What Catholic Tribunals Know about Autism and Divorce

I’m not Catholic. I didn’t know what a TRIBUNAL was until last week when I called an archdiocese and started asking questions.

I called because I’d heard through the grapevine that the Catholic church annuls marriages when one person has autism. I wondered why one church would be aware of the incompatibilities in mixed-neurological couples while other churches, the court systems and mental health professionals have almost no awareness that these marriages exist.

I had the opportunity to talk to an incredibly kind and wise “father” for about an hour. He did his best to explain the Catholic church’s stance and his personal experiences with autism and marriage to a non-Catholic — me.

I learned a few things.

First, the Catholic church understands autism and marriage and divorce because true believing Catholics can’t get remarried within the Catholic church after divorce unless they receive an annulment and annulments can be offered for all sorts of things that show that “something essential was lacking at the time of the exchange of vows.”

(See the ARCHDIOCESE OF VANCOUVER question-answer page. Vancouver isn’t the archdiocese I called, fwiw.)

This means that there are a lot of divorced Catholics around who want a second chance at marriage within their religion and that need their church’s permission in order to proceed. So… they go and tell the tribunal what happened in their marriages and ask the tribunal to make judgements in their favor. After a while, the tribunals begin to be experts on the different kinds of conflicts that occur within marriage.

The Catholic tribunals use a CODE OF CANNON LAW to guide cases they hope will help their members, when appropriate, find peace and move on with their lives after divorce.

One of their codes allows for annulments when people have some sort of condition that interferes with marriage. And that’s where high-functioning autism comes in: autism is a condition that interferes with marriage.

In a nutshell, the Catholic tribunals know about autism (while the civil court systems don’t) because the Code of Cannon Law takes conditions like autism into account and because Catholics seeking remarriage after divorce will report autism as one of the reasons their past marriages failed.

The father I spoke to knew a lot more about autism and marriage than most of the autism professionals I talk to. It was clear that he was a rare expert at dealing with mixed-neurological conflict, whether or not he liked it.

Here are a few highlights of what the father told me he had experienced while trying to determine whether or not annulments could be granted when typically developing partners claimed autism prevented their marriages from being “a call to mutual self-giving for the good of the spouses and the nurturing of children” ( ARCHDIOCESE OF VANCOUVER):

  1. Often the partner with autism isn’t diagnosed and won’t seek or accept a diagnosis. At the same time, the typically developing parter insists that the diagnosis is accurate.
  2. The annulments that include autism are very contentious.
  3. The mixed-neurological divorces are also very contentious in civil courts. Many of them are fault divorces. The partner with autism is generally the one who files fault and aggresses first in court.
  4. The civil divorces take a long time to complete.
  5. There are a lot of confusing back-and-forth claims by both partners that the tribunal must try to make sense of.
  6. When the tribunal makes a judgement against the partner with autism, the partner with autism may go so far as to appeal to Rome.
  7. The parter with autism can’t understand the way he or she is contributing to the conflict and feels like a victim without taking into account the way that he or she is victimizing the other partner. This demonstrates the lack of self-awareness in marriage that the Catholic church believes justifies annulments even when no diagnosis is claimed or made.
  8. The fathers have come to conclusion that they need to do whatever they can to support the partners with autism through the trauma of the process because it is so difficult and overwhelming for them — and that sometimes supporting them means challenging them and telling them that they’re wrong.
  9. When reviewing the histories of the marriages, the fathers can see that the partners with autism were not able to connect with their typically developing partners in a manner that demonstrated they were capable of the “mutual self-giving” expected in Catholic marriages.
  10. The fathers can see that the way partners with autism are behaving in the tribunals indicates that annulments for autism are justified.
  11. The fathers can see that the partners with autism remain unconvinced that they are doing anything wrong even while they are hurting their ex-spouses and that they continue to blame all the problems in the marriage on their ex-spouses rather than looking at themselves.
  12. When an annulment for autism can’t be made because the partner with autism does not accept a diagnosis, annulments can be made based on the partner with autism’s inability to be self-aware within the marriage.

From what I gathered, the father’s experiences with mixed-neurological divorces were fairly extreme. His opinion was that the Catholic tribunals became places where vindictiveness came to fruition when the civil court systems didn’t allow enough leverage.

At the same time, he was very kind and wise. He could see that both partners were sincerely suffering and in need of support and help. The typically developing partners needed an opportunity to heal and go on with their lives and the partners with autism needed support in letting things go and in understanding that winning a fight isn’t really winning when your ex-partner gets hurt.

I left the conversation feeling a great deal of respect for the father who was trying hard to help people in difficult situations and for both members of the mixed-neurological couples who are doing their best without enough understanding or support.

I also left with an affirmed commitment that any system, civil or religious, that promotes conflict through establishing any incentive for ex-spouses to blame each other and fight — including the incentive of an annulment — is harmful to families.

I am not Catholic, so perhaps it’s difficult for me to understand why a tribunal needs to be held and why fingers need to be pointed at all. From my vantage point, the efforts spent on tribunals would be better expended in healing and providing resources and support for both partners.

Partners with autism need help understanding how autism causes problems during divorce so that they recover more quickly and easily. Typically developing partners need rules that protect them from conflict rather than rules that promote it through systems that allow for fighting and fault.

If you’re going through a mixed-neurological divorce and would like support, I take partners with autism who are ready to do what they can to reduce conflict so they can make divorce easier for everyone (including themselves!) and typically developing partners who need support during conflicts they have little power to stop.

My message to partners with autism is that I understand that it is difficult and that it hurts and that I will walk with you and help you find a solution that works for everyone. A solution that works for everyone is better for you, too.

My message to typically developing partners is that you have enough strength to make it to the other side of divorce. You can do this!

I do not work with couples or do any mediation.

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Attorneys and the Exploitation of Families with Autism

Divorce is never easy.

Family life isn’t always particularly easy, either. Adding autism to close family relationships is an additional challenge for everyone.

Autism has a genetic component and families who have children on the spectrum may also have one or more adults on the spectrum. The signs of autism are more apparent in childhood and whenever a child is diagnosed with autism, it’s a good idea for families to consider whether or not one or more of the parents may be on the spectrum, too. Many adults with high-functioning autism have never been diagnosed because, in many cases, there was little awareness of ASD when they were children.

It is well known that parenting children on the spectrum is a unique and difficult life challenge.

Many families managing children on the spectrum are also dealing with neurological communication incompatibilities between the partners and a vulnerability to domestic abuse and trauma in the marriage relationship.

These families are often in a state of continual duress and trauma. Sometimes divorce is the preferred solution.

There are many ethical attorneys who refuse to contribute to unreasonable family conflict and who will not help partners take aggressive actions against their soon-to-be ex-spouses that will obviously harm the family as a whole and consequently the children. These attorneys are invested in ensuring their clients are truthful and that reasonable divorce solutions are sought for the good of everyone, including their clients.

There are other attorneys who do not have ethical qualms about using the law to hurt their clients’ ex-spouses and consequently their clients’ children. Either these attorneys lack their own personal insight into family conflict (and are perhaps on the autism spectrum themselves), or they simply do not care how much harm comes to families as long as they can take attorney fees and help their clients meet objectives.

Clients with autism can be very lucrative for attorneys. They lack the theory of mind and immediate empathy that would otherwise help them understand the wisdom of putting a halt to their own aggressions during divorce. Without that understanding, unethical attorneys can exploit them by “helping” them use the law to “get the most” out of divorce rather than finding a solution that works for the family as a whole.

The partners with autism lack insight into how their own actions in the divorce will affect the circumstances or how their aggressions will ultimately end up hurting their children and harming the family financially. Attorneys who do not have qualms about stirring up marital conflict and harming children will take advantage of this lack of insight and will agree to aggressions rather than refusing the business or challenging their clients’ vindictiveness or beliefs that marital property does not need to be fairly shared.

It is not uncommon for partners going through divorce to have different ideas about what is “fair.” In mixed-neurological relationships, however, the partner with autism’s theory of mind (ToM) deficits and lack of immediate empathy prevents insight into the typically developing partner’s intentions and perspective. The partner with autism will usually believe that what is “fair” is for the partner with autism to take all or almost all of the resources.

This dynamic is especially difficult in marriages in which one partner has been the provider and the other has raised the children. If the partner with autism is the provider, he or she may feel that there is no need to pay alimony and that the children should lose the other parent. If the partner with autism has cared for the children, he or she may feel that the partner who provides must continue to sacrifice everything in order to keep the children with their primary caregiver even if that means that the provider must work full time while paying child support and alimony for many years and with little access to the children and with hardly enough money to pay for reasonable housing.

In both cases, what the family needs is for laws an attorneys to protect both spouses and the children. Attorneys who don’t mind helping their clients exploit the legal system to meet their objectives will not help their clients with autism achieve happiness and success after marriage, but will line their own pockets with a distressed family’s money because the partners with autism do not have the capacity to understand how much harm they are causing.

Many mixed-neuological divorces cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and go on for years, even when the family’s collective net worth is not high enough to justify the fight.

In mixed-neurological relationships, the partners with autism have theory of mind (ToM), perspective taking and immediate empathy impairment that prevents them from having the insight that would make it easy for them to see that through collaborating and supporting their ex-spouses, they would preserve their relationships with their children and help set their partners up for the kind of success that would ultimately save the partners with autism stress and even money in the future.

Attorneys who take advantage of the theory of mind (ToM), perspective-taking, and collaboration disabilities of their clients with autism for financial gain are culpable for the resulting harm that comes to their own clients, their clients’ children and their clients’ spouses and ex-spouses.

This is exploitation of their own clients’ disabilities for financial gain. It is exploitation of families that may be raising children with disabilities, and spouses and ex-spouses who have already put years and years into managing the difficulties related to autism and close family relationships.

This is exploitation of children.

The money attorneys collect for their services when their clients have theory of mind (ToM) and immediate empathy deficits is money that may have gone to the children for school, treatment, or that could have at least stayed in a family that is likely already under great financial duress.

Partners with autism can seek coaching, consulting or counseling to help them better understand how to navigate divorce more effectively and without the use of fault divorce or other legal strategies that will likely ultimately end up greatly harming them, their children and their families. A third-party professional can help partners with autism understand how to protect themselves and their families from attorneys who would be happy to take advantage of their disabilities. A good rule of thumb is to never use an attorney who will just do anything that is asked. Ethical attorneys push back a bit — or a lot. They don’t necessarily do everything a client wants because they see it will harm families and children. Just because an attorney is being nice, that doesn’t mean the attorney is really a friend.

Typically developing partners can seek coaching, consulting or counseling to help them better understand how to navigate the trauma of divorce when finding an equitable solution means fighting hard to get there. If one partner is fighting hard to take everything, it’s necessary for the other partner to fight back in order to protect the family as a whole and the children.

If you would like become a client, please tell me a little bit about yourself and your situation using THIS FORM.