Sometimes I feel like a doctor. A patient comes in, describes symptoms to me, and I prescribe a course of treatment.
Some ailments are more complicated than others. An amicable divorce, for example, could be analogized to a common cold. A moderately contested divorce with relatively few issues to the flu, perhaps.
But then there are those that come in describing these symptoms:
- “My spouse is too proud to ever compromise.”
- “He/she is envious of everyone else’s success.”
- “My spouse is a master manipulator.”
- “My spouse always needs to be right.”
- “He/she has no conscience.”
- “He/she has a grandiose sense of self.”
- “My spouse hangs on to resentment.”
- “Nothing is ever their fault.”
In that case, I know I am dealing with a disease far more sinister than a cold, the flu or a run of the mill virus. I might be dealing instead, with a terminal illness; a malignancy, a cancer.
These are the narcissists. I have always said, just anecdotally, that divorcing a narcissist is exceedingly difficult. But research also suggests there is ample support in this belief.
Narcissistic behavior is one of the character traps Dr. Mark Banschick explains in his article on Malignant Divorce. According to Dr. Banschick, “the narcissist is completely self-serving and selfish.”
When divorcing a narcissist, Dr. Bansckick says, “he completely dismisses any of your needs, or all the years of devotion and mutual companionship that you had built together. Normal people remember the good from the past. It informs a sense of balance and fairness during a divorce (even through a betrayal). You may be getting a divorce, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have valuable memories and a life story together. For the narcissist, it is all gone; like it never happened. You will have to understand this if you are to deal effectively with him. The narcissist can undermine you with your friends, with your children and steal your money, all while looking sincere and generating good will among the community.”
We know it is a problem – I know I have seen it firsthand. I have heard clients bemoan the narcissistic divorce time and time again.
Indeed, according to the DSM IV-TR, between 2 percent and 16 percent of the population in clinical settings are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Unsurprisingly, narcissistic behavior is also correlative with abusive behaviors. While the abuse is not always physical, it can be emotional, financial and verbal. These behaviors can even manifest themselves when dealing with custody of children. As a result, there are some special considerations that must be taken into account when divorcing a narcissist.
Custody and the Narcissist:
Tina Swithin, author of “Divorcing a Narcissist – One Mom’s Battle” offers some solutions in her recent Huffington Post Divorce article, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the Family Court System.
In the article, Swithin quotes Chelsea Storey, Family Law Attorney in Orange County, California, who eloquently describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder and it’s affect on the Family Court System:
The central focus of judges in the family court system should be on children’s rights and protecting the children. Custody determinations should not be based on father’s rights or mother’s rights but based solely on the best interest of the child. When there are accusations of abuse and neglect, it is imperative that these items are taken seriously and investigated by highly skilled and trained individuals. The actions of a parent should be given more consideration than the grandiose statements of the parties. In high conflict custody cases, with the popular presumption that equal parenting time or 50/50 custody is fair to both parents, the children’s safety, stability and best interest are too often ignored and overlooked while decisions are hastily made due to blanket assumptions about scorned parents and limited court time. While an equal parenting time arrangement may work between two healthy parents, it absolutely does not work when one or both parents are determined to lie, manipulate, alienate and abuse the children in the name of winning at all costs. When one party is focused on self and not on the children, children suffer immensely and litigation is exponentially prolonged creating instability and a dangerous environment for children.
Swithin therefore offers the following suggestions to family courts and judges:
- Investigation when words do not match actions – Swithin suggests that this could indicate manipulative tendencies. When uninvestigated, it could begin to pervade the case. To that end, she suggest that Court orders contain as little “wiggle-room” as possible which would, in turn, discourage manipulation.
- Harsher penalties for perjury – When individuals are caught lying, the offense should be taken more seriously. Presently, the offense is rarely prosecuted, but it could be because there is a lot of “he said, she said” in family court and truths are often greyed.
- Education on Personality Disorders: This is one of the areas where I wholeheartedly agree with Swithin. Personality disorders are becoming more and more prevalent. I believe it would be a disservice to both parties in a couple plagued by NPD, and indeed, to society at large, not to educate the Custody Evaluations, Guardian Ad Litems, Commissioners, Judges, Social Workers and Attorneys within the Family Court System.
- Focus on the child’s best interests versus parental rights – Swithin argues that parental rights have historically taken precedence over the best interests of the child. She advocates a shift to a child-centric determination, rather than parent-centric: “The ability to procreate should not automatically guarantee rights that override a child’s well-being.”
While it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to protect a child. I think the first step is to create a village within the Family Court System that is educated on personality disorders which are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society.
I have personally observed that the best way to thwart your spouse’s efforts to use children as pawns in a divorce is to keep your responses confined to email, make them brief and to the point, and (for the love of god!) do not engage him/her. Narcissists thrive on being vindictive and hurtful. Do not open the door to it.
Financial Relief and the Narcissist:
From a financial standpoint, there are also special considerations can take in order to protect yourself while divorcing a narcissist as well.
- Collect Financial Paperwork – This includes your spouse’s paperwork. It is essential to have this information at your fingertips, because once your case heats up, getting any documents from your spouse will be like pulling teeth. Put the documents somewhere safe until you can hand them off to your lawyer.
- Create a Stockpile of Money – Sadly, when divorcing a narcissist, you will need to prepare for a longer divorce process than is typical. This is because a narcissist may attempt to hoard money, deliberately disobey orders to pay you, or just fight for the sake of fighting. Money and good credit may be lifesavers.
- Retain a Strong Legal Team – This includes someone who can navigate the Court system AND help you through this minefield of potential issues that may arise through the course of your divorce.
Of course, you should seek professional assistance, such as crisis intervention, if you believe that your spouse poses any risk to you or your children.
Divorcing a narcissist may be the most difficult thing you will ever have to do. But it also may be the most rewarding for you and your family. Understanding the issues is the first step.
Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.