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Conflict in Family Litigation: Part 3 - Mills & McCartney: A Case Study

Neil Denny, solicitor at Mogers in Bath, revisits the emotions revealed in the Mills & McCartney divorce and how they illustrate some of the key themes in conflict theory. This is the third and final part in this series.

iamge of Neil Denny, Mogers

Neil Denny, Mogers Solicitors

Over the New Year we will all have seen the infamous case of McCartney v Mills [2008] EWHC 401 (Fam) fondly recalled in many end of year reviews, and with good reason. The mixture of celebrity, wealth and conflict, played out so luridly in front of the television and press cameras, kept this case at the forefront of the public consciousness for months.
This case could have set back, by many years, the public perception of how matrimonial cases are resolved. It was possible, thankfully, to argue that this example of family law litigation was exceptional and to re-assert the benefits of dispute resolution techniques and responsible litigation as an alternative to what was being played out on our screens.
For this article, being the third and final article on conflict in family law, I want to re-visit the case for a rather different reason.  Revisiting McCartney v Mills enables us to recap the theories and conflict led patterns of behaviour that we have explored in the previous two articles.
In April, soon after the judgment was released, I presented to a group of non-law businessmen and women with a different angle on the recent Mills and McCartney divorce and what we can all learn from the conflict led behaviours seen in that case. 
Within the workshop we took a quick show of hands to gauge support for Heather Mills.  As you would expect there were no more than a couple of supporters for Ms Mills.  By far the majority were happy to denounce her in keeping with the press coverage she had received.
The challenge within the workshop was not to defend Ms Mills, but to show how her behaviour was entirely typical and predictable and to test a hypothesis that we ourselves might have acted in similar ways if our circumstances had been the same. 
The judgment in the case was, on the whole, damning;
    "She is a less than impressive witness."
    "I cannot accept her case."
    "Wholly exaggerated"
But for all of that it was also recognised that Ms Mills was "A kindly person and is devoted to her charitable causes."
Here we have the first conflict phenomenon, namely that the manner in which we or our clients act when we are in conflict situations, can be very different to how we truly are, or would like to be perceived.
This article explores the idea that Ms Mills, or any of us or our clients are not as we appear to be when confronted with conflict situations.  If we were, and if Ms Mills was all that she had been portrayed to be, then surely it is inconceivable that Sir Paul McCartney would have ever married her - but rather that she is an individual who has fallen into quite typical conflict led patterns of behaviour.
Essentially this is the recognition that conflict is an external phenomenon which then exerts its influence upon us and our conduct. 

"To some extent she is her own worst enemy."
Justice Bennett

There is a temptation to act in conflict driven ways not least because we perceive that conflict feels so right. Very often conflict behaviours are driven by a sense of righteous indignation, that feeling of "How dare you?!".
It is this powerful drive to action, or more likely reaction, that compels the otherwise measured and conciliatory client to storm into our offices and say "Right, that does it!" before thrusting a letter into our hands that they themselves have drafted and insist we send on our headed notepaper.
When we allow ourselves to be seduced by conflict in this way, to use Ken Cloke's phrase once again, we act in accordance with conflict's agenda and forego our own values or how we would like to see ourselves acting. What was that quote about "Give a speech in anger and give the best speech you'll ever regret."?
Too often, we hide our indignation as defending ourselves from the wrongs we sense are inflicted upon us by the other, but in doing so we are relinquishing the responsibility we all have to conduct ourselves reasonably.
There is an often quoted passage from Victor Frankl which bears repeating. 

"Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response."

This is often put forward as an optimistic comment within training spheres but the awareness of choice carries responsibility with it.  If we accept that we, as intelligent animals, capable of reason, argument and communication have the power to choose a response, then it is also incumbent upon us to use that choice.
If we surrender the patterns of our behaviours, actions and reactions to little more than what we felt we were being provoked to do, then that is the absolution of our own self responsibility.  When we absolve that responsibility then we let ourselves down, no matter how loudly or vehemently we are blaming the other person in the dispute.  Our behaviours will only ever reflect upon us, not the other person.
We become our own worst enemy.

"She cannot have done herself any good... by her outbursts in her TV interviews."
Mr Justice Bennett

Take a few moments to revisit those Heather Mills interviews on GMTV.  Go to and search for "Heather Mills + GMTV"  and you will find them easily enough.  They make for uncomfortable viewing.
As we watch these clips now, it is possible to see conflict patterns playing out in a quite brazen fashion.
The outbursts, as they are quite rightly referred to, come across as being out of control, a stream of consciousness, a rant
Surely we would never behave in that fashion would we?  But think about it. Think about when you got home after an argument at the office, or having been cut up by another driver on the way home.
We do exactly what Heather Mills did.  We tell people about what happened to us.  We tell our partners about it. Maybe we retell the story later on at the bar with friends, or on the phone to our parents or colleagues.
We tell and retell our conflict story, creating a narrative about what happened and how we have been wronged.
When we retell these conflict stories we are looking to recruit supporters to our version of events so that we can be comforted that we did not make the mistake. It is a perfectly natural behaviour.  We saw it in the Zeiderman case and we see it frequently when we first meet with a new client.
The only difference between Ms Mills’ position and our own, or our client's positions, is that she was given a much broader platform, namely unscripted live TV, from which to retell her conflict narrative.
Would we, if we were so inflamed by conflict, have been able to resist such an opportunity to set the story straight, to retell it as we saw it?
There is another phenomenon happening within these TV interviews.
See how Heather Mills maximises her actions as being virtuous and denounces other peoples’ actions as being cynically motivated.
If I am late, hypothetically speaking, then I will seek to justify my lateness with any number of explanations. If someone I am meeting is late, then I do not make anywhere near as much effort to justify it.  Instead we are too ready to condemn it.
What is more, conflict tricks us into denigrating everything that they say or do.  Comments such as "He always did..." or "She never did..." are absolutist terms that get used to reduce the other person in the debate to little more than an object, seemingly incapable of change and operating in an entirely predictable one dimensional fashion. 
It is this temptation to denounce other peoples' actions which frequently leads to clients, upon receiving a good, even generous settlement proposal from their estranged spouse, to reject it immediately, often with the comment;

"Oh, there must be something in it for them."

We see a terrible conflict irony that the more generous the proposal, the greater the mistrust.  This may in part be down to the Narrative Theory we looked at in part 2.  If I am still entrenched in my own conflict narrative, then I need to preserve the logical progression or inherent narrative curve. 
If that narrative tells me that you are incapable of change and are out to ruin me, then when you act outside of my narrative expectations, it causes what is called a disjunct or a disconnection.  I cannot make a narrative leap from holding you as the villain of the piece to now perceiving you as someone who is prepared to make a reasonable offer.  To do so would feel illogical.  The "Something in it for them" response, therefore, is very often a device to make sense of that narrative gap.
It can be terribly frustrating for us as practitioners to try and get our clients to see when genuine proposals for settlement are sincere and ought to be accepted.  By engaging with, but not necessarily subscribing to, our client’s narrative arc, or logic, we can then work with them to enable them to make the connection and start to make sense of the new proposal and maybe even come to an agreement. 

"The wife's campaign... portraying herself as the victim and he as the monster"
Justice Bennett

We see here how Karpman’s Drama triangle, introduced in part 2 can be seen to apply literally, to Heather Mills’ conduct of her case.  The drama triangle can be seen played out on the GMTV interview.  She presents herself as the victim, but attempts to reposition herself as the rescuer.  She is seen to intervene into her own victimhood and attempt to resolve the situation for herself.  For example, she asserts that she is speaking out on live TV to “set the record straight.”
This is quite common within the drama triangle. Very often the individual will have had enough and take such "self-rescuing" actions. The problem is though that she was then roundly condemned as the villain of the piece by having been perceived as attacking her spouse.
Watch out also for the assertion that she was trying to "Protect" Paul McCartney.  Again, this is a rescuer-stance. Here, she portrays Paul McCartney as the victim - powerless - at the mercy of shadowy unidentified villains.

Within the workshop back in April 2008, the consensus at the end of the session was that Heather Mills deserved more respect.  It was recognized that her actions were similar to those that anyone might display in her situation, even the same as actions that we ourselves might display.  The only difference was one of scale.

This concludes our series looking at this thing called Conflict. I hope it has aroused curiosity on the part of the reader as to how conflict plays out and given a few pointers to enable you to discuss these dynamics with your clients when you find yourself or your clients getting stuck.  The greatest encouragement is that we do not need to despair at those stuck moments.  Hopefully we might now better understand what is happening and why we do not seem to be able to connect with our clients, or why they appear to us to be acting in ways which are detrimental to their own cases.

Read the previous parts of this series:

  1. Zeiderman, Conflict and Family Litigation
  2. Conflict and Family Litigation: Part 2 - The Role of Narrative


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