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Labelling your ex-partner won't help the children

How to deal with narcissistic personality disorder in a former spouse

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 10:00pm

It's three years since my divorce, and I have been reading a lot on emotionally abusive relationships to learn what I did to make the situation worse. I am pretty certain that my ex-husband has a narcissistic personality disorder. Should I tell my children so they don't suffer the way I did?

You mustered a lot of courage and determination to walk out of an emotionally abusive relationship. Research shows that emotional abuse can leave scars that are hard to heal. In fact, it takes strength to acknowledge what happened, how you contributed to it (conflict avoidance often fuels narcissistic behaviour) and learn from the experience so that you can take charge of your life again.

Reading is often one way that can lead to recovery, but healing is not an easy thing to do on your own.

It is tempting to self-diagnose or diagnose those around us with our newfound knowledge. It is easy to turn to the checklist in a manual on mental disorders, tick the boxes and say that someone fits a certain label. But how objective can one be?

If your ex-husband does have all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder, you must have also read that most people with the condition don't seek help voluntarily, as the way they deal with conflict does not bother them but those around them.

You are rightly concerned about the impact the father might have on your children and how his conscious and unconscious messages will shape the children's developing self-esteem and sense of self. But in dealing with people suffering from personality disorders it doesn't help to tag them as such. Labelling short-changes a person's potential, and no one can be labelled as just one particular personality type or ability in all situations.

Labelling sets the parent up for failure and will hinder your children's ability to deal with conflict and disappointment not only with a parent but for life.

In such situations, sometimes it is about doing the least damage.

Prominent US psychologist and mediator Arnold Shienvold believes negotiating with a person with narcissistic disorder is never going to work. They hate win-win, they want win-lose (they win, you lose). Narcissistic personalities have a grandiose sense of self-importance and often blame others for their mistakes and acting out.

I am sure you learned during your marriage and after divorce what does not work. Use this information to help your children develop strategies to avoid emotional hurt. You can't change their father but you can modify your behaviour and your children's to manage their relationship with him.

Your job is to help foster a meaningful relationship between your children and their father while preventing the possibility that your children might take on too much of the narcissistic behaviour.

You can provide a structured environment for your children to become more centred, grounded, resilient and sharpen their awareness of his self-absorbed behaviour.

Give them tools to deal with the frustration, intrusive questions and disappointment that might arise based on their individual personalities.

Be there for your children emotionally and physically. If their father cannot give them unconditional love, you need to be the anchor for them.

Don't short-change yourself. Reading is a good way to get new insight, but consulting a professional experienced in working with high-conflict personalities can be cathartic and provide a much-needed perceptual shift that can help you rebuild your life.

Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor working in private practice in Hong Kong