03rd Apr 2017

Are they ‘gaslighting’ you?: How to cope with a narcissist in the family justice system

By Kara Swift

In this article Family Law in Partnership associate Kara Swift examines the best way of dealing with individuals displaying narcissistic personality disorders in the family justice system. 

Between 2 and 16% 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 them 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 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 get their energy supply from conflict and will relish the opportunity to complain of being a victim or taken advantage of. The current law in England and Wales unfortunately requires one party to force blame on another if they wish to seek a divorce earlier than 5 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 ‘5 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 of a long winded and emotive response, therefore, keep all communications:

FOCUSED     Be brief, to the point and shut down any need for there to be a response other than where absolutely necessary.

FACTUAL      Quote the facts and disassociate them from any feelings on the matter.

FAIR            Have a reasoned response.

FIRM           Put boundaries in place, set deadlines and make the expectations clear.

  1. 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 to keep it safe.

  1. Think strategically

Narcissists will see any offer made as something which they can, therefore, automatically have and then still pursue 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 utilise the four F’s but when considering fairness remember that a narcissist naturally wants to take the lead and oppose anything which they haven’t suggested.

  1. Choose your battles

As is clear from the need for these very steps, dealing with a narcissist is emotionally draining and there has to be a degree of focus on self-preservation. Where costs can allow it, delegate as much as possible to solicitors and solicitors will be alive to the need only respond to those communications which require a response.

  1. 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. By remaining reasonable, not directly calling them “a narcissist” but calling them out on the characteristics that we all know point to their narcissism will redress the feeling of a power balance.

By setting boundaries a narcissist’s ability to effect the progression of the matter is restricted. To an extent it will always be an uphill battle and one that may require litigating through to Final Hearing but by adopting Laura and Angela’s approach the path to resolution will feel a lot less disparaging.

Kara Swift, associate at Family Law in Partnership

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal SJ 161/9 7 March 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission.