What to Expect When Divorcing a Narcissist

Husband blaming wife of problems concept for divorcing a narcissist.

No divorce is easy, but when divorcing a narcissist, there are additional concerns that you and your divorce attorney must address. Knowing how narcissism works and what to expect when divorcing a narcissist can be important to setting your expectations and developing the right strategy for your case.

Is Your Spouse a Narcissist?

Narcissism has become part of the public consciousness in the past several years, particularly as some have speculated about powerful people who may or may not have the disorder. Before you start using the word in your divorce action, though, it is important to remember that narcissism isn’t just a personality trait, it is a mental health issue.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder can include:

  • Exaggerated feelings of self-importance
  • Entitlement
  • A need for constant, excessive admiration
  • Feeling superior and expecting to be recognized as such (sometimes called a superiority complex)
  • A tendency to exaggerate their achievements or talents
  • Preoccupation with success, power, brilliance, beauty, or (important to divorces) finding the perfect partner
  • A believe that they should only associate with special people
  • A tendency to monopolize conversations
  • Belittling or looking down on people they deem inferior
  • Expecting special favors or unquestioning compliance with demands
  • Taking advantage of others to get what they want
  • A reduced ability or willingness to consider others’ needs and feelings
  • Feeling envy and believing others feel envious of them
  • Arrogance or haughtiness
  • A desire to have the best of everything
  • Trouble handling criticism
  • Feeling easily slighted
  • Expressing rage or contempt when challenged
  • Trouble regulating emotions or behavior
  • Problems dealing with change and stress
  • Depression or moodiness
  • Feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation, or vulnerability

Only a doctor can diagnose narcissistic personality disorder. If you think you are married to a narcissist, you may need to use discovery techniques to obtain medical records confirming the diagnosis. These efforts can be frustrated when there has been no formal diagnosis, or if your partner chooses to assert his or her mental health privilege. If you are able to obtain medical records which support a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, then you can use those medical records if your case goes to trial.

How Does a Narcissist React to Divorce?

As the above list of symptoms shows, narcissists struggle when their imperfections are exposed. Divorce can shine a bright light on all a narcissist’s worst traits. It exposes their marriage relationship as flawed, and usually involves public criticism, if only in front of a judge or mediator. Finding out you want a divorce can also make a narcissist feel like they have failed, which could cause them to lash out. They will likely retaliate by trying to belittle you, expose your flaws, and show the court why you “were never good enough” for them. It will be up to you to find ways to deal with your spouse’s anger while at the same time moving the divorce forward.

Narcissism and Domestic Violence

Narcissists’ difficulty empathizing with others – including their spouse and children – makes it easy for them to fall into patterns of abuse, dominance, and control. When those patterns turn physical, domestic violence cases make divorcing a narcissist even more challenging. Abusers and narcissists share a trait: the need to be in control of their environment. When they feel a loss of control (such as when they are served divorce papers), this can cause them to escalate their behaviors. This can lead to new, worse, and even life-threatening physical abuse in the days after a divorce is filed.

If you believe your spouse may grow violent for any reason, including if they are a narcissist, you should tell your divorce attorney right away – before your divorce is filed. There are strategies that your attorney can use to minimize the risk to you and your children, but only if you plan ahead. Having a safety plan in place before your narcissistic spouse learns that you want a divorce is the best strategy to keep you out of harm’s way.

How Narcissism Affects the Divorce Process

When divorcing a narcissist, you should expect a fight at every stage, from the initial service of process to the entry of the final Absolute Judgment of Divorce. A narcissist will expect to get special treatment and to be able to control everything in the divorce, even the judge. They also don’t like to lose, so they will file motions and fight hard to win, even over trivial matters that aren’t worth the attorney fees.

Narcissists and Child Custody

Because narcissists struggle with empathy, they may treat their children as pawns or property, rather than small people with needs and feelings of their own. A narcissist is far more likely than other parents to use your children as leverage. They may also try to alienate you from your kids, convincing them that the divorce is your fault, or recruiting your children to their side instead of fostering a healthy relationship with both parents.

Many families share joint legal custody of children, working together to make important decisions for their children. This can be good for kids and make sure that both parents are involved in their upbringing. However, a narcissistic parent will use joint legal custody as a tool to continue to manipulate and control a former spouse. Coparenting with a narcissist is challenging at best and abusive at worst. That is why it is often wise to follow a parallel parenting plan instead.

Similarly, it is wise to avoid direct face-to-face parenting exchanges with a narcissistic parent. These handoffs can be tense even between healthy parents. However, a narcissist may use them as an excuse to escalate conflicts, often fighting over or in front of the children, causing them distress. To minimize this, consider a parenting plan that allows exchanges to happen at the start or end of the school day, or has a trusted third party provide transportation.

Strategies for Divorcing a Narcissist

Unfortunately, when it comes to divorcing a narcissist, the only way out is through. If you want to get out of your relationship you will need to complete the divorce process and either party can make that difficult and expensive. You and your divorce attorney should have some strategies in place going in to help minimize costs, protect what is most important to you, and achieve a fair outcome.

  1. Set Realistic Expectations

Your narcissistic spouse will not be reasonable or realistic in their expectations of the divorce action. If they filed a complaint for divorce first, they will expect the case to resolve quickly and entirely in their favor. If you filed first, then they will make it take as long as possible. Understanding this going in can help you set realistic expectations for their behavior, and your options to resolve your matter fairly and without undue pressure or manipulation.

  1. Gather Supportive Allies

Narcissists fight their divorce battles on every front, not just in the courtroom. If you are divorcing a narcissist, you should expect that they will reach out to your friends and family to try to persuade them to convince you to drop the case. They may also recruit mutual friends to “their side” by manipulating them and rewriting your family’s narrative. The general rule is that there is no reason to announce your divorce on social media until it’s over. But if you are divorcing a narcissist, you may need to inoculate important friends and members to his or her claims ahead of time. Building a strong support network who understands your family dynamic can help you be more resilient and better endure the divorce process.

  1. Work Around the Narcissist Whenever Possible

In most divorce cases, the parties provide one another documents and information related to income, property values, debts, school records, and other aspects of the case. The free exchange of this information can save both parties time and money. However, every time you ask a narcissist for something, it is another chance for them to fight a new battle. Whenever possible, you and your attorney should find other ways to get the information you are looking for. This includes gathering important documents and financial information before you separate, and using subpoenas and other discovery techniques during the divorce action.

  1. Set Clear Boundaries

If you have been married to a narcissist for some time, you are probably very familiar with his or her disrespect of personal boundaries. In the most severe cases this can border on abusive control. As discussed above, divorce can exaggerate these behaviors, even while you are trying to separate from your spouse and start building a new life. You should make it clear from the start what your boundaries are, including when, how, and why you will or will not communicate with them. One tactic that works especially well is to direct all non-emergency communication to your attorney. You can also require all communications to be in email or text, so that you have a paper trail of everything that was said.

  1. Document Everything

Narcissists have no problem lying. Often they will “gaslight” their partners or reshape narratives to make themselves out to be the victim of any conflict. You need to be prepared to fight back by documenting everything that happens during your divorce. This includes:

  • Text messages and direct messages
  • Social media posts
  • Calendaring “visitation” and parenting exchanges
  • Journaling about in-person encounters
  • Getting written statements from witnesses

Your attorney will be able to use these documents in court to disprove the narcissist’s false testimony, exposing their narcissistic behavior to the court.

  1. Work with a Therapist

Divorce is always emotionally difficult. Divorcing a narcissist is even moreso. Your attorney can only go so far in helping you process what happens in the courtroom. Working with a therapist – even on a short-term basis while your divorce is pending – can help you address your feelings in a healthy way. It also provides you a safe place to say what you really feel about your spouse, without having to worry about it being used against you in court.

  1. Don’t Expect Negotiation to Work

In most divorces, parties (or their attorneys) can work together to resolve low-conflict issues, narrowing the scope of trial or even coming to a complete settlement. That will not happen with a narcissistic spouse. Because narcissists need to win, any form of compromise is seen as less than perfect and therefore unacceptable. Negotiating against a narcissist generally results in nothing but an erosion of your own interests. You can send proposed settlement agreements, or even attend mediation to your narcissistic spouse, but you should not bargain or enter into piecemeal agreements. Otherwise you may end up giving up more than you realize.

Facing a Tough Divorce Against a Narcissist? We Can Help.

The best strategy for going through a divorce against a narcissist is to work with an attorney who has dealt with them before. Because narcissistic divorce works differently, if your attorney does not identify the problem early they could recommend you make concessions or offer a compromise that will hurt you later on. You need a lawyer who is prepared to take on a high-conflict situation and is equipped to fully investigate, develop, and argue your case.

At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our divorce attorneys can help you protect yourself and your children from a narcissistic spouse. We know how the mental health condition can affect the divorce process, and are willing to take the steps needed to resolve your case. Call (301) 658-7354 or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation with one of our Maryland attorneys.