The American writer Jonathan Franzen suggested that “nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people”. 

As a divorce lawyer I see, daily, the fall out of such relationships and about as frequently I am asked to agree that “my husband / wife is a narcissist”.  I read a story in the news this weekend of a Swiss civil servant who had sent naked “selfies” to her work colleagues.  Surrounded by Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, does all this “me, me, me” equal narcissism or just an amplification of modern communication?

Spotting a narcissist

If there are so many narcissists about, how do divorce lawyers identify and work with and against them?

I decided to talk to the brilliant and charismatic Dr Paul Hokemeyer, a marriage and family therapist based in New York. 

Dr Hokemeyer describes the spectrum of narcissism as “running from the healthy and productive, to unhealthy and destructive”.  He says:-

“Typically we don’t have to look too far to see where someone falls on the scale.  Pathological narcissists (meaning narcissism that results in significant impairment in the person’s functioning and personal relationships) burn out relationships with other people with whom they are closest.  They are exhausting and frustrating to be around.  They begin nearly all of their sentences with “I” and are only concerned with “we” and “you” where it serves their self-driven agenda.”

He uses the example of this week’s Emmy award winning BBC series Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch):-

“Sherlock is completely oblivious to the warmth and devotion of those around him.  He lives a life of self-absorption and self-aggrandisement taking pride only in his exceptional accomplishments”

Dr Hokemeyer explained that there is, however, also the healthy or adaptive narcissist.  Healthy narcissism is another way of describing dynamic self-esteem where the person uses their self-focus to hone their identity and place in the world.  They are focused, self-directed and not detracted from their goals by the challenges and vicissitudes of life.

Distinctions to help us identify the pathological v the healthy narcissist:

  1. Healthy narcissism draws us closer to others and ourselves while pathological narcissism keeps us separate and alone.
  2. Healthy narcissism is based on an honest and accurate appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses while pathological narcissism is based on distortions and false perceptions.
  3. Healthy narcissism makes us feel good about ourselves, our relationships and the world in which we live.  Pathological narcissism makes us brittle, bitter and unattractive.

Recently published research from the Ohio State University suggests that the simplest way of identifying a narcissist is simply to ask them.  Professor Brad Buchanan, a co-author of the study said:

“If you ask people whether they have casual sex or take drugs, they’re not likely to be honest with you.  Narcissists just aren’t ashamed of their narcissism and they’ll tell you so.”

Curiously, I rarely represent a husband who describes his wife as a narcissist.  Dr Hokemeyer explains however that “while narcissism is generally viewed as a male disorder, women do suffer from it too” and, although in his experience, women suffer from narcissism in smaller numbers than men, the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry published a study in 2008 identifying that the gender ratio of narcissistic personality disorders was fairly close – 8% in men and 5% in women. 

One of the jokes often made about the treatment of pathological narcissism is that it is the only treatment where you leave the patient alone and treat everybody else. 

Dr Hokemeyer explains:

“Narcissism is a personality trait that develops early in a person’s life and becomes part of their character over time.  Once set, narcissism is very resistant to change although it can be softened and diminished to a point where it no longer has a negative impact on the quality of the person’s life and relationships.”

The problem is that the narcissist is hard wired to reject change “for the very nature of narcissism prevents people from seeing themselves as anything but perfect and worthy of unconditional admiration”. 

Narcissists usually come to therapy and treatment for a host of emotional and addiction issues relating to their personality disorders, the most common of which are depression, anxiety or addiction (e.g. to alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling).

Dealing with narcissism in divorce

Going through a divorce process is highly likely to be traumatic for the narcissist, particularly if they didn’t instigate the process.  A spouse leaving them or filing a divorce petition will cause them to “experience an intense injury to their over inflated and yet profoundly weak ego which forces them to reach out for help”.  However, a narcissist will reach out reluctantly and will be quick to revert back to his or her old ways of relating to themselves and others. It has been said that there is nothing wrong with narcissists that reasoning with them won’t aggravate.

Lawyers and therapists working with narcissists have a common need to take a sophisticated and compassionate approach that will allow them to challenge the individual in a firm yet flexible way. 

A divorce lawyer has the additional challenge of meeting the expectations of his/her client.  Married to a narcissist, and often having spent many years under the spell of an extremely strong personality, with the end of the marriage in sight, they are seeking to change the dynamics.  The narcissist will instinctively fight the direct attack on him/her (via the financial resources of the marriage or the children).  However, an attempt to reason with the narcissist, e.g. through mediation or other non-adversarial methods, might just play to his or her strengths and can leave the other spouse feeling vulnerable and unsupported.  Only a clear strategy and some nimble footwork from the outset will steer a course that avoids a bruising and expensive battle of wills for all parties involved. 

In the court process, the narcissist often appears charming and charismatic to everybody and he/she is likely to be calculated and manipulative.  There is a call for people who work in family justice to be trained to identify narcissistic behaviour and its impact on the judicial process. Additionally, with recently announced proposals to extend the definition and likely criminal prosecution of domestic abuse to include emotional, controlling and non-physical violation, it is going to require greater understanding of a narcissist and his/her controlling behaviour.

Dealing with someone who is an expert in presentation and manipulation and focused on themselves rather than their family, children or former spouse, is profoundly challenging. If handled badly or without proper care and strategy, it can very easily lead to complex and expensive litigation with the consequential financial and emotional damage to all concerned.