Keeping your eyes on the future is something we encourage all our family law clients to do, but in certain situations, it’s tough to stay future-focused when all the things are happening right now.
It’s especially challenging when the person you’re divorcing is affected by unmanaged mental illness or addiction or a disorder that has deep impacts on behavior, such as narcissistic personality disorder.
Dealing with a narcissistic spouse, whether they have been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or are exhibiting traits associated with the disorder, can make the divorce process daunting (and the same can be said for any other family law issue, from dividing assets to parenting time).
However, you’re not alone in this situation. In this article, we share some common scenarios you might encounter when divorcing a narcissist. Familiarizing yourself with these potential situations can give you an idea of what to expect and help you plan ahead.
What is a narcissist?
A narcissist is a person who has been diagnosed with a disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Someone with NPD may exhibit behaviors such as:
- Excessive ego or exaggerated feelings of self-importance
- A desire for constant attention, reassurance, or recognition
- Avoiding situations where they could fail or not be the best
- Expectation of privileges or special treatment regardless of personal accomplishments
- A belief that few people are worthy of their time or company
- Lack of empathy, willingness to exploit others for their own benefit
- Insistence on always having the newest or best clothes, watches, cars, technology, etc.
- Getting offended, angry, impatient, or cold easily and for seemingly no reason
- Using heightened emotions like rage or despair to manipulate others
- Gaslighting (attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in the mind of another person to manipulate them)
These days, the term narcissist is often used casually and in a range of circumstances, so remember that someone can display narcissistic behavior and not be clinically diagnosed as a narcissist.
Only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose NPD, and it’s not uncommon for narcissists to be unable to avail themselves of tests and care needed for a diagnosis.
However, an official diagnosis of NPD is less important than having a clear strategy for dealing with the behaviors exhibited by an ex-spouse with these traits. Divorcing someone with narcissistic traits requires patience and strength. When you know what to expect and how to respond as productively as possible given the circumstances, you can protect your own well-being and focus on your long-term goals.
Four things to expect when divorcing a narcissist
Knowing what to expect when divorcing a narcissist can make the process easier. This doesn’t mean your divorce will be calm and courteous, but you’ll be more prepared to deal with the challenges you experience.
Every divorce is unique, just like each individual is unique. But there are some commonalities you can anticipate if you’re dealing with a narcissistic ex.
1. Your ex-spouse may attempt to delay the divorce process or refuse to cooperate
Individuals with NPD or narcissistic traits are notorious for being difficult in divorce proceedings. One behavior that contributes to this is a reliance on delay tactics.
Delay tactics may include, but aren’t limited to:
- Refusing to negotiate, provide or sign paperwork, participate in proceedings, or cooperate with court orders
- Failing to respond to calls or emails
- Filing invalid motions or continuances
- Switching counsel
- Making false or unsubstantiated claims against their spouse
- Delaying decisions, meetings, or document delivery
- Making last-minute changes to agreements or requests
- Refusing to cooperate or playing games with custody or parenting time
It’s common to wonder why a narcissist does these things, but the truth is that motivations differ. Moreover, whether it’s a desire to retain control or that they thrive on the drama of the situation, it’s more important to focus on your legal strategy for addressing delays and less on the motivation behind them.
Your divorce attorney can help you establish a game plan for handling delays and keep your eye on your long-term goals to avoid getting sidetracked by each new situation created by their behavior.
2. Your ex-spouse is always the victim
If you’ve been married to a narcissist, you may already expect this to be part of your divorce.
Not only will they blame you for the divorce in the first place, but they will probably blame your attorney, their attorney, the judge, the kids, their boss, your friends or family, and anyone else they can find for their behavior.
For example, if your ex frequently misses school pick-up, they’ll claim you told them the wrong time, their boss wouldn’t let them leave, their car wasn’t working, the crossing guard made them go around the block—they will have an excuse for every situation. Nothing will be their fault.
While it can be difficult to remain neutral, pick and choose how you engage in these accusations. Documentation can be key, but the way you document the issues, both to highlight for the court the true facts and also to keep from giving the narcissist what they want—the back and forth—is key.
3. Your ex-spouse potentially using your children (and your support system) as leverage
Narcissists are often extremely charming performers, which is very confusing for children or for people in your life who only see one side of your spouse. It can be hard for people, especially children, to recognize emotional abuse when it’s not consistently angry or vindictive.
There are many ways to protect your children and your relationship with them during this time. Options such as parallel parenting may reduce conflict in your “co-parenting” relationship with your ex while sticking to your parenting time plan can provide them the stable environment they need.
Finally, seeking counseling for children during divorce is helpful (whether or not you’re dealing with narcissistic behavior). Family or individual therapy can help provide the tools you need to deal with the challenging emotions and situations you’re experiencing.
4. Your case may go to trial
Because alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods can be less contentious than a litigated divorce, and because they give couples more control over their final settlement agreement, divorcing couples may be encouraged to seek out options like mediation.
But if your soon-to-be-ex is a narcissist, this option may not be the right strategy.
Narcissists need to win and need to be acknowledged as superior, which can often make divorce strategies that focus on compromise ineffective. And just as they may take advantage of the opportunities for compromise and flexibility in mediation, narcissists seek a sense of power in taking your case to court. It also helps feed their narrative of needing to be the victim (see above) and wanting to “tell their story” to anyone who will listen.
We know that the idea of litigation adds stress to an already stressful situation. That’s why it’s critical to work with an attorney who is experienced in this type of divorce and who can help you know what to expect and navigate the whole process.
Our New Jersey divorce attorneys can help
Remember, this situation will end, and you will get to start a new phase of your life. By learning more about narcissistic personality disorder and divorce, you’re taking important steps toward reducing the frustrations inherent to the situation and the uncertainty involved.
For help navigating the process of divorcing a narcissist or someone with narcissistic tendencies, schedule your strategy session with our knowledgeable family law attorneys.