At Whitehead Monckton, we often deal with very complex, intractable problems associated with parents and their children. At their core, it is common for one or both parents to be at the extreme of personal behavioural standards. This is demonstrably because the proceedings perpetuate, with little chance of resolution outside court or in couples’ therapy. With at least one of the parties, there is no prospect of compromise at any cost, or indeed understanding of the damage done to their children and so a court ordered solution is the only answer (whatever they might claim). This can be extremely depressing for conscientious lawyers and Judges alike.
One particular behavioural profile we see on a fairly consistent basis is the narcissist. These individuals are extremely sophisticated in manipulating other people so that they don’t have to confront their own shortcomings – which would then lead them into deep depression.
The Greek Myth of Narcissus was used by Sigmund Freud to describe someone who is self-absorbed, invested in their own self-love, rather than in other people. Narcissistic people crave attention and have grandiose ideas that they are unique and special. Underlying this however are deep-seated feelings of inadequacy which they can’t admit to themselves. Their actions protect their egos from exposure, shame and anxiety. Therefore, they lie, deflect probity and criticism, anything to maintain their feelings of self-worth. They do not appear to possess any degree of self-knowledge or humility.
For a thorough review of how this personality disorder affects family law in very specific circumstances, clients and practitioners alike should read McKenna and Walker’s ‘Narcissism and Family Law, A Practitioner’s Guide’ because it importantly warns those working in family law of the complex ways in which narcissists draw in unsuspecting lawyers and their clients if they aren’t prepared.
All of the below phenomena have the common thread of mirroring, by which the narcissistic person ‘mirrors’ the victim in certain ways. If these methods aren’t identified and challenged as they happen, they can reverberate through the lives of innocent children for decades.
Blaming and obfuscation
When the narcissist is unsuccessful in getting the victim to do what they want them to do, they blame the victim for being the aggressor. They believe they are entitled to get their own way and will bully, mock, defame, deflect and gaslight to try to wear down their victim. They will blame others for being selfish when they are the ones who break promises, by making excuses and lying. Sometimes this can manifest in complaining about court staff, CAFCASS or Judges – as an extension of the ‘Dead Cat’ syndrome in politics. In other words, forget about their shortcomings, let’s concentrate on perceived failings in others to deflect from criticism of them.
A classic method of deflecting responsibility for personal failings, particularly in the domestic abuse arena, is for the abuser to claim that the victim is narcissistic. This can be extremely effective, as it can take years for professionals to unravel by which time, hopefully, children will have grown up – outside the jurisdiction of the court. Even without endemic delay in the court system it is quite easy to delay proceedings by painting an untrue picture and then standing back as the other parent works very hard to prove the lie is false. As Judges won’t usually hear evidence until the end of a series of hearings –what has the narcissist got to lose?
It is equally important to realise that many narcissists are interested in human psychology and are active in psychotherapeutic and medical fields. This can make them extremely plausible and very difficult to challenge. Even if they aren’t professionals, it is easy for a narcissist to search the internet for fancy terminology and pin it on their victim as a way of justifying their abuse. They will do anything but accept truth and the responsibility for their actions but because they are often high functioning, they can play the role of the expert as a way of deflecting very well.
Playing the Victim
A fairly common strategy employed extremely successfully by populist politicians, narcissists will claim to be the victim of an aggressor whilst quietly continuing their campaign of abuse. In politics, a populist politician will claim to be marginalised by nameless elites, or subject to a witch hunt, when they are simply being called to account and exposed.
In children proceedings, narcissists will often disengage with therapeutic or counselling help if they realise they are going to be exposed, but will then claim that they are the victim of proceedings they don’t want. They will say that they simply want to be left alone to attend to the vital job of being a good parent – but at the same time, they will have every intention of pursuing their goals to the bitter end as there is no thought for compromise or even proper dialogue to save further hearings or professional intervention.
Care has to be taken in dealing with narcissistic parents in children proceedings as they are adept at manipulating and hiding their true designs. The court system lacks the resources or expertise to handle such a devious personality disorder which compounds the injustice to children and their victims alike.
As a result it is important to get help from family lawyers who have experience of narcissism, so that the behaviours can be recognised and named, and their clients can speak out and be heard without entering an argument designed by the perpetrator. Clients will need to set boundaries of acceptable behaviour with the narcissist and, above all, be encouraged to speak to a high-quality psychotherapeutic counsellor to navigate the waters ahead.
If you would like further information following reading this article please do not hesitate to contact a member of the family team at Whitehead Monckton.