I was discussing with a client the other day the nature of revenge.
She had taken to watching a series on Netflix which showed righteous retribution. Her adult son had been somewhat horrified at her choice of viewing material, but quite frankly after her 4 years in the trenches of high-conflict divorce, I figured it was probably a much healthier outlet than taking a machete to her ex’s skull.
In the beginning
My clients are all similar in presentation when they arrive: confused, quick to apologise for themselves and keen to negotiate. They are normally around 18 to 2 years in and are starting to wonder if they are going insane.
This is understandable because those around them are telling them so. They say helpful things to them like ‘haven’t you got that divorce sorted yet?’ ‘Why don’t you just settle and get on with your life?’ Or ‘bloody lawyers when they get involved costs a fortune and takes forever’. Trite and unhelpful but ultimately forgivable soundbites.
Often for the clients I see, I am the first person who they have spoken to that understands their position. And even better, I don’t just understand them, I believe them when they re-count some of the more extreme crazy stuff their ex has done and is doing.
From such things as telling the local village they are promiscuous, to cancelling passport applications, to ‘selling’ their house to a family member for nothing but the cost of the legal transfer fee to avoid sharing the assets, to posting their ex-wife’s blogs on a professional social media site to play victim. I have heard it all.
My clients all share this glazed, bunny in a headlight look when they come to me. Often, they have stopped telling people their story because it seems so unbelievable. Bank accounts robbed, credit cards blocked, savings raided. The shock of finding out that whilst they were naively trying to reach settlement, their partner was robbing them blind.
I need to get them to see that all of that behaviour during the marriage: those screaming tantrums over nothing, all of those put downs, even to the point of being told explicitly they had no value, all of those times they were neglected and too frightened to complain, that was not excusable, ever. I have to teach them that abuse isn’t just bruises on the skin, but bruises on the soul.
Holding the mirror up
It’s hard because in the main, my clients are easy-going sorts who have a high tolerance for bad behaviour. They are quick to make excuses for their partner’s more extreme behaviours. They are ashamed and humiliated and cut off from themselves – they need to cut themselves off from themselves or they would see what was happening to them is wrong. They have generally spent more time examining and trying to understand their partner, than trying to understand themselves.
And by that, I mean something very, very, specific. I mean understanding ‘why they would accept such disrespectful treatment?’
This does not mean ‘how can I change my partner to be nicer to me?’ or ‘how can I mould my behaviour so he is kinder to me?’ I am asked these frequently at the beginning, often in veiled ways but essentially, it’s the same question asked a million different ways ‘how can I change my partner?’
No, the question I need them to really engage with is ‘what the hell were you doing with someone who treated you like dirt?’
Because in a high-conflict divorce it is imperative that my clients understand completely and utterly that every stalling, every negative, every devise tactic is intentional. These individuals are not innocent by-standers, manipulated by money-grabbing lawyers. Nor are they Aspergers’ innocents unaware of the social norms. They are individuals who are completely set upon winning.
Many years, I came across a colleague of my ex who had refused to divorce his ex-wife for 10 years. At the time, the significance went over my head. Now I see it differently. He was so determined to win, that he would rather sit and wait for a decade, instead of letting go and moving on. Perhaps he took pleasure that he had been able to hang on so long. Perhaps he thought he’d won.
Winning understood in these terms is such an odd concept to many of us. We may think we are competitive, but until you’ve been in a high-conflict divorce you have no idea what competition is.
This is about dealing with people who will argue for years over trivial parking tickets, will create fault lists running to pages upon pages, will spend hours on the phone over a minor, mis-calculated bill. The truly competitive will fight their own shadow over a skanky bone.
This is, of course, incredibly psychologically unhealthy for these individuals and is likely to result in all sorts of health-related issues: cardiac, cancer, diabetes, high-blood pressure. Unfortunately, their extreme craziness is also a health warning for those around them as well due to two factors: time and shock.
You see, my clients at the beginning don’t really see who their ex is. They are still housed in a bubble of reasonability, so ever single discovery of the depths of their ex’s desire to win at all costs, with a high preference of destroying their partner in the process, well, it’s like being hit by a 2 by 4. And it doesn’t stop. It goes on for years and years. And that takes it’s toll.
Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, physical collapse – these are common. And why? Because my clients realise this isn’t going to end anytime soon. They’ve left the marriage where they were constantly being ‘shocked’ by psychological, emotional and physical aggression; but they thought they’d escaped, only to find, no it was still on-going. And worse, now the legal syystem has joined in.
I remember my lowest point, when I realised I wasn’t going to be lucky enough to wake up dead. When I realised that I had no way off this conveyor belt. When I realised I was going to have to deal with the disbelief of others and keep going. When I realised I was going to have to keep fighting, not because I wanted to but because he didn’t want to stop. He did not want the game to end.
I often think I should have realised sooner. But I was my first client so I had to wake up, just as I am waking others. Everyone who knows me will tell you, when all the food was taken from the cupboards, I still didn’t see the insanity of the situation. I was shouting, ‘Why the hell would anyone take a half a bottle of Tabasco?’ but even then, I couldn’t see what was happening. I couldn’t see the sheer, cold desire to destroy me because well, I’d ended the marriage, and that meant I was one up and the score line needed brought into alignment.
So yes, I encourage my clients to have healthy fantasies of violence, after the years of emotional, psychological, physical and ultimately legal violence put upon them, they need an outlet.
It is foolish to assume that forgiveness is a luke-warm, sit in a happiness circle and sing Praise Be event, not after years of unrelenting personal attack. No, true forgiveness is filled with blood and heat, and screaming for vengeance, until, at last there is true acceptance and peace.
And that place is for me true revenge.
Moving to a space that even though my clients or myself are still forced to continue this nonsensical pantomime by under-developed characters, their behaviour is no longer of interest: they are seen for who they are and are pitied for it. Individuals so far removed from decency that they are forever alone and deluded enough to believe they are winning.