If I had a dime for every time a client told me his or her Ex was a Narcissist, I’d be writing this blog from my own private island. However, I do often wonder if it is true—does the Ex actually have a clinically diagnosable personality disorder, or is use of the term “narcissist” similar to describing someone as “crazy” (or other colorful words I won’t repeat here)?
After having practiced family law for the better part of a decade, I have seen my fair share of behavior that only a mental health issue could likely explain. But aside from life experience, I have no credentials or training to determine where the line is between someone simply at his or her worst because of a family breakup and a true Narcissist with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”). So, Dr. Michael Plumeri, clinical psychologist, has kindly agreed to assist me with this blog. A link to his bio and psychological practice can be found here.
NPD is a “Cluster B” personality disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the “DSM”. Other “Cluster B” personality disorders include Antisocial, Borderline, and Histrionic—topics deserving of their own blogs.
We can all exhibit narcissistic traits at times (hopefully frequent blogging is not one of them!). We are human, after all. Narcissism is actually essential to our survival. We need a certain amount of self-focus to survive in the world. Like candy or fried foods, a small amount is ok, but too much is a problem. Narcissistic traits include a feeling of entitlement, need for attention (frequent blogging??), an inflated sense of self-importance or lack of empathy, to name a few. But what sets narcissistic traits apart from actual NPD: the degree to which those traits affect the sufferer and those around him or her.
NPD is characterized by fundamental and consistent issues in the sufferer’s world view and interaction with others; the disorder is pervasive and insidious in the lives of the Narcissist and those around him or her. True Narcissists (the ones with the personality disorder…not your friend who uploads too many selfies) may exhibit some or all of the following: a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of success and power, a belief he or she is special and unique, a desire for excessive attention, a sense of entitlement, exploitation of others, and lack of empathy.
Divorce/family breakup is generally the most significant non-death experience one can have; it can and does bring out the worst in people. If someone is exhibiting narcissistic traits during a divorce or family breakup, that person could actually suffer (and those around will too) from NPD. Or, that person could simply be exhibiting narcissistic traits as an imperfect human being going through a stressful situation. In fact, the odds favor the latter scenario.
According to the DSM-IV, the prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the US is about 0.5%-1% of the general population, or roughly 3 million people. While that number is not insignificant, in comparison to the US population of 330 million people, the chances you are dealing with someone who actually has NPD are relatively small. Common traits such as self-centeredness, entitlement, greed , self-importance—you get the point—are often ascribed to a Narcissist, but it is more than likely that the alleged “Narcissist” is not one, in the clinical sense.
So, while I cannot rule out the possibility that everyone who has told me “my Ex is a Narcissist” may have actually been right—that his or her Ex has NPD—statistics show that the “Narcissist” they are dealing with is more likely someone exhibiting certain traits due to a stressful divorce/family breakup.
An important takeaway is this: someone does not become a Narcissist during a divorce. Someone marries a Narcissist who slowly reveals the depths of his or her Narcissism during the relationship/breakup. A cold, hard truth—if you are truly divorcing a Narcissist, it is because you married one.
My hope for clients in such situations is that once the fog of the family breakup clears, those traits begin to subside and lessen and the clients and their families can move toward a happier, more peaceful future.
Clients should to seek the advice of mental health professionals before, during, and after a family breakup. As family lawyers, we may feel as though we have “seen everything”, but we are not qualified to provide therapy. If you think you are dealing with a Narcissist (or even just someone showing narcissistic traits), or believe you may suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you should seek the guidance of a qualified therapist.