Reply To: Should I bother to enforce custody orders or let it go?



thirdtimelucky, there are details here that aren’t clear to me, but I do agree with Donna’s bottom line: that you shouldn’t let this issue go.

I can’t presume to know your ex-husband’s precise motives–an NPD who might or might not be a psychopath –but I’m sure he imagines he’s entitled to have his way, and to heck with anybody else’s rights, whether it’s yours or your son’s. Narcissists imagine the whole world revolves around them and their wants. Or if it doesn’t, they think it jolly well should, so there! It’s as if other people don’t exist in the mind of a hardcore narcissist. So just as Donna said, if you let him get away with this violation of your agreement, the “thin end of the wedge,” he’ll just go on taking more and more. As the old saying goes: “Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a yard!”

I hope you won’t mind my using your post as an excuse to pontificate about something that I hope is already obvious to you from your ex’s behavior, but I think is worth highlighting anyway. I call it “the law of reinforcement versus the law of reciprocity.”

The “law of reinforcement” is the most fundamental principle in behavioral psychology. It states simply that if a behavior brings “reinforcement,” especially in terms of a reward, we’re likely to repeat the behavior. If we get a pat on the back for doing something, we’ll be more motivated to do it again. Whether we’re rats or humans, if finding our way through a maze brings us a delicious piece of Stilton at the end, we’ll be likely to work harder at solving mazes.

And if we ask our friend Bert for a loan when we need money, and he gives us one, we’ll be likely to ask Bert the next time we’re short of cash–and not the old miser Ebenezer who told us to get lost. Unlike Bert, Ebenezer failed to “reinforce” our loan-seeking behavior.

However, when it comes to loans, another, different law comes into play. That’s the principle of reciprocity. If our friend Bert does give us a loan, as decent people we’re now aware that we’re “indebted” to Bert. We owe him a payback! Obviously this doesn’t have to be about money, either. If somebody does us a favor, we “feel grateful.” We’re aware that we “owe” them something in return. Even if they’re just “nice” to us, we generally feel–quite rightly–that we should be nice to them in return.

With normal people, the principle of reciprocity moderates the principle of reinforcement. That’s to say, we wouldn’t keep going back to Bert for a loan every time we needed money without ever paying it back. At least we’d be well aware that we were “wearing out our welcome.” We have feelings of obligation toward people: obligations that we normally make some effort to fulfill, or else we “feel guilty.”

However, psychopaths and the like, including narcissists who are often simply blind to the existence of other people in the universe, just don’t obey the “law of reciprocity.” At least, they don’t obey it unless they calculate that they can get something out of doing so. And sometimes not even then. All that counts to them is the most primitive law of all: the law of reinforcement.

Historically one of the most infamous examples of this, on a colossal scale, was the 1938 Munich “agreement” between a psychopath (Adolf Hitler) and a normal, well-meaning (but naive) human, Neville Chamberlain. Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain agreed to cede it to him, taking for granted the “principle of reciprocity.” “If we’re nice to this guy, he’ll be satisfied, and he’ll be grateful to us. He’ll give us what we want in return: peace for our time!“–that notorious phrase of Chamberlain’s that will never be forgotten.

As P. T. Barnum (probably another psychopath) famously put it: “Never give a sucker an even break!” Needless to say, the psychopath Hitler couldn’t give a fig for the “principle of reciprocity.” The only thing driving him was the more primitive “principle of reinforcement.” All he could see was that if he made a threat, a demand, it got rewarded! So he just went on doing the same thing: aggression after aggression. He took the Sudetenland, then marched in and took the rest of Czechoslovakia as well! Then the next year he invaded Poland, with the results that everybody knows. Neville Chamberlain chose to “let it go,” and all it got us was World War II.

In short, it’s bad policy to cede anything to these aggressors, because they only see it as encouragement to take more. On the other hand, if aggression only brings a smack on the snoot, it’s less likely to be repeated.

I apologize for not being quite sure what you meant by “conceding equal custody” to your ex. I understood you to say you were already supposed to have 50/50 custody, so I take that phrase to mean “giving up your own right” to equal custody, rather than according him the right to equal custody, which is what the phrase would normally mean, a right he has already. But you don’t want him to take any more than “his half.” And trying to be “nice” to him with coffee and mediation probably won’t work, because he doesn’t obey the “law of reciprocity.”

I also don’t know what your current custody arrangement is–which days, weeks, or months each of you is supposed to have custody of your son–and how exactly this was affected by your son’s going to school. Since the boy is so young, I assume this means day school and not a boarding school. So your ex is “pulling him out of school” for three weeks of the year at the beginning of term? A week in the autumn term, a week in the spring term, and a week in the summer term? But what on earth does your ex think gives him the right to do that?

What I’m wondering immediately is this: isn’t your son legally required to be in school the whole time? Isn’t your ex violating that requirement by arbitrarily pulling him out of school? If he is, that’s a strong argument to take to court with you.

I wouldn’t want to pronounce on whether you should proceed with or without a solicitor. That’s a judgment call. What I would say is that as Donna pointed out, you’re better off going to court to draw a line in the sand against this guy instead of letting this go. Whether you use a solicitor or not is up to you. Good luck!

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