11 Nov 2012

Divorcing the Narcissist


Divorcing the Narcissist

While going through a divorce is not easy for anyone, when the person you are divorcing is a narcissist, it can be a living nightmare.

Divorcing the Narcissist
Divorcing the Narcissist

A narcissist is someone who is totally egocentric and has an inflated sense of self importance.  Narcissists feel superior to others and have very little capacity for empathy, making them extremely problematic to deal with, especially during a divorce.

Since they are arrogant control freaks who are willing to do absolutely anything to “win”, an amicable divorce from a narcissist isn’t very likely.  Narcissists can be extremely cunning and vindictive, often doing everything in their power to make a divorce as difficult and as stressful as possible for their estranged spouses.  They are typically expert liars and can be very skilled at manipulating the legal system in their favor.

But you don’t need to be a victim of your narcissistic spouse.  There are steps you can take to protect your rights when attempting to end a marriage with a toxic narcissist.  Seeking support from others and gaining understanding about narcissism is the key.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Individuals exhibiting severe narcissistic traits may have what is called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  A personality disorder is a pattern of abnormal thinking and behavior that interferes with a person’s ability to function in relationships and other areas of life.  The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th. Edition (DSM IV), defines NPD as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following characteristics:

  • has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • requires excessive admiration
  • has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Approximately 1% of the population is diagnosed as having NPD, with men being diagnosed with the disorder three times more often than women. While the causes are complex, the development of NPD is usually attributed to a dysfunctional childhood which may have included excessive pampering, extremely high expectations, abuse or neglect. Genetics is also thought to play a role in the development of the disorder.

While only a licensed mental health professional can give a personality disorder diagnosis, gaining a basic understanding of narcissism and how it affects a person’s behavior can help you protect yourself from narcissistic harassment before, during and after a divorce.

Are You Married to a Narcissist?

In divorce, narcissists lack empathy for pain they cause.
In divorce, narcissists lack empathy for pain they cause.

Because of their excessive need for attention and admiration, narcissists have learned how to make themselves attractive and appealing to others.  Consequently, their personality disorder may not be immediately obvious.  On first meeting, they can come across as outgoing, enthusiastic and charming.  They may seem ambitious and successful, boasting about their many material possessions, talents, virtues, achievements and friends.

Narcissists tend to gravitate towards careers that have the most power and social status associated with them.  It is quite common to find narcissists in the worlds of entertainment, politics, law, academia, athletics, or any other endeavor where they can garner recognition for their apparent excellence and superiority.  It is often their success, or at least their illusion of success, which attracts people to them.

Unfortunately, narcissists are psychologically incapable of having genuine relationships, so their marriages are more like business deals, at least for them. Narcissists get married because a person fits the narcissist’s perfect image.  They typically choose spouses who are young, physically attractive, emotionally accommodating and come from the “right” social and economic background.  Narcissists tend to idealize others in the beginning of a relationship, only to later devalue the person so that they can feel superior.

As time goes by, cracks start to develop in their façade as the narcissist’s egocentricity starts to create problems in a relationship.  In the beginning of a marriage, life with a narcissist may seem relatively normal. But after a few months or years, things start to become chaotic.  The life of a narcissist is often unstable, full of many lies and unpredictable relationship conflicts.

Narcissists can only feel good about themselves if they make others feel inferior.  They must always be right, which means their spouses must always be wrong. Since they are also masters of manipulation, there is a skewed sense of reality when married to a narcissist.  It is not unusual for narcissists to brainwash their beleaguered spouses into believing that they are the crazy ones.

Sometimes, however, the spouse of a narcissist may begin to feel so emotionally battered and exhausted that he/she finally decides to file for divorce. Or, sometimes it is the narcissist that makes the decision to leave the marriage.  Either way, once involved in a divorce, the emotional abuse gets worse as the narcissist spouse pulls out all the stops in an attempt to “win” the divorce at any cost.

What to Expect During the Divorce

Do not expect a narcissist spouse to be cooperative or go away quietly.  During a divorce, narcissists can be manipulative and exploitive, feeling neurotically entitled to get whatever they want.  Narcissists blame everyone else for their problems, and because they are so self-centered, even while bullying their spouses they often perceive themselves to be the victims.  True narcissists believe they are above the law and feel that the rules do not apply to them, making them notoriously difficult to deal with.  It is common during a divorce for narcissists to:

  • refuse to provide financial information and documents
  • refuse to negotiate
  • refuse to listen to their own lawyer
  • defy court orders
  • use the children as pawns

Because they are so competitive, narcissists love the adversarial nature of the legal system and excel at manipulating it to their advantage.  They project all of their own faults onto their spouse, playing the role of victim and accusing their spouse of lying, cheating, and being mentally unstable.  Much to the frustration and detriment of their spouses, narcissists are often good at making themselves likeable and believable to their lawyer, the judge or a jury.

Narcissists find it hard to accept losing their influence over their estranged spouse’s life and will attempt to find ways to control their ex-spouse even after the divorce is final.  This is much easier for them to do if there are children from the marriage, so the narcissist will work over-time attempting to control their ex-spouse through child support, visitation time and co-parenting decisions.

Strategies for Divorcing a Narcissist

No doubt, divorcing a narcissist is going to be a challenge, and if you have children, you need to accept that you will be dealing with your difficult ex-spouse for the rest of your life.  There are, however, strategies that can help you mitigate the effects of the narcissist’s crazy making chaos.

  • Plan Carefully

If you are divorcing a narcissist, especially one with money, you need to have a good game plan, because you better believe your narcissistic spouse will.  If you are the one wanting a divorce, it is probably best that you keep your plan to leave a secret until you move out, find an attorney and file for divorce.

Narcissists are plotters and can be very sneaky when they want to be.  If you tell a narcissist you want a divorce, he/she just may kick you out of the house, clean out the bank accounts, cancel the credit cards, refuse to allow you to see the children, and/or make up false allegations against you in an attempt to have you arrested.

  • Seek Support

You definitely need an understanding support system during this trying time.  While friends and family may be of some help, the manipulative behavior and emotional drama of the narcissist is not always well understood.  Seek out people who are familiar with NPD and the toxic effect of narcissistic abuse, such as a support group, psychological counselor or social worker.  If you have children, they may need emotional counseling as well.

You will also need to find an experienced divorce lawyer who is educated about NPD and knows what to expect from pathologically narcissistic individuals who abuse the court system.

  • Set Firm Boundaries and Stand Your Ground

Narcissists believe their needs are more important than anyone else’s, they are more intelligent than everyone, and it is unacceptable for anyone to disagree with them.  Consequently, they have no boundaries or respect for the needs of others.  While you cannot make your narcissistic spouses respect your boundaries or care about your needs, you can refuse to allow the narcissist to cross your boundaries by controlling what behaviors you will and will not tolerate.

While psychologically healthy people can be reasoned with and are willing to make compromises, a narcissist going through a divorce will likely have an all or nothing attitude and will typically refuse to negotiate.  Consequently, mediation does not tend to work well with narcissists since they are too controlling to tolerate a fair outcome.

You can expect the narcissist to push back against the boundaries you set, but if you want to stop the cycle of abuse and disrespect you must be firm, stand your ground and refuse to allow it.  You and your divorce lawyer will need to be tough in order to make sure your narcissistic spouse does not take advantage.

  • Limit Direct Communications

Once you hire a lawyer, direct communication with your spouse is not necessary. Even without a lawyer, email and text messaging can greatly reduce the stress of dealing with a harassing, narcissistic spouse, as long as you keep your communications brief and factual.

Email is one of the best methods of communicating with a narcissistic spouse, since it gives each party time to think before responding.  Additionally, whatever the narcissist says to you is in writing, which may eliminate some of his/her abusive behavior since there would be concrete evidence that could be used in court.

Text messaging is another good way to communicate with your spouse since it is also in writing.  You will need to forward text messages to an email account so there is a record of the communication.

Limiting direct communication during your divorce to email or text messaging whenever possible will help you to maintain your composure when your narcissistic spouse tries to bait you.

If you are abused, see Domestic Violence & Tennessee Divorce Law | Get Safe Now.

For more reading about the financial aspects of this situation, try Jeff Landers’ Blog Post on Forbes.com, Financial Strategies for Divorcing A Narcissist.

Memphis divorce lawyer, Miles Mason, Sr. practices family law exclusively and is the founder of the Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC, which handles Tennessee family law matters including divorce, alimony, alimony modification, child support, and child support modification.  Download our free e-Book, Your First Steps: 7 Steps Planning Your Tennessee DivorceContact an attorney today at (901) 683-1850.

Miles Mason


Memphis divorce and family lawyer, Miles Mason, Sr. is the founder of Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC. For more information about our professional staff, see our Meet the Team page.

6 Responses to Divorcing the Narcissist
  1. Unfortunately, dealing with narcissists is all too common of a problem in divorce. Thanks for the helpful article Miles!

  2. [...] Family Law Group in Memphis, divorcing a narcissist “can be a living nightmare.” Mr. Mason states in no uncertain terms that you can not hope for an amicable divorce from a narcissistic [...]

  3. Thank you for this article, it has helped me have a better understanding on dealing with a narcissist during a divorce. My ex-husband had the affairs and was the one that left but will stop at nothing to destroy me and I don’t understand why? He has lied in court, to psychologists, mediators, everyone. he is charming, educated and good looking so people esp women tend to believe him, although there are some who have seen right trough him. I have tried to cut off communication with him as the article suggests except via email but he has the co-parenting psychologist convinced that it is in our children’s best interest if we talk. My experience is that he would call when he did not want record of something. There is so many horrible things he has done I could write a book! I have been through and am still going through a living nightmare with this man and your article was so right on that I just had to write.

    • Alisha,
      I am going through the same thing, it is a living nightmare. Hang in there, it has to get better!

      • You hang in there too! I keep waiting for it to get better. He is remarried to one of the women he was seeing when we were married so now he has an accomplice. It’s like they want blood! She got what she wanted (she can have him and good luck with that) so I don’t see why they can’t just leave me alone and do what is best for our children. He does anything he can to try to hurt me even using the kids. He knows how to manipulate and is a pathological liar to where I look like I am the emotionally unstable one and he is calm cool and collected! I have been reading about narcissistic personality disorder and sociopaths. I know that not only does he like to constantly toy with me but has done numerous things to try and get our children because of the amount of support he has to pay me but also to try and hurt me. I am back in school working on my bachelors degree but he even try’s to sabotage that! I a good mom and don’t do anything wrong so he has not been able to accomplish things he has tried. It just amazes me how he has no problem lying in court and to everyone! You would think someone you spent almost half your life with, had children with, built a life with, and was a good wife and mother could be so mean and cruel! I have lost almost half of the month with my children, lost my home, credit, stability and am in major debt still paying attorney fees. I never thought my life would be life this, but I do feel like it has been a blessing (although I have different issues to deal with) to no longer have to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist!

    • Alisha,
      I am also involved in a nasty divorce and understand exactly where you’re coming from. In fact, our stories are identical. Hang in there! Perhaps we can start a FB support page for other women in the same position. You can never have enough support. Good luck!


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