You may have heard the word “narcissism,” or NPD, a term describing a personality disorder. To be diagnosed with NPD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, someone must display at least five of the following behaviors over a period of time:
An exaggerated sense of self-importance, entitlement, self-centeredness, and exaggerated achievements and talents;
be preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence or ideal romance;
a belief in being special or only understood by other special people or institutions;
require constant attention and admiration from others;
have unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment;
be exploitive and take advantage of others in order to meet/reach own goals;
lack empathy and an inability to recognize other’s feelings and needs;
often envious of others or believing others are envious;
have a sense of grandiosity, showing arrogant behaviors or attitudes.
As a clinician and licensed marriage and family therapist, I have been witness to the enormous stress that can overpower a spouse while attempting to divorce a narcissist. While divorce in and of itself can be painful, depleting, scary, life changing and overwhelming — divorcing a narcissist can tip the scales for any possibility of an amicable divorce.
A spouse who is in relationship with an NPD can become unstable by the constant pressure, intimidation, fear and exhaustion caused by the NPD. The divorce proceedings could cause a spouse to give in, walk away or become physically ill. It is often hard to have the strength to face roadblocks put up by a narcissistic spouse. Sadly, narcissists may be aware of the stress put on their partners all the while enjoying the seemingly “winning” aspect of their disorder.
A narcissist will expect to get special treatment from the parties involved in the divorce process and expect to control everything in the proceedings, even the judge. NPD personalities do not like to lose, so they may file motions and delays, even over trivial matters not worth the time, the trouble or attorney fees.
Here are a few particularly important suggestions to consider if you are divorcing an NPD:
Find a therapist who is NPD-savvy and well-educated in this particular personality trait. A therapist with knowledge of how an NPD operates can share preparation for what could possibly be ahead in the divorce proceeding. Information is power, and better to be prepared than to be blindsided. Denial is exactly what makes an NPD thrive.
Work with an attorney who has conducted court cases with an NPD and is skilled at handling this personality disorder. You will feel better supported and have a greater sense of trust if your attorney knows who and what is on the other side.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can get on the NPD’s good side. NPDs have an uncanny way of making someone feel important after a heated and degrading interlude. It is only an attempt to keep you off balance for their own warped sense of accomplishments. The sad part is that you may have genuine, caring attempts to find a way to bridge the toxic interchange that has come between you and your NPD spouse only to finally realize all attempts have failed and set you back to square one.
Make sure all communication is done through email and on record so everything is crystal clear. Document all interactions and caustic behaviors toward you, and note the date, time and what was said. Make copies of all documents and assets such as receipts, tax returns, retirement accounts, investment accounts, car registration, insurance paperwork, birth certificates, three years of tax returns and documents pertaining to real property.
Be brave, have boundaries and stay strong. Despite the barrage of blame that may be coming your way, do not give an NPD fuel for the fire; this is where your own boundaries come into play. Any gray area will leave cracks in the intrusive communication style of the narcissist. Have black and white boundaries with “No” being a complete sentence. There are divorce coaches who can be very helpful along the way by keeping you in check.
Find strength in family and friends who have your best interest at hand. Divorce can be humiliating and painful. It may be difficult to inform friends and family that you are going through a divorce. When you met your narcissistic spouse, he or she may have been the most exciting, charming, kind and willing person you had ever laid eyes on — only to learn down the line that all those positives turned to shockingly negative personality traits. You may ask “Who is this person I married?” which can possibly leave you questioning your own reality and choices. This is common with NPDs; the shift can be incredibly hurtful for the spouse of an NPD.
Be aware of gaslighting. This is a form of manipulation in which the abuser attempts to sow self-doubt and confusion in a spouse’s mind. Some of the tools used in gaslighting include: lying; discrediting; distraction; minimizing your thoughts and feelings; shifting blame; denying wrongdoing; using compassionate words as weapons and rewriting history. So, be compassionate to yourself; notice if you are feeling signs of depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issues that gaslighting can cause.
I spoke to one individual who recently divorced an NPD — it was a revealing experience.
Mark married a woman, Stephanie, he had met on a dating app. She was kind, approachable and fun-loving. After being married for a few months, Mark began to see another side of his bride. She became deceitful and started lying about finances. Everyone around Mark could see how she began to manipulate every situation but Mark continued to believe that Stephanie was the gentle woman he had married. When Mark questioned her, she would try to confuse him by saying that he was out of his mind for thinking she would lie to him.
As the relationship went on, Mark began to see cracks in the foundation of the relationship he thought they had. Stephanie became so toxic that she began calling his kids and lying to them saying that he wanted nothing to do with them. Mark’s kids could see that she was manipulative and lying about their dad. But nothing stopped her from stealing, lying and manipulating in any way she could to make herself look good. She threatened to destroy all of Marks relationships and continued to create immense stress for Mark and his family.
By the end of the divorce, Mark walked away emotionally crippled, depleted financially, and feeling worthless and totally disrespected. After beginning therapy, Mark regained his trust, faith and self-value while looking within himself to discover how he chose the NPD personality in the first place. The effects of this personality disorder can permeate far beyond the primary relationship and have lasting effects on family and friends. Today, Mark continues to repair relationships with his adult children.
Another client shared that divorcing her NPD spouse was a grueling experience that lasted five years from the date she filed court documents. After a series of court delays and several refusals to mediate, Patty realized she was in for a tumultuous ride. Her ex stopped paying spousal support and violated a series of lawful requirements he was to follow under California family law. He believed he was beyond reproach and, because he was a prominent professional, the laws would surely not apply to him. Not only did Patty have to endure years of unnecessary delays, but the process cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have been avoided had she been better-equipped with a team of NPD-savvy professionals.
There is a plethora of information on narcissistic personality disorder on the web which include support groups, books, coaches, therapists and attorneys who can be very helpful as you set out to tackle divorcing an NPD. Remember that you can only take one step at a time in the process.
Staying centered, having good self-care, and enjoying time with friends and family can buffer the strain of divorce. I wish you peace, balance strength, boundaries, a great support system and a successful divorce.