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Diary of a Divorce Lawyer: December 20204th December 2020 Family Law
As we have continued to watch Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the recent United States Elections and the parodies of him on social media being forced to leave the White House like a child being dragged from a party, I thought of how often the issue of narcissistic or controling personalities feature in cases that I am asked to help with.
One of my client’s once commented that the only thing harder than being married to a narcissist is divorcing one. I was recently instructed by a woman called Anna. She had been married to Tony for 20 years and they had a son, Ben, aged 13. When Anna and Tony met at Deutsche Bank, their long-term career prospects were very good. Anna explained that Tony was charming and charismatic and their relationship developed quickly. Anna told me that early in their relationship, after the ‘first flush’ of romance, she began to notice that Tony could become extremely jealous and controlling, causing arguments, for example, if she went out with friends or saw her family. Tony insisted on controlling every aspect of their finances and when Anna fell pregnant with Ben he was adamant that she must leave her job and stay at home.
Once at home Anna became isolated and lonely. Tony had by this time become extremely critical of how Anna looked, of her friends and her abilities as a wife and mother. Without her own career, network of friends or independent income, Anna felt completely dependent on Tony who regularly told her that he would leave her and that she would be “lost without him”.
Shortly after the lockdown this summer, Tony, without any warning, left the family home in Hampton. He said he had met someone on the internet with whom he had rented a flat in Clapham. He stopped paying the household expenses, mortgage and school fees for Ben and told Anna that she needed to get a job and that the house would need to be sold. In the meantime, Tony closed the only joint bank account that they had together and refused to pay Anna any money towards household running costs or food until she complied with his demands. Anna was distraught and extremely worried, living off a small loan from her brother to pay for her and Ben’s basic needs. I explained to Anna that she could apply for a court order that Tony pay maintenance to cover the interim position whilst we attempted to reach a final financial resolution. However, this required Anna to take the very difficult decision to start divorce proceedings against Tony. Not only was this emotionally challenging for her because she was coming to terms with the end of her marriage and the breakdown of her family, but she was also scared of Tony. He had exercised such control for so many
years that she felt powerless to stand up to him.
Over and over again Anna challenged me with her history, that Tony was extremely clever and always ‘won’. She asked me how, if she had not been able to stand up to him, could I persuade her that she had the power to take him on when she felt at her most vulnerable? I persuaded Anna to do two things, obtain some robust therapeutic support to help her manage the coming storm and trust in a formal court process that would mean at least a level playing field, where Tony must play to my rules. With great anxiety, Anna took the first step in early October and filed a divorce petition on the basis of Tony’s unreasonable behaviour and simultaneously a claim for financial support. He was shocked and angry and sent her a barrage of abusive emails and text messages, turning up at the family home on one occasion, demanding an explanation for her actions.
I wrote to Tony asking him in the politest terms to ‘back off’, that Anna and Ben needed money to meet their short and long term needs. Tony refused to engage or pay and we successfully applied to the court for an order that Tony pay interim maintenance to Anna and costs as well as a fund for her legal fees going forward. It was an everyday event in my diary but an enormous moment for Anna, who had ‘won’; for the first time she had taken Tony on and not come second best. Anna and Tony’s story is a familiar one. It was clear to me that there was a very obvious imbalance in the dynamics of Anna and Tony’s relationship. Getting Anna to ‘stand in her own shoes’ with therapeutic support and not defer to Tony was a real turning point, and the call that she had from Tony’s new girlfriend at the weekend saying that she had walked out because of Tony’s controlling behaviour, was the icing on the cake.