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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 5:17 pm | Mostly Cloudy 57º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 97) — Divorcing the Narcissist, Continued

Divorcing the narcissist, continued.

The last letter left off with a passage from Tina Swithin’s book Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle in which she describes how her divorce began. It may or may not have been an accurate portrayal of what happened, but it hooked me.

Tina portrays Seth as a devilishly smart man, except when it comes to certain blind spots. I think it improbable that anyone would try to prove his wife’s infidelity to a filing clerk by showing her photographs. The clerk doesn’t decide cases and fidelity, or the lack thereof, hasn’t been relevant in divorces since California became a no-fault state in 1970, well before either Tina or Seth was born. But I think it even more improbable that anyone would make up the story.

The case gets off to a fast start, and the book would be a dud were it not for Seth, whether he’s a real person or a fictional character. Again, I could be wrong, but he sounds real because the creation of an imaginary character like him would verge on an act of literary genius.

As a younger man, I had a few experiences transacting business with people like “Seth.” At first I insisted they comport with what I thought were the essential principles of commercial or professional practice. Those principles are not as well-defined as I once thought they were, and there were people who were so profoundly unprincipled in their dealings that it was hard to figure out what they had done “wrong.”

It forced me to seek advice from others, and I reached the unwelcome and reluctant conclusion that there were people who were too tough, too mean and too determined for me to deal with. I wasn’t as “big” as I thought I was. I’ve been able to avoid them for a long time.

Ms. Swithin hasn’t had that luxury. Her story is like a diary in that she shows what happens from one legal crisis to the next more often than she tries to explain it. The story is about a profusion of lies and, like an experienced trial lawyer, Ms. Swithin learns how hard it is to prove a witness is lying — especially when it takes place before a bored decision maker with only so much time and attention available.

Sometimes the judicial decisions are in accord with her description of the evidence — and sometimes there is no way to account for the decisions, as when the court awards Mr. Swithin more time with his children even though he hadn’t complied with many or most of the court’s previous orders.

Ms. Swithin has fully engaged with her post-divorce narcissist. I doubt she would claim that she has prevailed and there is nothing about her case that significantly resembles the progress of an ordinary divorce. So for a reader who wants to learn something about the vast majority of divorces, this isn’t the book for you.

If yours is a toxic divorce, you may have learned from our website that we don’t know how to handle your case — and we don’t pretend to have any useful advice. I can now direct you to Tina Swithin’s book with the assurance that it’s readable and that she has come to understand the “system” well enough so you are unlikely to be misled.

If you feel completely alone in your experience, you might take comfort in reading a similar account from someone who’s been through it. However, remember that your experience with your spouse is unique, and care must be taken to avoid imputing to your case what you’ve heard from someone else about her unique situation.

Ms. Swithin has found a calling as a “divorce coach.” As long as she confines her work to toxic divorces, she occupies an essentially open field. While her experience of her own case has been intense, she lacks both the education and training to qualify as a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. The experiential requirements include 3,000 hours of supervised client contact during which the therapist learns to separate her own experience from her client’s.

Moreover, I don’t think she claims to have found a way to manage the narcissist’s divorce other than by making a full commitment to the process. Her advice and counsel to others is therefore, and understandably, based on her experience, which is highly atypical. If she inadvertently causes people involved in a non-toxic divorce to assume that theirs will be like hers, and that they should therefore do what she suggests, her contribution to family law could be more negative than positive.

I’ve had two weeks to consider the content of this Letter No. 97. During that time I’ve felt agitated by the content of this book and that feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I read Gone Girl, which is a story similar to the one Ms. Swithin tells. People who have seen the movie describe it as “disturbing.” What’s brilliant about Gone Girl is the way you are drawn into first one side and then the other. This gives you a vicarious experience of how third parties to real cases get ground up as the protagonists do and what each feels he or she must do in order to “survive.”

From these stories I conclude: (1) These cases and the parties involved in them are fundamentally different from the “normal” 95 percent of the divorcing population. (2) What “works” in these cases is likely to have unintended negative consequences in normal cases. (3) Normal people who involve themselves in pathological divorces are likely to get ground up in one way or another.

With her book and her blog, Ms. Swithin makes a continuing frontal assault on her alcoholic narcissist. She is committed to ongoing and close engagement with him as a way to escape from him. Ultimately, that paradox makes her story compelling and … tragic.

Your friend,

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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