My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Domestic Violence

In the 90s I had the privilege of sitting on a committee appointed by the then Minister for Justice, Norah Owens to review legislation on domestic violence, co-ordinate research in the area and make recommendations. Our recommendations grounded the Domestic Violence Act 1996. Working on this project over many months, exchanging views with people working in the forefront of this area from the Rape Crisis Centre and Women’s Aid fast forwarded me into a new level of understanding of this area. Subsequently I worked on a volunteer basis with Women’s Aid.
Domestic Violence does not recognize class or wealth. Women and occasionally men from all backgrounds are subjected to domestic violence. The manner in which the violence occurs may vary but its effects are the same. We would often refer to “fur coat poor” to signify the many women we came to know who dressed to kill but did not have the use of any money of their own. Their partners would wield the finances of the relationship as a weapon against them. Then there were the women whose spouses would use a pretext, it could be anything, for a row which would quickly lead to violence. These women invariably lived in total terror forever trying to please but never getting it quite right. There were the partners whose out of control jealousy was so pervasive that their spouse was afraid to talk to anyone and became increasingly isolated. Some women would give up work to please a partner only to find themselves increasingly abused and insulted, called a parasite, a useless object and such like. Some partners used only words to wound not needing to use their fists. The breaking of a person’s precious things systematically or wilful cruelty towards pets constitutes violence every bit as much as using fists. Many people were demoralised by what was happening to them but because it did not involve actual violence did not recognize it as domestic violence as such and as a result were even more disempowered than those who were actually being hit.
If your partner makes you afraid to speak openly, be yourself, socialise with others, go to work and progress in your career then chances are there is some form of abuse going on. The longer you stay in such a relationship the more demoralised you are likely to become and the less able to take action to help yourself. Ironically the more demoralised you become the more likely it is that the abuse will escalate.
Sadly most abusers do not change even with counselling. Many will use the counselling or therapy as a cover to continue the abuse. If you are in a violent relationship the best thing is to get out of there as quickly as you can. As a first step you should get yourself a good counsellor who will help you to gain perspective and help you to rebuild your self esteem. Also take legal advice as quickly as you can from a family law expert. Your Solicitor will assess the physical risk to you and determine whether immediate action should be taken. At the end of the day though you are the boss not only of yourself and your life but also of whether or not you will take action. It is important for you to take action when you are ready and not within the time frame of someone else’s agenda. This can be frustrating for your advisors but they can live with it.
If you are in a violent and/or abusive relationship you should be aware that the point of separation can often be the most dangerous time in that relationship so how you leave and when needs to be carefully planned and thought about. This is especially so if the violence is of a serious nature. Go see your solicitor as quickly as you can but make sure you go to a solicitor with some expertise in this area and understanding of the nature of domestic violence. This week is Domestic Violence Week. If you have any doubts about your relationship and what is going on in it, this might be a good time to talk to someone and take stock.

Monday, December 14, 2009

out of the blue...

Out of the blue, the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals sent me a certificate in recognition of my extraordinary contribution to the global development of collaboration. I truly loved that it said on the certificate that I was changing the world. What a blast! It is always nice to be acknowledged. It is a great honour to be at the forefront of the development of collaboration.
If we change the way we communicate and in particular the way we manage conflict, we have the potential to change the way we live. Indeed, many think that it is the next step on the evolutionary ladder. Sadly, it is not as easy as it sounds but the will to change is the first step. Apparently, we have 8 seconds from the moment something is said or happens to cause us upset to consider our reaction before flooding occurs. Flooding is when you are too overcome with emotion to think – you are quite literally flooded. When we are flooded there are only three reactions possible to us, fight, flight or surrender. So there is a window of 8 seconds – not very long at all. In order to be able to change the way we react in certain situations within 8 seconds we need to become very skilled in alternative communication. It would have to become automatic and that is only going to happen with constant vigilance and practise. Thinking about the three responses that we have when we are flooded, fight, flight and surrender – what strikes me about them is that they are the same three possibilities open to an army in battle.
Sharon Strand Ellison in her book “Taking the War out of Our Words” reckons that all our communication is from the stance of war. She reckons that we are pretty much permanently on the defensive or on the attack. We are afraid to be vulnerable lest we be perceived as weak and so we set up barriers. We confuse honesty and vulnerability and we think if we are honest especially emotionally, that we will be savaged. Sadly these ways of communicating are not just Western, they are pretty much global. And yet if you examine honest thoughtful communication it has the potential to diffuse conflict and to allow for true human interaction. The irony is that what most of us crave and few of us ever achieve is true communication even with our own children. Of course, to achieve the kind of effective honesty and non-defensive communication that Strand Ellison is talking about takes daily practise. It is not just blurting out whatever comes into your head, it is what the mediators call living in the question but these are questions that are artfully constructed and asked with genuine curiosity. Their honesty is what makes them disarming. The other person senses that the question is genuine and not designed to trap. Too ask a question with true curiosity, you have to truly want to listen to the answer. Few of us can achieve this when we are emotionally invested without a great deal of practise certainly not in 8 seconds.

Relationship Breakdown and Children.

How children will cope with their parent’s relationship breaking down is predicated to a very large extent on how the conflict is handled by the parents. A destructive conflict which continues for a number of years will have highly detrimental long term effects on children. On the other hand, a constructive conflict (not a contradiction in terms) i.e.,a conflict resolved in a mature and reflective manner will minimise the effects on the children and can also be highly instructive for the children in helping their understanding of how conflicts can be resolved in an effective manner.
Children should never be involved in the conflict between their parents either as inappropriate confidantes, messengers between one parent and another, direct witness to arguments and fights, and/or being asked to decide a parental matter. Children need to think well of their parents where possible and parents should not bad mouth one another to the children directly or indirectly with either direct remarks or sarcastic asides. Children may not understand the content but they will understand the tone and body language very well. Each child has the right to form their own views of their parents and to evolve their own relationship with that parent regardless, and with very few exceptions, of what happened between the parents. The self esteem of children will depend to a large extent on their relationship with both parents where they have had both parents from the beginning. In the whole of our parental health, few of us would approve of such behaviour, yet in parental conflicts much of this behaviour is the norm and it continues sometimes for many years. It is very important, and all too common, that children do not become conduits for information travelling between conflictual parents. There is no doubt and all the research confirms that using children as messenger carriers or feeding them negative information during a relationship breakdown has a strong negative impact and is particularly harmful to them. In this context it is also important to remember that our children are not our confidantes. This can be particularly difficult for recently isolated and upset parents.
Introducing children into new relationships that have been formed as a result of the parental relationship breakdown is something that needs to be handled with great sensitivity and care. The younger the child the more capable he or she is likely to be of adapting to a new situation. It is important to try and take things slowly and carefully with the children allowing the time to process each new situation. Even in a destabilising situation it is possible to create stability for children particularly if great thought and attention is given to this. If children are catapulted into a new relationship situation evolving quickly into a new marriage and half siblings, the risks to them are very great, however, the majority of children are able to adjust to a changing situation given sufficient time and consideration.
The single greatest factor in ensuring children’s recovery from parental breakdown is the quality of parenting that they receive before during and after. Helping parents to maintain high quality parenting during their separation may well be the greatest long term gift that we can give both them and their children. The input from collaborative coaches and child specialists can help to bring this about as can the support of extended family and friends. Just being available to give a single parent a break now and again or some time out is a huge help. Close personal friends and family can also assist with the parenting in a non-judgemental way. A parent’s ability to maintain quality parenting during a breakup will certainly not be enhanced by a destructively conflictual breakdown as all focus will tend to be on the conflict either directly or indirectly. Friends and family can contribute enormously to the mature resolution of conflict by encouraging the parents towards alternative resolution methods and the arrival in this country of alternative methods of dispute resolution such as collaboration and mediation is of huge significance in this regard. Recognising that children are suffering their own trauma is also very important and this is so regardless of whether or not they are doing well in school. Quite often parents will take too much comfort from the fact that the child or children are doing well at school. This is not always a reliable indication of whether or not a child is suffering. Sometimes children can over-compensate in traumatic situations by being on their very best behaviour. This can be because the child is blaming his or herself in some way and so trying to make up by behaving too well. Keeping other significant adults informed of the children’s situation such as teachers is very useful . Offering children an opportunity to express themselves during this time to people that they are not afraid of distressing such as counsellors and child specialists could afford them a much needed release of stress. Maintaining the boundaries of the parental relationship is very important as it gives children security and a sense of continuity even in a changing situation. Minimising consequential changes to their lives in the face of such a major change can also be very important. Pacing how they are informed of new circumstances and arrangements is also something requiring thought and careful planning.
Reading this article may well be the first step!!!