Divorcing a Narcissist
A CALIFORNIA FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY’S GUIDE TO DIVORCING A NARCISSIST
Divorces are already incredibly challenging for most couples. The costs of divorce settlements, the emotional turmoil, and the frustration of an uncertain future serve to make the process difficult. What if one of the divorcing parties is afflicted with a psychological problem?
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is known to be a medical condition. It is characterized by an excessive need for admiration and credit, an inability to handle any sort of criticism, and a sense of entitlement that outweighs any other aspect. About 8% of men and 5% percent of women in the USA suffer from NPD, according to several medical studies. Couples facing a divorce where one of the spouses is afflicted with this problem can experience damaging long-term side effects.
In medical terms, narcissistic personality disorder DSM-5 301.81 (F60.81) is known to be a cluster B personality disorder and is seen to be one of the least identified personality disorders (Pies, 2011). On the other hand, a good number of patients with narcissistic traits present at the psychiatrist’s office with other types of issues such as anxiety or depression.
Challenges to Divorcing a Narcissist
Knowledge of the narcissist’s condition and dysfunctional patterns is key to divorcing a narcissist.
In the narcissist’s mind, the focus is and always will be solely on them. According to the DSM-5 Manual, narcissists have a grandiose sense of self-importance and require excessive admiration, have no problem exploiting others, and have a strong sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations.
In the divorce context, thriving on constant conflict is the narcissist’s way to stay connected and fight for his or her own rights rather than consider what works in everyone’s best interest. This conflict may be financially driven but is more likely the result of a narcissistic injury. The narcissistic spouse may never get over that you filed for divorce or abandoned them, and will continue to make life difficult for you (and your children). If you are divorcing a narcissist, that person will not forgive and forget. They will not move on easily, and the anger will linger for a long period of time.
It does not matter what you do, the narcissist will not change. They are simple in that way, a highly stunted and undeveloped child who never really grew up. They are constantly deflecting, manipulating, lying, and blaming others. That is the only way a narcissist knows how to maintain control.
Divorcing a narcissist creates difficult challenges. Already a contentious process, when you divorce a narcissist, things tend to get even more heated. Almost everyone experiences some level of pain and anger during divorce. Most of us find ways to deal with those feelings and try to move forward. Narcissists, on the other hand, often cling to these emotions and use the divorce process itself as a means to hurt their spouse in a variety of ways. Even in the best scenarios, it doesn’t take much for conflict to arise. Will the narcissist seek revenge? Disputes over child custody, support, and division of property provide avenues for narcissists to lash out. Another problem you will face is the fact that narcissist are skillful manipulators. They are good at controlling how people view them and show only what they want to see. At first, they may come across as charming and personable. Seeing someone’s true nature becomes difficult if they intentionally obscure it, but in most cases, you’ll see red flags. This includes therapists, those who evaluate child custody, judges, and other professionals. Narcissists know how to present themselves to outsiders in order to get what they want, and it’s possible for the court and others to fall under their spell. Having people in positions of authority who know what to look for is key.
If you are divorcing a narcissist, this may play out in many ways. Your spouse may file bogus claims, make threats or conjure up serious allegations, or spread lies throughout the community. Your ex may do things like excessively disparage you (perhaps in front of your child), resort to making up unfair and untrue statements, and refuse to financially support you or the children. Their entitlement needs get in the way of fairly dividing property and money, or agreeing to a reasonable custody arrangement. In the end, it is still all about them.
There are heighted concerns when children are involved. Too often, children suffer the most during even a normal divorce. They have less control over the situation and fewer tools to cope with the emotional roller coaster. This is even more true in highly contentious divorces. As narcissists often escalate conflict, the problem amplifies when divorcing one.
Narcissists don’t make great parents, but they use the children as pawns because they know the children are the most important thing to their partner. It’s not that they necessarily want to have time with the 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.
When it comes to concluding a marriage, children are the most vulnerable parties. If you divorce a narcissist, you may want to take additional steps to ensure your child’s protection throughout the process.
What to Do Prior to Divorcing a Narcissist
- Plan an exit strategy. This should include planning a budget, saving money, opening your own bank account, and if necessary, determining where you are going to live after filing for divorce.
- Gather all important documents. You should make copies of all important financial documents, including checking and savings account statements, tax returns, insurance policies, mortgage statements, credit card statements, retirement account statements, stock account statements, vehicle titles, and car loan statements. You should also consider removing your passport and birth certificate from the marital home.
- Change your passwords. This should include email, social media, cell phone passwords, etc.
- Avoid social media. Do not vent about your ex on social media. Do not let the public know where you are or what you are doing.
- Consider a domestic violence restraining order (DVOR). If you are in an abusive relationship, you should consider a DVRO. Once the narcissist is served with the Summons and Petition for Dissolution, he or she may act out. In that case having an order preventing the narcissist from contacting you is key. The court has the authority to issue a temporary DVRO with the Petition for Dissolution without notice to the narcissist.
What You Should Do When Divorcing a Narcissist
- Stick to the plan. Once you have decided to leave the narcissist, do not let him or her manipulate you into taking them back. Narcissists are really convincing. Do not let him or her make you doubt yourself, no matter how hard it is or how much it hurts. Focus on the future.
- Limit communications. When you are divorcing a narcissist or have children with a narcissist, it is not always possible to shut off communications. However, you do need to limit communication. Communication should be limited to writing (e.g. text or email) as much as possible. Keep the communication limited to necessary topics for the divorce of the children. Always write as if the judge is going to read the communications.
- Never let the narcissist see you triggered. The moment you let them see that you are getting angry by what they say, it will only continue. It just adds fuel to the fire. Do not engage and do not get angry. You will need to realize what you are dealing with, and sometimes you just have to laugh at it. Laugh and move on. You take all of their power when you aren’t bothered by what they say.
- Develop practical expectations about the settlement. The majority of divorce cases do settle. However, when the other party is a narcissist, settlement may not be an option. Be clear from the very beginning that most likely a judge will have to be the one to tell your spouse what the terms of the divorce will be.
- Choose the most important issues. Not every issue in your divorce is of equal importance. Do a cost-benefit analysis so you are putting your resources and energy into the most critical issues.
- Depend on your attorney’s expertise. It is likely to be quite difficult for you to disengage from your narcissistic spouse. Your attorney is more objective and has been around this block many times before. Select an experienced divorce lawyer, work closely with him or her, and then rely on that judgment and experience as your case proceeds.
What the Courts Can Do to Aid in Divorcing a Narcissist
- Domestic violence restraining orders (DVRO): If the narcissist is abusive, the court can issue a DVRO. Under California law, abuse is defined broadly and includes but is not limited to physical violence, sexual assault, threats of violence, harassment, stalking, and destroying personal property. The DVRO can include a stay away order and no contact order for you and other close family members. In addition, the DVRO can require the narcissist to pay support, turn over property, and move out of the marital home, among other orders that can be made. A violation of the DVRO can lead to criminal penalties including jail time.
- Automatic temporary restraining order (ATROS): The ATROS is listed on the back of the Summons and applies to both parties. Under the ATROS the parties are forbidden from taking certain action including but not limited to removing the children from the state without written consent or court order; transferring, encumbering or in any way disposing of property; insurance policies including life, health, automobile etc.
- Custody and visitation orders: Custody and visitation orders can be powerful tools when dealing with a narcissist, as they outline both parents’ rights and responsibilities when it comes to the children. Such orders will schedule the time share, identify the method and place for exchanges; can include rules for communication, such as a rule that communications are to be via email only or time of the communication; and may require counseling including co-parent counseling.
- Sanctions/contempt proceedings: If a narcissist violates court orders he or she can be sanctioned and/or found in contempt. A finding of contempt can lead to civil and criminal penalties including jail time. The narcissist also can be ordered to pay your attorney fees.