Divorcing a Narcissist

This blog is written by Michael Rowlands, Senior Partner at Kingsley Napley:

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.


Co-Parenting arrangements for children

I thought I would share with you an article written by FLIP to help separated couples make contact arrangements for their children. It involves an App called Our Family Wizard.  The article follows:

For many separated parents, finding a system of communication and organisation that enables them to co-parent well is not always straightforward. The system will usually comprise telephone calls, text messages, emails, WhatsApp messages to name but a few. Sometimes the system works well. Other times, it breaks down and can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. So, what can a programme which describes itself as “making co-parenting easier” offer to those parents who feel a little overwhelmed or perhaps in need of some help? Could it be the answer to their communication woes?


Our Family Wizard (OFW) was created by Paul and Dara Volker, a married couple who both have children from previous marriages. After separating from their former partners, it soon transpired that scheduling plans for the holidays (with their former spouses in mind) was something that was causing them some difficulty. They searched the internet to see if there was a (technological) solution that would enable them to communicate more effectively. It became apparent that there was no such thing. Having experienced family breakdown themselves and living with the realities of co-parenting with their former spouses, this gave them the vital insight required to create an innovative programme “to manage, schedule and share information cooperatively and efficiently”.

Whether or not interaction with a former spouse is difficult, the creators realised that centralising information and communication was key. The programme is designed to assist parents in a number of ways but primarily:  setting out schedules for children and their day to day activities, as well as enabling parents to keep track of expenses, appointments (and medical information), and
even a section for children’s clothes sizing so each parent can buy clothing and shoes without difficulty (and without having to ask the other parent for this basic information).
The transparency that comes with such a system would hopefully mean that fewer mistakes are made. It may also reduce, to an extent, the opportunity for conflict. By the same token, the openness of the system allows a parent to keep track of a pattern of non-communication where applicable or indeed the tone of communication that takes place.

The programme is available online where users can sign in or it can be downloaded as an app.

Parental alienation.

I read with interest about CAFCASS ‘ground breaking’ report on how to deal with Parental Alienation.  There are many children who on divorce and separation have been subtly or not so subtly alienated from one parent by the other.  The result is that they are ‘frightened’ of or hostile to one parent and therefore don’t see them. The parent who has enabled this or perpetrated it then gets the result that he or she wants which is to have the children all to themselves. Of course the impact on the children is terrible.  To grow up believe in the horror of one parent if they are not in reality, horrific, is not a functioning way to grow up and has an impact on the ability to form adult relationships in due course and an impact on how conflict is managed.

The question is what to do about it .CAFCASS suggest that the alienating parent have intensive therapy and if they are not responsive then the children should go and live with the parent they are alienated from.

I am interested to hear your response and ideas about this.  Did you grow up in a household where you didn’t see one parent because of alienation.  Are you a parent who doesn’t want your children to see you ex? What has been the impact on you?


Christmas and Divorce

You may be going into the festive period feeling not quite so festive.  You may have an idea that this will be your last Christmas a couple, or it may be your first Christmas post separation.  These times are difficult, not least because they highlight some very painful feelings.  You may be feeling lonely even though you have arrangements and will be seeing friends or relatives. Life moves at quite a pace and you will be looking back at this period quicker than you thought it was possible.  Dig deep for what resources you have and your capacity to hold on to those parts of your life that are working and still in existence.   January 2nd, will come sooner than you know it and it is an opportunity to re-group and think about how you can make things better for yourself.  Life is not just about one person, one relationship.  There is so much else and so much else to discover.  Of course there is loss and grieving to be done but it is not the whole story.

I wish all my readers a peaceful period and that 2018 is a good year for you all.

I have tried to share in my new book ‘Breaking Upwards, how to manage the emotional impact of separation’  all the thoughts that I have about divorce and separation gathered over many years as a therapist and as a barrister representing many people through their divorce.  I hope that you will find it helpful by using it to manage your separation:




Supporting Older Children through divorce

Guest Blog by James Pirrie of FLIP.

Children and the legal system
Perhaps 10% of divorcing couples become stuck over arrangements for their minor children, often moving towards mediation or the increasingly over-stretched courts to find their solutions. Specialist family lawyers, like those at my firm Family Law in Partnership, can sign-post other less-conflicted couples towards organisations that will help them to steer their children safely through the divorce or separation.

The challenges for older children
But what happens if the children are older? The growth of the grey divorce or silver separation has given rise to a sharp increase in the numbers of young adults seeing their parents separate. Embedded into 1970s culture was “staying together for the sake of the kids”. This in turn spawned the idea that adult children would somehow manage the divorce or separation of their parents better. Our experience at Family Law in Partnership is, however, quite different:

  • Older children are often faced with a bewildering challenge to their identity when their parents split up. Assuming that they were part of a ‘rock-solid’ intact family, they are thrust into a place where they need to reappraise themselves, re-think their future – and perhaps their past too: “at what point did my parents’ partnership actually end?”
  • Some will watch or even be involved as their parents, fearful of their own future security, vie for shares in the family assets. They may wonder “what about me?”
  • They may well experience a feeling of statelessness as the family home is sold and may suffer reduced parental support as their parents struggle to map out their own independent futures.

This may be a challenging chapter particularly when the child may already be struggling to find his/her feet perhaps at university or in a new career.

A legal safety net?
Most separating parents consider protecting their children as their first priority. They might assume that there is a legal safety-net firmly in place, providing principles and solutions if they can’t reach an agreement.

Sadly, not.

The boomerang generation is largely ignored. Young adults are likely to find themselves carving out their own futures, with fewer internal resources than their parents had and in most situations with less – if any – professional support:

  • Where there is a dispute about a child’s future, a child arrangement order will resolve the parents’ disagreement. But Parliament is clear that no court shall make such an order which will apply to a child once that child is sixteen unless the circumstances are “exceptional”.
  • As far as financial arrangements are concerned:
    • The Child Maintenance Service drops children broadly once they complete their A-levels.
    • Children are the court’s first consideration but only whilst they are minors.
    • For the subsequent period, courts seem content to see children supported whilst in education (or in theory training for a trade, profession or vocation). In practice, however, financial support will extend no longer than the conclusion of the child’s first degree, unless the child’s disability has created long-term financial dependency. Regular guidance from the courts is that it is not for the judge dealing with financial issues between parents to give their child a start in life as a young adult.
    • In never-married cases, the child’s home with the applicant-parent may be sold at the same time.
    • Support for children post-university during the boomerang years or to give them a start towards independence will be from one parent only or will depend on voluntary election.

Involving older children in the divorce
Despite the almost ubiquitous intention to be fair and supportive of the children, in most cases where there are older children they have been involved in the detail of the separation in a partisan way by one parent or the other. There will be a number of reasons for this. Parents initiating the separation may want to discuss the situation with their children to see whether they should proceed. For others, it is a question of support … “my children know the situation as well as anyone … if they see things my way it will be a vindication that I cannot get anywhere else.”

I was recently consulted by a mother whose priority was to protect the position of her adult children in the family business. Paradoxically by having made this part of her opening position she risked turning the children into pawns in the negotiations with her former partner. She showed the priority she attached to their long-term security. But the court could not offer her any assistance and she opened herself to tactical pressures from her former partner (doubly unfortunate, given that one of his priorities was succession arrangements for his business).

What older children need
Reading through the experiences of older children of divorce that are increasingly available on the internet, it is clear how these children can struggle. They have enough on their plate dealing with the break-up of their family and being brought in as a confidante, judge or sounding board by a parent adds significantly to the ongoing challenges they face. Whilst all families are different some ground-rules set out early on seem to promote better outcomes:

  • Reassure your children of your consistent and life-long love and support;
  • Release them from the burden of taking sides and keeping secrets. Give them your permission and approval (save where their safety could be compromised) to maintain a relationship with your ex partner.
  • Reassure your children of your intention to reach a good solution with your ex and make it clear that you don’t depend on your child’s support to do so.
  • Warn them that the process of divorce and separation isn’t easy and that you are going to be a little cranky from time to time.
  • Find a form of words to explain the family breakdown that your children can use as well as you. Ideally adopt it jointly with your ex. You will find that it releases you from being caught up in the tittle tattle around your separation that almost always works out badly for all of you. You risk polarising the family and reducing the framework of family and friends that otherwise your children could rely upon.

And yes, none of these are legal solutions that the court will provide. So, above all, what older children need is to have parents who themselves engage with appropriate counselling and therapeutic support, like that provided by Divorce Support Group, to enable them to craft solutions that will really work for their children.

Divorce increases in the over 50s

We are living longer and in the 21st Century, we have jettisoned the idea that you ‘make your bed, you have to lie in it.’ People increasingly feel they are entitled to a second chance and once children have begun to leave home, or elderly parents no longer need to be looked after, people look at their relationships and re-evaluate.  The possibility of new relationships or a new adventure is no longer only the domain of the young. Divorcing at any time of life takes courage and resolve, but the increased statistic of divorcing in your 50s shows that there is life to be had and untying from the old is a very effective way of getting on with the new.

Divorce Diaries

When you are experiencing overwhelming feelings and can’t think that life will ever change, it is uself to keep a diary or journal of how you feel and what you are doing on a daily basis.   The act of writing things down is often cathartic and importantly when you read back what you have written perhaps a week or two later you see how feelings change so often and so quickly.  It is a really good way of seeing that things aren’t static and do move.  Feeling upset or depressed can make you feel that you have always felt like this and will always feel like this in the future.  This is very common and understandable.  Feeling depressed can feel so all consuming that it is almost impossible to see a way out.  Keeping a diary will help to see that there is a way out, that you won’t always feel like this and life changes.  FLIP have launched a new website called the Divorce Diaries.  I think it is very helpful: 

A Rallying Cry for Mediation.

As with so many government initiatives, the policy decision to push separating families away from lawyers and into mediation (or at least those who rely on legal aid) has failed spectacularly.  The referral rate to mediation has dropped dramatically since legal aid was withdrawn from most family law cases.  The government apparently failed to realise (despite being told by anyone who knew anything about it) that it was the lawyers who made the referrals!

It is though not all doom and gloom.  For people who can afford professional advice, lawyers are working increasingly constructively and there has been a surge in people seeking out collaborative lawyers to help them through the divorce process.  Hopefully therefore the next generation of divorced adults and their children will not suffer the scars of an acrimonious (and often financially ruinous) divorce. 

But let’s not forget about mediation.  It is remains the only entirely neutral process that provides help and support for adults to reach their own decisions.  Legal information is an integral part of mediation and whilst mediators cannot give tactical advice to either party they do make sure they understand the options and implications of what is discussed.  And don’t think that all mediators are of the ‘knitted cardigan’ variety.  The vast majority are family lawyers who also represent clients in court.  Mediation can also take any forms.  Personally I am seeing an increasing number of people who have struggled to reach an agreement with their lawyers.  Coming to see me is therefore sometimes the last ditch attempt to avoid court.   Often this is a ‘one day’ event (sometimes with lawyers present) and my experience is that it works.

So, my rallying cry is not to forget about mediation simply because the government wants you to do it! 

Post written by David Allison from Family Law in Partnership.


New Year Resolutions…

Make a resolution for 2015 to find a new life for you.  It may feel right now, like second best or like you don’t know where to start.  One minute in one day is where you start and take one minute or one hour at a time.  By holding onto hostility or endless thoughts about your ex, you are protecting yourself from moving forward or thinking about that scary unplanned for future.  Let go and face forward, there are opportunities for you there and a place and space just for you.  The unfamiliar is always frightening, but as soon as you inhabit it, it becomes familiar and more comfortable. 

Make a resolution that once a month you will look at one bad point in 2014 as your marker.  Then using that marker, you will see how far you have moved and how much better you feel compared to that point.  You are entitled to feel better and to move through this painful process and come out the other side intact.

Although you may feel you are the only one feeling like this, you are not.  The statistics themselves show that one in 3 marriages end in divorce, you are far from alone.  Sometimes, by holding onto the same lifestyle, you are not acknowledging that when we experience different life events, it means sometimes the old way doesn’t fit any more.  Friends or invitations may fall away and life will feel different. That doesn’t mean you should feel on the outside of things just that you could be on the inside of something else, something that fits better. Resolve to be brave enough to find out what that is.

Make 2015 the year you faced an incredible challenge and overcame it.  Let 2014 go and resolve to do all that you need to, to make 2015 better for yourself.

Can 2015 be a fresh start.

If you have struggled during 2014 to come to terms with your separation, or are starting 2015 newly separated, you may be wondering what the New Year has in store for you.  Is it possible to even think that when one door closes, another may open?  It is often quite important to look at people who you know have been divorced and see how they manage with their lives.  It is rare to find someone who has not been able to build a good life for themselves after separation, once the shock, and the anger has been processed and come to terms with.  When you are in the midst of something really distressing on so many levels, it is hard to imagine that life can ever be different.  Looking at others who have survived and created something good and different for themselves is one way to give you an idea that life can be good again for you too.