They say there is nothing worse than being married to a narcissist other than trying to divorce one. If your marriage was fraught with challenges, then be sure your divorce will test your endurance, patience, and spirit. Your spouse’s narcissistic behaviors that made or make them difficult to live with are often amplified during a divorce. It’s one thing to navigate an emotional event like divorce, another to manage it with a spouse who has a complex personality disorder.
Almost every divorcing couple claims their spouse is self-centered, unreasonable, narrow-minded, and uncompromising. However, a true narcissist will consistently exhibit specific behaviors that interfere with the happiness, self-esteem, and empathy of others.
Characteristics of a Narcissist
The Mayo Clinic defines narcissism:
“Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school, or financial affairs. People with a narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they’re not given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.”
We can all think of a celebrity or a politician who fits the bill of a narcissist perfectly. It can be more challenging to identify someone in your home with whom you have children or once loved.
After being charmed for years, you may be too close to see the red flags. Remember– narcissists suffer from low self-esteem and a fragile ego. And narcissists love to “win” because it makes them feel worthy.
What It’s Like to Divorce a Narcissist
Although every divorcing relationship is unique, common identifiable behaviors are exposed when a narcissist is emotionally triggered during a divorce.
For example, a narcissist:
- Believes they are superior to you, attorneys, therapists, and judges; thus, standard laws and rules do not apply to them. Therefore, they may disregard agreements or court orders. A narcissist will believe they can charm, fool, or con professionals into their way of thinking.
- Will likely discourage or even forbid you from seeking separate counsel or assistance from divorce professionals. A narcissist does not want too many prying eyes to flush out the truth. They will claim that only they should decide on the appropriate divorce settlement.
- Believes they are never wrong, and the divorce is either your fault or the fault of interfering family or friends. Even if your spouse has engaged in behavior like adultery, drug abuse, or domestic violence, they may claim this is your fault because you drove them to it.
- May attempt to undermine your confidence by claiming you’re a terrible parent and are undeserving of child custody. Or they claim you are not entitled to your share of assets.
- Will stall the divorce process if things are not going their way. This may include fabricating or withholding information, ignoring requests, making threats, and creating conflict to get their way.
Tips For Divorcing a Narcissist
1. Build Your Support Team Early in the Divorce Process
Narcissists believe they can charm the judge and everyone else as well as will win everyone over to their side. If charm doesn’t work, they have no problem lying to make themselves look good and make you look bad. Build your support team of confidantes early in the divorce process and get ahead of potentially negative narratives about you. Take the high road, keep your cool, tell your truth, don’t justify your actions, and avoid the trap of high drama.
2. Prepare for a High Conflict Divorce
There are several different models for getting divorced. It’s best to be realistic about the time and expenses of a potentially high-conflict divorce.
It’s unlikely that “Do-It-Yourself” will be an appropriate model for you. “Mediation” may work, but only if you have a consulting attorney, qualified advisor, or Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®) to cross-check proposals. Do not sign anything before an experienced family law attorney (hired as your advocate) reviews them.
Narcissists may prefer the mediation model because they believe they can outsmart the mediator. “Collaborative Divorce,” like mediation, is an out-of-court resolution model where you’ll each have an attorney advocate. You will also have a neutral financial specialist (CDFA®) and one or two communication coaches. This team approach will help keep the narcissist in check, minimize drama, and move the process forward.
And finally, there is “Traditional Representation,” often called “Litigation.” With this model, the family law attorneys take the lead in negotiating with each other. If going to court, then they will represent you in front of the judge.
This model has the potential for the highest conflict and is usually the most costly and time-consuming. However, some issues are best decided by the law.
The narcissist may like this model the least if the judge does not favor their position. As a result, they may not adhere to court rulings. Consider interviewing several experienced divorce lawyers to identify who is the best fit for your case. Your divorce attorney will help you connect with experienced financial advisors and therapists.
3. Document EVERYTHING When Divorcing a Narcissist
Create a folder on your laptop or phone and store every correspondence your spouse emails or texts you. When you have in-person communication, journal the conversation and, if appropriate, email your spouse your understanding of the conversation. Narcissists often change their minds and alter the truth, so recording all communications and agreements is important. If you end up in court, the judge will seriously consider any unreasonable and hostile communications as well as emotional abuse from your spouse.
4. Choose Your Battles Wisely and Be Open to Compromise
Remember: it is important for the narcissist to “win.” Before negotiating, write down your objectives and desired results from the divorce settlement. Then, rank them all from most important to least important. Compromise on the small things to give them a “win” so you have the energy to negotiate for your top needs.
Start with areas you believe will be easily settled (like who keeps which car) to establish agreements early on. The narcissist may try to unravel these agreements later to elevate conflict, but your mediator or attorney will ensure that prior agreements are honored.
5. Shelter the Children As Much As You Can
Every parent believes they are a good parent. The narcissist believes they are the “better” parent and may try to dictate childcare arrangements. They may also try to use the children as pawns to gain power.
There is nothing more important in a divorce settlement than addressing the needs of the children first. While it may be difficult, this includes maintaining a healthy relationship with the narcissist parent.
You may find yourself biting your tongue and holding back your true opinions about the other parent. It’s not easy, but you must do it. Divorce dramatically affects children, and your number one priority is to shelter them from conflict as much as possible. There is no need to explain the true nature of the other parent; they will discover this on their own as their relationships evolve.
Consider working with a therapist, usually a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), who specializes in divorcing families.
They will help you build and maintain a co-parenting plan that works for both parents. Additionally, they help you understand the divorce’s impact on your children and how to best communicate with them about divorce. The right MFT is worth every penny. A good family therapist is not where you cut corners.
This is also true for a gray divorce where the children are generally older.
6. Take Care of Yourself
Before every flight, the attendant instructs you that if the oxygen mask drops, put yours on before assisting others. This is also true when going through a divorce. No matter how amicable the divorce may be, it is an extremely emotional time and will test your mental health.
You might make million-dollar decisions at work yet feel paralyzed deciding what shared items to keep. This is normal. When our bodies operate under high stress, we can experience a “flight or fight” mode where we freeze. Your body signals that you are approaching your emotional limit.
The narcissist spouse knows how to push you to that point so they can gain an advantage. Stop and breathe. Lean on your support team – friends, family, pastor – and professional team —attorney, financial advisor, and therapist — to remember your priorities. Stay focused, trust yourself, and acknowledge that divorcing a narcissist will likely be more difficult than being married to one.
Conclusion – Divorcing a Narcissist
By understanding the characteristics of a narcissist and what it’s like to divorce one, you’ve already gained a leading edge. These tips for divorcing a narcissist will not apply to every case. However, they can empower you to prepare for your divorce with confidence.
As always, know we are rooting for you! And please get professional assistance whenever you feel overwhelmed during the divorce process. This will protect you and your children from emotional decisions that could affect your future security and mental health.
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