I have for many years been representing people coming out of marriages where the other party is or is believed to fall somewhere on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) spectrum. The majority of these cases involve children and it is a miserable reality of family law that children often become the battleground in their parents’ drama.
There has been an enormous amount of publicity recently about the impact of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) “a disorder in which a child, on an on-going basis, belittles and insults one parent without justification, due to a combination of factors including indoctrination by the other parent”. Among others, The Guardian headlined “Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner”. Despite the fact that the term was first coined by Richard A Gardner in the early 1980s, apparently the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) only “recently realised parental alienation occurred in significant numbers” of the cases that it dealt with, which makes some wonder what they have been doing as there are estimates that PAS is present in 11%-15% of divorces involving children.
PAS and NPD are realities, they are disorders that occur on a spectrum. The family courts have historically been slow to engage or recognise these disorders as they formed part of the “he said , she said“ Punch and Judy style nature of family litigation where the cry of PAS is the response to the mother who seeks to reduce or manage the time that the children spend with their father because she believes the control he exercised over her during the marriage has a new focus of supply - the children who he, a person who finds it difficult to form healthy relationships, will manipulate, without conscience or regret.
Things have changed.
In October 2017, a direction was made by the President of the Family Division advising how judges should deal with domestic violence and harm in children cases. The rules apply to “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse” which includes “psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse”. These behaviours can often describe those of the narcissist, opening the door for an identification and recognition of the damage and on-going risks of such a personality type. The construction of the direction however, appears to exclude parental alienation.
There is a strong chance that the move to direct the family justice system in this way followed the introduction of the offence (under the Serious Crime Act 2015) of Controlling and Coercive Behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. The offence carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. In my view and from my experience of past cases, it follows that the behaviour of a narcissist could now result in a prison sentence.
The new directions lead the court through a process which can include the possibility of a psychiatric or psychological assessment of the parents and/or the child and in some circumstances a ruling that the parent seeks advice or other intervention as a precondition of continuing with the case. Many of my clients who have struggled with the difficulty of proving their belief in their spouse’s personality disorder will find the possibility of an independent assessment extremely empowering.
When a finding of domestic abuse is made by the court, it should now “make an order for contact only if it is satisfied that the physical and emotional safety of the child and the parent with whom the child is living, can, as far as possible, be secured before, during and after contact, and that the parent with whom the child is living will not be subjected to further domestic abuse by the other parent.”
In a flurry of activity, the family justice system has actively expressed circumstances where the behaviour of the parents could result in the termination of their relationship with their children or the transfer of primary residence from one parent to another. To some extent, these powers have always existed but now both sides of the debate have real direction, law and publicity to support them.
Enter the narcissist. This appears to be the kind of struggle those on the NPD spectrum were made for – up against an inevitably undermined and damaged opponent, who has been told from the get go that they will lose their children to allegations of parental alienation if they don’t tow the line, dare to raise the NPD issue or, heaven help them, suggest that the narcissist is in fact the classic practitioner of PAS…..and so, we have the perfect storm, which will require careful navigation and possibly the support of both criminal and family law advice together with strong therapeutic support.