Note from Tina: One of the most commonly asked questions that I receive is this: “I can no longer afford my attorney and will be going to court in pro se. What advice do you have?” These messages are usually brimming over with self-doubt, anxiety and fear.
This is a really tough question for me to answer. I generally want to reach through the computer and hug the writer because I know the fear so well. It’s a difficult question because every court room is different – different Judge, different rules and different requirements. Some courtrooms are more friendly to those in pro se (smaller towns generally) and some are the opposite. I wish that I had a crystal ball to predict the outcome of your case– and mine. Sometimes I feel like they are flipping a coin and you just never know which way it will land. I have heard of some women walking into court ready to throw in the towel and leaving the courtroom feeling victorious. I have walked into court feeling 100% confident only to leave questioning everything about this flawed system.
Equipping Yourself for the Legal Battle: When seeking legal counsel, it is imperative that you find someone who understands Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are going into battle in pro se, I recommend contacting your church or local women’s shelter to inquire about services that they may offer to help you. Many communities also offer free divorce workshops, support groups or clinics through the courthouse. Regardless of whether you are in pro se or represented by an attorney, I encourage you to spend a day in the courtroom to which you were assigned. Familiarize yourself with the Judge or Commissioner’s style, the courtroom procedures and pay attention to the strategies used by attorneys.
Prepare: When it comes to friends and acquaintances, prepare for the reality that many people will fall for the narcissist’s manipulation. Because the general public is not educated in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, many will fall prey to his evil tactics. Remember that you once fell prey to him also. Narcissists cannot tolerate failure and therefore, will not accept that they had any part of the demise of the marriage. Narcissists are known to run massive smear campaigns and you will be painted as the villain in their efforts to turn friends and family members against you. I have found that it is best to take the high road and eventually, the narcissist will show their true colors. It is inevitable.
Begin gathering declarations from people in your community who can attest to your character and parenting. In the beginning, I hesitated to ask people for fear of putting them in an awkward position. I have discovered that the majority of people are willing to help if you are clear with them about what you need. Asking people to focus on specific events that they may have witnessed or giving examples to back up their statements about your parenting is important. I suggest obtaining a wide variety of declarations from people who know you such as teachers, pediatricians, PTA members, neighbors and other such community members.
Document Everything: I cannot stress this enough. I recommend keeping a daily calendar style journal for the day-to-day occurrences and things to notate. I prefer to document the larger items using a Gmail account which I keep specifically for divorce and custody items. An example would be: “Documentation: April 3, 2011- Failure to Show for Visitation” or something along those lines. I suggest keeping all documents and paperwork in binders divided by year with your daily calendar in front for easy access.
Get Organized: You need to find a system that works for you. While there are a variety of ways to stay organized, I personally use the binder method. I have a binder for each year and I keep things in chronological order. I also keep sample court documents with post-it notes detailing the instructions for each such as number of copies needed, dates of service and anything else noteworthy.
In Court: Your job is to walk through the courtroom doors completely prepared. As I walk through the doors of the courtroom, I grab God’s hand and bring him with me. For you, this could be your Higher Power, pixie dust in your pocket or a mantra that keeps you centered. Stay composed and focused while reserving your emotions for outside of the courtroom.
While in court, be prepared for the waters to get downright muddy. This is one of the narcissists’ best weapons. If he/she has an alcohol problem then you should be prepared to be painted as an alcoholic. The narcissist will project all of their problems and shortcomings onto you. Respond to false allegations calmly with credible, factual information but do not get caught up defending every minor allegation as tempting as it may be. This is the time to choose your battles wisely.
It is very easy to get upset while listening to testimony of a narcissist due to the dishonesty and manipulations. Listen calmly and take notes. Make bullet points of items that you would like to address but do not allow yourself to get sidetracked and angered. Stay focused and stay centered at all times.
You need to continuously remind yourself that you are dealing with a narcissist. Write yourself a post-it note that says, “Reminder: I am dealing with a narcissist” and stick it to the front of your binder or notepad. Many battles in history were lost simply due to the element of surprise. Do not let history repeat itself on your watch. Do not expect a narcissist to follow the law, rules or protocol of any kind. Expect lies, vicious attacks, bizarre behavior, and the unexpected. Practice offense/defense and expect the unexpected at all times. Keep your playbook ready.
Build Your Truth: Be truthful in everything that you do and everything that you say. Double-check your facts. Narcissists are skilled liars and they appear to believe their own lies. Over time, the court will begin to see through them and one thing that I have learned is that Judges do not like being lied to. While most narcissists are accomplished liars and manipulators, I am fortunate that Seth is not very smart in comparison to many stories that I’ve heard from women in my online forum.
Remember: “He is like a man which built a house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.”-The Bible–King James, Cambridge Ed.
You have and will feel like you are being beaten vehemently upon at times. Build your “foundation” from rock—the rock that comes from knowing what is the truth and what are lies about you. Prepare a “truth” and “lies” list and absorb both lists to your core (mind, body, and spirit). If through this process, you find some truths that hurt then put them on your list of “things to work on” and re-write the truth into a positive.
Always Remember the Traits of a Narcissist: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fourth edition, DSM IV-TR, a widely used manual for diagnosing mental disorders, defines narcissistic personality disorder (in Axis II Cluster B) as:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied 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, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is inter-personally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.
It is also a requirement of DSM-IV that a diagnosis of any specific personality disorder also satisfies a set of general personality disorder criteria. Please refer to the DSM-IV for that criteria.
Eliminate or Limit Communication– Keep it Short and Unemotional: While zero contact is suggested when ending a relationship with a narcissist, it is impossible if you have children together. I encourage you to set personal boundaries and do not deviate from them. Narcissists feed off of control, intimidation and eliciting emotions that they themselves are incapable of experiencing. Do not satisfy their twisted and selfish hunger by giving them what they are requesting.
You need to accept the fact that you will never win in the mind of a narcissist. You will not be able to change their distorted thought process regardless of how many times you remind them of the real version of the story at hand. You need to accept that you are not dealing with a rational, healthy person because acceptance is the key to moving forward.
I recommend asking for a court order which limits communication to emails or to programs such as “Our Family Wizard” which is designed to make co-parenting easier in high-conflict situations. You can also ask a trusted family member or friend to help monitor email communication. This person can filter the attacks and pull the pertinent information from the email. If you do use emails to communicate, set up an account specifically for communication with the narcissist. You do not want to dread opening your email account. Having a separate account allows you to be in control of the situation.
Click the link to purchase Tina’s new book, “Divorcing a Narcissist- One Mom’s Battle.” You will find insight, red flag reflections and strategies on how to survive (and thrive!) while divorcing of co-parenting with a narcissist. Tired of panicking at the site of a new email from the narcissist in your inbox? Learn how to decode the emails and see them for what they are. You will learn to forgive yourself and you will begin to heal.