Monday, January 13th, 2020
In line with trends in society at large, the number of clients we see who seek to explain their partner’s undesirable characteristics by a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is increasing at a steady rate. This article will outline the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the challenges facing clients who wish to contend that their partner is a narcissist within family proceedings, and the best way legal representatives can advise such clients.
The symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include but are not limited to obsessive behaviour, delusions of grandeur, a lack of empathy for others, heightened emotions in the face of being challenged and a calculated manipulation of others.
In terms of how these characteristics might manifest themselves in the context of family law, those who experience Narcissistic Personality Disorder are at a higher risk of mistreating their partners and children. Coercive control as well as emotional and psychological abuse are commonplace, as is the coaching of children to speak ill of the submissive parent, usually in order to assist the narcissist in being awarded favourable terms for contact. Another reason for such behaviour is that the narcissist feels that the questioning of their authority within proceedings is an affront to their warped sensibilities; something to be dealt with in the harshest possible terms. On the more extreme end of the scale, this can take the form of a party effectively brainwashing their child(ren) to make accusations of serious sexual or physical assault against the other parent. This is not to say that all narcissists will necessarily exhibit such behaviour, nor that those who do are necessarily narcissists. It is rather that the likelihood of such actions rearing their ugly head is increased.
There are challenges to clients who want to make allegations that their partner is a narcissist. Solicitors, barristers and judges will not be making any diagnoses: this would be the preserve of a trained mental health professional. All a judge will be concerned about is whether the behaviour of any parent (irrelevant of any label that can be applied) is such that it should be taken into account when assessing how much they should spend with their children (or in some cases whether they should see them at all).
It is often up to lawyers to spot when their client has been a victim of this type of psychological abuse, with the tell-tale signs including a constant undermining of the client’s mental health by their partner and a clear misrepresentation of the facts to suit their agenda. Of course, many become aware of the fact they are being controlled and decide to call us to break-out of the relationship. At that stage, we will always enquire as to whether there is any hard evidence of the manipulation, such as messages, recordings, reports or third-party statements. If no such evidence is available, narcissistic behaviour may be difficult to make out. Such a lack of evidence can leave the suffering partner appearing paranoid and detached from reality, which is exactly what the narcissist intends. Throwing around unsubstantiated accusations can therefore significantly damage the client’s position, so a deft calculation is required by solicitors on whether and when to raise the issue in proceedings. In such cases, we have to ‘play the game’ and not let our clients become too distracted about proving they have been manipulated or by any labelling of their partner’s personality. In the knowledge that narcissists may very well be the masters of their own downfall, be it during litigation or under cross-examination, it is key to maintain a requisite focus on that which is required by us from the court or any state services. Regardless of the behaviour of the other side, our advice will usually be that our clients must rise above the fray and try to co-parent as best they can, with the child’s interests remaining sacrosanct. Generally, the courts will look favourably on the proactive, diplomatic parent in any case.
In most cases, Narcissistic Personality Disorder will not have been formally diagnosed prior to proceedings. Additionally, on the off-chance a prognosis has previously been made, the narcissist is unlikely to reveal this information, which is invariably confidential. If judges, however, suspect one partner may be manipulating the other, it is then that substantive steps can be taken to figure out whether mental health issues are at play. Although the family courts cannot compel parties to attend psychiatric assessments, parents’ hands can essentially be forced by judgment being made that until the mother or father engages with mental health care professionals then child contact will be/will continue to be restricted. This, however, is often contingent on the court agreeing that there is clearly something wrong with the behaviour of one of the parents, such as obsessive tendencies or anger management issues. Such a view is rarely formed until after fact finding or final hearings, which in many instances are months or even years down the line of proceedings. Even in cases where the behaviour of narcissists means no formal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is necessary, on the basis that findings of fact being made against the abusive parent will lead to negative judgment against them anyway, the innocent party may still have to endure a long wait. What, therefore, is to be done for those who are being manipulated by partners who have not yet been properly scrutinised during the court process?
The answer can be found in the Family Procedure Rules, Practice Direction 12J. Paragraph 5 of the practice direction dictates that contested factual and welfare issues in such cases are to be tried (fairly) as soon as possible. In the interim, paragraph 25 allows for a child arrangements order to be made. This can occur if the court is satisfied that it is in the interests of the child to do so and none of the parties will be exposed to an unmanageable level of harm if it is made. In deliberating on this, the judge will have at the forefront of their mind the statutory welfare checklists, which emphasise the needs of the child(ren), their wishes, any ascertainable harm that could be inflicted on them and the ability of the parents to care for the child(ren). Judgment may take the form of supervised or limited contact. Clearly, the court will therefore have to make some level of assessment of the facts before they are properly tried. This will likely take the form of the presentation of the parties to date and any relevant reports. It is therefore tantamount that any victims of domestic abuse do not allow the perpetrator to negatively impact their behaviour. It is appreciated that this is easier said than done, but it is crucial that our clients remain child-focused and trust that the true nature of their partner will reveal itself.
We are experienced at dealing with matters involving Narcissistic Personality Disorder and understand the difficulties that can arise during all family proceedings.
As a final thought, those who believe that they have been the victim of a narcissist’s bullying should be confident that all is not lost. With our help, we can guide you through the process step-by-step to strive for the best outcome. If you are a victim of domestic abuse, then it is obviously important to contact the police on 111, or 999 in an emergency. Alternatively, there are many charities who support both male and female victims. Following on from that, our team in the Family & Divorce Law department will be there to speak to you about filing for divorce and child arrangements orders. The number to call is 020 7228 0017, or you can contact me directly at email@example.com.
Alex McHugh is a paralegal at Hanne & Co’s Family and Divorce Law team.