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Narcissist Exes: Why Claims Should Be a Red Flag In Family Law files

Updated: Mar 26, 2023


Family lawyers hear clients say their ex-partner is a "narcissist." In conflicted parenting disputes, it almost seems commonplace, to the point where its meaning and seriousness are lost.

Narcissists and Abuse

However, if your client's ex is a diagnosed narcissist, the odds are good they are dealing with abuse. More likely, your client is using the term to describe traits (patterns of behaviour, thought and emotion) associated with narcissism. Individuals with narcissist traits do not need to meet the official diagnostic criteria for narcissism to exhibit serious dysfunction.

It would not be surprising to discover, diagnosis or not, your client is dealing with abuse. While not all narcissists or individuals with notable narcissistic traits perpetuate abuse, many do. Therefore, your client may tell you more than what meets the eye when they exclaim, "My ex is a narcissist". As such, it is essential to understand what your client means by this and what they are experiencing.

Types of Narcissism

There are two main types of narcissism: overt and covert. Understanding the differences between the two types is crucial in navigating family law cases that involve narcissistic personalities.

Overt Narcissism

Overt narcissism is the type that is more recognizable and often associated with a sense of superiority. Overt narcissists display grandiose behaviour and are often loud, insensitive, and arrogant.

They believe they are superior to others and tend to

look down on people they perceive as failures.

Covert Narcissism

Covert or vulnerable narcissism, on the other hand, is less obvious and often goes unnoticed. Covert narcissists tend to be reserved, shy, and modest and may even denigrate themselves to fish for reassurance. They may judge and compare themselves to others, measuring their happiness to those around them. Covert narcissists are also sensitive to criticism and may react drastically to even the slightest comment. They can be emotionally manipulative and use guilt to get others to do what they want.

The Danger of Covert Narcissism

The difference between overt and covert narcissism is how they project their superiority or entitlement. Overt narcissists do so openly, while covert narcissists do it subtly. Both types of narcissists can be harmful; however, covert narcissists are considered more dangerous than grandiose narcissists because they are harder to detect and more easily triggered into "narcissistic rage." They often portray themselves as victims and use it as a tool since they are not skilled problem-solvers. They can manipulate others more effectively than most people, which is a cause for concern.

Navigating Narcissistic Behavior in Family Law Cases

Navigating narcissistic behavior in a family law matter or court setting can be particularly challenging as many narcissists are skilled manipulators, and few people are equipped to handle them. Narcissists often come across as composed, charming, confident, and accomplished. They have honed their ability to persuade others and may have decades of experience convincing people that their perspective is correct while portraying the other party as irrational. These individuals tend to use coercive controlling behaviour.

The Determination to Win

A narcissist's determination to win at all costs can lead to a lengthy and expensive legal battle, with the narcissist filing numerous motions and increasing legal fees to get their way. Expect the narcissist to twist the truth, hide assets or money, ignore court orders, move the goalposts, refuse to provide documents, enlist supporters, launch smear campaigns, and employ intimidation tactics.

Family Violence and Child Abuse

Family violence (physical or not) is relevant to best interest determinations. It is essential to know that abuse in the parent relationship is highly co-related to child maltreatment. And while not every parent who has engaged in partner abuse will adopt negative parenting behaviours, approximately 30 to 60 percent of children from homes where partner abuse is present are also abuse victims. We have two decades of research telling us this. In short, where there's smoke, there's fire.

Emotional Manipulation of Children

The mindset of individuals who perpetrate domestic abuse is the same mindset that informs their relationships in a larger sense. Whether conscious or not, this mindset includes dysfunctional and inappropriate expectations of others, children being no exception. It is accompanied by a belief of superiority and, with it, entitlement. Unfortunately, parents with narcissistic tendencies may resort to using children as leverage during parenting disputes, with little regard for the emotional impact on them. Emotional manipulation of children is especially prevalent when an abusive narcissist is in a conflicted parenting dispute.


In family law cases, lawyers should not take claims of narcissism lightly, as they may indicate abuse including coercive controlling behaviour. Child abuse is correlated highly with abuse in the parent relationship, and parents with narcissistic tendencies may use their children as leverage during disputes. It's important to remember that abuse is abuse, whether physical or non-physical, attributed to narcissistic traits or not. Children's best interests and family law processes should be carefully considered when dealing with a narcissistic parent.

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