Having practiced family law for over three decades, the prevalence of mental health issues in our office’s cases is obvious and growing. Alcoholism, drug abuse, serial infidelity have always been common, but the analysis of the disorders present in one or both parties is becoming more clear as science advances. Among the most common disorders we are seeing is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (‘N.P.D.’), or simply, narcissism. How to deal with your significant other when narcissism is present is a difficult question but one that is now yielding some answers. Understanding that we are lawyers not therapists underscores the need for psychologists and other mental health professionals to intervene in the family law process to assist the lawyers, judges, the parties and most important the children involved in these cases. (One of the great advantages of utilizing the collaborative family law setting to resolve family law cases is the required presence of an independent mental health professional in the process.)
What is a narcissist? The Mayo Clinic defines N.P.D. as “one of several types of personality disorders. It is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” The nine hallmarks of narcissism are defined to include:
1. A grandiose sense of self-importance;
2. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
3. A belief they’re special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions;
4. A need for excessive admiration;
5. A sense of entitlement;
6. An inter-personally exploitative behavior;
7. A lack of empathy;
8. An envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them; and
9. A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes.
A collection of online videos by Michael Goldman, a real estate professional from Ontario and member of the Canadian ‘Divorce Guy’ group, discuss the seven steps that a person dealing with a narcissist can utilize to help themselves navigate the relationship in a family law setting. You must understand that it is not possible to out-maneuver a narcissist as the ‘rules’ are constantly changing. As Mr. Goldman states, “you are chasing a moving target. You cannot win with logic and reason because the rules do not apply to them.”
Frequently, when a party to a custody or divorce case exhibits N.P.D. this can seriously burden a resolution of the case and complicate the necessity to deal in the future with this person. In brief, here are Mr. Goldman’s seven steps:
#1. Don’t take their bait. Refuse to engage in conversation (phone/text/email) with them. Respond only with the facts and do not discuss the ‘problems’ they have created and want to ‘discuss’. They will use the ‘conversation’ to manipulate your thoughts, emotions and recollection of the ‘facts’. (They are excellent at ‘gas-lighting’.)
#2. Don’t share new personal details with them. Keep them on a ‘need-to-know- only’ basis. Any new information you give them about yourself – such as a new significant other, business success, etc. – as the police officers say, “can and will be used against you in a court of law,” as distorted by the narcissist of course.
#3. Stop hoping/assuming they ‘care’. They never will. To them, it is all about control, manipulation, self-aggrandizement. They attract empathetic people like you but unlike themselves.
#4. Do not internalize their threats or insults. They love control, drama and mind-games. Perhaps surprisingly, they do not even care about ‘winning’ as that involves a final resolution of the drama. If judges do not respond to their threats or insults directed to you, why should you?
#5. Stop trying to justify yourself to them. You will never succeed and if the facts justify your actions, the narcissist will simply attempt to change the facts. Remember that they will never apologize or acknowledge you are correct and they are mistaken. Never.
#6. Their behavior is not your fault. The root of their N.P.D. likely can be found in their childhood or adolescence. Forget feeling guilty or that you have to ‘help’ them. Their problem long pre-dates your involvement with them.
#7. You will never gain their acceptance or gain credibility with them. They are too insecure and desperate for control to ever permit you to ‘win’. You need to emotionally move past the narcissist.
I hope that by keeping this essay in mind when you are dealing with a narcissist in a family law matter, you will become a more effective advocate for yourself and, if this is the case, your children. As has become evident to me after years of family law practice, if you gain control of the narcissist they will simply move on to another vulnerable target. But it will no longer be you. You owe it to yourself and your children.