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Dr Ilze Van der Merwe
B.A. (Psych) (RAU) B.A Honn (Psych)(RAU) M.A. Research Pysch (Cum Laude)(RAU) M.A. Couns. Psych (Cum Laude)(RAU) D.Litt et Phil.(RAU)
Divorce Attorney Cape Town
Admitted Attorney of the High Court of South Africa.
B.Bus.Sci (UCT), LLB (UCT), PDLP (UCT)
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Suffer the little children

Nassisist relationship by Divorce Attorney Cape Town

A while ago we wrote about narcissistic relationships. We were shocked and humbled by the response. It seems there are many people in our fair city who are suffering abuse at the hands of partners – male and female – and many were unaware that the behaviour they were experiencing constituted abuse. We tend to think of ‘domestic abuse’ as synonymous with ‘domestic violence’; but people suffer many forms of emotional abuse without ever having a hand raised against them in anger.

In the UK a new law has recently been introduced specifically making ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in intimate or familial relationships’ a criminal offence. The law is designed to close gaps and remove ambiguities from existing legislation. Here in South Africa this behaviour is covered by the definition of domestic abuse. Very often controlling behaviour is carried out by individuals with narcissistic personality syndrome, and these can be male or female. We tend to hear more about women survivors of abuse, partly because gender-based violence and rape are problems of epidemic proportion in South Africa, but women can also behave narcissistically and men can be victims too.


Controlling behaviour

So often a controlling or narcissistic relationship starts out as a loving one. In fact there is often ecstatic infatuation in the initial, ‘honeymoon’ phase. Gradually, however, the ecstasy turns to agony, but the process is so insidious that the abused partner doesn’t realise what is happening and instead begins to doubt their own abilities and lose self-esteem. As one survivor put it, “You become compliant to such a nauseating degree, you sicken yourself. You apologise constantly for getting it wrong, although logic tells you that you can never get it right. By the time I escaped (there’s no other word for it) I felt as though I had the physical substance of smoke and yet perversely, I was heartbroken.”

So what does controlling behaviour look like? Read this list carefully and ask yourself some hard questions, because in our experience it is very hard to recognise; by the time someone is controlled to this extent they are convinced everything that’s wrong in the relationship is their fault. Controlling behaviours may include, among others:

  • Isolating someone from friends and family
  • Depriving them of their basic needs
  • Monitoring their time
  • Monitoring someone via online communication tools or using spyware
  • Controlling aspects of everyday life, such as where someone can go, who they can see, what they can wear and when they can sleep
  • Depriving someone of access to support services, such as specialist support or medical services
  • Constantly insulting or undermining someone
  • Insisting on rules and activities which humiliate, degrade or dehumanise someone
  • Preventing someone from having access to transport or from working

If any of this sounds familiar, you may be in a controlling relationship.


Coercive behaviour

Coercive behaviour is on a continuum with controlling behaviour but may happen later in the relationship, as the abuser tightens the grip on the victim and seeks more extreme forms of control. At this stage the controlling conduct is arguably pathological and there is a risk of crimes or worse being committed. Examples of coercive behaviour include:

  • Forcing someone to take part in criminal activity such as shoplifting, neglect or abuse of children
  • Financial abuse, which can include control of finances, withholding information about household finances, or insisting someone manage on an inadequate allocation of funds
  • Threats to hurt or kill
  • Threats to a child
  • Threats to disclose personal or private information to family or to the general public (e.g. online)
  • Assault
  • Criminal damage (such as destruction of personal property)
  • Rape

It’s important to note that while we firmly believe that narcissism is gender-neutral and men may just as easily enter into a relationship with a narcissist as women, controlling or coercive behaviour itself is ultimately a form of violence against women and girls and is underpinned and reinforced in South African culture by wider gender inequality issues in society. If you have experienced controlling or coercive behaviour in your relationship, please contact Simon on 087 550 2740 because we can help you put a stop to it.


What about the children?

We can’t leave this topic without talking about the children of narcissistic and controlling relationships. It’s unrealistic to assume that everyone in an abusive relationship sees the light within a few years and finds a way out. Many abusive, controlling relationships go on for years and it is inevitable that there will be children involved. So what happens to youngsters in these circumstances?

There are so many risks and issues involved with children in abusive parental relationships that it would be impossible for us to cover them all. We have confined our scope to children of narcissistic parents – male or female – because we believe that controlling relationships and narcissists go hand in hand. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject by experts in the field. But the saddest impact on children of a narcissist parent is very basically that they don’t feel loved. The foundation for a well-adjusted adult is a secure, loving childhood, but the children of narcissists are denied this. According to Seth Myers, Psy.D., “Young children of narcissists learn early in life that everything they do is a reflection on the parent to the point that the child must fit into the personality and behavioural mould intended for them. These children bear tremendous anxiety from a young age as they must continually push aside their own personality in order to please the parent…If these children fail to comply with the narcissist’s wishes or try to set their own goals for their life (they) will be overtly punished, frozen out or avoided for a period of time…”

The internet is awash with chat rooms and forums for adult children of narcissists. Almost unbelievably, there is a website called daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com. It is not always possible to remove the child from the unhealthy environment caused by the narcissistic or controlling relationship; and then the best any supporting family member or social worker can do is support the child or children with affirmation of their self-worth and build their self-confidence to enable them to deal with the negative influences around them.

But if you are a parent raising a child in a relationship that is damaging you and proving harmful to your child or children, and you need help to find a way out, we can help. For the sake of your children, and your own happiness, there is an alternative.


Contact us now

SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law. Contact us on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623. Or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za. We will handle your query with discretion and compassion and give you the support you need to make a fresh start.

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Abusive relationships – why do some stay in them?

Abusive Relationships
We all know someone in a toxic relationship, or someone who has been in one.
Maybe you have a colleague who regularly comes to work with bloodshot eyes, and smudged mascara. You are fairly certain that she’s being abused by her husband from the way he treated her in front of everyone at Christmas party last year, and from what you’ve noticed through the office window when he drops her off at work.

Maybe you have a brother who is perpetually insulted, degraded, and emotionally crushed by his wife. She may even be physically abusive towards him. (Yes, it’s a fact that men can also be victims of physical abuse.) But, no matter what, he just refuses to report these incidents to the police and, even though you’ve begged him to leave his wife, he never does anything about escaping the abuse.

Maybe you are the one in a toxic relationship, and suffering abuse.

The million-dollar question is why do people remain in toxic relationships, especially where there is severe abuse?


“Stockholm Syndrome”

Naturally, there are many varied reasons why some people stay in toxic relationships. It may range from economic dependence, to religious reasons, family interests, cultural expectations, fear of the unknown, and a host of other reasons. However, one consideration is the “Stockholm Syndrome”. Psychologists coined this term back in 1973 after an incident when two gunmen tried to rob a bank in Stockholm, and held four hostages for five days. These hostages were badly abused, and feared for their lives. The police managed to free them, and arrested the bank robbers.

Everyone would have expected these hostages to have welcomed their kidnappers’ arrest, and would have called for them to be severely punished, especially after what they had endured. But, surprisingly, this was not the case at all. On the contrary, these hostages defended the actions of the kidnappers, and even argued for leniency. In fact, one of the hostages became engaged to one of the robbers, and another hostage started a fund to help the robbers pay for legal assistance.

Psychologists had documented other instances of this strange response of an abused person forming an emotionally bond with the abuser, and it is not confined to kidnapping.

Instances where emotional bonding can develop may include abused women and children, incest victims, cult members, and even those who find themselves in relationships where they are controlled and intimidated.



There are a number of warning signs for the Stockholm Syndrome that indicate that a victim has an emotional bond with the abuser, and these include justifying the abuser’s actions, and even helping the abuser. The victim may also not seek to escape the abuser, and may reject the efforts of friends and family to assist them in escaping the abusive environment. The list goes on, but the essence is that the victim apparently chooses to remain in this toxic environment.

Why would anyone bond with an abuser?

The core reason could be distilled to survival.

Where victims fear that their physical or psychological survival is threatened, or where they are isolated from friends and family, or exposed only to the views of the abuser, then the Stockholm Syndrome could be triggered. A victim may have the impression that they are unable to escape the abuse, and consequently try to survive within that toxic environment. Sometimes, even a kind gesture from the abuser can induce a victim to develop an emotional bond.

Whatever the case, the problem many face is how to escape the abuse.


So what should you do?

If a family member or friend is in an abusive relationship, you may feel outraged and protective but at the same time unable to help. Often the abused person has been isolated from family by the abuser or told to choose between the relationship and family. Because of the dependence that has formed the abused will not do anything to jeopardise the relationship, even if it means foregoing family contact.

The best approach is a gentle one. Avoid pressurising your loved one. This may only reinforce the negative messages they are already hearing from the abuser. Whatever you do, avoid directly confronting towards the abuser; this could make things worse for your loved one. Try to maintain predictable, scheduled contacts, such as a weekly phone call. Keep contact brief, and take advantage of traditional occasions for contact, such as birthdays. The abuser will see this type of contact as ‘normal’ and will be less threatened by it. Be patient: it is important for the abused to know they are loved and that support is there. Eventually they will use it.


How we can help

We specialise in family law at SD Law & Associates, and have helped many who are trapped in abusive relationships. Appropriate legal help may be required to assist a victim, as well as any children involved, and this could call for a restraining order.

We also work closely with psychologists and social workers who can offer emotional support. We are able to negotiate, or to litigate, and sometimes helping a client obtain a reasonable financial settlement, may be all that it takes to break an abuser’s hold.

We can advise you on how best to support a family member, and how to protect them. Contact us on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623.

Or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za. Your query will be handled with discretion and compassion.

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SD Law Supports 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women & Children

16 Days of Activism


25 November marks the start of the 16th annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women & Children. This is an international campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the plight of many women and children who suffer violence as a regular occurrence. Here in South Africa, the rape capital of the world, the campaign has particular poignancy.


Gender-based violence and HIV

While 16 days of activism is nowhere near enough to tackle the serious issue of violence against women andchildren in our society, we commend the campaign for the role it plays in keeping the issue of gender-based violence firmly on the political and social agenda. It is significant that the 16 Days encompasses World AIDS Day, on 1 December, because the face of the HIV epidemic in South Africa is the face of a woman. Not only is prevalence higher among women, particularly young Black women, but violence against women and gender inequality fuel the epidemic.


Under-reporting of rape

Police crime statistics for 2014-15 were released last month. They showed a 7.4% drop in sexual assaults since 2008-09. While this may appear to be good news, a number of organisations have warned against taking this statistic too literally. Both the Institute for Security Studies and the Shukumisa Campaign, a project dedicated to advocacy against gender-based violence, say that the recently released figures “cannot be taken as an accurate measure of either the extent or trend of this crime.”

Their concern is rather that rape survivors have decreasing levels of trust in the ability and willingness of the police to take rape charges seriously. It is estimated that only one in 13 rapes is actually reported to the police. According to the Mail & Guardian (02/10/2015), “Results of the National Victims of Crime Survey found that the proportion of victims who report their rapes to the police decreased by 21% between 2011 and 2014. This is shockingly alarming.”


Children are particularly vulnerable

If it is difficult for an adult woman to report a rape, it is even harder for girls and young women who have not yet learned how to assert themselves, or who may be intimidated into staying silent. The Mail & Guardian goes on to report, “… a University of Cape Town study found that, by the time South African children are between 15 and 17 years of age, one in five of them will have experienced sexual abuse.” This is not only traumatic for those children, and a damning indictment of our society, it also contributes to a recurring pattern of abuse. Studies have shown that women who were abused as girls are more likely to be abused as adults; and men who were exposed to abuse as children are more likely to be violent as adults.


We all have a part to play

Ending the cycle of violence and abuse in our country,particularly against women and children, involves all of us. We all have a duty to speak out against gender-based violence and to advocate for a fairer and more equitable society. You may be fortunate enough not to have been a victim of violence, but it is very likely you know someone who has. If your friend or family member is a rape survivor, one of the most important things you can do is simply to listen … and believe her. Many survivors are not believed, or are subjected to ‘victim-shaming’. “She was asking for it in that skirt.” “She should have known not to walk there.” These are just some of the comments that rape survivors endure.

Encourage a survivor to report the rape to the police, even after the fact. While it is very important to report a rape without delay, so that evidence can be gathered, it is better to report it late rather than not at all. It is only when all rapes are reported to the police that we will know the true extent of the crisis facing this country.

Support the survivor to seek help in dealing with the psychological trauma of rape. In Cape Town, the Rape Crisis Centre offers free counselling and other services to rape survivors.

There is also a good guide to supporting a survivor here: http://rapecrisis.org.za/information-for-survivors/supporting-a-rape-survivor/.

The Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted on:

Observatory​ 021 447 9762
Athlone​ 021 633 9229
Khayelitsha​ 021 361 9085


SD Law & Associates can help

If you are a rape survivor, or you are supporting someone who is, contact us for expert legal advice. We will bring your case to court and support you through the process with compassion and sensitivity. We understand that rape is one of the most traumatic experiences a woman can undergo, and we will ensure you feel supported and cared for throughout.

Contact Simon on 087 550 2740or 076 116 0623. Or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za.

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Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?


You meet the love of your life. Charming, attractive, confident, attentive, like you in many ways… what more could you ask for? Maybe you even tie the knot. Then gradually you begin to notice a change in your partner’s behaviour towards you. You experience unwarranted criticism, outbursts of jealousy and anger or… perhaps hardest of all to deal with… the silent treatment. You are confused as to what you have done to deserve this. Subjected to this abusive behaviour, you start to feel inadequate. You may even begin to doubt your sanity.

But it’s not you. You are in a relationship with a narcissist. What is a narcissist and how do you recognise narcissistic personality disorder? Given that a trait of narcissists is the ability to destroy the self-esteem of others, narcissism can be very difficult to identify…because we assume that we are at fault in the relationship. We don’t consider that it might be the other person… the narcissist.


Narcissus – in love with his own reflection

Where does the term ‘narcissism’ originate? If you’ve ever studied Greek mythology you may remember that Narcissus was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection. In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that. He fell in love with the image in the pond, not realising that it was his own face reflected back at him. He drowned, unable to leave behind the beauty of his image. He was proud and disdainful of others; thus his name is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance.


Narcissism & narcissistic behaviour disorder

Narcissism is generally accepted to be more than simply an obsession with one’s looks, a trait which is more commonly called vanity. Vanity may not be an attractive quality but one can be vain without being a narcissist. In fact in psychological circles a distinction is made between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, the latter being a much more extreme and dysfunctional version of the former; but laypeople tend to use the terms synonymously.

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder generally believe that the world revolves around them. They typically have an inability to empathise with others and need to be the focus of attention at all times. Narcissists are often arrogant and display a complete lack of empathy for other people. They have a persistent need for admiration, which must be constantly forthcoming at work and especially in relationships. They possess a distorted self-image, unstable and intense emotions, are overly preoccupied with vanity, prestige, power and personal adequacy, and have an exaggerated sense of superiority.


How can you tell if your partner is a narcissist?

Because those with narcissistic personality disorder are often physically attractive and charming when you first meet them, it can be very difficult to separate their qualities from what you come to perceive as your own shortcomings as a result of their manipulation of you. The website psychologytoday.com lists the following symptoms to look out for:

  • Reacts to criticism with anger, shame or humiliation
  • Takes advantage of others to reach his or her own goals
  • Exaggerates own importance
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Entertains unrealistic fantasies about success, power, beauty, intelligence or romance
  • Has unreasonable expectation of favourable treatment
  • Requires constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
  • Is easily jealous
  • Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy
  • Has obsessive self-interest
  • Pursues mainly selfish goals

If your partner behaves like this, it can be utterly debilitating to your mental health. Clinical treatment is rare because most narcissists avoid therapy. Narcissists can learn to be more caring about others, especially when included in social groups; but the process is exhausting and you may become very damaged along the way.


So what should you do?

Sadly, most of the time the only constructive solution for the individual trapped in a narcissistic relationship is escape. For your own mental wellbeing you need to remove yourself from the source of the destruction – the narcissistic partner, especially if you have children. This can be difficult to do, especially since you have probably normalised your situation so that you don’t recognise the abuse for what it is, or you blame yourself for any problems in your relationship.


Contact a psychologist

You are not crazy. And help is available. A good psychologist will help you see how you are being manipulated and empower you with coping strategies and solutions to recover your mental stability and move forward in a proactive way. Most medical aids will cover therapy sessions and there are many free counselling services available. Lifeline in Cape Town is contactable on 021 762 8198. If you resolve to end the narcissistic relationship, we will handle the dissolution of your marriage or partnership sensitively and carefully. You’ve been through enough already.


Contact a lawyer

SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law. Contact us on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623. Or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za. Your query will be handled with discretion and compassion.

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You don’t have to put up with online harassment


Barely a day goes by without some new scandal making the rounds on social media. Usually it involves a celebrity and is generally an exaggerated account of a minor social gaffe. It is soon made to go away by the celeb’s PR team and life goes on. It’s just one of the risks of being in the public eye. But sometimes … in fact all too often … ordinary private individuals also fall victim to this sort of public humiliation. Some of you may remember Monica Lewinsky. She was an ordinary person who got caught up in an extraordinary set of circumstances just at the beginning of the digital revolution. Fortunately social media had not yet been invented but she was still vilified worldwide thanks to the internet and received unprecedented (at the time) hate email which nearly drove her to suicide. She talks about the effects of that and calls for a much more compassionate approach to internet reporting in this moving TED talk.

A new and vicious form of bullying

Unsurprisingly online harassment happens most often to young people, the generation that has embraced the digital revolution with the most fervour; but those over the age of 25 are not immune to its devastating effects. Think of the vengeful ex who posts nude photos of the previous partner online in order to cause pain and embarrassment.

Perhaps the worst type of electronic harassment is cyber bullying, which the Cyber Bullying Research Centre defines as: “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices”. Put very simply, “cyber bullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”

Trolls don’t just lurk under the bridge any more

While anyone of any age can be a victim of cyber bullying, the term tends to refer to the behaviour of adolescents, and there are far too many tragic examples of teens who have taken their own lives, unable to withstand the onslaught of cyber venom. With adults the term ‘internet troll’ is more common, and defines slightly different activities. New Zealand recently became one of the first countries to enact legislation specifically outlawing harmful digital communications. Under the Harmful Digital Communications Act which came into effect in July, anyone convicted of “causing harm by posting digital communication” faces two years in prison and a NZ $50,000 (R440,000) fine, while businesses face fines of up to NZ $200,000 (R1.76m). Harmful communications can include truthful as well as false information, and “intimate visual recordings” such as nude or seminude pictures or video content shared without permission.

Protection under the law

Here in South Africa we don’t yet have an equivalent law specifically referring to digital harassment, but the Protection from Harassment Act 2011 covers electronic as well as physical harassment. The Act also includes sexual harassment but it is important to note that other forms of harassment are equally damaging and protection is available under the law if you are suffering from bullying or character sabotage in cyber space. The Protection from Harassment Act 2011 defines harassment as:

“… directly or indirectly engaging in conduct that the respondent knows or ought to know -

(a) causes harm or inspires the reasonable belief that harm may be caused to the complainant or a related person by unreasonably -

(i) following. watching. pursuing or accosting of the complainant or a related person, or loitering outside of or near the building or place where the complainant or a related person resides, works, carries on business, studies or happens to be;

(ii) engaging in verbal, electronic or any other communication aimed at the complainant or a related person, by any means, whether or not conversation ensues;

(iii) sending, delivering or causing the delivery of letters, telegrams, packages, facsimiles, electronic mail or other objects to the complainant or a related person or leaving them where they will be found by, given to or brought to the attention of the complainant or a related person;

(b) amounts to sexual harassment of the complainant or a related person”

(Italics ours for emphasis.)

Tips to help you stay safe from digital harassment

If you are being relentlessly targeted with abuse on social media or via email you can apply for a protection order under the provisions of the Act. We can help you do that. But there is a lot you can do to keep yourself safe online. The website www.bullying.co.uk offers the following tips for staying safe on Twitter and other sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, etc.:

  • Never give out your real address, or any personal details – remember everything you say can be open to the world
  • Never give out your password – also be extra careful when you sign into Twitter or Facebook through other websites. (Some are scams trying to find out your log-in details!)
  • Think before you Tweet or post to Facebook – anyone can see what you say unless you make your profile private. On Facebook if a friend replies to your post their friends will also be able to see your posts. To avoid this, go to settings and ensure that only friends can see your posts, not friends of friends
  • Don’t follow back people you don’t know – this can help protect you against Direct Message spam. You can still talk publicly using @replies
  • Go private – if you don’t want the world to see everything you say on Twitter make your profile private; the option is in your settings. That way only people you follow back will be able to see your updates. Your tweets will also be hidden from the public search as well
  • Pictures and other media – as with any internet service be careful what you post; it’s really easy to post pictures or video but take care not to post anything that could embarrass you later or get you or anyone else into trouble. So think twice about those drunk photos from last night’s party – you don’t want a future employer finding them!

If all else fails, contact us

If you are not sure if behaviour you are experiencing is classed as harassment, we can review your situation and advise you of your rights. If you are the victim of cyber bullying, internet trolls or other online defamation, we can arrange a protection order against your assailant. Contact Simon on +27 87 550 2740 or simon@sdlaw.co.za today for more information or to make an appointment. Don’t suffer in silence. The law is there to protect you.

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