What is Legal Abuse in Divorce?



Jessica: Are you going through a high conflict divorce with someone that you had a toxic relationship with? And are you wondering if they’re deliberately dragging out the legal process to cost you more money or force you into a bad situation? Legal abuse is a real thing, and that’s what we’re talking about today in today’s episode of the Divorce etc… podcast. We’re the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H. We focus on helping you navigate your divorce and successfully moving on with your life. Please follow us on all social media at exEXPERTS, and check out for tons of free divorce related resources. Let’s bring in today’s guests.

T.H.: Hey, everybody, today we are speaking with Lisa and Chris. They are high conflict divorce coaches, cofounders of Been There Got Out programs, as well as the book, Been There Got Out. I think they just came back from a tour in Chicago, if I remember correctly, so that’s very exciting. I met Lisa not that long ago. The term legal abuse, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s actually a thing. What does that even mean?” That’s really what we’re going to dig into today. It’s important to know if it’s happening to you, and even more important to know what you’re going to do about it. Welcome to Divorce etc…

Lisa: Thank you.

Chris: Thanks so much for having us. We’re really happy to be here.

Jessica: We’re happy to have you.

T.H.: Tell us how legal abuse—did you coin that term? Or you’ve owned it now. And how do you explain it?

Lisa: My life was just, I mean, at this point, it was nine years in court, like dozens and dozens of court appearances. A couple of years ago, I thought I need to find something, like nobody else’s life is like this. Like, what is this? I found a judge’s manual for Washington State, and they went into different types of, I think, coercive control besides physical abuse. There was a whole bunch of stuff for legal abuse. I thought, “That’s what it is.” It’s almost like when people learn what a narcissist is and that light goes on. Legal abuse, I was like, “That’s my life.” At that time, there was nothing on social media about it. And so Chris and I were on a trip to Costa Rica, and I was like, “We need to do a support group, like, if nothing else, just for me to learn more about it. If we can get two people, then it’ll be successful.” The first week we opened it up, I think we had 12 people from all over the world. Then it just blew up. Legal abuse is also known as litigation abuse; paper abuse—because of all of the documents that are filed; stalking through the court; or judicial terrorism. These are the cases that take years. I’m not just talking about divorce, I’m talking about post separation abuse, where somebody is being brought back to court, or they’re having to bring their ex back to court because their ex is not complying with court orders. Basically, legal abuse means when somebody, one side, is attempting to control, harass, intimidate, coerce, or impoverish the other side using the legal system. We know how expensive it is, not just to pay legal fees, so that’s how we’re financially decimated, but also the time that it takes is time that you’re away from being able to work because you’re always in court. Often, people lose their jobs; it takes you away from parenting; it’s extraordinarily stressful. The legal system takes a long time for justice to be served. Often, the justice that we get, you’re not even made whole again.

Jessica: I’m curious, does the type of marriage someone has, or if someone is or has been married to a legitimate narcissist, or someone they know they’re having a high conflict, where do you draw the line? How does someone identify that what’s happening is actually legal abuse, as opposed to the other side fighting their side? You said that it’s like a conscious effort on their part to be specifically decimating you through the system. Because I’m sure they would be like, “That’s not what I’m doing. I’m just trying to make sure I get a fair shake too.”  

Ben: Right, as Lisa said earlier, when she mentioned the legal abuse support group, when we start our sessions, we still do that group pretty much every week. When we start, Lisa will say, “The other side’s goal is to wear you down and bleed you dry.” What happens is when a marriage—or a relationship, it’s not always a marriage—but when a relationship ends, the abuser loses that ability to on a day to day basis control your life, right? You’re not in the same physical space anymore. You’ve separated. You may still be around each other, maybe have kids together, all that stuff, but it’s harder for them to abuse you. So they channel those efforts. It’s not like they go away. That would be lovely, right? But they don’t. They channel their efforts into three main areas: the kids, right? They can get at you through the kids, if you have children together. They can get at you through the courts, which is what we’re talking about. And they can get you through money if there’s child support or shared expenses that need to be reimbursed, or whatever it is, which often involves the court. It’s really like one and a half have to do with abuse. But it’s those areas. So they really focus on those things.

Lisa: Yeah, and with legal abuse, it’s not just you’re going through a court case, like the divorce itself. It’s when one side is not complying with court orders. For example, with my ex, he doesn’t comply with court orders. That’s why I’ve gone to court so many times, because I’m trying to get him to comply with our original agreement. When someone doesn’t listen, it’s not like somebody falls out of the sky and makes them behave. The burden is on me or someone like me to force him to comply. That involves going back to court and getting enforcement, which is really, really hard. The other side of that is when the abuser files what’s called frivolous motions. It’s also known as vexatious litigation. So all kinds of threats of like, “I’m going to take the kids away. You’re an unfit parent. I’m going to get full custody,” where it’s not just again, like the beginning of the divorce, it’s that they’re harassing you and intimidating you and scaring you. Often, our clients for years are just like, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen next? What’s the next thing?” They’re going to have to drop everything and go to court. If they’ve already been traumatized and they—going into court itself is traumatic: dealing with more people who don’t believe you, often your ex manipulating other people against you, getting terrible rulings, having to modify—I mean, just all this stuff. That’s what legal abuse is.  

Chris: You know the other thing we see all the time is they’ll hire the worst attorneys. They hire the bullies, the big blowhards that enable their behavior. They enable that crazy false narrative that they’re putting forth, and as Lisa said, all the different things they do in court with the motions and everything like that. A lot of our clients, their attorneys will say to them, “I don’t understand what’s going on here. This is the craziest case I’ve ever seen.” We see that all the time.

T.H.: Right, but you feel like your hands are tied. Like when Lisa and I spoke about this before, my ex lived a double life for four years, was engaged to another woman. When I found out when she called me, I told her she saved my life that day, and I thought we were going to be good. Great, you got her. I don’t want you. Let’s be done. Four years. I was challenged with employability experts, custody experts—he brought her in to be evaluated with the custody expert. I’m like, “Who is she anyway? I don’t even know her full name. Like, what?” and so all of those things. When I think about what I went through, it’s more like I was dragged through the courts. I didn’t have a choice. Then the day of trial, he literally settled at the door. I was feeling like, “No freaking way. Four years, all this money, all this heartache, we’re going inside.” My dad pulled me back and he goes, “No, we’re not. We’re done. We’re done. That is going to cost as much as the last four years.” His lawyer is exactly as you guys just said, but my lawyer was not much better. So, okay, what could I have done differently? How could I have stopped this kind of abuse, as opposed to going along with it? What can you do to stop it in its tracks?

Chris: Yeah, we get that question all the time. You can’t really stop it. You can mitigate it. But in this country, if somebody wants to go to court and wants a trial, they have the right to do that. So that’s unfortunate. But one of the biggest things you can do is to get a trial date. I always use the analogy though of if you’re a skydiver and you jump out of an airplane, you’re flying down, and you’ve got your GoPro going. There is a moment where you need to pull that rip cord. If you don’t pull that rip cord, it’s splat, right? So we call the trial date the splat date.

Lisa: Yeah.

Chris: And you went through it, right? It was that trial date. So if you have a trial date, or if you don’t have a trial date, “Oh, well, we’re still negotiating, we’re in mediation, all that stuff,” it just goes on and on. Mine took three years. I guess I should feel lucky in this group.

T.H.: No, it’s just ridiculous that the court—and then by state, it’s different. I feel there are some states that give you a deadline of when your divorce has to be resolved. Or don’t they also then give you a cushion in the front end to figure your stuff out? I don’t know. I feel like it’s state by state. I wish there was a deadline across the country for you to resolve it.  

Chris: Yeah, the rules are different state to state, of course. But the reason that it takes a while is a normal divorce is traumatic for everyone. It’s very difficult. The parties are resentful; they’re angry. It takes a lot usually to take—nobody gets married with the intention of getting divorced.

T.H.: Right, of course.

Chris: Whether somebody cheated or you just grew apart, whatever it is, people aren’t happy about that. And so judges know that in most cases, once the bills start piling up, once it drags out a bit, especially if kids are involved, the parties tend to calm down and say, “Why are we spending all this money? Let’s be reasonable. Let’s work together. Let’s focus on we all love the kids.”

T.H.: You just said the key word, though. If the rest of the parties are not reasonable, rational, and logical, how do you—

Jessica: What are you supposed to do?

T.H.: Like, what are you supposed to do?

Chris: So, just let me go one more—can you tell we’re a romantic couple also? But the other thing I want to say is, along with getting a trial date, if you can really take what we call take strategic oversight of your case, so when you know what’s going on—most attorneys don’t get this stuff. The ones that do are unicorns that are wonderful. You don’t need to have an attorney who understands narcissism, because they’re so few and far between. Just have an attorney who does their job well, advocates for you well, gets things filed properly, hopefully is plugged-in in a local court, all that stuff. Get a good attorney. But you have to fill in the gaps, right? Because you understand narcissism and how they’re going to behave and all that stuff, so you can step in and say, “You know, we’ve been to mediation a couple times, nothing has happened. I don’t want to mediate anymore,” or “Get me a trial date. Stop drafting agreements—”

T.H.: So push the envelope. Push the envelope; challenge them.

Chris: Or in my case, probably half the $300,000 my divorce cost was spent just drafting agreements, because they’re difficult, and they never set dates, moving goalposts, all that other stuff. Take control and guide your attorneys, not overrule your attorney on legal stuff, but have some oversight.

Lisa: Yeah. Okay, so yeah, taking strategic oversight is basically from the beginning, if we can get you at the beginning, because a lot of people end up on our particular doorstep when they’re in the middle of it. But at the very beginning, we say you have the most power because you haven’t made those expensive mistakes yet. For example, knowing how to choose the right attorney, huge, hugely important, because how many times do people switch attorneys and they don’t understand why something happened? Often, it’s managing expectations, a lot of educating yourself or going to other people such as us for an education. That will start saving you the money, because what happens is you’re dealing with someone that’s completely irrational. Lawyers are trained in logic. They approach everything with logic. They will approach the same cases with logic, and that’s why they’re like, “Why isn’t this working?” It’s better to keep trying to negotiate. That’s why that strategic oversight, you have to understand how these people behave in the legal system. You can read our book to figure out how, and there’s also an excellent book by Bill Eddy called Splitting, that talks about how these people act in the legal system. Once you see, okay, I have to do it differently, you can help teach your lawyer. You run your case like a business, we always say. Find the resources. Don’t rely on your lawyer for emotional support. That was my mistake and cost me $100,000 among other things. But there are other resources like high conflict divorce coaches who can fill in those gaps. Also, managing your emotions is huge because it is so terrifying and so overwhelming. But most of our clients, as well as the same as us, we have children. We have to still be present for our kids. It’s important to have support and a community of people who understand not just divorce but high conflict divorce. Because if I compared my divorce to yours, Jessica, for example, you’d be like, “Well, why doesn’t your ex just do what’s best for the kids?” or “Why didn’t the judge just do what’s right?” It’s because it just doesn’t work like that. Like, T.H., when we were talking, it was like, ours is different. It’s a different animal. It’s very validating to be around people, that 10 percent, who are like, “Yeah, I get it. This is what I did, and this is what worked, and here are some other resources.” In our legal abuse support group, we always say our content is driven by our clients. Because if there’s something that we can’t answer or our other clients can’t help each other with, I’m going to go find an expert, and I’m going to interview that person. Then we do podcasts and Instagram lives, and everyone’s like, “Wow, I learned something.” You feel less alone, and you’re also realizing, “Okay, this is what the judge cares about, not what I thought it did. This is what my lawyer expects from me. This is how I can save money by doing this stuff myself. This is what limited scope attorneys are used for. This is why I need a therapist.” All those things are ways to start, again, saving time, money, and energy. But most of us, it’s the first time doing it, so who knows. That’s why it’s so important to realize there are resources out there, for example, high conflict divorce coaches, which in the real world, people are like, “What are you talking about? Like, what’s that?”

T.H.: Well, this is a good segue because we’re going to take a quick pause here. Because we know it’s hard to get honest and reliable information about your divorce and life in general, so we have done the work for you with exEXPERTS and our Divorce etc… podcast. Jess and I had one another to ask all of the questions and figure out the answers, and now you have us too. We are your no bullshit, no nonsense girlfriends through divorce and beyond. Ask us anything about life and all that comes with it. Be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get exEXPERTS in your inbox and find out all the updates on the latest Divorce etc… podcast and events. Don’t miss out on information and tips you really need to know going through your divorce and beyond. If you want some one on one time with us girls, you can sign up for a private session. We know that the work really begins when the divorce is over. You can connect with us and get all of this information at We’ve lived it, so we get it. I mean, this is like so big. I feel a lot of times with the people that Jessica and I speak with, “He’s a narcissist,” “She’s a narcissist,” they’re throwing around this word. I just feel people, everybody needs an education. You need to know exactly who you’re dealing with because you do not want to be dealing with a narcissist.

Jessica: But I just want to jump in. Because the thing is, is that there can be someone who’s doing all of these things, who’s just an asshole. Not everybody who’s—

T.H.: That’s true. This is true.

Jessica: —legal abuse is a narcissist. I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are in these situations and need to know that what they’re going through, they’re not crazy. What’s happening to them is really a legitimate thing, and that you can put a name to it—legal abuse, some of the other terminology that Lisa and Chris have been using, but your ex may just be an ass. I just think it’s important to say that. Because I feel like there are people who were not married to a narcissist, but who may be going through this kind of situation. I don’t want to have them—

T.H.: Right, think it doesn’t apply to them.

Jessica: Yeah, exactly.

T.H.: But it really does take a special personality to even want to get into this kind of long term engagement and harassment and everything. It takes a special person who’s fueled off of that type of stuff and charged by it. Because I really think that an asshole is going to get tired. Someone who’s not—

Jessica: There are a lot of dicks out there.

T.H.: I know, but then they’re going to stop. I’m just saying. Listen, you guys are the experts here in high conflict. This is a good question. Are all of the people going through a high conflict with legal abuse really considered and diagnosed as a narcissist?

Chris: No, and it’s really important to understand that Lisa and I are not mental health professionals. We don’t diagnose anyone. We don’t use the word narcissist, or borderline is another. They’re called Cluster B personality disorders. It’s just really because we need some shorthand to describe a set of behaviors. That’s what we’re focused on is the behaviors.

Lisa: We’ll just say toxic. Toxic, abusive, it doesn’t matter.

Chris: Yeah, I don’t care whether the person is a narcissist or borderline unless, as my client, like if you were my client, our client, if you understanding your ex partner’s mental health situation helps you deal with it better, then fine, that’s great. But all we’re concerned about is the patterns of behavior and how we need to prepare for those. The labels aren’t important.

T.H.: Right, right.

Chris: You don’t want to be going into court trying to prove to a judge that your ex is a narcissist. That goes nowhere. The family court system is not where you turn for validation, or vindication, or ironically—justice.

Jessica: No, but it’s also interesting, you’d think that someone who’s being subjected to—I don’t remember the term you used—but filings that there’s no merit to them—

Lisa: Vexatious litigation, or frivolous litigation.

Jessica: Frivolous litigation, that at some point, the judge wouldn’t then turn around to this other person—you said the onus is on you to force the person to follow along, and to make sure that they abide by the agreement and all of those things—but it’s a little bit shocking and unfortunate to hear that at a certain point, that’s not the judge’s responsibility, like saying to the person, “You keep filing all of these meaningless motions, and you’re not following along with the agreement.” At what point is the judge going to say they it is their fault?  

Lisa: Yeah, so it is a good question. For example, with me, trying to get my ex to comply, I filed one motion. We got an order. There was a financial amount, and it was due in 2018. He didn’t comply. I had to keep going back and filing motions to say this hasn’t happened, that I need you to do something. Then COVID hit, then we switched judges multiple times, then we switched states for part of the case. But his lawyer filed like nine different continuances, which are delays. What the other side often does is when they’re in violation of it, they will file delays. They will file stays. They will do anything to keep—because they are trying to wear you down so you say, “I’m getting nowhere. I’m done. I’m done.” Because every single time, it takes all that time and energy and money, and that’s a big reason why I went pro se because I’m like, I cannot afford to keep paying a lawyer to come in, and then we’re delayed, and then again and again and again.


T.H.: Okay, so, learn, be strategic. I mean, we always tell people, “Your lawyer works for you. You don’t work for your lawyer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” I’m sure, for both of you, you felt it in your gut. It’s so interesting to me how that even happens. I want to understand it one day, but I don’t. But you feel it. If you just listen to it and you have the confidence to speak up and say, “This doesn’t feel right. This is wrong,” then maybe it can adjust things. I mean, but the courts really do suck. I had three judges, I had two mediations, and I had a legal panel. I literally took the whole a la carte menu is what I went through. That was also forced on by the judges, between all three judges. They’re like, “You go over here.” So they pushed me off to the side for six months, and then I’m back again. “Well, what did you resolve?” “Nothing.”  Okay.

Chris: This is like we’re at the buffet, right? “Well, what did you get? You got the chicken and the rice? Okay, here I got the steak—” We had an attorney for the children, which is what a GAL is called in New York. We had a custody evaluator. We had psychological evaluations. There were two parenting coordinators. Yeah, I had two lawyers during the divorce and a third afterwards.

Lisa: I call it the feeding frenzy.

Chris: Yep.

T.H.: Then people think that the court is against you, like the court is in cahoots with the lawyers, and they just want to keep churning the money. That’s it. I mean, that’s what you hear sometimes.

Lisa: Sometimes.

Chris: Some of it. Not the judges. The judges for the most part, their caseload is more than they can handle. They want you out of there. When these cases come along, they get fed up. They think it’s both of your faults. Why won’t you just settle? They don’t know that it’s only one side that’s causing the trouble.

Jessica: I also think it’s really interesting and important to note here, because I mean, look, the truth is, the underdog in divorce, most of the time, is the woman. I mean, it’s generally the man or the moneyed spouse. It’s a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that exists for a reason. Obviously, all of our missions are to empower everybody to be able to get through these situations. But Chris, for you, the fact that it was the woman on the other side who was doing all of the legal abuse is also just important to know it can come from anywhere. It can’t just be assumed that one side is always going to be the person doing it. I wonder to some extent, if you were maybe in a situation where maybe the judge was thinking that some of this was coming from your side as the man?  

Chris: Well, yeah, and it’s a really interesting topic. It’s very polarizing in our world because there are biases. We’ve seen biases against both sides. But there’s like the father’s rights movement, and women don’t like that because it comes from a good place, but it also has some elements that aren’t great. It’s as I said, really polarizing. So men and women can both, either side can be narcissists. Either side can be high conflict. So knowing that, we know this is not a gender problem. It’s also not a socioeconomic problem. It’s not a geographical problem. It’s a human problem. It’s all around the world. Lisa and I have clients all around the world, only limited by the fact that we only deal with the English language. But we have clients in Australia, and all over.

Lisa: Legal abuse we have been told is half and half. The common threat that we hear is for men, it’s the money, and for women, it’s the kid. The men’s like, “I’m going to leave you penniless,” and the women’s is, “The kids will never see you again.” That’s definitely a stereotype, but it goes both ways. The money is not all of it. Because custody, there’s a lot of men, they love their kids. They have been the primary caretaker. It’s not as common as women, but they don’t want to lose their kids. That’s why a lot of men stay in these relationships because their wives say, “If we get divorced, you can’t see the kids.” There’s a lot more to that discussion too.

Jessica: There’s a lot more to the whole discussion. We’re definitely going to have to do a legal abuse part two thing, where we can even go a little deeper than this. Because this has been some really eye opening information that’s important for people to have. Because again, there are people who are going through tough divorces, and to be able to understand that there actually is a line that’s crossed to be legal abuse, and there could be something done about it, is really important for people to know. Thank you guys so much for taking the time to talk to us about it and explain it to everyone listening. T.H., did you have one more thing?  

T.H.: Yeah, I mean, I just want everyone to know that checking out their website and really reading what they have, there are resources and their book, but there are support groups so you know you’re not alone. Because people don’t understand—I mean, Jessica and I went through our divorces at the exact same time. There’s no way Jessica could understand, neither could I, but as support like, “What, a third judge? It’s three years? It’s how much money? Wait, because of a dinner? Because he wants dinner?” So just know you are not alone, the fact that Lisa and Chris are willing to be voice advocates here and educational resource for you to figure it out. If you think it is legal abuse, then go to them and find out for sure. I mean, you have literally nothing to lose, if you’re in a place where your gut is telling you this is not right. I don’t know how big this group is, or if it’s like a rarity, one in 10. I don’t know. I don’t care. But it’s it is completely emotionally and physically debilitating, forgetting even about the finances. It will keep you up at night. It will stop you from eating. It will not make you the kind of parent you want to be. You won’t be the kind of person you want to be. Don’t let the divorce and the legal system take you over and take you hostage.

Jessica: We will keep the conversation going, because this is a thing. You hear these stories all the time. People just don’t know that there’s a name to put to it.

T.H.: Yeah, yeah. So thank you guys for doing this. Thank you for being a voice and a support and an educator. If you’re not sure, now you’ve got a place to go to find out.

Jessica: Yeah. Go ahead.

Lisa: I was going to say thank you both also for giving us the opportunity to talk about it.  

Jessica: No, we really appreciate it. For everyone listening, if you’ve enjoyed this episode of the Divorce etc… podcast with the exEXPERTS today, then please help us out. Because if you subscribe and rate and review, it helps us get the word out to more people like you that are going through things like this in divorce and beyond. Check the show notes for more information on Lisa and Chris and Been There Got Out, and what they have to offer. Of course, share with anyone you know who can benefit from listening. Have a great day.

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