There is much discussion about the term ‘narcissism’, these days. Rather shockingly, it is estimated that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) will feature in more than 30% of the cases that we see as mediators. Because of this, it is important for mediators to understand what they’re dealing with and for clients to know what to highlight to professionals when potentially dealing with a narcissistic ex-partner. These 6 characteristics will help you to better know what to expect from a narcissist.
A narcissist’s relationship to the truth is fluid: To a narcissist, the truth is not a fixed entity; it can change from one day to the next. As mediators, we can spot this narcissistic trait if a client says one thing in one session and goes on to tell a different truth in a later session. In finance cases, this could show up when facts such as self-employment income seem to continually change and in children cases, different narratives or explanations emerge at different junctures and, if you query this as a mediator, you could be met with statements about how it is you who doesn’t understand the information and that it is your inadequacy which is at fault rather than a shifting of the truth.
Gaslighting: A narcissist will distort the other person’s reality, feelings, and memory of events by convincingly telling them things happened differently to how the victim remembers them to be. The more gaslighting occurs, the more likely the victim will believe the narcissist and their allegations and doubt their own actions and thoughts. As mediators, we will often experience clients who seek to subjectively explain the legal system to us or try to undermine our own professional experience and/or knowledge.
Playing the victim: A narcissist who is masquerading as a victim might make a very strong and heartfelt appeal to professionals that they have been the victim of the other person’s abuse however they won’t appear with any ‘brokenness’ - they won’t display confusion, despair, concern over the financial cost of all of this, they won’t appear uncertain about where to go or who to approach for help and, above all, a narcissist who is masquerading as a victim will not ever present as someone who is unaware or lacking in understanding of the degree to which they have been subjected to abuse. This is how a true victim will likely present.
They will ‘Triangulate’ others: Narcissists seek to throw their victims off balance by bringing other people in to do their bidding. If a victim is already confused, they are likely to be taken in by third parties who deliver the narcissist’s message as a seemingly independent source. This triangulation doesn’t exclude the family professionals who are trying to help; indeed, a narcissist will try to manipulate the mediator along similar lines to the way that they have been manipulating their ex, if they are able to. It is helpful for mediators to try to notice where they might sit in a narcissist’s triangle – are they making you their victim, their perpetrator or their rescuer at any given moment?
Changing the goalposts: By constantly changing the goalposts and coming up with different priorities or introducing complexities, narcissists will cause chaos and change the focus of mediation thereby delaying the process. Narcissists are not looking for a reasonable, sensible outcome, they thrive on the ongoing conflict and have no interest in bringing matters to a conclusion. If the process does end then they need to ‘win’ and if they don’t, they will continue to punish their former partner once the process has concluded, on into the future.
Rules don’t apply: Narcissists often don’t do homework that you ask of them, they don’t make appropriate financial disclosure, and this can often lead a mediator to not be in a position to carry out a session effectively because they haven’t done what was asked of them. A narcissist will also try to take control of your process in other ways too, they will look to undermine your role, they will call your professionalism into question and continually complain that you’re not doing a good job. Mediators know to hold firm boundaries in these circumstances.
Mediators often hear at the MIAM assessment meeting that people have been advised not to attend mediation if their former partner is a narcissist or has narcissistic traits. However, mediators are aware of these characteristics and how difficult it can be to deal with a narcissistic ex-partner, and it forms part of a mediator’s initial assessment meeting to decide with you whether mediation is appropriate in your circumstances. Our mediators are trained and experienced in spotting these signs of narcissism and in supporting families where narcissism is a factor to be able to work towards a sensible outcome. A mediator’s role can often be to gently support both parties towards an outcome which could be signed off by a judge, but which gives the narcissist their sense of ‘winning’ and their victim their sense of freedom and control over their future life.