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Narcissism and Family Law – a practitioner’s guide

Karin Walker, Founder of KGW Family Law, provides a guide to help family lawyers identify and manage narcissistic behaviour in any divorce or separation.










Karin Walker, Solicitor and Founder, KGW Family Law

Use of the word 'narcissism' is becoming increasingly common, but what exactly does it mean? Almost all of us are a little narcissistic; it is the aspect of our personality that keeps us driven and focussed and encourages us to succeed. Whether or not the narcissistic personality trait gives rise to a personality disorder depends upon how prevalent that trait is.

The law is a profession which characteristically trails behind others in many regards. Lawyers did not permit themselves to advertise until 1986. Only in 2019 was it first properly recognised that lawyers, particularly family lawyers, should take some time to focus on their own well-being.

Family practitioners are empathetic by nature. Some might say that empathy is essential to properly equip the family lawyer for their professional role, helping separating couples to resolve their disputes either by agreement or adjudication.

The family lawyer is not only skilled in legal practice; they will also have some insight into psychology and patterns of behaviour, i.e. what makes someone 'tick'. They will spend much of their professional life interacting with people, most particularly their own client, but also the 'other side' and their legal representative.

Just as UK lawyers have a tendency to fall behind other professionals in terms of marketing and self-help, we also are led by the US in terms of concept recognition. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is only now properly becoming recognised in the UK as a personality disorder. People who suffer from this personality trait are highly likely to suffer from relationship breakdown.

In order to get to grips with the confusing and abusive behaviours displayed by the narcissist, it helps to consider what led to this personality adaptation in the first place. Even though NPD can be handed down through the generations, the consensus is that narcissists are made, not born. It is not genetic.

As a result of his or her upbringing, the narcissist is deeply lacking in self-esteem and has little sense of a true identity. It is crucial to understand that this is the core wound which leads them to behave in the abusive ways that they do. Almost everything that the narcissist does is done to avoid feeling the emptiness and low self-worth within them.

There are a variety of parenting styles that can lead to NPD. Many are as a result of being brought up by narcissistic parents, but this is not always the case. These styles can also overlap. They include:

• Conditional love

• The belittling parent

• The narcissistic parent who uses their children as admirers

• The overvaluing parent

It is commonly accepted that there are four major ways that those with NPD present themselves to the outside world.

• The Exhibitionist Narcissist (also known as the "Grandiose" or "Overt" Narcissist) is the typically extroverted type.  They are superficially charming in whatever way works best for them, and on the surface they have unlimited different outward appearances.

• The Closet Narcissist (also called the "Vulnerable", "Introverted" or "Covert" Narcissist) is very much harder to spot than the exhibitionist type.  The outward appearance he or she projects to the world is not immediately recognisable as arising from "NPD".  They generally appear, on the surface, mild mannered and meek, a little insecure but warm.  Deep down, although they need to feel special, they have a sense of entitlement and are occupied with status.  Unlike the Exhibitionist Narcissist they are afraid to be the centre of attention because they fear being exposed as being inadequate and false.  Closet Narcissists were taught in childhood that they were not allowed to act as if they were special or seek attention and they were punished harshly for doing so.

• The Devaluing Narcissist is also called the "Toxic" or "Malignant" Narcissist.  These narcissists use grandiosity as a defence but when this grandiosity is punctured and their defences are brought down they turn on others to bring them down too.  They exhibit many of the other more general narcissistic behaviours but what is more prominent in this type of narcissist is that they devalue, criticise and demean others in order to inflate themselves.  In reality they are jealous and envious of others but, rather than express this, they put down the other person.

• The Communal Narcissist (or "Altruistic" Narcissist) might, at first glance, appear to be a contradiction in terms.  These are the narcissists who prop up their self-esteem and sense of specialness by giving to others.  They obtain admiration, attention and a sense of specialness "narcissistic supply" from good words and deeds, seeing themselves as the most generous, the most caring and the most kind.    

Whilst those with NPD will present predominantly in one of these ways, some overlap is possible, depending on the situation the narcissist finds themselves in, and what works well for them in that situation. There are also subtypes, which reveal themselves in the narcissist's behaviour. Some use sexuality and looks as their means of getting attention (the somatic subtype). Others use their intellect (the cerebral subtype). And some use various means at varying times and in varying proportions.

The cycle of "idealise" and "devalue" is the hallmark of those with narcissistic adaptations.

The initial stage of a relationship with a narcissist is the "idealisation" phase, also known as the "love-bombing" phase in romantic relationships. 

As a lawyer representing a narcissist you will also be idealised in the early stages and, if you are unaware, you will be drawn in by the charm, charisma, likeability and pity plays.  You will be the best lawyer, the most understanding, the one that they will recommend to everyone.  The narcissist will be relieved to have found you, and you will be the only one they know they can fully trust, after all that they have been through.

As the lawyer representing a narcissist client, you will be idealised in whatever way works most effectively for the narcissist.  This will be individualised to you.  It is important to pay attention to how you feel.  You may feel a strong sense of connection to the narcissist early on in the process, and may feel that this person could be your best friend were they not your client.

The "devalue" stage then quickly follows.  In a romantic situation it occurs as the narcissist realises that their target is not the perfect human that they had idealised and put on a pedestal during the initial phases of the relationship.  It is usually not an abrupt change but a gradual turning up of the heat, so slowly that other person may not notice.  The aim of devaluation is to gradually lower the target's self-esteem so that they accept more and more bad behaviour and eventually start jumping through hoops to try to get back the original feeling they had during the "love-bombing" phase. 

The narcissist will also demonstrate triangulation by bringing a third person into the equation.  That person will invariably be another unwitting victim, groomed as another source of narcissistic supply.  Narcissists generally have multiple sources of supply on the go at any one time, and many of these will be romantic interests waiting in the wings to take the place of the significant other.

As a lawyer, be prepared to be triangulated with counsel, and with other lawyers and professional representatives.  You may find yourself rapidly descending from "flavour of the month" to being devalued and compared unfavourably to others.

Once the narcissist has devalued the target to the point where they are thinking about leaving, the cycle will begin again.  The target will experience huge relief at being back in favour and will make excuses for the narcissist's previous behaviour.  When the devalue stage returns again (as it invariably will), the target will be thrown off balance once again.  The cycles repeat until the target begins to blame themselves for being unable to keep the narcissist happy and tries harder and harder to do so. 

Exactly the same thing will happen to the lawyer who becomes at risk of adapting to the manipulation demonstrated by the narcissist in their aim to be professionally valued and appreciated as they were at the outset of the case.

When a narcissist is on the verge of being left by their partner/spouse, this will trigger deep abandonment issues.  "Hoovering" is the term given to the narcissist's tactic to suck the target back into the relationship so that the narcissist can continue to use them as a narcissistic supply.  It is another form of idealisation but specific to imminent abandonment.  The narcissist will again turn back into the perfect partner becoming seductive and charming.  This is however merely a temporary reprieve.

It is widely quoted that it takes seven attempts to leave a narcissist; even one who is physically abusive.  If you are representing the spouse of a narcissist they may well be hoovered back into the relationship even after you have been instructed to act for them.  They may seem weak or indecisive to those who do not understand the highly addictive, neurochemical nature of trauma bonding (similar to a heroin addiction).  Look out for this as when your client reinstructs you it may be a clue to the nature of the person they are divorcing and be mindful of trying not to judge them for their apparent indecision.

It is important to remember that narcissist behaviour follows a very particular pattern. When meeting a new client for the first time you will spend much time listening and evaluating to gain as much information as possible about their situation and requirements. If your client is suffering from NPD be warned that they may be projecting and claiming that in fact they are the victim of narcissistic abuse. Experience will enable you to see through this because despite being very proficient at projection, their more natural behaviour traits will eventually become apparent. This is more likely to be the case if they realise that you are able to see through their projection; they will quickly turn on you by being highly critical of your approach and advice and probably refusing to pay your fees.

The narcissist may be unaware that they suffer from a personality disorder (and it is important that you do not call them out as otherwise all you will do is experience narcissistic rage) and make no reference to the personality of their husband or wife. Recognising their behaviour disorder at an early stage will help you decide whether you actually want to take them on as a client or enable you to recognise the boundaries and strategies which you will need to have in place to support them during the breakdown of their relationship.

The spouse who has suffered the toxicity of a relationship with a narcissist may not fully understand what it has been about their situation which has made them feel so wretched and confused for such a prolonged period of time. They will need you to recognise the behaviour pattern to which they have been subjected so that you can help them navigate what lies ahead. The narcissist has no wish to achieve a reasonable or family focussed outcome. Especially if they did not wish the relationship to come to an end, they will be experiencing narcissistic rage which gives rise to a desire to annihilate the other party.

Narcissists believe themselves not to need to conform to rules or regulations – they are far too special to do that. They do not adhere to deadlines nor do they conform. Financial disclosure will be provided on a piecemeal and incomplete basis. Child arrangements will be expected to reflect their express wishes. They will move the goalposts throughout the negotiations to avoid settlement. They will need to 'win'.

 If acting for their spouse you need to stay two steps ahead and recognise that your client has a need to remove him or herself from the relationship as much as achieve the best possible settlement. It is about achieving a balance.

If your client is the narcissist, you need to ensure that you do not allow yourself to become their weapon or mouthpiece. You must be aware of their behaviour patterns and not become an extension of their abuse. You must also protect yourself from their 'idolise/devalue' behaviour pattern and watch out for when they may turn on you.

If you don't want to represent an individual who suffers from NPD, don't be afraid to say so at the outset and decline the instruction. If, as the case progresses, you feel that trust has broken down to the point that you can no longer represent this client, don't be afraid to call time. Make sure that you always have money on account to cover your fees as they are very unlikely to pay you if the professional relationship sours. They are also highly likely to make a complaint against you if they do not get their own way.

The requirement to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment meeting ahead of the issue of any form of court application was intended to ensure that no such application is issued without first attempting some form of out of court dispute resolution process. Where one party suffers from NPD, out of court methods of dispute resolution may not always be 'suitable'.
Classic mediation offers the narcissist the chance to play games and prolong the process. It is a perfect opportunity to attempt to charm and manipulate the mediator and for triangulation. Similarly the collaborative practice allows them to meet their spouse's solicitor face to face and to belittle and demean them to their spouse/partner, thereby undermining their confidence and, as a consequence, the process itself. If the conduct of the case breaks down to the extent that both parties have to instruct different solicitors, this presents the perfect opportunity to undermine the whole process and create real consequences for the other side while doing so.

Narcissists do however like to feel special and are therefore attracted to new and innovative forms of process. 'Hybrid' has very much become the 'buzz' word of 2021. Hybrid mediation has risen to the fore for the following reasons:-

• separate meetings

• lawyer inclusive

• the ability of the mediator to hold confidences.

The process lends itself to help couples where one suffers from NPD or some other personality disorder or there is high conflict.
If you feel that an adjudicative environment is an inevitability, consider arbitration. The bespoke nature of the process will attract a narcissist who needs to feel unique.

If you are representing the narcissist's spouse/partner you need to be aware of all of these factors in order to stay one step ahead. You are looking for the process which might give your client their life back with as little cost (emotional and financial) as possible.

Finally, your own wellbeing needs to remain uppermost in your mind. Recognise what sort of client you are dealing with. Stay one step ahead. Don't allow your professional boundaries to be eroded. Brace yourself for inevitable devaluation. If you feel you can't act any more, don't be afraid to call time but make sure you have clear grounds to do so. Speak to the SRA if necessary – they are there to provide help and guidance.

'Narcissism and Family Law – a practitioner's guide' is by Dr Supriya McKenna and Karin Walker with their client partner book entitled: Divorcing a Narcissist – the lure, the loss and the law'. Both publications provide a valuable insight into the world of family law when one of the participants suffers from NPD.