Divorcing a narcissist is not for the weak and the situation is further complicated by the high cost of these conflict-ridden battles. What happens when you find yourself unable to hire an attorney or unable to afford the attorney that you currently have? Sadly, finding a pro bono attorney in Family Law is like searching for a needle in a haystack. I am often asked for advice on this topic and it is a difficult question to answer because every courtroom is so different.
In each courtroom, the litigant is faced with a plethora of variables such as the personality type (or ego) of the presiding Judge, county rules and varying legal requirements. Some courtrooms are more friendly to those in pro se and others frown upon those who are self-represented. I have heard of individuals walking into court ready to give up yet unexpectedly, they leave feeling victorious. There are occasions that I've personally gone into court feeling extremely confident only to leave questioning everything about the very flawed Family Court System. Sometimes I wonder if Judge's make decisions by merely flipping a coin.
In my book, “Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom's Battle,” I share tips for those who are embarking on a custody battle regardless of whether or not they can afford an attorney:
- Equipping Yourself for the Legal Battle: When seeking legal counsel, it is imperative that you find someone who understands Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are going into battle in pro se, I recommend contacting your church or local women’s shelter to inquire about services that they may offer to help you. Many communities also offer free divorce workshops, support groups or clinics through the courthouse. Regardless of whether you are in pro se or represented by an attorney, I encourage you to spend a day in the courtroom to which you were assigned. Familiarize yourself with the Judge or Commissioner’s style, the courtroom procedures and pay attention to the strategies used by attorneys.
- Prepare: When it comes to friends and acquaintances, prepare for the reality that many people will fall for the narcissist’s manipulation. Because the general public is not educated in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, many will fall prey to his evil tactics. Remember that you once fell prey to him also. Narcissists cannot tolerate failure and therefore, will not accept that they had any part of the demise of the marriage. Narcissists are known to run massive smear campaigns and you will be painted as the villain in their efforts to turn friends and family members against you. I have found that it is best to take the high road and eventually, the narcissist will show their true colors. It is inevitable.
- Find Support: I highly recommend aligning with a therapist who understands NPD. In addition, there are a number of online support groups for individuals who find themselves divorcing a narcissist. After Narcissistic Abuse there is Light, Life and Love is one Facebook page which provides education and support for victims and survivors of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and my own page, "One Mom's Battle" provides information and resources for those going through custody battles with narcissists.
- Declarations: Begin gathering declarations from people in your community who can attest to your character and parenting. In the beginning, I hesitated to ask people for fear of putting them in awkward positions. I have discovered that the majority of people are willing to help if you are clear with them about what you need. Asking people to focus on specific events that they may have witnessed or giving examples to back up their statements about your parenting is important. I suggest obtaining a wide variety of declarations from people who know you such as teachers, pediatricians, PTA members, neighbors and other such community members.
- Document Everything: I cannot stress this enough. I recommend keeping a daily calendar style journal for the day-to-day occurrences and things to notate. I prefer to document the larger items using a Gmail account which I keep specifically for divorce and custody items. An example would be: “Documentation: April 3, 2011- Failure to Show for Visitation” or something along those lines. I suggest keeping all documents and paperwork in binders divided by year with your daily calendar in front for easy access.
- Get Organized: You need to find a system that works for you. While there are a variety of ways to stay organized, I personally use the binder method. I have a binder for each year and I keep things in chronological order. I also keep sample court documents with post-it notes detailing the instructions for each such as number of copies needed, dates of service and anything else noteworthy.
- Eliminate or Limit Communication: Keep communication short and unemotional. While zero contact is suggested when ending a relationship with a narcissist, it is impossible if you have children together. I encourage you to set personal boundaries and do not deviate from them. Narcissists feed off of control, intimidation and eliciting emotions that they themselves are incapable of experiencing. Do not satisfy their twisted and selfish hunger by giving them what they are requesting.You need to accept the fact that you will never win in the mind of a narcissist. You will not be able to change their distorted thought process regardless of how many times you remind them of the real version of the story at hand. You need to accept that you are not dealing with a rational, healthy person because acceptance is the key to moving forward.
- In Court: Your job is to walk through the courtroom doors completely prepared. As I walk through the doors of the courtroom, I grab God’s hand and bring him with me. For you, this could be your Higher Power, pixie dust in your pocket or a mantra that keeps you centered. Stay composed and focused while reserving your emotions for outside of the courtroom.
- Muddy Water: While in court, be prepared for the waters to get downright muddy. This is one of the narcissists’ best weapons. If he/she has an alcohol problem then you should be prepared to be painted as an alcoholic. The narcissist will project all of their problems and shortcomings onto you. Respond to false allegations calmly with credible, factual information but do not get caught up defending every minor allegation as tempting as it may be. This is the time to choose your battles wisely.
- Stay Calm: It is very easy to get upset while listening to testimony of a narcissist due to the dishonesty and manipulations. Listen calmly and take notes. Make bullet points of items that you would like to address but do not allow yourself to get sidetracked and angered. Stay focused and stay centered at all times.
- Reminder: You need to continuously remind yourself that you are dealing with a narcissist. Write yourself a post-it note that says, “Reminder: I am dealing with a narcissist” and stick it to the front of your binder or notepad. Many battles in history were lost simply due to the element of surprise. Do not let history repeat itself on your watch. Do not expect a narcissist to follow the law, rules or protocol of any kind. Expect lies, vicious attacks, bizarre behavior, and the unexpected. Practice offense/defense and expect the unexpected at all times. Keep your playbook ready.
- Build Your Truth: Be truthful in everything that you do and everything that you say. Double-check your facts. Narcissists are skilled liars and they appear to believe their own lies. Over time, the court will begin to see through them and one thing that I have learned is that Judges do not like being lied to. You will feel defeated and overwhelmed at times. Build your “foundation” from rock—the rock that comes from knowing what is the truth and what are lies about you. Prepare a “truth” and “lies” list and absorb both lists to your core (mind, body, and spirit). If through this process, you find some truths that hurt then put them on your list of “things to work on” and re-write the truth into a positive.
- Monitored Communication: I strongly recommend asking for a court order which limits communication to emails or to programs such as “Our Family Wizard” which is designed to make co-parenting easier in high-conflict situations. You can also ask a trusted family member or friend to help monitor email communication. This person can filter the attacks and pull the pertinent information from the email. If you do use emails to communicate, set up an account specifically for communication with the narcissist. You do not want to dread opening your email account. Having a separate account allows you to be in control of the situation.
- Know Thy Enemy: Always Remember the Traits of a Narcissist: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fourth edition, DSM IV-TR, a widely used manual for diagnosing mental disorders, defines narcissistic personality disorder (in Axis II Cluster B) as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is inter-personally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.
It is also a requirement of DSM-IV that a diagnosis of any specific personality disorder also satisfies a set of general personality disorder criteria. Please refer to the DSM-IV for that criteria and seek the advice of a professional. If your spouse has been diagnosed with a personality disorder, it is imperative that you read everything that you can get your hands on. Education is your lifeline. Remember that this is not an easy journey but you will make it to the other side.