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Narcissism

5 Ways High-Conflict Personalities Affect Court Proceedings

Tips to prepare and manage the legal process during post-separation legal abuse.

Key points

  • It is very common for post-separation abuse to consist of dueling accusations of narcissism.
  • This can make courts and judges unsure who to believe, leaving victims vulnerable to further abuse in court.
  • Knowing how to spot these abuse tactics can help support victims who are experiencing this in their divorce.

I recently participated in a consultation with two therapists working with a divorcing couple as part of a mandated court mediation. Both therapists were told by their respective clients that their exes were “narcissists” and that each client was the victim of the other. The therapists were tasked with the role of having to decipher who was telling the truth and, thus, how the judge would decide the final court ruling for their divorce.

This experience did bring up an interesting debate: How do judges know whom to believe? In therapy, the goal is different because we are there to help the client with whatever they bring to the table (or couch). The goal isn’t to get to the “truth” behind the events but to help them process their feelings and experiences resulting from their experiences. However, as in cases of post-separation abuse or “high-conflict divorces,” as the courts often refer to them, there is often a need for professionals to get to some element of truth.

Source: Julien L/Unsplash
Having an awareness of our emotional triggers can help us increase self-awareness.
Source: Julien L/Unsplash

When words like narcissism are used in court as verbal swords, it is common for the court to dismiss these labels as trivial. “I don’t even want that word in my court; I am so sick of hearing it during divorce trials,” one judge said loudly during a recent clients’ hearing.

In theory, it makes sense. People with NPD exist in all walks of life. Many of us can and do experience traits of NPD—as the diagnosis exists on a spectrum. It is a myth that narcissism is synonymous with danger or lack of emotion. Therefore, tossing out dueling accusations of narcissism in a courtroom can be both counterproductive and can make you appear vindictive, and this is often why I tell clients not to use that word in open court proceedings.

However, those with NPD who also engage in ways that hurt others and do not do anything to take ownership or learn from this can be dangerous due to a lack of remorse or compassion: the things that usually act as a morality barometer. In court and divorce proceedings, it can feel like merciless torture. Without the label to define the experience, how can someone proceed with explaining their experience?

To help, I turned to New Jersey divorce and matrimonial attorney Sarah J. Jacobs, who often supports clients through high-conflict divorce proceedings. Like many who work in this area of the law, she finds that in these instances, the clients are most likely divorcing someone with NPD or narcissistic personality disorder due to the ways that the behaviors play out in court. “This is where having an attorney familiar with NPD and their behavior is critical,” she reports.

According to Jacobs, here are some of the common ways that she sees someone with NPD take advantage of court proceedings, as well as some general tips for how to manage:

1. Attempts to delay proceedings

“They do this by failing to comply with Court Orders, refusing to respond to phone calls or to cooperate with discovery, switching lawyers every couple of months, delaying decision-making, negotiating an issue to death, and then refusing to actually sign a document codifying the agreements, playing games by skirting the plain language of the Orders or Agreements and then claiming they didn’t understand it or it’s no longer suitable.” To this, Jacobs often drives home the importance of thorough documentation. “Document, document, document. Keeping copies of emails, text messages, photographs, etc. relating to what the narcissist says and does is critical in the long-term divorce.”

2. Never taking responsibility

“They are perpetually the victim. If something goes wrong, it’s everyone’s fault except their own.” In court, when clients have to speak through attorneys and other professionals, this can be difficult for the judge to spot.

Refusals to give in to court orders and refusing to settle can make both parties look bad, even if only one is engaging in destructive behavior. “The family court process is a playground for narcissists,” Jacobs points out. “The backlog in the court system, the idea of adjournments, etc., allows for the narcissist to delay for quite some time. However, a good attorney, familiar with NPD, can help assist you in logistically and practically moving forward despite the system.”

3. Constant efforts to destroy your support system

They will do this by “making unfounded or substantiated allegations about you, intending to undercut your relationships and isolate you.” When going through post-separation abuse, having a support system is crucial to your mental health. However, they will try to infiltrate your support system to isolate and punish you and to turn others on “their” side.

“In this type of situation, the narcissist is looking to ‘win,’” Jacobs reports. “They want you to feel like you are losing in the court of public opinion. They want you to feel frightened that everyone—from your neighbor to your religious advisor to your child’s teacher—thinks you are a bad person or parent.” To minimize this, finding support outside of your normal friend group may be necessary. “It’s critical to find a support network with people that the narcissist doesn’t have a relationship with and are therefore outside of their regular control.”

4. Constantly blaming others while denying their own behaviors

This is so common that I often tell clients to expect it. Jacobs agrees and adds, “This is where documentation matters. Trying to communicate with the narcissist about how they behave has to be viewed as another instance of documenting the narcissist’s mindset, not attempting to change it. Take, for instance, when a narcissist misses parenting time. A short email documenting the occurrence is appropriate.”

5. False attempts at reconciliation

To someone who has never had exposure to high-conflict personalities, this manipulation tactic can often work. I have many experiences of supporting clients whose lawyers were ill-equipped to respond to the manipulative charm of someone with NPD and thus pressured the client to accept plea deals or dissolutions of protection orders because “look, they are trying to work it out!” Do not fall for any of these attempts at manipulation. Jacobs adds that clients should be on guard for the ulterior motive: “Often when negotiating something the narcissist thinks you want, they will attempt to leverage it with things they want.”

Disclaimer: This post is not legal advice, just a general overview of some of the ways that people with NPD can take advantage of court procedures and some general tips to prepare. Jacobs recommends that anyone with specific issues or questions reach out to an expert for individualized legal support.

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