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.

13 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!

  4. I read posts so often on this, seeking understanding and validation for something that has been so devestating, and now, very humbling for me. I’m going through such an eerily similar situation. i met him 10 yrs. ago, at which time I was going through a difficult time in my career. He’d just come out of a divorce. As we became more involved, he had me convinced of his ex-wifes culpability with every step she took (which I later learned was actually to free herself and her children from his emotional abuse.) Well it didn’t take long for the roller coaster behavior to begin with us as well. He had been a pretty heavy drinker for years, and after a couple of tumultuous years we split up. He continued to harass me for months for money I said I owed him, or things of his he said I took, blah, blah. All claims which were twisted, exaggerated, or complete lies. It finally stopped when he found another victim. Well this relationship apparently was short-lived as well, and after being arrested for stealing vodka from a local liquor store one evening while his children were home asleep (and after being awarded partial custody!), he ended up with a month in jail. Upon getting out, he re-engaged with his AA program (after several other failed attempts in the past), and this time continued to attend regular meetings. After several years of sobriety, he recontacted me, convinced me he’d changed and to take him back. He moved into my house. Well, I still don’t know what I was thinking, but shortly after this we got married (He’d lost his job of 13 years and his parents were throwing him out of the house they bought him upon his divorce for not honoring the monthly payments he’d agreed to). He had me convinced they’d been unreasonable in their “expectations” given HIS situation, job loss, etc. . While originally the behaviors I’d only attributed to his drinking had seemed to decrease, it took little time to realize they were still there under the surface, and eventually reemerged. He became increasingly judgmental, patronizing, manipulative, and emotionally controlling. He trashed my computer with porn, reached out on personal sites, petty retail theft, borrowed money from people, would do “good deeds” for others- in order to expect something in return (usually something he already had in mind), then becoming really angry and resentful if not given to him. I have a demanding professional job, (in counseling nonetheless!) and it was becoming increasingly harder to keep myself focused at work. I realized what indeed I had married. After three years, reoccurring and escalating emotional abuse, I told him I could no longer go on with this. I had become increasingly depressed, and financially depleted. Then during a disagreement one morning just two months ago, he became physically violent, grabbing me by the throat, took my ATM card, and jumped in his truck and left to go somewhere. I too then left- my own house, went directly to my son’s where I have remained since. He’s staying elsewhere himself now, but has refused to move his things until we have an “agreement”. We have no children together, nor any joint property during this short time (He was out of work several times during this 3 yr. period as well, we fell behind financially, never getting caught up. We couldn’t have purchased anything together if we’d wanted to!). My credit is ruined. Regardless of my academic understanding of this disorder, the insidious nature of emotional manipulation had too easily invaded my soul. Well I’ve learned a whole lot more about myself since this time, and clearly see areas I need to work on in my own healing now, which is a good thing. As I work In the field, I am always challenging myself to grow. But I guess I just didn’t see the degree to which my own “stuff” allowed me to ignore the obvious- despite repeated evidence. I see a counselor myself, and have been receiving excellent support and encouragement. I don’t know what he wants from me now, I have nothing. He said he thinks paying into our expenses for three years “should be worth something”. I’m emotionally and financially depleted, and from being assaulted have experienced some trauma symptoms. Every time I see an email from him my stomach jumps. I’m letting my attorney handle it from here. I want nothing from this man- only that he, his violence, and his belongings be out of my home and life for good. .

  5. Thank you for the article. It is amazing how all the books, article, blogs, and experts say the SAME thing about people with this personality disorder. Are we all living the same life? I’m glad to find camaraderie, but unfortunately it is for something that is at a very high price..our lives, children, and our sanity.

    Is there a private FB support group? I would love to join one.

    Also, does anyone have tips on dealing with the family members of narcissist?

    I have never talked about any issues with any of them. My ex and all his family live out of state. We have a 14 month old child together. I only met the family 2-3 times during our short relationship/marriage (met, married in 5 months, never lived together, birth of child, filed for divorce 1 month after his birth, and custody/divorce 12 months after filing). I want them to have a good relationship with my child, but I fear that my ex has caused damage that I won’t ever be able to repair. I want to send them pictures and updates on my little one, but I don’t ever want anyone to feel “in the middle or to feel like they are “on my side vs. his”. There are also cultural issues, that I do not fully understand. They all have only been nice and kind to me, except my ex. The custody battle is over now and I have sole custody. We had just two things (Skype visitation and judgement for birth expenses) to resolve. He continues to want to fight and “win at all cost” and I fear we will have to go back to court soon. I have scoured the internet on this to learn more and find strategies while my little one is still young. I want us both to be resilient and learn how to survive and thrive in a very difficult situation. Thank you for any insight, help, or advice.

  6. I too am currently living a nightmare whilst divorcing a narcissist. I was with him for 16 years and feel like it was all a lie and that I never knew that person and it’s funny how I always had a strange feeling that none if it was real or right.
    He has tried to convince everyone that I left because I didn’t love him anymore and that it was all my fault blaming me for every kind of action he took and the scary thing he is totally convinced that he is right and I am the evil one. The hate campaign is just unbelievable and I know now that he was straight into another relationship 2 weeks after I left putting that before his children and his responsibilities.
    I have stopped access with the children due to the upset he was causing them when they spent time with him and my oldest daughter actually asked me to make the decision so that she could have peace. To see her now is a treat as she is much happier and we have set up a new home which the children call our happy house.
    He is being very difficult throughout the divorce and I am moving nowhere fast, everything he tells his solicitor is a lie and I now have a court battle over custody of the kids which is making me very stressed and ill. He has told the court that I physically abused him and that the children were witness to the abuse he took. Obviously he cannot prove this and uses every opportunity to have a laugh about me. He constantly posts thing on Facebook which are directed at me but is very clever at saying they about other things in his life so it is hard for me to prove again.

    I am living this nightmare now and just hope that one day my children and me can be happy and settled without him there in the background. Just hoping that his new girlfriend and children can take him on and away from us ASAP. Saying that I feel guilty letting her have him without knowing what he is truly like but that’s not my problem and I just wish her good luck.

    If the court rules that he can have overnight access I don’t know what I will do as I don’t trust him with the children and to be honest I don’t think they can take any more.

    Sending positive wishes to everyone who has had to ensure such a nightmare. It must get better.

    Emma B

  7. O!!!!! M!!!!!!!! G!!!!!!!!!

  8. I am married to someone I suspect has NPD. We have 3 children 7,8 and 10.
    The years of put-downs and arguments have worn away my love for him and I feel it will never return. We have not been intimate for over 5 yrs. I sleep on the couch. We had another pointless argument tonight like the others every 6 mths or so, that go in circles where he asks me unanswerable questions like “Why do you treat me so badly? Huh? huh? Answer me!”, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me? Huh, tell me?” and calls me “Loser”, “Stupid”, “B…..” and he refused to listen to a word I try to say and my begging to please just stop going on and on, and let’s talk about it when we are not so upset, and all while our sweet innocent children crying in their beds asking us to stop fighting! So again I plan another booking with our counsellor, but wonder if it should be a mediator to start a divorce. My heart breaks for the damage this is doing to them – what they think is normal behaviour, how to speak to someone, how to resolve differences, how to treat your wife/husband…. I couldn’t bare to not see them half the time and I know he feels the same way but for them to hear this sort of fighting and disrespect, and see the lack of affection, it has to be worse doesn’t it? Or is it? I know they will be heartbroken if we split up. And if they are alone with him for half the time I can’t protect them from his controlling rages. I worry about his anger at me and how he takes it out on them. Every time I hear of a father that kills his kids in a custody battle to get back at his wife, I wonder if he has NPD. It is a risk I am too scared to take. But am I damaged my children by staying. Should I take the risk. He can be a wonderful father, especially when proving how much better he is than me, but he can also be a controlling angry father and if we split up, will it really make it better or will he stay the same but not have me to vent on and vent on the kids instead? He has told me he will not let me have “his kids”. I know a civilised divorce is very unlikely. he has told me I am a verbally abusive mother and eluded to the fact he will make sure I do not get primary custody. I ask you all, is it worth it? Do the children suffer more going through an ugly divorce, than living in a home with co-habiting parents who have ugly fights every 6mths or so?

    • Miles Mason

      Unfortunately, the issues you raise are judgment calls only you can make. All experienced family lawyers have seen what you fear most. But, the anticipated carnage must be weighed against the problems not divorcing. In these situations, I always recommend speaking with your pastor, priest or rabbi, hiring a mental health professional for counseling, seeking help from friends and family members you trust and hiring an experienced family lawyer. Talk through your issues in detail with everyone. Listen. If everyone is advising you to do the same thing, you may have found your answer.


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