As a family lawyer, if you listen to your clients’ diagnoses of their ex-partners on a regular basis you would believe that half the world is full of cruel, inhumane people who all have personality disorders, but more recently have all become narcissists!!
Of course, I am completely exaggerating. But over the last few years there has been an increasing trend for people to diagnose their ex-partner’s perceived mental conditions such that at least they have narcissistic tendencies, and at worst they have narcissistic personality disorder.
So what exactly is a narcissist you may be wondering, and have you ever been involved with one? (And if you think you currently are involved with one, and want to get out of the relationship, what should you do?)
What is a narcissist?
Narcissism is the tendency for people to have an inflated sense of their own importance (so now you’re thinking that’s everyone you’ve ever dated, right?); a need for excessive attention (everyone on Insta?); a lack of empathy; and (not surprisingly) they typically have troubled relationships.
Like many mental conditions narcissism can be thought of as spectrum, so someone may have narcissistic tendencies at times (let’s face it – at times that could be most of us), which doesn’t mean they fall into the DSM-5* definition of narcissistic personality disorder (NDP), which has a clear definition set by psychiatrists.
To meet the strict definition of the disorder, there are nine essential traits:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance.
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, etc.
- A belief that the person is so special that they should only associate with (or could only be understood by) other special people (usually with a very high status).
- A need for excessive attention/admiration.
- A strong sense of entitlement.
- They exhibit exploitative behaviour of those that they are in close relationships with.
- A lack of empathy.
- Envy of others (or a belief that others are envious of them).
- They exhibit arrogant and/or superior behaviour.
Not unsurprisingly people with diagnosable NDP (a long-term mental health issue) rarely ever admit that they have a problem, so it may be difficult to know how much of any given population really have the disorder, SANE Australia estimates it is around 1% (though some studies put it as high as 6%).
So, let’s assume that your ex does fit into the definition – how is a separation likely to play out?
Separating from a narcissist
With boundaries within a relationship and treatment of the person who has NPD it doesn’t mean a death sentence for a relationship, but let’s say you do want to end the relationship, what are some things that you might do a bit differently, to ensure that the separation goes more smoothly than it otherwise might
Firstly – education will almost always make it easier to deal with your situation, giving you an understanding of the condition, which will help you understand your ex’s actions in a separation better, so that they are not so much a statement about you, but about your ex.
This will help you to understand that a narcissist will often lie, manipulate, hurt and be disrespectful of you if he or she feels threatened, so be prepared for this type of behaviour, and understand that what you might perceive as a very hurtful attack on you, may actually just be their way of dealing with change.
Secondly, make sure that you have some good support both in the form of a great friend to debrief with if the going gets a bit rough, but also a professional (think psychologist) who will also be able to assist with the education piece (much better than relying on Dr Google), but may also help with your healing after what may be a traumatic relationship, break-up or both.
Make a list of the reasons why you are leaving (on your phone or even stuck to your mirror) so that you can remind yourself of the reality of life with the narcissist – they will almost certainly try to persuade you that your version of the relationship is inaccurate and they may well turn on the charm to try to get you back (often times after some horrible behaviour that they will try to make you believe “didn’t really happen that way”). This way you don’t get sucked in to the potential “love boom” that may be employed by the narcissist in an attempt to get you back.
Don’t fall into the trap of arguing with a narcissist or buying into their version of you – if you have managed to end your relationship with a narcissist you might believe that the worst is behind you, but the end of the relationship may be a trigger for worse behaviour than you have experienced before. In circumstances like this it can be very beneficial to have a lawyer to distance you from the worst of the behaviour and to help you maintain an honest reflection of who you are.
Importantly, if you are physically threatened or abused ensure that you protect yourself – don’t hesitate to call 000 – the police will be able to assist to remove the person threatening or abusing you from the property and can put measures in place to prevent them from returning.
Try to cut off all communication and ties to the narcissist as much as you are able to, as often they can resort to very anti-social behaviour to try to “win you back”, including cyber and physical stalking. This may mean your lawyer handles all communication for a period of time, and if there are handovers of the children, these are conducted by a third party so that you don’t have to continue seeing them.
A trust lawyer who has experience in dealing with people who have a NDP can mean the difference between you sinking and swimming in this situation. We are here to help. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you or a friend find yourself in this situation.
*Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (American Psychiatric Association)
About the author: This article has been authored by Jacqueline Brown who is a Perth lawyer and director at Lynn & Brown Lawyers. Jacqui has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in family law, mediation and estate planning. Jacqui is also a Nationally Accredited Mediator and a Notary Public.