What is the best way to approach child custody with a narcissist?

What is the best way to approach child custody with a narcissist? I am terrified of losing my daughter because of my ex’s incessant lies.

My answer (couched in my experience as a divorce and family lawyer): while it is not always possible to accomplish, if you can expose him/her for the liar, deceiver that he/she is, that is more than half the battle.

The narcissist (and others with various mental and emotional disorders) cannot succeed without being credible, believable, as coming across as honest and trustworthy. These kinds of people know that deep down the rest of us crave — because we desperately need — confirmation that people are decent. If we believe we live in a world of “every man for himself”, we feel hopeless. The liars, the cheats, the con men (and women) exploit this. Consequently, those who are exposed as having betrayed our trust and or duped us are treated as some of society’s worst pariahs. If you can show the court (not fool the court, not dupe the court, but truly show the court with verifiable evidence) that the other parent is a congenital, scheming liar and deceiver, you’ve won.

Unfortunately, exposing a liar and a cheat is extraordinarily difficult, especially in a child custody dispute.

First, courts are highly reluctant to believe or even consider evidence that is not objectively verifiable (frankly, many courts are uncomfortable even with objectively verifiable evidence as well when such evidence does not square with their biases and desires and/or makes their job of deciding a case more complex and difficult).

The fields of psychology and other mental health professions are “soft sciences”; this is not a knock on these fields; professionals in these fields know this to be true. This means that many diagnoses of psychological and emotional disorders are unavoidably subjective. One expert will diagnose a person with one condition, a second expert will diagnose the same person with a different condition. Each expert could be wrong, each expert could be right, or they could both be right or both be wrong. In other words, they often tell the court nothing it can rely upon. This isn’t the fault of the experts, it’s the natural consequence of a subjective soft science.

The subjective nature of mental and emotional health diagnoses makes it easier for a judge to disregard evidence that a parent is truly are mentally and/or emotionally abnormal. And in fairness, in cases where the evidence is contradictory and/or equivocal, one cannot blame a judge for concluding that there simply isn’t a preponderance of evidence to support claims that a parent suffers from serious psychological and/or emotional disorders.

Second, psychologists and others who are qualified (or deemed qualified) to diagnose or otherwise identify mental and emotional disorders are not infallible. This is another reason why judges can be and are often justifiably skeptical of the opinions of experts in the field of mental and emotional health.

Third, many people who suffer from certain mental and/or emotional disorders are anything but stupid. Some of them are even aware of the fact that they suffer from mental and/or emotional disorders and know that if these disorders were exposed that could end likely would weaken their legal case. These kinds of people can fake it; they can hold it together long enough to pass the tests and fool the evaluators into concluding that they appear perfectly normal, mentally and emotionally healthy, and even sometimes as paragons of good mental and emotional health.

Fourth, many judges and courts are uncomfortable with the idea of protecting a child from psychological and emotional harm, but not because they don’t believe it’s possible to be mentally or emotionally harmed. Every reasonable person alive knows that mental and emotional harm can occur and that it can have devastating effects. The problem is not a matter of believing whether mental and emotional harm occurs. The problem lies in the fact that it’s virtually impossible to identify 1) the harm in the first place, 2) harder to determine the cause, 3) even harder to determine the nature and extent of the harm, and 4) beyond that, even harder for the judge (who is almost never an expert in the fields of mental and emotional health) to prescribe a salutary course of action in response to the harm because no decent person wants to punish or be punished A) for wrongs not committed B) or for wrongs that someone else committed or C) excessively.

The four factors described above are what shield parents (who suffer from mental and/or emotional disorders) that harm their children from getting their comeuppance in child custody cases. If you are going to expose the other parent as dishonest, incredible, and crooked, you have your work cut out for you. In many cases, no matter how hard you try, no matter how well you make your case, some parents who suffer from mental and emotional disorders will succeed at avoiding detection, at being exposed. They will not be held accountable and they will continue to victimize you and your children. You can’t blame yourself (so please don’t blame yourself) if and when this happens. Nor can you give up. Instead, you can and should take steps to mitigate the damage and to strengthen yourself and your children against future harm.

Start with counseling or therapy for yourself from a competent professional, not a hack who indulges anger and self-pity. Do not “conspire” with your counselor or therapist in a campaign of parental alienation against the other parent.

Address and work to resolve your own problems before you try to address those of your children. Figuratively speaking, you must first put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help your children with theirs. You will likely want to work with someone who can help you deal not only with your personal issues, but who can also advise you on how you can help your children identify, cope with, and shield themselves from the shenanigans of the other parent.

Be careful about trying to get your children into counseling or therapy. The court may require that you and your ex agree before the children can receive counseling or therapy. If the other parent is just going to use counseling or therapy is another tool of exploitation, it may do your children more harm than good.

If you try to take your children secretly to counseling or therapy, you A) might ironically find yourself being deemed a bad/mentally sick parent, B) inadvertently teach your children to act covertly and be deceptive (thus undermining their faith in the therapy before it even starts), and C) be penalized by the court (and the penalties could include losing time with your kids or having the time you spend with subject to supervision). What you can do, however, is speak with your therapist, counselor about how best to model healthy behavior and to rear your children during the times they are with you and how you can best be an influence for good over the children when they are not with you.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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