Divorcing a Narcissist Requires a Different Approach
If you’ve looked around Vermont Family Law, you already know that my approach to family conflict is to be as cooperative as your situation allows. Vermont Family Law is all about promoting amicable divorces, where partners going separate ways can come up with a solution that works for everyone involved and causes the least amount of pain and disruption to both parties and their children.
But unfortunately, working cooperatively is not always possible. The most difficult and painful conflicts I encounter as a divorce lawyer are caused by one of the couple’s narcissistic personality traits.
Narcissism is a type of emotional immaturity that makes it very hard to have a healthy, adult relationship with your partner. It’s not surprising that this frequently leads to divorce. Sadly, it also makes it very hard to unravel a marriage or parenting partnership in a healthy way. If one person is not interested in working toward a common goal, cooperative problem solving is nearly impossible.
As a result, much of what I’ve written elsewhere on this website doesn’t apply if your partner is a narcissist. That’s because someone with this personality trait can not understand your perspective and may be so bent on winning fights and creating drama that it may not be feasible to reach a negotiated solution.
In the rest of this article, I will delve into the characteristics of a narcissist and offer advice about how to approach your divorce if your partner fits this profile. My goal is to offer actionable tips and help you protect yourself if you are faced with this challenging situation.
What Is a Narcissist?
A narcissist is a person who is so self-involved that they have little regard for other people’s needs and feelings. Narcissism is a type of emotional immaturity, which most people grow out of during their teen years. But some individuals never seem to mature beyond that stage and reach the point where self-regard is mixed with empathy for others and a willingness to imagine that they could be wrong.
The word “narcissism” comes from Greek mythology. Narcissus saw his own reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with it and refused to leave the pool until he died. It’s a pretty good metaphor for how some narcissists deal with family conflict. They are so busy gazing at their own situation that they can’t be distracted by the common goals that family members have, even when the family is separating.
Before going on, let’s be honest for a moment: we all have a tendency to get stuck in our own problems at times and ignore the needs of others, even when those needs present an opportunity to grow and solve problems by finding common ground. In a way, we all have some of the traits of a narcissist. The difference is that a true narcissist always lives in that place of selfishness and, importantly, never recognizes it.
How Do You Know If Your Partner Is a Narcissist?
Every narcissist is different, but there are a lot of warning signs to look for. Typical characteristics of a narcissist include:
Fantasize about an ideal romance. This one is especially dangerous to a romantic or family relationship. A narcissist can miss out on the good things your relationship has because they are always imagining a perfect relationship that does not exist. The reality just can’t compare with their fantasy and nobody can live up to the narcissist’s ideal of who a partner is or should be.
Constantly crave attention. They want to be reminded of how special they are, regularly and overtly.
Display an exaggerated sense of importance. Your spouse might have unrealistic fantasies about their success, beauty and importance. Narcissists often expect career and financial successes to fall into their laps, even though they may not be putting in the effort needed to reach success in their chosen field. This can also cause them to make promises they can’t keep and even blame their partners when they fail to deliver. A narcissist may act as though your needs, career and goals are unimportant in comparison to their own.
Expect positive treatment in every situation. Dealing with a narcissist often feels like you have to treat them with “kid gloves,” or very carefully so as to avoid bruising his fragile ego.
Disregard other people’s feelings. Like Narcissus staring at his own reflection, a narcissist is so absorbed in their own feelings and desires that they fail to think about the fact that their partner also has feelings.
Harbor subconscious or deeply hidden feelings of guilt and shame. The narcissist may then try to make their partner feel these things because it makes them feel better if you, too, feel shame.
Take advantage of other people. A narcissist may not know it, but they manipulate others into doing what they want. In a family relationship, this can be by making a spouse or partner feel guilty that they want things to change or that they have emotional needs. In some cases, narcissists resort to physical violence toward objects or, in the worst cases, to people.
Are driven by arrogance. Narcissists have an unhealthy view of their own importance and capacities. As a result, they have difficulty tolerating criticism or defeat and may be left feeling humiliated or empty when they experience an "injury" in the form of criticism or rejection.
How Does a Narcissist Behave?
Those are the basic traits of narcissists that you will read about in most psychology articles or textbooks. Here are some common behaviors that I’ve noticed first-hand in my work as a divorce lawyer:
Saying nobody will love you as much as they do
Telling you that you’re lucky to be with them
Saying that you that you don’t know how good you have it
Is unable to work on the relationship, or, if they attend marriage counseling with you, walking out before the session concludes
Fake crying that vanishes with anger
Viewing themselves as a victim and saying the divorce is “unfair” to them
Strange outbursts of anger
Making plans for the future that don’t include you
Thinking that anything you gain is something they lose
Demeaning you to other people to make themselves look better
Treating every disagreement as a win/lose proposition
Being unrealistically angry if you disagree with them, even on insignificant things
Lack of good boundaries with their own parents
Threats, including taking your children from you, blackmailing you, bad mouthing you to mutual friends, having family members testify falsely against you or reporting you for an imaginary crime (such as child abuse)
Acting like you have an agreement, then changing the terms
Alternating between trying to draw you back into the relationship, then refusing to communicate with you at all or blaming you for the breakup
What Should You Do Differently When Divorcing a Narcissist?
When I realize that one of my clients is dealing with a narcissist and not just a person with the usual unhappiness that comes from a dissolving relationship, I bring our attempts at negotiation to a hard stop. I have a serious conversation with the person I’m representing about how unlikely it is that we can arrive at a negotiated agreement. Instead, we develop a completely new plan. That plan is designed to minimize the damage the narcissist can cause, both emotionally and financially. In these types of divorces, I advise my clients to do the following:
1. Stop Negotiating
To minimize the harm that the narcissist can do, first stop negotiating. Narcissists are not able to negotiate in good faith. To make it worse, they don’t recognize this about themselves. Continuing to negotiate has huge costs in time, money and emotional exhaustion. The narcissist is subconsciously drawing the conflict out as long as possible. Why? Because they love the attention.
2. Decide Whether You Are Going to Fight
Once you stop negotiating, the narcissist is going to fight you at every turn, for as long as possible. They will want to bring every little disagreement to the judge and, as a result, it is important to take an honest inventory of your own strength and desire to engage in this fight. What are your non-negotiables and what are you willing to give up?
It is painful even to write this, but sometimes what is best for you in the long run is to let them have what they want, (if you can do this without serious harm to you or your children, of course) and get out before more damage is done. This is obviously a very difficult choice to make. If walking away is the path for you, understand that the cost to your emotional well-being and self-confidence can be serious. Look for a good therapist if you can, and then don’t look back.
3. Litigate Everything
This article is probably the only place I will ever say this, but if you are dealing with a narcissist, be mentally prepared to fight on every front. In most of these types of cases, I’ve found that mediating just doesn’t work. You will likely have to go to court and get everything in writing, decided by a judge.
When you are dealing with a narcissist, there isn’t much middle ground. If you can afford to, hire a lawyer with experience with family court trials. Do not trust the narcissist when they agree to cooperate with disclosures, mediation or anything else. Do not agree to some things unless you are very careful to define what has been agreed upon, received it in writing and have a judge’s signature on it. A narcissist can renege on any informal agreement without feeling bad about it, because they can convince themselves it’s all your fault.
4. Have a Strong Support System
In any divorce, it helps to have a circle of supportive friends or family who love you unconditionally and can be by your side through this tough time. If you’re divorcing a narcissist, having a support system is even more important. It helps enormously to have some people who know “the whole story” and who understand exactly the type of person you are divorcing. Don’t be afraid to ask for favors or a shoulder to cry on. This is what a support system is for and the people who love you will understand that this is one of those times in life when you need them the most.
Can We Empathize with a Narcissist?
I hesitate to include this section, because if you are divorcing a narcissist, the last thing you need to do is empathize with them. Narcissists thrive on getting attention and pity, and view themselves as victims. While your own empathy is a great character trait - and may be part of why your partner was attracted to you initially - you should tread carefully when it comes to your spouse. Even if you can relate to the struggle that they, too, are going through, don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position where they can use your sympathy against you. Share the empathy privately, with friends and family, but when it comes to facing your partner, roll up your sleeves, put on a tough shell and be ready to fight for the things that matter most to you.
Are you facing a divorce battle with a partner who has some narcissistic traits?
I can help.
Contact me with questions or to schedule an initial consultation.