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Author’s Note: This article was published in the Divorce Financial Analyst Journal, Spring 2022 (see link to publication at the end of the article)
Narcissus, the Greek god who fell so deeply in love with himself that his self-adoration ultimately led to his demise, is the origin of the word narcissism, which commonly refers to a fixation on oneself. Many of us display the traits of narcissism on occasion. However, those who have more extreme behaviors or symptoms may be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, the notable characteristics of NPD are the need for admiration, a lack of empathy for others, a pervasive pattern of grandiosity demonstrated by behavior or the sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and the taking advantage of others.
There are two types of this disorder. One is more vulnerable or fragile, while the other is more overtly grandiose. The vulnerable NPD may appear to be quiet, self-effacing, and hypersensitive to criticism, but secretly feel entitled and self-important. The more overt grandiose NPD may be socially charming, charismatic, and professionally very capable, all while ignoring the needs of others to ensure their own self-entitlement. If you are divorcing the more overt NPD, it is very likely you will be dealing with a higher conflict divorce.
Most individuals who are going through divorce want as little conflict as possible, so they can move their family forward in a positive manner. The mediation process usually involves an introductory meeting, followed by 4-8 sessions between 1 ½ - 2 hours each. Skilled mediators will tell you they are there to facilitate a conversation that you and your partner are currently not able to have together. The mediator helps you frame the issues that are preventing you and your spouse from coming to an agreement. When necessary, the mediator also helps you develop options to address those issues.
Mediators are not able to take sides. They want you to come to a fair agreement, but they do not decide what is fair. When considering mediation as a path to divorce, it is important for you to be honest with yourself regarding whether you are truly able to self-advocate, identify your needs and interests, and stand up to your soon-to-be ex-spouse. You should not agree to mediation simply to get along and try to appease the NPD.
The behaviors and traits of an NPD, including grandiosity, gaslighting, lack of empathy, taking advantage of others, and entitlement, are often in direct conflict with the mediation process.
The NPD likely believes they are the smartest person in the room, in every situation, regardless of their experience or education. They will likely enter the mediation with the belief they know more than you or the mediator. You may even hear them say, “We can do this without lawyers or a mediator,” or “We will figure that out together and let you know,” or another favorite, “I will draft the agreement and bring it to the next session.”
The mediator traditionally drafts a Memorandum of Understanding, which is given to your attorney, who then drafts the Marital Separation Agreement. Alternatively, some mediators draft agreements. Regardless of whether your mediation is successful, you will need an attorney to review any agreement prior to signing, to be sure your agreement is fair and will receive the court’s approval. When dealing with an NPD who believes they are special and that laws either do not apply to them or will be interpreted in their favor, an attorney will bring the reality of the legal process to the conversation.
Another characteristic of the NPD is mastery of gaslighting. Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as: “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories, typically leading to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
The neutral mediator will seek to understand your needs and interests. However, if you have been living in the NPD’s alternate reality, you need to be sure your needs and interests are truly yours, and not the NPD’s version of what you need. In mediation, you alone are your own advocate. If you are not able to do this, mediation may not be the best path for you. If you decide to pursue mediation, you may want to consider mediation with attorneys present.
A key element of the mediation process is helping each side see the other person’s perspective. This goal often requires the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand their needs and interests. A lack of empathy can be an individual believing their idea is the only possible correct idea and an unwillingness to consider contrary evidence to their position.
If you are mediating with a NPD with a significant lack of empathy, you want to be well prepared before mediation. You may want to consider engaging a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) to review all your assets, debts, sources of income, and your household and personal budget. Taking the time to consider what your post-divorce life will look like, and what it will cost to live that way, is critical, and can help you express your needs and interests with confidence. In addition, a skilled mediator will need to make use of their tool kit to help achieve mutual agreement when one party is unyielding in their viewpoint.
NPDs typically control all the financial matters in the home. This role often includes acting as the sole or primary source of income, managing all bank accounts, investments, and retirement accounts, setting the budget for the family, and deciding when and what their spouse may spend money on, although often not consulting the spouse when the NPD spends. I often hear of an “allowance,” provided under the control of the NPD. Ultimately, this arrangement can create a situation where the spouse has little to no control or knowledge of the family’s finances.
The mediation process relies on full and fair disclosure, including (but not limited to) prior year tax returns, W-2’s, bank accounts, life insurance, retirement funds, etc. You will need to educate yourself, make sure you are getting full disclosure, and set up contingencies if it is later discovered there were undisclosed assets.
The NPD will want to “win.” Fairness is not their primary concern. They feel entitled to everything they are asking for. The mediation process is focused on full and fair disclosure, open and honest communication, and coming to an agreement about what is fair. There are no victims, winners, or losers.
If you decide to engage in mediation with your NPD spouse, you want to find a mediator who is comfortable with high conflict divorce and will not be charmed or bullied by the NPD. An experienced mediator will likely be able to quickly determine whether both parties are truly invested in making the mediation work, or if the NPD is using the process to further control and take advantage. Finally, work with a professional — like a CDFA — who can help prepare you to present your needs and interests in a well informed and confident manner!