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.