field, to identify the victim and to protect them from the perpetrator. Our courts are a bastion of strength, and their function is to apply justice.
Even so, I must confess that as a family lawyer, I enjoy the luxury of extended thought. I am currently advising the scriptwriters of a top British TV programme about a fictional court case. It is good fun because it gives me free rein to let my imagination run riot!
It has occurred to me, as I consider all the mind games that could play out in the courtroom, that perhaps a judge, alone in his ivory tower, could also play mind games with the parties before him. His motives could be many and varied. He would enjoy his power over them all. The parties would think he was administering justice. Despite all the evidence, however, the victim would become his prey.
Scary stuff! Could it happen in real life? Think of life as a Neo Rauch painting: I will let you make your own mind up!
Nicknamed "The Barracuda" for her tenacity, Marilyn Stowe is one of the UK’s most sought after divorce lawyers, and is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law.