Monday, September 19, 2016

Why Narcissists are a Threat to Truth and Justice--And Not Just in Family Courts

The narcissistic paradox: Narcissists have the ability to inspire confidence in their grandiose assertions about themselves without a shred of evidence of their competence.

For those of us who must deal with narcissists (Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD) as a part of our personal or professional life, whether as clients, partners, spouses, employers or bosses, few relationships are more challenging and frustrating. Literally millions of dollars are spent each year on professional counseling by the hapless victims of these charming, successful, and intelligent but toxic people to try to figure out how to live with inevitable scars resulting from a relationship of any kind with a narcissist. 

The personal suffering of the millions of victims of NPDs has been well documented over the last 20 years or so by many talented and articulate writers. Both the DSM-V and Sam Vaknin (a self-admitted NPD himself) have clearly explained the characteristics of NPD, and I won't repeat that list here. Rather, I want to address the toxic and systemic impact of narcissism on the functioning of the courts, particularly the family court system, and the Courts' decisions about conservatorship of children.

As we all learned in law school, our system of justice is predicated on the principle that out of the conflict of two trained advocates zealously representing the differing interests of their clients before an objective trier of fact, the truth will rise like a Phoenix out of the fires of conflict. I contend that in too many family court cases where an NPD is a party, this fundamental assumption about how truth is uncovered and justice is administered is fatally flawed.

First, when a NPD divorces, their spouse is already at a significant disadvantage. Spouses of NPDs are inevitably grossly wounded by their relationship, and many are so wounded that they have symptoms similar to those of combat veterans and PTSD sufferers. Worse, the isolation that they have lived with as a normal feature of their marriage has prevented them from realizing that the criticism, threats, insults, and humiliations that they suffered in private were NOT their fault, and they are NOT worthless human beings. As a result, they are difficult clients to represent because they have such low expectations that anyone can help them, and have to learn to stand up for themselves again. 

This background of humiliation and intimidation makes meeting with a divorce attorney a surreal experience where they are asked about details of their married life they frequently know nothing about: money, property, investments, and other assets. Inquiries about the children are more comfortable, and these moms are frequently very engaged with their kids (sometimes overly so). As mom's attorney begins to prepare for negotiating the terms of temporary orders for visitation, conservatorship, and support, the spouse's unease grows as she realizes that the odds of an agreement without a fight are very low. Furthermore, she knows how persuasive her NPD husband can be and how fearful she is of facing him in court.

Second, increasingly crowded family court dockets mean that time allocated for temporary hearings is declining. This trend favors NPDs, who can make damaging and completely specious allegations about their wounded spouse in their hearing testimony with no fear of being successfully challenged by their spouse's attorney with contravening facts.  
Two more core characteristics of the NPD style only make the challenge of finding facts in a short hearing even more difficult. NPDs respond to challenges of their outrageous fictions in two predictable ways: first, they "double-down" on the allegations and make even more grandiose and fictitious claims about their own character, accomplishments, and parenting ability; second, they increase their personal attacks on their spouse, again with no regard to the actual facts or the effects of those attacks on the mother of their children.

One ironic NPD characteristic is actually helpful to the insightful attorney representing the spouse of a NPD. One of the primary ways that NPDs cope and protect their grandiose views of themselves as "all good" or perfect, is to blame their opponents for actions they themselves are doing. For example, in a recent case, an NPD dad accused his ex-wife of substance abuse, but when the court ordered drug tests, the results showed that HE was using cocaine and pot, while his ex had nothing but prescription drugs ordered by her doctor in therapeutic doses in her blood. [Multiple instances of this pattern are currently in evidence in the race for president of the US]. 

Bottom line: If you want to know what an NPD has done or is doing that they know to be wrong or "bad", listen to what they are accusing their opponent of doing!

The problem for family courts who do their best to find the truth and administer justice for children and families is this: While our legal process is the best in the world for catching witnesses in a lie, that process takes time in court for painstaking fact-checking in cross examination and the requisite pre-trial preparation to work. In a world where Twitter's 140 character limit now sets the standard for meaningful communication, NPDs have substantial advantage, and the same goes in Courts who only have time for a 45 minute hearing to make a decision. 

The abbreviated hearing system is tilted toward the charm, confidence, and baseless but alarming allegations of the NPD litigant whose lies are unlikely to be successfully challenged in 20 minutes. As I teach my coaching clients, confidence is a large component of how people (and Courts) evaluate witness credibility, and NPDs have the charm, intelligence, cunning, and confidence to be very credible sounding witnesses while they spout an ever changing string of outright lies.

The system is likewise tilted against the shell-shocked spouse of the NPD who knows the allegations are completely false but largely because of her toxic relationship with the NPD appears anxious, confused, uncertain, and is unable to defend herself agains the lies and be an effective witness for herself and her children. And she knows that after the hearing is over, regardless of the outcome or what the Court orders, the NPD is going to do exactly what he wants to do anyway because that is what he has always done.

Advanced Practice Tips and Tools for Attorneys Representing the Spouse of NPDs:

1. If your client looks unusually anxious, depressed, hopeless despite being married to a highly successful, professional, executive, or especially political, man suspect NPD in the man and get the wife to confirm the list (Google narcissistic personality to find everything you need).

2. Suspect hidden assets and extramarital relationships as well as substance abuse from the outset. NPDs will do or say anything to get what they want or think they deserve.

3. Remember, whatever the NPD is telling his attorney about your client is mostly self-serving lies, and the opposing attorney is most likely "under the spell" of the charming and persuasive NPD. Remember the old joke "Q: How can you tell when X is lying? A: His lips are moving" was written about NPDs.

4. Take the time to prepare your client to testify in the hearing by first, getting a good marital history that you also need to prepare for cross examination of the NPD spouse, and second, by coaching and practicing her direct testimony and the expected cross examination. (Some witnesses freeze when they hear the enormous lies and incomprehensible allegations about themselves for the first time in court; they just can't process it fast enough)

5. NPDs only back down when they are humiliated in public, in my experience. Their grandiose and perfect self image is the most important thing in life to them; if that's damaged or in danger, they lose interest in litigating and are more likely to be amenable to settlement.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

My Friend is Going Through a Divorce--How do I Help?

There are few life crises that leave a caring person more confused and uncertain about what to do than watching a good friend go through a divorce. For other crises, accidents, deaths in the family, financial crises, life-threatening diagnoses, the "right" response and the help needed is more obvious and straightforward, and usually a group of friends will naturally come together to provide help and support. For a variety of reasons, this rarely happens when a couple divorces.

Whether they initiated the divorce or not, the divorcing friend has a complex set of challenges to master as they move from being married to being single. They have to find a new home, furnish it, and open all the new accounts to finance the new life. At the same time, they have to continue working to support themselves (and sometimes their soon to be "ex" as well). They have to manage the legal divorce process, usually by hiring an attorney to represent them, even if the divorce is collaborative or by mutual agreement. These tasks are time consuming and can be overwhelming because they all happen at once, and most of these tasks can't be delegated to even the most compassionate and available friend. But while the list is daunting, the tasks are doable with a little persistence and good humor. Good friends can be cheerleaders and even companions while these tasks are mastered, but there is a limit to how much a caring friend can help with these basic life tasks.

This post is focused on the part of the process where a caring friend can make a difference. While most of my experience in this area has been professional as I helped my clients overcome these social and emotional challenges of bouncing back from divorce, my recent personal experience has provided a new level of understanding and appreciation for how a network of caring friends can make the transition easier, and what is and is not helpful.  So here's my "Top Ten List" (I miss Dave Letterman!) of suggestions for how to help a friend get through a divorce and successfully transition to being single again.

1. Be there. Call, email, text every day just to check in. No need for long conversations or expressions of sympathy or advice. Just be there in some way every day for a while. You'll know when to back off.

2. Make time to meet your friend for lunch or happy hour every week. If you have mutual friends, make it a group outing. Keep the focus on your mutual interests, what's happening in the the world, family, or whatever comes up, and make room for a report about the divorce but keep it short and shallow. Encourage socializing; discourage serious dating for at least the first year, especially for men.

3. Avoid siding with your friend and bashing the soon to be former spouse. No relationship fails unless both people contribute to its demise; if there are children, your friend has to co-parent with the ex and stirring up resentment will make that harder, not easier. At the same time, don't let your friend take all the blame for the divorce either.

4. Encourage your friend to take time off from work to get settled in the new home and have time to think through a new plan for the future. If the friend is the stay at home mom, get some friends to plan a day of activities for the kids to give mom a break to just rest and recover a bit or have a spa day. Healing takes quiet time.

5. If the divorce (or the marriage before divorce) has been emotionally traumatic, encourage your friend to get counseling, and regardless of the marriage history, to get into a good divorce recovery program at church.

6. Daily routines are a stress reducer, so encourage the establishment (or re-establishment) of a health daily routine: regular bedtimes, meals, exercise, and leisure time. Discourage excessive time at work; encourage balance and time alone.

7. Encourage your friend to forgive their "ex", regardless of their failures, transgressions, or omissions. Forgiveness is a decision not a feeling.

8. Help your friend focus on the present and the future; discourage repetitive recounting of the past--change the subject. If they are having trouble with letting go, encourage them to journal every day until they are through.

9. It's been said that every relationship is either a blessing or a lesson. In my experience, there are both in every relationship, but some are not evident except in hindsight. Encourage your friend to take time to find both and write them down. Lessons learned don't have to be repeated.

10. Finally, and most importantly, encourage your friend to be grateful every day. Research has demonstrated that people who list 3 things on paper every day for a week that they are grateful for, are less prone to depression and anxiety a month later! This is especially important for middle-aged and older men who are particularly at risk for depression and suicide when they're alone.

Divorce is certainly a painful and difficult life transition for nearly everyone. Divorce also presents an opportunity for transformation because so many of a person's life structures are in flux all at once. Using these suggestions, you can help your friend use this life crisis as an opportunity to build a better life and a better future.