Natalie Malonis, JD is a Family Law Attorney whose practice has an emphasis on high-conflict divorce and custody cases.
Interview with Natalie Malonis, Part One
Dr Tara J. Palmatier: Divorce is typically a painful experience for all parties involved, no matter how amicably things are resolved. However, some divorces are far more and needlessly painful than others. So, my first question to you, Natalie, is what sets high-conflict divorce apart from a more benign divorce?
Natalie Malonis, JD: I think it’s important in this context to describe what we mean by “high-conflict divorce” since divorce, by its very nature, is the result of conflict. In the legal context, “high-conflict” divorce (and child custody issues) is characterized by an extreme aggression and disproportionate litigiousness of one party. These cases feature more than the usual number of hearings, enforcements and disputes than the typical divorce; they are protracted in the sense that the case does not get resolved within a reasonable time; and there is typically a greater need to seek extraordinary judicial intervention to have temporary orders enforced. In a nutshell, one party is invested in the fight itself, which typically means that party will perpetuate discord and disagreements and will also refuse to follow the Court’s orders until they experience severe consequences such a jail time or a monetary fine.
Dr Tara J. Palmatier: Do you remember your first high-conflict case and when did you realize that something wasn’t quite right?
Natalie Malonis, JD: Several cases stand out in my mind as having brought this particular problem into my awareness. Early in my family law practice, I had two cases going through the court system at the same time, and unlike my other cases, these two just would not get resolved. It was problem after problem. There were knock-down-drag-out fights over what seemed to be petty or trivial matters. We’d reach agreements, only to have them repudiated at the moment of signing on the dotted line. Every step forward was met with two more steps backwards. In both of those cases, the men I represented were mild mannered, agreeable and cooperative, and it did not immediately make sense to me why these cases could not get resolved.
At first, I thought the problem was with the other lawyer. In both cases, the other lawyer was the “pitbull” type who is known to be difficult and contrary. I imagined that these lawyers were spurring on their clients to prolong the process—but after repeated conferences with the lawyers it gradually became clear that it was their female clients who were actually getting a charge out of the controversy.
In both of these cases, neither of my male clients had described their failing marriage as abusive. Neither had disclosed any particularly outrageous behavior—both had described their wives as “never happy” and “difficult” and “very emotional.” Both men had a hard time articulating why they were seeking divorce—there was no infidelity nor physical violence nor psychiatric hospitalizations nor addictions reported. These men were just worn out and knew they needed to leave.
To get to the bottom of why these cases were so difficult, I probed my clients for more detailed information. Guided by instinct, I had both of them fill out an abuse inventory. Although both had initially denied any physical abuse from their wives, the abuse inventory revealed that both had been assaulted—they had been slapped, shoved and had things thrown at them by their wives. Interestingly, neither of these men thought of those instances as physical abuse because they were not seriously injured and did not require medical treatment. Every other aspect of abuse was present as well, but these men had no idea they were in abusive relationships.
With this new information from my clients about the actual nature of the abusive marriage, it was then easy for me to see the parallels when compared to my many cases of representing women who were long term victims of domestic violence. Knowing what I was dealing with, I knew how to help these men bring their cases to resolution. It required a paradigm shift.
We had been working from the assumption that the other party was rational and could be reasoned with and would respond to incentives in a rational way. We had been working from an assumption that the other party would be deterred by a fear of consequences. All of those assumptions had to be tossed out the window once it became clear that we were dealing with an abusive personality on the other side. In cases where abuse is a factor, and especially when the husband is the victim, the only way to move the case to resolution is to construct and maintain extremely rigid boundaries—and this means accepting that negotiations are futile, “agreements” are meaningless and promises are only manipulative tools.
This concludes part one of the interview with Natalie. Please come back tomorrow to read the second half, which touches upon the gender bias towards women and against men in the family court system, common mistakes men make in high-conflict divorce and important advice if you’re currently embroiled in a high-conflict divorce or fear that you’re about to embark upon one.
Thanks again to Natalie for generously offering to share her expertise with the Shrink4Men community!
Want to Say Goodbye to Crazy? Buy it HERE.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
Welcome to the new Shrink4Men community Ms. Malonis!
My personal opinion is that the whole concept of ‘family law’ is systemically flawed. It has created an environment which has brought predatory legal practitioners (which I view on par with pedophiles) into a family setting where it is certain to foment greater antagonism/resentment. I personally would scrap it wholesale.
That said, there are a few things I think could make it less of a battleground:
1) Default (rebuttable) 50/50 custody arrangements. Parents who get along well enough to deal with the process amicably would be free to make other arrangements, but 50/50 needs to be the baseline assumption.
2) Elimination of alimony and child support. Forced on-going financial entanglements, especially when dealing with an NPD/BPD, are a continual source of resentment. Divorce should necessarily mean divorcing ALL financial matters.
3) Division of community assets based on financial contribution to acquiring those assets. Sorry, Stay At Home Mommy is a privilege not a job and should not be rewarded as such. This could easily be done using tax filings.
4) Elimination of no-fault divorce unless both parties agree otherwise a fault based judgment should be sought. This would make those using false allegations less likely to pursue such actions unless they clearly had supporting evidence.
5) Cap attorney fees at some nominal amount to remove incentive from predatory family law practitioners – then it becomes in the attorney’s best interest as well to wrap things up quickly. It is absolutely ludicrous that divorce can run into the tens of thousands of dollars – that most certainly is only in the best interests of attorneys. My recent petition for child support reduction after job loss cost $6000.00 and four months in court (the 25 page deposition requests from opposing counsel were a prime example of a predatory practitioner in action).
I could probably keep going – but would really prefer getting government out of the marriage/family business altogether.
When are you running for congress? You get my vote!
Thanks for the thought, but I don’t think I could bring myself to stoop that low – mostly a career path for societal predators (aka, attorneys). Besides, I’ve become a stateless society thinking person so it goes against my personal moral principles.
Natalie Malonis says
Thank you, Verbal. And many thanks to Dr. T for this opportunity to be a part of the Shrink4Men community. I am honored and pleased to be here.
At some future point in time, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on Collaborative Divorce.
I sought a collaborative divorce with my BPD ex-spouse. She agreed to it… long enough to secretly hire an attorney and file for divorce. I was served with papers at work.
Ms. Malonis nailed our divorce process when she said, “negotiations are futile, “agreements” are meaningless and promises are only manipulative tools” in a high-conflict case. My ex-spouse even took actions that harmed her… as long as they harmed me, too. And let’s not even talk about the kids. That wound is still open and bleeding.
Where I live there are some fairly specific principles and practices that apply. The attorneys involved actually go through some training I believe.
“We had been working from the assumption that the other party was rational and could be reasoned with and would respond to incentives in a rational way.”
This is one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome in dealing with my ex, and a lesson I’ve tried to impart to others in similar situations. Once you realize that there just is no rational “there,” (and never will be), everything else falls into place.
Thank you for doing the good work, Natalie. It’s good to know there are lawyers out there, too, who “get it.”
Really like the direction you are going. Very cool!
“When are you running for congress? You get my vote!”…(should have read) – When are you two ladies running…Thanks Ms Malonis & DR T. a world is a better place because of people like you. I cannot count the number I’ve had an OMG! moment on this site, and today, this:
“the only way to move the case to resolution is to construct and maintain extremely rigid boundaries—and this means accepting that negotiations are futile, “agreements” are meaningless and promises are only manipulative tools”
Dr Tara Palmatier says
No politics for me. I actually like to get things done. I think many politicians want to make the world a better place, get to Washington and see that it’s all about private interests and getting re-elected and get sucked into the machine. I rather be a citizen who pressures politicians to actually get something done by reminding them why we put them in office.
I agree with Natural Sam. I told my (suspected) NPD wife back in June that I wanted a separation. One of our kids had some serious mental health issues a few days later, so I said that I would put the legal action on hold until it was sorted out. I also made an appt. to see a couples counsellor. She said that we should wait until September to see the counsellor. Over the summer she had been in frequent contact with her lawyer. A month ago, I said I was going ahead with the legal action. A few days later my lawyer sent her a letter saying that she had been retained by me and that I would favour mediation to bring a faster resolution the the matter and to save on legal expenses. A few days after that, I was served with a court application which had been filed the same day. Appears that giving the STBX too much time was not a good idea.
An “abuse inventory” is mentioned in the article. Any idea where I can get one of these? Is such an inventory admissable in court? Does a trained mental health professional have to administer this?
Thanks for the post Ms. Malonis and Dr. T. Much appreciated. The additional of this information is a natural progression from ascertaining the problem of PDs to extracating oneself from these abusive relationships. Well done!
I’ve just posted your links on to my SO, feeling he needs to read and understand what is going on in his divorce at this time. 3 months after he is out of the house his STBX has finally actually demonstrated the core activities he had always felt so frustrated around, and I am scared this is lulling him into seeing her in a false light of her “getting better”.
Nope, I see this as winding up to a new level of nasty – having been there, done that on my own divorce (fortunately without children), I can read the terrain. When I suggest this, he says that I am destroying any sense of hope he can have that this woman won’t try to permanently damage his daughters. We had our first serious fight over this.
He has been fortunate that he has an experienced lawyer who has good grounding in high conflict situations, and fortunately the assigned mediator also seems to know what is going on. Where the problem lies is the advocate for the children (legal system where we live means this person is a lawyer), seems to be biased towards the idea that men are the perpetuators of abuse, and his wife’s lawyer is a young, inexperienced push-over.
Net result, the children are being put into a situation where there is plenty of evidence of his wife’s ability to push the boundaries of the law (false application for legal aid and with child support agency implying she had full custody), yet there is the insistence that there is 50:50 custody and there is the assumption behaviour will be reasonable – which multiple calls daily when with their father is hard to justify as reasonable.
In addition, whereas with the eldest, who is the “bad child” we have been able to arrange through school for counselling, the youngest who is being “lovebombed” by her mother as the “good child” can not be got into counselling without both parents consent. Youngest is clearly living with the hope (expressed by a physically violent spouse), “that Mummy and Daddy will get back together and we will be one happy family again” and we are at a loss on how to act.
Any ideas on how to get this sort of things discussed in the courts without a diagnosis of BPD/NPD and without it looking like the moderate partner is not stirring up trouble?
KH (a non-non which is an improvement on being a non, but only just)
Natalie Malonis says
I apologize for the delay in my response. I am still learning my way around. As to your question, i have found that the actual diagnosis is not as important in court as it is to provide evidence and testimony about the actual behaviors. It’s uncommon to get a real diagnosis of BPD or NPD, and I’m not sure most judges understand it well enough to draw any firm conclusions just from the diagnostic label.
In the case you described, it sounds like boundaries are going to be a problem (multiple calls a day). For specific problems like that, it’s usually best to address the problem itself and try to get the court to get some orders in place to prevent the behavior. It’s also going to help if the father enforces good boundaries also, perhaps by communicating to the mother than the children will be available for a phone call once a day between 6-7 in the evening, and not answering her calls otherwise. That’s just one example.
Typically, the bad behavior you describe and lack of boundaries is not the kind of thing that will compel a judge to limit time with a parent. It usually takes a risk of physical harm or some consequence to the children that is more easily quantifiable — e.g., having the kids miss too much school, not getting proper medical care, exposing the kids to criminals or dangerous activities, and of course physical abuse directed at the kids or in the kids’ presence.
Thanks for your reply.
You have a new fan in the form of my SO who read your article and has printed it off AND has Charlie Brown and Lucy as his new screen saver. After reading it, he was able to talk to me about the conflict he was feeling between needing to be prepared for a battle and his pacifist beliefs.
This week he has had the “No I won’t be getting back with your Mom” coversation with Youngest. Apparently Mom has been claiming they were “soulmates”. She is back on form being a b***h, making sure the Youngest was wound up and tired before a short visit with her Dad.
I guess we have to hope that she makes a really dumb mistake (and doesn’t harm the girls while doing it), if we are going to get the courts to change the 50:50 thing.
We talked about the whole issue of counselling for youngest and she is doing some very imaginitive writing at the moment and is happy to share it with her Dad, which if he has any worries about anything there, he now has a colleague who is a child psychologist who would be happy to look at it and suggest appropriate questions for Youngest.
Boundary setting re the phones took an interesting turn with Eldest saying over the dinner table when the phones kept ringing – “That’s Mom, and she hates the idea we are enjoying our food, so let’s put the phones on silent during meal times.”
I too am curious about an answer to KH’s question. We all know how difficult it is to diagnose PDs for a variety of reasons, so is undiagnosed PD admissible in court? I am probably going to claim emotional abuse in my divorce, but can I also suggest that my wife is NPD?
I would say that most judges probably have the attitude of “diagnosis, shmiagnosis”. You and your STBX can fling psychobabble at each other across the courtroom all day long, but what the judge really considers important is actual behavior. Your best bet, if you want to go down that path, is to provide real examples, not excerpts from the DSM-IV
Verbal, you are probably correct. I was thinking about making an appt with a local psychologist who specializes in NPD and telling him about my wife’s behaviour. Hoping he could then diagnose her condition in abstentia. May or may not work. Will talk to my lawyer about this.
Dr Tara Palmatier says
Psychologists can’t legally diagnose someone they have not met. You’ll be wasting your money.
Thanks. I do understand what you have said. I have talked to a number of mental health professionals (social workers, marriage counsellors, etc.) over the past few months. They all said the same thing: (1) she cannot be diagnosed if she is not willing talk to the appropriately trained person, and (2) that the symptoms as I described them were consistent with NPD — although some preferred not to use such a label. It is this type of diagnosis that I am looking for if it would help bolster my case in court.
It is frustrating to know I am in a Catch-22 . . . she can’t be diagnosed without her consent, and that consent will never come when she thinks there is nothing wrong with her. I will probably end up claiming emotional abuse and then documenting all the unusual things she has done over the years.
Natalie Malonis says
It’s not the diagnosis that will really be helpful to your case. Your evidence and testimony about being treated badly will be more persuasive than a diagnosis. Family court judges are accustomed to hearing about these behaviors and should be able to evaluate and draw conclusions about the behaviors.
Also, if you have children and if custody will be an issue because of these behaviors, it is usually not too difficult to have the court order psychological testing. Be aware, however, that sometimes testing does not yield the result you expect, or the outrageousness of the behaviors is not truly reflected in a standardized test. I’m not sure most judges pay a whole lot of attention to standardized test scores either.
In my experience, people with NPD type personalities and traits pretty well show themselves for who they are when they are on the witness stand. They often trip themselves up on their own lies because they change their stories in order to try to make themselves look better in the moment. An experienced lawyer will be able to reveal these characteristics through questioning on the witness stand.
For some reason there is no reply button at the bottom of the reply below . . . Thanks for your feedback Ms. Margolis. I have been trying to document as much as I possibly can. So far, her behaviour has been classic NPD, or at least what I have been able to ascertain from this site . . .
Smear campaign. Check. She has been telling anyone who will listen what a jerk I am.
Won’t want mediation. Check. I began the separation process and requested mediation. She went right for the jugular and file a court application.
Will pick an a**hole for a lawyer. Check.
Will want more than she deserves. Check. She wants everything and I suspect she won’t be happy until I am living off scraps in a dumpster. Even then, of course, she won’t be happy.
Will not tell the truth or embellish the truth. This remains to be seen, but so far everything has played out according to the Narcissist’s Handbook.
Some ten years ago I would never have found a connection with this subject. Though married for a decade already by then, I saw my then-spouse as a person “merely” suffering periodic rages due to past child abuse. Life was manageable but I admit was slowly worsening over the years. Unfortunately, though, I fooled myself thinking that if we had a child then she could see joy in her life through a child’s eyes of discovery. It was quite the opposite, she started reliving her fears through our child. (Reality check: Children, as wonderful as they are, do not fix dysfunctional relationships, they just make them vastly more complicated.) While being a husband was barely manageable, being a husband and father was too much for her, she couldn’t deal with both since the father figure in her life, though now dead, colored how she viewed me.
I don’t know of any diagnosis (she has all traits of Paranoid and some among the other PDs) and I’ve learned that documenting and pointing out the “behaviors” means much more to the courts and custody evaluators than a paper diagnosis. In fact, my CE specifically told me that he was not going to make a diagnosis of either of us. Later he stated that with her past history of majority parenting (while I went off to work) meant so much that even if she was seen to have poor parenting behaviors, it would likely only make the recommendation equal. (Now that was a huge non sequitor.)
As it turned out, the CE report did recommend she immediately lose temporary custody, noting her inability to share “her” child and more, but the court just sat on the report, the order didn’t change until the divorce was final some 7 months later. My lawyer’s explanation was a bit lame from my perspective, that “the court didn’t want to upset the child by changing temporary custody” while I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be more upsetting for the child not to follow the recommendation?”
Well, despite the fact that from the time I filed for divorce I had excellent peer support from BPDFamily.com where I am a frequent poster, the divorce process took 3 times longer and was 3 times more expensive than my lawyer’s initial estimates. Yes, conflict for the sake of conflict – and to block my parenting. From the start of our separation she did not want me to even be a father. Then she demanded only supervised visitation. The court’s orders moved slowing, starting with alternate weekends for me, then we settled for equal time. Unfortunately, and predictably, the conflict didn’t end and now I’m in the equally long process of seeking custody.
We didn’t make them our enemies, they did it to us. Sad but true and so we have to deal with what IS and not as we would wish it to be.
These conflictual spouses cannot or will not Negotiate in good faith, they will Delay the legal process if it helps them to keep the upper hand, they will Obstruct what is in the children’s interests, they will seek Negative Advocates who hear only pieces of the whole truth using their distorted perceptions and intensely believable emotional blame-shifting. You can’t reason with someone who’s not only Not Listening but rewriting history.
Dr Tara Palmatier says
Shrink4Men also has a forum, with a robust community and offers a lot of support for nons and non nons.