Narcissism and Family Law: What dispute resolution practitioners should know
By Karin Walker
Karin Walker discusses how family law practitioners can approach and mediate a relationship with a narcissist.
It may be said the three terms which have emerged as prevalent in the world of family law during lockdown are ‘domestic violence’, ‘parental alienation’ and ‘narcissism’. Arguably the third will be relevant to the other two.
The word ‘narcissism’ is becoming increasingly common, but what exactly does it mean?
There are many misconceptions. Many think narcissists are crazed dictators, murderous lunatics, cult leaders or evil villains – people whom the average person is never likely to meet. Many more believe the term ‘narcissism’ to be just a trendy ‘buzzword’ bandied about for conversational effect.
Although Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is not as well recognised in the UK as it is in the US, it is a condition which, as a family law practitioner, you would disregard at your peril.
It is commonly accepted there are four major ways those with NPD present themselves to the outside world.
· The Exhibitionist Narcissist
· The Closet Narcissist
· The Devaluing Narcissist
· The Communal Narcissist
While those with NPD will possess one of these forms, some overlap is possible, depending on the situation the narcissist finds themselves in, and what works well for them in that situation.
Someone suffering from NPD will typically have experienced some kind of trauma or attachment issue in the early years of their life, leaving them emotionally trapped with the skill-set of a four-year-old, unable to empathise at all and condemned to demonstrate some rather predictable, if extremely toxic, behaviours.
Idealise, devalue and discard
The cycle of ‘idealise,’ ‘devalue’ and ‘discard’ is the hallmark of those with narcissistic adaptations. They will usually seek out a partner who is vulnerable but also caring and empathetic.
In the initial idealisation or ‘love-bombing’ stage of a relationship they will listen carefully to their partner identifying what is important to them and presenting as their soulmate. What they are really doing is learning how to upset and destroy their partner in the future when they move to the ‘devalue’ or ‘discard’ stage of the relationship.
The narcissist requires constant adoration in the form of supply – from anyone prepared to provide it. Supply can be in the form of positive attention but also negative drama as long as the narcissist is at the centre.
Their partner believes they have met the companion of their dreams and thrive on being made to feel special. But then the criticism starts. First it is barely noticeable but confusing. Then it becomes hurtful and disorientating.
The practitioners’ responsibilities
As a dispute resolution practitioner, you may be instructed by either the narcissist or their spouse in some capacity. Or you could be dealing with the couple as a mediator, arbitrator or private financial dispute resolution judge. Whatever the situation, it is important you properly understand exactly what it is you are dealing with.
This requirement underlines the need to listen carefully when you first meet with a new client either in an options meeting, conference or intake session.
As the lawyer representing a narcissist client, you will be idealised in whatever way works most effectively for the narcissist. This will be individualised to you. It is important to pay attention to how you feel. You may feel a strong sense of connection to the narcissist early on in the process, and may feel this person could be your best friend were they not your client.
However, as time moves on, be prepared to be triangulated with counsel and with other lawyers and professional representatives. You may find yourself rapidly descending from ‘flavour of the month’ to being devalued and compared unfavourably to others. You are at risk of adapting to the manipulation demonstrated by the narcissist in their aim to be professionally valued and appreciated as you were at the outset of the case.
When a narcissist is on the verge of being left by their partner/spouse, this will trigger deep abandonment issues. ‘Hoovering’ is the term given to the narcissist’s tactic to suck the target back into the relationship, so the narcissist can continue to use them as a narcissistic supply. It is another form of idealisation but specific to imminent abandonment. The narcissist will again turn back into the perfect partner becoming seductive and charming. However, this is merely a temporary reprieve.
It is often said it takes seven attempts to leave a narcissist; even one who is physically abusive. If you are representing the spouse of a narcissist, they may well be hoovered back into the relationship even after you have been instructed to act for them.
They may seem weak or indecisive to those who do not understand the highly addictive, neurochemical nature of trauma bonding (similar to a heroin addiction). Look out for this, as when your client reinstructs you it may be a clue to the nature of the person they are divorcing and be mindful of trying not to judge them for their apparent indecision.
The narcissist may be unaware they suffer from a personality disorder and it is important you do not call them out as otherwise all you will do is experience narcissistic rage. Recognising their behaviour disorder at an early stage will help you decide whether you actually want to take them on as a client or enable you to recognise the boundaries and strategies which you will need to have in place to support them during the breakdown of their relationship.
The spouse who has suffered the toxicity of a relationship with a narcissist may not fully understand what it has been about their situation that has made them feel so wretched and confused for such a prolonged period of time. They will need you to recognise the behaviour pattern to which they have been subjected so you can help them navigate what lies ahead. The narcissist has no wish to achieve a reasonable or family focussed outcome. This is particularly the case if they did not wish the relationship to come to an end when they will be experiencing narcissistic rage.
A narcissist believes themselves not to need to conform to rules or regulations – they are far too special to do that. They do not adhere to deadlines nor do they conform. Financial disclosure will be provided on a piecemeal and incomplete basis. Child arrangements will be expected to reflect their express wishes. They will move the goalposts throughout the negotiations to avoid settlement. They will need to ‘win’.
The importance of wellbeing
If acting for their spouse, you need to stay two steps ahead and recognise your client has a need to remove themselves from the relationship as much as achieve the best possible settlement. It is about achieving a balance.
As the mediator, you may want to be sure you are using the hybrid process as the classic model lends itself to the narcissist engaging in triangulation and just playing a game rather than focussing on an outcome. Keeping the couple in separate breakout rooms and probably ensuring lawyers are involved in the process to support/control their client may also be beneficial.
If you feel an adjudicative process is an inevitability, consider arbitration. The bespoke nature of the process will attract the narcissist who wants to feel unique.
If you don’t want to represent an individual who suffers from NPD don’t be afraid to say so at the outset and decline the instruction. If, as the case progresses, you feel trust has broken down to the point that you can no longer represent this client don’t be afraid to call time. Make sure you always have money on account to cover your fees as they are likely not to pay you if the professional relationship sours. They are also highly likely to make a complaint against you if they do not get their own way.
Finally, your own wellbeing needs to remain uppermost in your mind. Recognise what sort of client you are dealing with. Stay one step ahead. Don’t allow your professional boundaries to be eroded. Brace yourself for inevitable devaluation. If you feel you can’t act any more don’t be afraid to call time but make sure you take care of yourself as a priority.
Karin Walker is a family lawyer at KGW Family Law kgwfamilylaw.com