How to cope with a narcissist in the family justice system
Kara Swift advises solicitors to remain focused, factual, fair, and firm when helping clients deal with a narcissistic former partner
Between 2 and 16 per cent of the clinical population are diagnosed narcissists, and the legal forum unfortunately plays into their hands. Not managing these types of personalities correctly can impact the way in which any matter, whether litigated or not, progresses.
The general well-known characteristics of a narcissist include having a noticeable lack of emotional empathy, the use of condescending statements, excessive need for admiration, becoming very angry as result of being challenged, a sense of entitlement, and a need to win at all costs. However, not all narcissists will present these characteristics and not all do it overtly. There are both grandiose and introverted narcissists, as well as those people who simply have narcissistic traits.
Narcissists feed off conflict and will relish the opportunity to complain of being a victim or taken advantage of.
Unfortunately, the current law in England and Wales requires one party to force blame on another if they wish to seek a divorce earlier than five years after separation without the consent of the other party. This system paves the way for a narcissist to be able to drag the other party through what they will make demeaning and long-winded proceedings.
Laura Rosefield of Rosefield Divorce Consultancy and Dr Angela Smith have developed the ‘Five steps ahead approach’ to provide anyone (including solicitors who may not have a narcissist on the other side of their matter but in fact a client fitting the description) with the strategies necessary to deal with a narcissist.
1. Communicate effectively
A narcissist will feed off a long-winded and emotive response, so keep all communications:
Focused: Be brief, to the point, and only invite a response where absolutely necessary;
Factual: Quote the facts and disassociate them from any feelings on the matter;
Fair: Have a reasoned response; and
Firm: Put boundaries in place, set deadlines, and make the expectations clear.
2. Start documenting immediately
Keep a contemporaneous record of everything in as much detail as possible so as to be able to refer back to it at a later date, but ensure you keep it safe.
3. Think strategically
Narcissists will see any offer as something which is theirs automatically and will still make demands for more. They will be unable to separate out the concept of matters relating to children and negotiations regarding the finances.
When putting proposals to a narcissist, be sure to utilise the four Fs, but when considering ‘fairness’ remember that a narcissist naturally wants to take the lead and is likely to oppose anything which they haven’t suggested.
4. Choose your battles
As is clear from the need for these very steps, dealing with a narcissist is emotionally draining for the other party and there has to be a degree of focus on self-preservation. Ensure that you take over as much of the contact as possible from your client and be alive to the need to keep communications requiring a response to a minimum.
5. Don’t make yourself into a target
The point of being able to identify and deal effectively with a narcissist is not only to manage them as an individual but also consequently divert their behaviour away from you and your client. Remaining reasonable but still calling out any narcissistic characteristics will redress the feeling of a power imbalance.
Setting boundaries will restrict a narcissist’s ability to affect the progression of the matter. To an extent it will always be an uphill battle, and one that may require litigating through to the final hearing, but by adopting Rosefield and Smith’s approach, the path to resolution will feel a lot less draining.
Kara Swift is an associate at Family Law in Partnership