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I feel it’s time to write about something that I feel very strongly about. It is a very frightening situation for a lot of people that I meet in my line of work, yet very often it is not acknowledged by others. I am talking about “narcissistic abuse”.
Often, when I first meet a client they tell me that they have been doing a lot of research on the internet and that they believe that their partner is a narcissist. They seek to “prepare” me for what is coming and they want to satisfy themselves that I will be strong enough to “fight their corner”. The client often takes this view because they feel angry and bewildered by the actions of their spouse in wanting to separate from them and they naturally want to find a label that fits.
There are other clients who I identify early on in the process as having experienced coercive control by their partner and they are in a very delicate state. “Coercive Control” is now a criminal offence, which is certainly a step in the right direction. The ongoing problem is that so few people appear to understand what it means and so it is simply ignored.
I often find myself reflecting that because the label of “narcissism” is too often bandied about, and when it is actually applicable and needs to be carefully and forcefully dealt with, it is very often dismissed out of hand by others.
Narcissistic abuse is a form of thought control. The abuser uses specific language designed to manipulate the victim. Quite often the abuser uses words to get their victims to: question their own sanity (known as “gaslighting”), mistrust those who have supported them, feel worthless and abandoned, and the list goes on and on. Narcissists tend to blow their own trumpets. They appear outwardly charming and are intelligent and manipulative. They are usually not physically violent but use coercive control and emotional manipulation to hurt their victims instead.
Counsellors say they can often identify victims of narcissistic abuse early on as they tend to be obsessed with their own failures and inadequacies.
The problem is particularly acute in divorce situations. If my client is a victim of narcissistic abuse, they need a lot of support through the process. Often, the victims will be professional high achieving women (although both women and men can be abusers). These women do not generally view themselves as victims at the start of the process but they have often depleted nearly all of their inner resources just to get to the stage of making the decision to leave. They are overwhelmed by the process and the decisions that are required by them.
How narcissists operate
Narcissists fight every issue. They have an overriding desire to win and want to punish their victim, often using the children as weapons as they view this as the only remaining way of exercising control after separation.
They will try and make sure that the victim has insufficient money to instruct or continue to instruct a solicitor. They may bring endless applications to try and exhaust the victim both emotionally and financially. There are remedies for clients in this position and we are able to get an order for costs so that that particular area of vulnerability is blocked off.
Alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation and Collaborative Law will not work in these cases. The abuser may be very keen to pursue those avenues, rather than a litigation based process, to be able to continue their hold over the victim. These cases need to be handled very firmly and pro-actively by me. I will often recommend to my client that they should engage the services of a therapist or divorce coach to help them through the process.
Thankfully the existence of narcissistic abuse is starting to be taken seriously and there is support available to help clients during the difficult matrimonial proceedings.
Louise is a partner in our Family Team and a solicitor specialising in all aspects of family law, with a particular emphasis on complex financial matters, including those involving business assets and those with an international element.
She is dual qualified in England and in South Africa. Although she now practices solely in England, she deals with many cases which have a South African connection. She has been called upon to assist as an expert witness on English divorce law in the High Court of South Africa.