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Dealing with a Narcissist in Divorce

Divorcing a Narcissist Spouse: What do they want?

A narcissistic personality disorder causes a person to have an inflated sense of self-importance. A narcissist will typically have excessive interest or admiration for themselves. Divorcing a narcissist can be a challenge. Before we can go over strategies for dealing with narcissists in divorce, it may be helpful for us to try and understand what narcissists want. How narcissists deal with divorce: simply put, they want to win. At any cost. Even though there is no "winner" or "loser" in a divorce, narcissistic spouses see themselves as the victims and insist on being proven right by the judge, who likely will find the narcissistic spouse absolutely charming. Throughout the divorce, the narcissistic spouse will play games by filing endless motions, making up allegations of neglect or abuse, and by doing anything they can think of to wear their spouse down. After all, the best 'win' is for the other side to give up completely and concede.

How do I deal with a Narcissist in Divorce? 

Narcissists & Divorce

What can I Expect from a Narcissist During Divorce? 

A narcissist has impaired empathy, meaning they really and genuinely cannot understand how their scorched-earth strategies cause emotional damage to their spouse or children because, after all, everything is about them and how they feel. Going to court for the divorce, rather than settling in mediation, allows the narcissist to feel in power and in control. By prolonging the divorce process, the narcissist forces the couple to stay connected, another means of exerting control over the spouse who is desperately trying to get away. Going to court also allows the narcissist the ability to say- regardless of the outcome - it wasn't their "fault." They were not responsible for the bad outcome - the judge did it. Or, alternatively, the good outcome means the judge agreed with them and recognized how great they are and how terrible their spouse is for abandoning them. One of the main defenses a narcissist has during a divorce is to retreat into fantasy where nothing bad can happen to them. They will attempt to recreate reality to convince you they are right, a strategy known as gaslighting. Narcissists see divorce as a war of attrition and use every strategy they can to wear out the other side, economically and emotionally.

Why is Divorcing a Narcissist is so Difficult?

Dealing with a narcissistic spouse during a divorce is never easy. "The only thing harder than being married to a narcissist is divorcing one." Narcissism is a personality disorder and is often linked to other personality disorders and has two recognized "types": grandiose (who think they are better than everyone else) and vulnerable (covering their poor self-esteem). Another variety is the covert narcissist, characterized by always feeling sick such that the attention should be directed at them. Narcissism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, success and power and a narcissist's main tool is manipulation. They redefine reality to accomplish their goals (often referred to as "gaslighting"), expect automatic compliance for everyone in their sphere of influence, and accuse others of overreacting and being overly emotional. Seeking a divorce from a narcissist is the ultimate rejection of their reality and self-importance, so it can get quite nasty.

Strategies for Dealing with a Narcissist

When dealing with narcissists in divorce, there are several things you need to look out for. Since narcissists are natural liars and master manipulators, don't take their word for it when it comes to finances and divorce. Before you introduce the word "divorce," take pictures or make copies of statements for all bank accounts, retirement accounts, pensions, credit cards, pay stubs, and investment accounts. If your narcissistic spouse has a business, do what you can to access that financial information as well. Often accessing these documents is difficult because the narcissistic spouse controls all family finances, but banks and other institutions must give you direct access if your name is on the account (such as a joint account). One of the first things a narcissist does when learning of a potential divorce is to financially cut off the offending spouse, so planning ahead and creating a separate account to stash emergency funds is well advised. Asking for divorce often causes "narcissistic injury" - the narcissist's feelings of having lost, been rejected or abandoned - which triggers another big narcissistic trait: use of fear and intimidation. Classic narcissistic threats during a divorce include: I will take the kids you will never see them again, you will never see a dime and will be out on the streets, no one will ever believe you.

Ways to counter a narcissist are to use genuine honesty, to push back (but beware that they will increase their efforts at control), and to expose that person's truth. Establishing boundaries is critical in moving forward with the divorce. Explain that you will not communicate unless it is free of conflict, manipulation and disrespect and that communication should be only in writing. That way you have the ability to re-read and edit your response after the emotional hit has subsided.

Additional Resources 

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