Narcissistic Personality Disorder
A "Cluster B" personality disorder in which a person is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity, mentally unable to see the damage they are causing to themselves and often others.
While the Republican Party is desperately trying to cut ties with Donald Trump, the world watches in disbelief. All, that is, but a particular group of women and men with one thing in common: each of them has divorced a narcissist, and some still share child custody with one.
They know the story and could write the script. The successful, gregarious person who swept them off their feet. The promises that followed. Gradually the realization that it was all a façade. There could never be a "we" because narcissists care only about themselves. Then the real nightmare began, the battle to remove this toxic person from their lives. . . . and for those with children, the misery of trying to co-parent with an ex who acts and thinks like The Donald.
As a divorce lawyer, these cases are the most difficult and disturbing. In my family law circle, we refer to someone with a narcissistic personality disorder as "an NPD" (or the more general term "HCP" -- which stands for "high conflict person"). The legal battle is always the same: the unaffected spouse tries to explain to the attorneys, judge and appointed psychological expert (if there is one) the narcissist's behavioral pattern: control, emotional abuse, manipulation, duplicity and the damaging impact on the children. The NPD denies it all and mounts a legal response that consists of blame laying, factual distortions, outright lies and a character assassination of the other spouse.
The experts and the judge are sometimes able to weed through the chaos and confusion, identify the personality disorder at play and make decisions that protect the children and unaffected spouse. Often, however, the legal system gets it wrong. Just as we've seen with Donald Trump, the NPD can be very convincing and manipulative. And the court system - like the general public - either gets conned by the NPD or isn't equipped to manage the level of conflict created by a Donald. Often the court assumes both parties are equally to blame for creating and maintaining a high conflict case, so the innocent parent who is fighting to protect the kids is treated as skeptically as the narcissistic parent.
For decades, there has been little understanding of how to spot and handle personality disorders in family law. As recently as 2011, when I blogged on Huffington Post about high conflict people in divorce court, I received emails from out-of-state divorce professionals indicating the information was new to them and they hadn't heard the term "high conflict people" used in their family court.
Thanks to Donald Trump and his campaign, the entire world now gets daily lessons on NPD behavior. As disturbed as I am by what the Donald has pulled off, the divorce lawyer in me sees the opportunity here. The Donald is our new high conflict poster child. Those of us who want change in the family law system couldn't hope for a better example. The common traits and behaviors of this personality disorder are being revealed, in their full horrific glory.
Appearance: Caring Leader
Reality: Unempathetic Bully
NPDs - like The Donald - typically exude a powerful self-confidence that draws people in. They appear to be straight-talking, no nonsense -- someone who isn't afraid to speak his mind and stand up for what's right. The truth is much darker. They care only about their own power, control and agenda, they lack genuine empathy and, as we've seen with Trump, the "straight-talk" is largely exaggerations and bravado. The real challenge is pulling back the curtain and exposing the NPD. Practiced and effective at manipulation, they're skilled at knowing just what to say and do to carry on the masquerade.
Intense media scrutiny (using recorded interviews that are played back as evidence) has revealed the extent of The Donald's lies, bullying and explosive nature - all NPD markers. In fact, Trump has been publicly diagnosed with NPD. And yet, in spite of the evidence offered in living color, recent polls show that nearly 50% of registered Republicans still support him. This gives you an idea of how difficult it can be to unmask the NPD, and how easy it is for the NPD spouse to evade scrutiny and detection by an already overburdened court system.
NPDs can successfully hide their condition and manipulate the system for various reasons. Courts are backlogged and underfunded. The attorneys, judges and court mediators have limited contact with the parties. Judges and court staff have minimal time to devote to any one case. The evidence is often one spouse's word against the other, and the NPD is a master of distortion and lies. Judges aren't psychologists or trained to spot personality disorders. Neither are attorneys. As a result, the court system is generally slow to recognize and act on Cluster B personality disorders. Judges are hesitant to take away custodial and legal rights, even when the façade of the NPD is starting to crack. So the NPD is typically given the benefit of the doubt for a long time, even after the lies and contradictions begin to surface.
In many cases, the personality disorder is missed completely. NPDs are given shared or even primary custody and then proceed to toxify the lives of their children and ex-spouse with their dysfunctional behavior and the continual conflict they create. It can take years before all the players involved in the case become aware of the NPD's dysfunction, if ever.
Typical NPD Traits
• Motivated by power and control
• Quick to anger and take offense
• Operate by their own set of rules
• Create conflict / unable to resolve conflict
• Desire to win at all cost
• Speaking the truth to them doesn't change their illogical or factually wrong position
• Victim blame
• Insulting and degrading in their communication / respond to criticism by becoming defensive and attacking back
Take a look at Trump's Twitter feed or watch reruns of the Republican debate. This is a window into how NPDs communicate, particularly when they feel questioned or criticized. They strike back angrily and abusively. When co-parenting with an NPD, personal attacks via text and email are a weekly occurrence.
Feigning ignorance and denying responsibility, NPDs - like Donald Trump - claim they don't create conflict. In fact NPDs are all about chaos and conflict. And once the battle is raging, NPDs play the victim. An example is Trump inciting violence against protesters at his rallies, then blaming the protesters, Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Admission of fault? Apology? Forget about it.
Like Trump, NPDs lie with impunity and then shamelessly defend the indefensible. I've often wondered if they could pass a polygraph test since they appear to believe their own lies. This is really something to behold, an NPD lying over and over to the court while under oath. What's even worse is watching a court fall for the lies.
Notice, too, how The Donald boasts repeatedly that he doesn't settle lawsuits. This is typical NPD - they have no interest in finding middle ground or resolving disputes reasonably. Integrity and truth be damned. For every issue, no matter the size, it's "see you in court." Which, by the way, often leads to conflict between the NPD and their own attorney who counsels some restraint. NPDs usually blow through several attorneys over the course of their custody litigation.
Despite What NPDs Say, They Are Not Team Players
The Donald has been heavily criticized by Republican Party leaders for being grandiose, divisive and incapable of considering the best interests of the Party. Republicans, Democrats and Independents across the board believe Trump is in it for Trump and he lacks the ability and temperament to lead a country. All are valid claims. Narcissists aren't team players and they play by their own rules. Trump reneging on his loyalty pledge to support the GOP rules of nomination is no surprise to those familiar with NPD.
Everybody -- including the court -- tells divorcing parents, "Get along for the sake of the children." But trying to reason and co-parent with a NPD is akin to the GOP trying to reason and work with Donald Trump. It goes nowhere and you're left feeling like you're living in a warped reality.
NPDs don't know how to work as a team. They're controlling and focused only on their own agenda. Invariably NPDs emotionally harm their children even if they love them -- because of their impaired empathy, hypersensitivity to real and imaged wrongs and the underlying dysfunction that drives all their behavior. When called out on their behavior, the NPD will claim it is "parental alienation by the other parent" that's causing the children to feel fear, anxiety and stress.
It's a bleak moment in American politics as our NPD poster boy marches on through the Republican primaries, still in the lead. At the end of the day, what good can come from his almost perfect example of the NDP? Well, the family law community thanks you, Mr. Trump. We firmly believe that if we all watch and learn from this national experience of divorcing The Donald, it could be a game changer for how we approach NPDs in family court.
In fact, just yesterday I found myself using only five words to explain a case to a colleague. I said, "That spouse is a Donald," and the attorney got the whole picture -- instantly. It was a first.
Note from the author: To learn more about NPDs and high conflict divorce and custody cases, check out The High Conflict Institute, One Mom's Battle, the books and work of Bill Eddy, Tina Swithin and Joseph Burgo, and New Ways for Families. I would like to thank Bill Eddy, Tina Swithin, Lorin Beller and Rebecca Davis Merritt for their professional writings which assisted with the writing of this article.