As American writer Jonathan Franzen wrote, “nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.” If you have been married to a narcissist for any length of time, you are probably painfully aware of this fact. Although almost all of us exhibit narcissistic qualities from time to time, full-blown narcissistic personality disorder is believed to affect about 8 percent of men in American and about 5 percent of women. And if you think it is tough being married to a narcissist, you better put on your crash helmet if you are thinking of divorcing one. In fact, divorcing a narcissist can be so difficult, there is an entire book written about extricating yourself from a narcissistic relationship. Karyl McBride wrote “Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family.”
What Is a Narcissist?
According to McBride, many people believe a narcissist is simply someone who is “full of themselves,” typically bragging and boasting about their accomplishments, and generally annoying those around them with their self-absorption. It is important to distinguish these behaviors, (which, while irritating, do not necessarily mean a person is a narcissist) from true narcissistic personality disorder, which encompasses the following traits:
- An inability to empathize with others’ pain
- An inability to emotionally “tune in” to a spouse, children, or anyone else
- An inability to take responsibility for their own behavior
- A history of exploiting others for their own gain
- An expectation that you are to revolve around the narcissist spouse, serving their every need
- Being chronically exhausting and frustrating to be around
- Beginning nearly all sentences with “I”
- Being an expert in presentation and manipulation
- A pathological need to “win”
- A tendency to see himself or herself as a victim, regardless of the facts
- A need to maintain power by keeping you off-balance
- A history of “gaming” the system
To be clear, there are significant differences between pathological vs. healthy narcissism, such as:
- A pathological narcissist is isolated from others by their behaviors, while healthy narcissism actually brings the person closer to themselves and to others.
- A pathological narcissist is unable to make an honest, accurate appraisal of his or her strengths and weaknesses, rather engage in false perceptions and distortions of the truth.
- While a healthy narcissist generally feels good about him or herself, a pathological narcissist is deeply bitter at their core because they don’t feel good about themselves.
- The true narcissist has absolutely ability to be introspective
- True narcissism develops early in life and is very resistant to change.
Leave Nothing Standing
During a divorce—as well as other times—the narcissistic spouse is likely to engage in what is known to military strategists as the “scorched earth policy.” What this means is that the narcissistic spouse will attempt to leave nothing standing in his or her wake by the time the divorce is over. In other words, the narcissist will have absolutely no care about decimating his or her spouse and will easily ignore the fact that the children are collateral damage. In fact, by engaging in a full-blown divorce court battle, the narcissistic spouse continues to use you to feel powerful.
Think about this: Narcissists crave relationships because it helps them with self-regulation. By peacefully letting you go, he or she will be required to find another relationship quickly, therefore the self-interest of the narcissist is better served by hanging on to you as long as possible. By creating a huge divorce battle which could go on for months—or years—the narcissistic spouse receives a thrilling surge of power and control. Additionally, when the narcissistic spouse has made the divorce so difficult that the judge steps in and makes the decisions, the narcissist is not required to take any responsibility for the outcome of the divorce.
Finally, the narcissist does not “get over” the divorce and loss of the relationship. While other people will be angry and hurt during a divorce, they will generally work through those feelings, and eventually get on with their life. The narcissist will never stop blaming and harming their ex and will not care if the result is a long, painful, drawn-out divorce which racks up thousands of dollars in legal fees. Because of this, attempts at reason, including mediation or other non-adversarial methods is more likely to leave the spouse of the narcissist feeling even more vulnerable and unsupported.
What to Expect from the Narcissist in Your Life During a Divorce
If you are contemplating divorcing the narcissist in your life, be prepared for a virtual flurry of motions, delays, requests for additional time and even “emergencies.” Expect anything which will delay the divorce and expect the narcissist to be the “victim” in all the court filings. The narcissist has absolutely no compunction about lying in his or her sworn court documents. Even if the lies are later proven untrue, the true goal of taking up time, paper and legal fees has been met. The narcissist may even fail to show up for court dates because, in the end, he or she is operating under the assumption that the judge will believe any story presented.
The narcissistic spouse will absolutely refuse to negotiate a settlement and will deliberately make one lowball—even ridiculous—offer after another, failing to respond to all issues in a proposal simply to have more bargaining chips and to stall out the negotiations. Remember, there is simply no middle ground when negotiating with a narcissist—he or she will state the same position, over and over and over again, even when the circumstances have altered. The narcissist spouse will definitely engage in serious mud-slinging, and it makes virtually no difference at all whether the allegations are true or not. You should expect to be maligned in every way possible, because the narcissistic spouse wants to win, no matter what it takes to do so.
Lest you think that when the divorce is finally over, it really IS over, the narcissistic spouse is likely to drag you back into court not once, but multiple times in the coming months and years. The narcissist will use the court system to resolve imaginary disputes, or to create new disputes, leaving his or her ex to believe they will never truly be free. When children are involved, it becomes even more harrowing.
The narcissistic parent will refuse to communicate, refuse to share schedules or appointments, and may even sign the children up for activities which take both parents’ time and money with absolutely no discussion. Because the true narcissist has no empathy for others, he or she will be indifferent to the fact that his or her behaviors are hurting the children. The narcissistic parent may send frequent complaining or even downright harassing e-mails and texts to the children and will likely “grill” the children about the other parent’s activities.
Strategies for Dealing with a Narcissistic Spouse During a Divorce
So, assuming you are under no illusions that you will be dealing with a narcissistic spouse during your divorce, how can you make the road ahead a bit less bumpy? Consider the following helpful tips:
- Consider seeing a therapist during your divorce, as divorcing a narcissist can take a serious emotional toll on you. Your therapist can help you remain proactive, rather than reactive to the upcoming mind games your ex is likely to play.
- Make sure your Ayo and Iken, Florida divorce attorney is fully aware of what he or she will be facing. Many narcissists can be charming and well-spoken, intentionally manipulating your attorney in order to get an edge during the divorce. While conflict tends to show a narcissist’s true colors, you can help your attorney help you by discussing your ex’s normal pattern of responses, as well as the best way to deal with them. If your attorney is not familiar with the personality traits of a narcissist, you must either find an attorney who is or will be extremely solid in discussing your boundaries as well as the actions you want your attorney to take in dealing with your ex.
- It is especially important that your attorney—or anyone else involved in your divorce—tells you “it’s all in your head,” therefore surround yourself with people who truly understand what you are facing during your divorce.
- While it is always important during a divorce to keep copies of everything, it is especially important when you are divorcing a narcissist. Because your narcissist spouse is likely to tell lies with ease, you must have all the hard evidence possible to prove your case. Make sure you have copies of all tax returns, bank statements, credit card receipts, deeds and anything else which can prove your true financial situation prior to filing for divorce (or all these documents may disappear forever).
- While the natural human response is to respond in anger to lies or hateful voicemails,emails and texts, it is even more important when divorcing a narcissist to keep your cool to the extent possible. Restrain your speech, as well as anything in print, because the narcissist has no compunction about “editing” your texts and emails, then sharing them with others. Remember, your narcissist ex must control the storyline, so do everything in your power to avoid being drawn into his or her games.
- If you have children, it is highly likely your narcissistic ex will use the children to his or her advantage. Again, while anger is the human response, do your best to take the high road, and avoid discussing your ex with the children at all. Eventually, children almost always see mudslinging for what it really is—manipulation at its finest.
- Do your best to remain focused during the divorce, even when it feels as though it may drag on forever. Take it one day at a time, while keeping the end goal in mind–disentangling yourself from a toxic spouse.
- Save rational conversations for those who actually are When you attempt to rationally present your side of the story to a narcissist, you are merely wasting your time and your breath—remember, the narcissist has no interest in hearing what you have to say, rather only wants to win. Allow your Ayo and Iken divorce attorney to speak on your behalf, rather than frustrating yourself by attempting to be rational.
- Be clear about what you will face during your divorce from your narcissistic spouse. Particularly if you have children, you must convince a number of people that you are the parent best equipped to primarily care for the children. These people will probably include counselors, and most certainly will include a judge. At every turn, your narcissistic spouse will be attempting to show you are unbalanced, incompetent, and even a threat to your children’s safety. If you react emotionally, you are only hurting yourself. So, always expect the very worst behavior, to save being thrown off balance by a new trick from your ex.
- Surround yourself with supportive family members, friends and therapists so you will not be forced to go through your divorce alone.
Finally, while you may ask yourself why you ever married the narcissist in the first place, it is important that you forgive yourself—narcissists are masters at disguising who they really are. They can be charming and romantic in order to “win” you, then once your love has been given and, essentially, the deal is done, the narcissist’s true colors come out. He or she may turn their attention to the next “prize,” and may begin treating you simply as someone to make their life easier. You, like most people, didn’t see it coming, but that is no reflection on you or your character. Accept the past, forgive yourself, and move on. The damage done to families and family finances by a narcissist can be extreme, so prepare yourself legally and psychologically for what lies ahead.