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Mediating with a Narcissist—Think Again

September 20, 2019

Mediation is a wonderful tool for resolving disputes.   In divorce, especially, it can be an empowering and healing process.  However, not all marriages can be dissolved through mediation, and you almost never can successfully mediate with a narcissist.   The irony is that living with a true narcissist is a prime cause of divorce.

The shared love, compromise, mutual understanding and support necessary for a marriage to thrive are lacking in a narcissistic relationship.    If you are considering a mediated divorce, before proceeding we suggest carefully evaluating your   current relationship and your partner to see if mediation really can work for you.

The term narcissism is used with almost abandon in common parlance today to describe people who may be self-absorbed and think highly of themselves.   However, a degree of withdrawal into one’s self and having positive feelings about one’s self are not always negative qualities.   Such traits are common in many successful people who may be driven to excel.  Indeed, they may be essential for certain professions and tasks.   Narcissism appears on a spectrum from arrogance and conceit to full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).     If you are married to a successful partner who has become aloof, arrogant, and/or checked out of the marriage, that does not mean that your spouse is not  a good candidate for mediation.   Look closer.

The kind of narcissist not suitable for mediation is one with  real NPD.  About 8% of men and 5% of women in the United States have NPD.   This is a clinical diagnosis for a cluster of traits that define a narcissistic personality.  Psychiatrist, Stephen E. Levick, in his book Clone Being says that “people with Narcissistic Personality disorder have a sense of grandiose self -importance and are pre-occupied with grandiose self-fantasies.  They believe that they are special and unique, and only want to associate with other special high-status people or institutions and may show arrogant haughtiness in the way they relate to others. Requiring excessive admiration, they have an unreasonable senses of entitlement, lack empathy, and are interpersonally exploitative…. Self-righteous rage, exhilaration and shame associated with anxiety are states of mind associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”   The need for admiration, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and leanings toward exploitation are what make successful mediation impossible with someone with a narcissistic personality.

For the same reason that narcissists are not good candidates for mediation, they may suggest it to their partner.   The narcissist will view mediation as a way to get what he/she wants.  He/she may try to persuade that lawyers are unnecessary impediments to the process and believe that it is “beneath” the couple to have to resort to lawyers and pay legal fees to get a divorce.  The NPD narcissist who wants to avoid costs may posit that the parties can do it just as well by themselves.   However, expediency rather than fairness likely is driving this decision.   Dr. Levick states that since ‘their main purpose in relating to others is to try to repair a sense of defect in themselves, [narcissists] are unable to   feel concern or care for others.”    Accordingly, in the mind of the narcissist, mediation is a way to exploit a situation to his/her advantage.   Regardless of what may be said, the narcissistic spouse has no empathy for the emotional and financial needs of his/her spouse.   The conundrum deepens because narcissists can be unusually charming and persuasive, and the long-time compliant spouse—without better information or advice— may agree to mediation to placate the narcissist.    However, since at their most fundamental level narcissists are pre-occupied with themselves and self-centered, they cannot participate effectively in the back and forth necessary for positive mediation, and the process is doomed to failure or terribly inequitable result.      And, if the marriage broke down over lack of appreciation, the narcissist may be suppressing rage, anger and deep hurt, and wish to inflict pain on the spouse who asks for a divorce.

Divorcing a narcissist is not easy.    The narcissist will not let go and may wish to “win at all costs.”     He/she may want to drag you through long litigation if you don’t accede to certain wishes.  You will need the right tools and network.  It is essential to find the right lawyers, therapists, and other supports.  Unfortunately, mediation may not be the path.   And mediators when interviewing a couple for mediation should screen for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and refuse to mediate such matters.

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For a consultation with a lawyer familiar with the issues discussed above call 610 565-6200