There is no denying it, divorce is stressful and unpleasant. But divorcing someone with narcissistic personality disorder can seriously compound the hostility and nastiness. When going through a divorce, it is easy to conclude that your spouse is a narcissist, but there is a big difference between someone who exhibits narcissistic tendencies during a divorce and a true, full blown narcissist.
What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) involves a distorted self-image, and is closely associated with egocentrism, a personality trait in which people believe that only their own thoughts and ideas are important. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 7.7 percent of men and 4.8 percent of women develop NPD during their lifetime.
An individual with NPD has an exaggerated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with the self. NPD is part of a group of disorders known as dramatic personality disorders, all of which are characterized by overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behavior.
Often, NPD involves a deeply rooted lack of self-esteem and sense of insecurity. This can manifest itself in a person with NPD becoming impatient or angry when not given special treatment, or feeling depressed because they fall short of perfection.
What separates someone with NPD from someone who is just self-centered and braggadocios is a narcissist’s inability to empathize with others and appreciate feelings that are not their own. Other common traits of a person with NPD include: extreme feelings of jealousy, a sense of entitlement, an expectation to be recognized as superior, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the needs of others, a preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, and brilliance, and a difficulty handling and accepting criticism.
Narcissism and Divorce
Divorcing a narcissist is different from a typical divorce for a few reasons. When a narcissist is posed with a threat to his/her ego or self-esteem, it is called a narcissistic injury. Rather than feeling hurt and angry but eventually becoming capable of moving forward, a narcissist cannot get over the injury. A narcissist will not come to terms with the realities of divorce and they will not come to feel sorry for their actions throughout the divorce, rather someone with NPD will continue to try to blame and harm their partner.
They will do so through prolonged, contentious divorce cases and, if applicable, by using children as pawns to seek revenge on their partners. As family therapist Karyl McBride explains, “Narcissists don’t make great parents, but they use the children as pawns because they know it’s the most important thing to their partner. It’s not that they necessarily want to have time with kids, but it looks good for them to do the Disneyland-parent kind of stuff. The children are the best tool they have to get back at their partner.”
A narcissist will not give up, and will fight to the end to serve his/her own needs. Because narcissists are incapable of empathy, they do not take into consideration their children’s emotional needs and are likely to do things such as disparage the other parent in front of the child, make up untrue allegations against the other parent, or refuse to financially support the child.
Narcissists may use false equivocations to deflect blame and suggest that his or her spouse’s actions are every bit as wrong or harmful as their own. For instance, a narcissist who has engaged in physical abuse will often argue that his or her spouse is every bit as violent and harmful, regardless of all evidence to the contrary. Narcissists confronted with contempt or other actions to enforce orders will almost certainly look to bring a similar complaint against his or her spouse, regardless of how trivial or minor their spouse’s violations may be. A narcissist cannot accept being the only party at fault at any stage.
A narcissist is a difficult and unreasonable negotiating partner. He or she will often demand painful concessions from his or her spouse solely to make them unhappy during the divorce. He or she will refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and will go to tremendous lengths to avoid any repercussions from his or her actions. If negotiations require concessions from both parties, and to the extent a concession represents an acknowledgement of wrongdoing or a loss of control, a narcissist will not concede. In many instances, the only way to progress a case against a narcissist is by way of court orders.
Some Tips for Divorcing a Narcissist
Document Abuse – Narcissists can appear very charming at first and are thus capable of misleading judges. It is important that when they reveal the truth, you document it. Documentation can take the form of screenshots of texts and emails, as well as photographic evidence of cuts and bruises inflicted by the narcissist. Additionally, it is important to keep track of potential witnesses. Do not expect a narcissist to acknowledge wrongdoing on his or her behalf. Do expect documentation and consistent reporting to your attorney and child representation/guardian ad litem to have a cumulative effect.
Set Boundaries. And Stick to Them – Narcissists’ sense of entitlement causes them to disregard your boundaries because they believe they deserve everything they want. When you make agreements, make sure they are as detailed as possible and put in writing. Then, make sure you enforce these agreements. Involve your attorney. Set firm boundaries.
Lawyer Up – Make sure you seek out a skilled lawyer and explain to your attorney the type of person they are going to be dealing with. This does not mean that you should find the most aggressive litigator in the game; often, the best course of action when dealing with a narcissist is to keep a cool head and rise above. A good legal team will make all the difference.
Limit Direct Communication – Email and texting can reduce the stress of dealing with a narcissistic spouse and ensures that everything the narcissist says is documented in writing. Once you’ve hired your lawyer, have your spouse communicate with you through them. Direct communication is not necessary and limiting it will help you maintain composure.
Use The “Carrot And Stick” Approach — Out-of-court settlements are cost-effective and save the parties time and the emotional cost of litigating. However, negotiating with a narcissist can prove fruitless or, at the least, wildly frustrating. Unreasonable demands and hardball tactics are to be expected. Negotiations are the “carrot” in this instance, representing an opportunity for the narcissist to save money and address his or her concerns out of court, where the risk of a harmful ruling is minimal. However, negotiations without any threat of litigation expose the other spouse to narcissistic abuse. Negotiations won’t alter a narcissist’s desire to remain in control, to avoid any form of blame, and to exact revenge against his or her partner. The “stick” in this instance is the threat of litigation. To that end, it is helpful to have your case filed in court during negotiations. If there is ever a need to litigate or otherwise terminate negotiations, the narcissist knows there are potential consequences on the horizon.
It’s important to remember that a narcissist’s needs are no more important than your own. If you feel trapped or bullied, there are ways to move forward and protect yourself and your family. Find an attorney you trust and start working on your plan to move forward. It can get better.
Rebecca Meisler, Northwestern Class of ’20, contributed to this post.