A google search of “custody and narcissist” brings up numerous law firm articles on the topic as well as articles in Psychology Today, WebMD, Forbes. There are numerous videos with “experts” including retired judges, lawyers, therapists, many of whom sell various “packages” to parents who believe they are involved with a narcissist and need help. Often the “expert” is a litigant who has been through custody litigation with a narcissist and prevailed. Many of the videos “assist” litigants on how to “be prepared in custody court” or how to “win in court”.
If you are in custody litigation in family court, it means that you and the other parent could not reach a suitable parenting time or custody agreement with each other. Custody determinations in all fifty states are based upon the “best interests” of the child.
Best interests can include differing standards depending on the judge, the court, the state in which the litigation takes place. It is based upon the court’s factual determination as to the parent/child relationship, child’s wishes, age and gender of the child, mental and physical health of the parents, special needs of the child, whether there was domestic violence in the home, parental involvement in the child’s education, medical care, extracurricular activities, which parent is more likely to protect the child’s relationship with the other parent, finances, home environment.
In custody litigation in all fifty United States, the judge is the finder of fact except that eleven states allow for a jury for some aspect of the litigation-usually financial of a divorce. Texas allows for a request for a jury trial in a child custody dispute. The judge will make the custody determination based on the totality of all the factors it considers in its best interest analysis as well as its observations of the parents in the courtroom during the proceedings.
Custody litigation is fact-specific litigation. It is based upon each parent’s relationship with their child or children up until the close of the custody trial. The “evidence” consists of school records, pediatrician records, dental records, photos, emails, texts, holiday cards, birthday party invites, all indicia of each parent’s relationship with the child and their attunement with the child and his or her needs and the parent’s behavior in the courtroom.
Narcissism is a Personality Disorder
The DSM-5-TR lists narcissism under Personality Disorders, “is a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” It is among the Cluster B Personality Disorders (characterized by consistently dysfunctional pattern of dramatic, overly emotional thinking or unpredictable behavior, dramatic and overly emotional behavior). The diagnostic criteria listed in the DSM -5-TR includes:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance;
2. Is pre-occupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions);
4. Requires excessive admiration;
5. Has a sense of entitlement;
6. Is interpersonally exploitative;
7. Lacks empathy;
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her;
9. Shows arrogant or haughty behaviors and attitudes.
The history of a parent’s involvement in the child’s life is contained in the child’s school records and medical records. School attendance records can show when the child is absent from school during whose parenting time and who attended parent/teacher conferences. Medical records show who brought the child to the pediatrician’s office for regular well visits or who is over-treating the child by too many visits to the pediatrician. These records cannot be altered or fudged. Teachers can testify as to who brings the child to school and who picks the child up from school. Nannies or care providers can testify to which parent gives instructions re the child’s daily activities, meals, who arranges the child’s schedule etc. Nanny cams can provide real time records of in-home behaviors by each parent. All these items can be presented at trial as exhibits or by witnesses.
Email and text communication show the interactions between the parents-is the communication, courteous, to the point? Does it show concern for the child or is it an attempt to blame the other parent? Is one parent deflecting the other and refusing to take responsibility for things that occur during his or her parenting time? Does social media show a flamboyant lifestyle with no room for parenting? Online communication postings can all be exhibits at trial.
Depending on state laws re audio and video recording, these can show inappropriate communications, abuse, out of control behavior or happy times and positive parenting.
Photographs can serve as a method of describing time, activities and vacations with the child. They can also show injuries to the child. If shown a photo of the child with injuries, how does the parent on the witness stand react? Are they sympathetic, empathetic to the child’s injury or are they casting blame on the other parent?
Narcissist on trial
At a trial, each side presents witnesses. The plaintiff or petitioner goes first. The trial consists of direct examination (who, what, where, when, why, or open ended questions), questions asked by the parent who called the witness’s attorney, and cross examination (leading questions often requiring only a yes or no answer, tight questions allowing for little or no elaboration) that often contain the answer within the questions) of that same witness by the opposing parent’s attorney.
The narcissist’s sense of grandiosity can be on display from the start of their direct case or case in chief. The narcissist will begin to take over his case, not allowing his own attorney to tell a cohesive linear story often answering questions that haven’t been asked and speechifying. The need to control and their sense of grandiosity continues into cross examination when they cannot tolerate being questioned by the other parent’s attorney and begin to show anger, belligerence, superiority to all in the courtroom, including the attorney daring to question them. The judge observes it all.
Parents involved in litigation against a narcissistic spouse, ex-spouse or partner often fear that narcissist will charm the judge, lawyers, other witnesses and that the narcissist will ultimately prevail at trial. The opposite is often true, while a party’s narcissistic traits make them a nightmare to co-parent with, those same narcissistic traits are laid bare in the courtroom for all to see, inspect and observe. At the core of any narcissist is the belief that they are superior and many are incapable of being cross examined, being confronted with their contradictory statements or being shown in a negative light.
When confronted on cross examination with contradictory statements made by them narcissists will deny contradictions that are obvious to all, stating “I see no contradictions” “Neither yes or no,” or “No further questions/comments.”
When confronted with documentary evidence that proves they were mistaken or lied they often display an inappropriate affect, laughing or smiling when other than a narcissist would acknowledge their mistake or appear nervous rather than defiant.
Failing to acknowledge their own shortcomings will help them preserve their own self-image, which is of paramount importance to the narcissist but it is highly costly in custody litigation where the burden is the best interests of the child, not the best interests of the narcissist.
How should you try your own custody case with a narcissist?
You are telling a story-your story of you and your child. Tell that story truthfully using all the evidence you have to document it. The narcissist can’t tolerate the rigidity of a custody trial, something over which he has no control. Imagine the diagnostic traits listed above from the DSM-5-TR on display in a courtroom. You will be able to expose him for who and what he is.