There's a common concept that seems to run rampant in the community of divorce professionals. It is coined "high conflict couple" or "high conflict divorce." The thinking usually involves a belief that these difficult post-divorce custody battles displaying constant conflict are because both parents involved are just a bit crazy ... or a lot crazy. Michael Friedman wrote an article for The American Journal of Family Therapy to discuss a closer look at this notion. He stated, "The concept has even entered into what might be called family court folk wisdom: we say that Mother Theresa does not marry Attila the Hun or that it takes two to tango." While there is some truth that who we marry reflects our own emotional development, there is also a different and more complicated flavor involved when one is drawn into a narcissist's world.
For instance, Mark and Marcy married. They had two children. Mark continually emotionally abused Marcy throughout the marriage as well as the children. He had no emotional connection to the children and they were not attached to him. Marcy was the psychological parent and always has been. Then Marcy decides enough is enough and files for divorce. Mark cannot believe it. He cannot imagine why she would abandon him and ruin his life. He is not aware or conscious of his bad behavior and feels entitled. He has excuses for everything and blames others for his actions. He is the victim now and his abandonment issues are triggered. Mark is used to exploiting others to meet his own needs and he is appalled that his manipulation no longer works. He cannot be accountable. So, Mark will never let Marcy live this down. His avenue for re-gaining power now is in creating massive chaos in the divorce process and using the children as pawns. Why use the children? This is what is truly important to Marcy. So everything in the divorce becomes about him. "These are my children, this is my money, I want my parenting time." The mother and children are saying, what the? He was never involved before ... he has been mean to us ... he usually ignores us ... he doesn't really even know us. What do we do now and what is this about? (This example can play out in either gender.)
The common thinking is that those adults with children, who divorce and continue to battle post-divorce, must both have major psychological issues. After all, who would do this to the children? These are the cases that exhibit increased tension, post parenting difficulties, and often need child family investigators and parent coordinators to determine parenting time.
But, enter the condition of narcissism. What if you married a narcissist who is all about what is good for him or her, rather than what is in the best interest of the children? The narcissist makes unrealistic demands, is not emotionally connected to the children, may be emotionally abusive or worse, but will fight to the end to gain revenge or fight in the interest of his/her own needs. The fight may be economically based, or more likely what is known as a narcissistic injury. That person will never get over or forget that you filed for divorce or abandoned them, and will continue to make life difficult for you and the children. What do you do?
Most parents I have worked with over the years, who have married a narcissist and are in the process of divorce, find themselves having to take a strong stance to protect their kids. They find they have to be involved in post-divorce assessments and battles and then are at risk of being assessed themselves as just one of those crazy "high-conflict" couples. The danger here is that the children's best interest may not be served if narcissism is not understood in the case. It is true that one person who is narcissistic can unilaterally cause serious conflict that causes the other parent to go into defense mode to protect themselves and the children. Given that emotional abuse is difficult to prove and not taken seriously by the courts in most states, the war is on in these cases where one parent is causing havoc and the other is just trying to defend and protect. But does this mean they are both psychologically disturbed in some way? Not always.
To reiterate, if you marry a narcissist and then divorce that person, the narcissist will not forgive and forget. They do not move on easily. They cling to "how could you abandon me or do this to me" and the anger lingers for long periods of time, sometimes years and years. To imagine that one could process through an amicable divorce with a narcissist and stay friends and co-parent in a reasonable manner is not realistic with narcissists. They do things such as excessively disparage the other parent, resort to making up unfair and untrue allegations, and do not want to financially support the children because that somehow means to them that they are giving money to their ex-spouse. Their entitlement needs get in the way of fairly dividing property and money and in the end they do not think of what is best for the child or children. They think about what is best for them! "It is my parenting time!" "You cannot have sporting events on my time!" "Your mother (or father) is taking all my money."
Because narcissists do not have the capacity for empathy and emotionally tuning into the needs of others, the children's emotional needs are not realized. Thriving on constant conflict is the narcissist's way to stay connected and fight for his or her own rights rather than consider what works for the children. In fact, being oblivious to the needs of the children is usually observed.
My concern is first for the children in these families, then for the spouse who married the narcissist who is also being seen as a conflict designer. The helping professionals in divorce cases need continued education on this issue. Without a deeper understanding, we are losing the opportunity to truly assist families going through the life-changing and emotionally wrenching experience of divorce. Narcissism is a disorder that wreaks havoc in these families. If this is you, make sure your attorney is well informed. There will need to be professionals involved to assist in how to deal with the narcissist parent. It is advised that the children attend therapy with a professional who understands the dynamics of narcissism and how that affects children. Some parenting plans that reflect a good understanding of narcissistic parenting will be needed.
Why one would marry a narcissist is a no-brainer. They can be charming, enticing, engaging, and easily put on a show in the beginning of relationships. They are out there for you to fall in love with. You will only know the reality as you get to know them better over a period of time. But if you decide to divorce, reach out for some specialized assistance! You and your kids are worth it.