How do you mediate divorce with a narcissist?
There seems to be an increase in the number of divorcees accusing their spouses as being narcissistic, and it could be that the term is being used more widely because these days, it’s so easy to find a list on the internet of “How to spot if your spouse is a narcissist” – though many of the traits and ‘tell-tale signs” are not that far from behaviour most of us might demonstrate on a bad day!
But perhaps the apparent rise in this style of behaviour is a reflection of our times, and the focus on ‘me’ rather than ‘us’ – and material possessions. Which will always create conflicts for a financial planner, who wants divorcing clients to be looking to the future for the benefit of their whole family, not just their individual client – as they know that ultimately, the best investments won’t compensate for having kids who won’t talk to you anymore, because your lifestyle was focused more on income generation than spending time with your family.
Family solicitor and Mediator, Samantha Jago of RHW Solicitors in Guildford, doesn’t believe that there has been a sudden rise in narcissistic clients. “It’s more a human response to fear and anxiety. I wouldn’t say it is narcissistic as such, as more of a compensatory over-reaction to the ‘hurt’ of a relationship breakdown.”
Because of course divorce is a painful process, and people respond in different ways – which is why working with professionals who have not only expertise in their fields of law and finance is key, but also those experts who have an understanding of the psychological effects of divorce and the different ways that this can manifest in the behaviour of their clients.
So what are the implications of this behaviour, which can make using dispute resolution so challenging – leading often to an adversarial divorce, which has massive financial and emotional implications on their families and their work life?
“It can lead to individuals becoming totally entrenched in their views and position.” Explains Samantha. “Obviously, there are also implications on their relationships with other family members and friends as they may be receiving perfectly rational advice on what they should do and end up regarding it as hostile. Ultimately, unless successfully challenged, the intransigence can lead to the failure of the whole mediation process.”
One of the key issues with narcissistic behaviour, is a complete lack of respect for boundaries. A narcissist shows wanton disregard for other people’s thoughts, feelings, possessions, and physical space. They think nothing of not returning money or items they have borrowed, repeatedly break promises without remorse – in fact they will usually blame the victim in some way (“Well, you shouldn’t have lent it to me then, should you?” or “Why didn’t you remind me? I don’t have that money to give to you now”).
As a family mediator, it can be challenging to use dispute resolution successfully, when one of the parties is refusing to empathise with their spouses’ position, and only seeing things from their own perspective.
They may feel that battling it out in court will show them ‘to be right’ – but of course they usually will end up spending a lot of money, making the situation even more hostile, and not really gaining the sense of victory that they seek.
“To be honest a lot of this comes down to how badly the relationship has broken down and individual situations. You cannot force anyone to be ‘reasonable’ who feels that they have been so badly treated that the option of being ‘reasonable’ with their ex-partner is just not a real option for them!” Samantha recommends that clients in this situation talk to friends they trust, perhaps get some outside help to address mental health issues/anxiety and anger then they may be able to reassess where they really are.
“Working as a mediator allows me to offer more solutions and ways to avoid going down an adversarial route. I believe that ultimately, mediation puts the divorcing couple in control of the divorce, instead of being told what to do by a judge. But it does depend heavily on the willingness of the couple themselves to be open to finding solutions. We are open with clients about the financial implications of choosing one option instead of another but an important part of being a mediator is not trying to impose your own views onto a client. Obviously, a successful mediation means that the end decisions have come from the couple themselves rather than a third party. If they grasp that and can find a way to work towards it, it will probably mean they will feel better about the whole thing in years to come.”
Psychotherapist Caron Barruw explains why it can be challenging to use mediation when one of the couple is a true Narcissist:
“Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder that does not suddenly appear but has been there all along and gets worse in situations like divorce. Usually it is impossible to mediate this as often there are irrational thoughts that are associated with the condition that works better with strict boundaries and guidelines. Each person has their own lawyer representing them and the other lawyer is very firm and in control. (Which can still take place out of court using Collaborative Law).
When people act out due to abandonment and rejection issues it is also difficult to mediate as they are feeling hurt and don’t want to settle things. Many people act out feeling rejected by protecting themselves. In doing so they become self focused and act out anger as they really feel so vulnerable.”
Although it’s very easy to ‘give up’ on a narcissist and assume that an angry court battle is inevitable, sometimes working with a counsellor can help that ‘vulnerable’ person become more open to a less expensive way to divorce. And although mediation might be a challenge, co-mediation might still be an option as that can offer clearer boundaries if those mediators are skilled in dealing with that level of power imbalance in the couple – perhaps with a trained therapist present during the sessions. Even a narcissist doesn’t necessarily want to end up with a massive legal bill and court fees.
Samantha encourages divorcing clients who have assets that need splitting, pensions and properties, to work with a financial planner early on – not just near the end of the divorce to work out how to invest their settlement. She is connected with a range of advisors and it is entirely up to her clients whether they choose to work with a financial planner or not, but among those local advisors is Mark Smale of CMP Financial, who is experienced in working with people who are going through divorce.
“Divorcees often ignore pensions and focus more on the property – and forget to ensure they have something to support them in their retirement.” Warns Financial Planner Mark Smale. “They also confuse the true value of a pension to be its current amount, rather than what it will pay out later. If they are feeling bullied and their spouse is refusing to have a reasonable discussion about how to split the finances, then working with a financial planner can bring clarity and confidence and put them in a much better negotiating position if the divorce stays out of court.
If it has to go before a judge, it will also ensure that the judge is better informed about the financial situation long-term if at least one of the divorcing couple has a proper financial plan in place.” (Financial Planner Mark Smale: www.cmpfinancial.co.uk)
Samantha believes that all qualified financial planners: “..probably shed more light on the financial implications, in the years ahead, from those decisions divorcing couples make at quite an early stage in the process. It does help to focus minds when the true monetary position is spelt out in clear terms. But it is important that all parties understand that they can only elaborate on the possible results from decisions the clients may make, and focus only on what is in the best interest of those clients.”
Samantha Jago is partner at RHW Solicitors, a member of Resolution, a past Vice President of Surrey Law Society, an advisor for the National Centre for Domestic Violence and a member of the Alternative Divorce Directory.