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“Lead Linings Playbook” – A relationship and divorce involving Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the relationship between a man who has bipolar disorder and a woman who has an undefined personality disorder. The male protagonist tells his therapist his new approach to life is to search for the “silver linings” in every experience and indeed his relationship with the woman blossoms and holds promise as the film closes. The romantic comedy-drama was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, although had it followed the story of a relationship where one party has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”) it may have been a lot less comedic and a lot more dramatic; “lead lined” one might say, yet behaviour still closely following a playbook.

Gaslighting, love-bombing, narcissism…. In the world of dating, relationships and relationship breakdown, these words have become part of everyday language, although the true incidence of NPD is only considered to be somewhere between 1-5% of the population.  In view of this statistic it could be considered surprising how often divorce lawyers will hear clients claim their ex-partner/spouse “is a narcissist”. Perhaps this is because narcissistic behaviour (e.g. lack of empathy, control and manipulation, infidelity and untruths) is likely to take such a heavy toll on a marriage that some consider the incidence of divorce is much higher amongst those with NPD than the general population. Or perhaps because, even without NPD, the pressures during separation and divorce can fuel a fear of the future, and focus on self-interest can give rise to narcissistic behaviour. 

Both diagnosis and treatment of NPD are extremely difficult. One may never know whether one’s ex-partner/spouse has the disorder but, whatever the reality of the situation, the presence of NPD (or situational narcissistic-type behaviours) can make divorce particularly challenging for the other party. It is also important to lead with a suitably lawyerly caveat by making clear at the outset that only an appropriately qualified medical practitioner is able to diagnose NPD and any mental health condition has complexity. Lawyers are not expert in the treatment or management of NPD and this article does not seek to stray beyond its appropriate remit in that respect. However, an experienced family law specialist will be able to advise on the options available and can consider in context the best way forward on a bespoke basis in each case. 

NPD is characterised by charm, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement and self-importance. Somebody who has NPD will typically display a lack of empathy and have no qualms about lying or the impact of their behaviour more generally. The playbook most commonly includes “gaslighting” and “love-bombing”, the two working together - often in an insidious, subtle and sustained way over many years – in such a way as to have a debilitating impact on a victim who is often left questioning the whole foundation of their reality. But what do these two concepts really mean?

Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation that, through lies and denial of a victim’s reality causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts and perception of reality, leading to extreme confusion. It can create a loss of confidence, self-esteem and causing its victims to question their own emotional or mental stability, all of which in turn creates a stronger dependency on the perpetrator.

Love-bombing involves showering a person with excessive affection, attention or gifts as a way to control or manipulate. Through the giving and withdrawing of love and attention, a person who has NPD may cycle through phases of “idealise, devalue, discard”, leaving the victim deeply confused about the relationship and their judgment more widely.

The potent and extremely confusing combination of ‘gaslighting’ on the one hand, and ‘love-bombing’ on the other, can forge deep trauma bonds that often mean a relationship both endures longer than it should and is emotionally much harder for a victim of narcissistic abuse to leave. All the while, the person who has NPD may live parasitically, taking what he or she needs from the relationship with little or no regard for the consequences for others.

For someone who has NPD, separation/divorce threatens a particularly fragile ego. This is because they feel the loss of the narcissistic supply that feeds and validates their sense of importance and entitlement (although there is often infidelity so there still may be other sources of validation). Separation/divorce also risks a public loss of face by shattering the fantasy façade they work so hard to maintain. The consequential fall-out can have a significant impact on the legal processes that follow as the person who has NPD does their best to continue to wield their power in whatever way they still can.

It will be important to bear in mind the following “THEMES” in any case where NPD is suspected:

  1. T for Therapy - Recovering from narcissistic abuse, the legal processes that follow a separation and the realisation of the reality of the situation can take an enormous emotional and psychological toll.  This can be particularly difficult where the person who has NPD has succeeded in alienating the victim from their family, friends and support network. It can be important to obtain professional psychological support to reflect, rebuild and regain resilience. When a carefully gilded nest is threatened, narcissistic behaviour can intensify with a number of arrows in the quiver: projecting their own worst traits onto the victim; exploiting (indeed actively targeting) the other party’s greatest vulnerabilities; criticising and eroding the other’s self-worth amongst others.
  2. H for Halt or limit contact between the parties - Narcissistic behaviour can be highly manipulative.  Where legal processes need to be completed and there are children of the relationship, it will not be possible to simply ‘cut off’ all contact between the parties.  However, it can be helpful to minimise engagement as much as possible so it can be particularly useful to direct discussions via solicitors rather than dealing directly and/or to use apps such as Our Family Wizard OurFamilyWizard - Best Co-Parenting App for Child Custody to minimise, control and record communication.
  3. E for Exercise caution - The diagnostic criteria for NPD (which include a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, being exploitative, a lack of empathy and arrogance) work together in such a way that those who have NPD will tend to be strangers to the truth and have little regard for rules or law enforcement bodies, considering themselves to be superior. They will be very plausible. Therefore, the veracity of a case put forward by someone who has NPD should not be automatically assumed and great care needs to be taken when considering the case and the evidence they put forward.
  4. M for Means of resolution - It is likely to be even more important than usual to consider the most appropriate process for resolution and to keep this under careful review as the case progresses. This is because NPD often involves a need to ‘win’, an ability to manipulate and a questionable relationship with the truth. As a result, whilst mediation must always be given due consideration and is generally to be commended, it may not be the most appropriate means of resolution when extricating a client from such a relationship. Litigation is generally a means of last resort to resolve matters, but it may prove to be the only way to compel proper engagement where NPD is involved, though still not an easy route given that narcissistic traits are such that there is commonly little respect for the law because someone who has NPD may consider themselves “above” the court and impervious to its orders.
  5. E for Extricate early - Although it may not always be possible where there are financial issues to be resolved, and is likely to be even less available in relation to arrangements for children, when considering potential orders or structures for settlement, and where there is an option requiring the most limited ongoing engagement, that is usually to be preferred. Thus a child arrangements order should ideally be as prescriptive as possible and minimise the need for calendars or other details to be agreed on an ongoing basis. Where financial issues are being resolved, the earliest possible capital – and if possible also income – clean-break should usually be obtained so as to terminate ongoing financial ties as early as possible. To do otherwise leaves scope for ongoing control and enforcement concerns.
  6. S for Specialist legal advice – Last but not least, as well as seeking psychological support, it is also important to take legal advice as early as possible to ensure a full understanding of the rights and the processes available to resolve matters.  Taking specialist family law advice will bring many advantages, not least providing information about how to consider and apply points 1-5 above i.e. about the legal rights (which may have been minimised by a spouse who has NPD), fully analysing the disclosure provided in proceedings (see further point 3 above), providing advice to protect best interests, and adding a “buffer layer” between the parties to minimise scope for further exploitation and manipulation.

It is obviously equally important for somebody who has NPD to be properly advised; arguably it becomes even more important for their case to be appropriately challenged, for the “good points” to be sifted from the “bad points”, for their disclosure to be carefully reviewed and to ensure particular sensitivity when engaging in discussions with the former spouse, whatever the forum. For the lawyer’s part, it may prove more difficult, but just as important, to remain objective rather than to risk being drawn into any inappropriate narrative or behaviour and to enforce appropriate boundaries when taking instructions and managing the case.

As highlighted at the start, it must be remembered, both when reading this article and in connection with point 6 above, that lawyers are not qualified to make a diagnosis of NPD; that can only be done by a qualified mental health professional upon assessment of the person in question. It is rare that somebody with NPD will refer themselves for such an assessment, so it may never be known whether the personality disorder is present.  In addition, having NPD is an increasingly common accusation family lawyers will hear being levelled at a former spouse, when their client is hurt or angry.  In such circumstances it can be important to avoid unnecessary escalation. 

Whilst lawyers are not able to advise on the treatment or management of NPD, an experienced family law specialist will be able to set out all the options available and give careful consideration to the most appropriate way to proceed at each stage of any particular case.  A specialist family lawyer will also have a wide network of professional contacts who can offer robust support in specific areas if/when needed. As the saying goes, ‘forewarned is forearmed” and in that way one may be offered a far greater opportunity of a happ-ier Hollywood ending.

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