Divorcing a Narcissist
Learn more about narcissism and how it may affect your divorce.
This article offers some basic information about narcissistic behaviors and how they can affect the divorce process. It is not a tool for diagnosing a mental disorder. If you have serious concerns about your spouse, or you need professional help, contact a licensed mental health provider.
The Narcissism Spectrum
Narcissism varies in degree from person to person and runs along a spectrum. Some narcissistic traits are healthy, including confidence and self-sufficiency, but others, such as a lack of empathy, can be quite harmful. According to Scott Kauffman, Ph.D, "it is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitiveness are on display.”[i]
Those who score high on the spectrum may find that their behaviors repeatedly interfere with personal relationships—over time, friends, partners, and spouses see that these incredibly charming people have a darker, more difficult side than the superficial one they initially displayed.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
At the highest end of the spectrum is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is a mental disorder that affects mostly men—up to 75% of the people diagnosed with NPD are male according to Psychology Today. NPD is one of the least identified disorders because these patients are unlikely to believe they have a problem. They're also the least responsive to conventional psycho therapeutic treatments.
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), to be diagnosed with NPD a patient must display at least five of the following behaviors over a period of time:
- has an exaggerated sense of self-importance—has feelings of entitlement and self-centeredness and exaggerates achievements and talents
- preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal romance
- believes they’re special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
- requires constant attention and admiration from others
- has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
- exploitive—takes advantage of others to meet their own needs/reach their own goals
- lacks empathy—cannot recognize others’ feelings and needs
- often envious of others or believes other people are envious of them
- grandiosity—shows arrogant behaviors or attitudes
Only a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist can diagnose NPD, but you don’t need a medical degree to know whether your spouse is narcissistic. The major distinction between someone with NPD and a narcissist is that the narcissist isn't necessarily mentally ill. Someone who displays several of these traits, but falls short of having NPD, may be a narcissist.
In the end, a formal diagnosis isn’t going to make a big difference in how you respond to a narcissist versus an NPD—this article discusses behaviors common to both.
Allan N. Schwartz, Ph.D. explains that “narcissists are experienced as obnoxious because they feel superior to others and see nothing wrong with that. They have little or no empathy with others' feelings, conditions, situations, or plights and have no difficulty exploiting people in order to get what they want. They have no awareness and no insight into what they do, and as a result, they feel no shame or remorse.”
Other common traits of narcissists include:
- short-term relationships—they don’t have many long-term relationships, unless a partner is willing to put up with bad behavior for a very long time.
- they’re more attractive and likable at first glance—they’re considered more stylishly clad, cheerful, and physically appealing than those scoring lower in narcissism: Narcissists get away with bad behavior because, at least initially, they’re so charming.
- language and demeanor is geared toward maintaining power—tactics include bragging, refocusing topics of conversation, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by "glazing over" when others speak.
- they quickly lose their charm if threatened—this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde trait is often the first clue to their true character: They get angry when rejected or if they perceive criticism, often overreacting to small slights and punishing those who don’t support their grandiose image of themselves.[i]
If these sound familiar, it may be time to get help.
Individual Therapy and Marriage Counseling
Spouses of narcissists often seek individual therapy for help with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression brought on by narcissistic abuse—this may be how they discover they’re married to a narcissist.
Because narcissists feel very little guilt or remorse over their own conduct, they're likely to blame their spouses for marital problems and resist counseling. Those who fall on the lower end of the spectrum might be open to therapy.
Whether you want to try and save your marriage, or you’ve already filed for divorce, it's a good idea to speak to a mental health provider for emotional support and guidance about how to approach these difficult conversations with a narcissist. Look for a therapist who has experience treating narcissists and/or their partners. Disarming the Narcissist, by Wendy Behary is a good resource as well. If you decide to go through with a divorce, you should consider continuing individual therapy at least until your case is finished.
Narcissistic Rage in Response to Divorce
Narcissistic rage is a reaction to "narcissistic injury," which occurs when a narcissist’s self-worth is threatened or true self has been revealed. For example, if you expose your spouse’s behavior in marriage counseling, and the therapist calls out harmful conduct, this narcissistic injury can trigger your spouse's distress, rage, aggression, or even abuse.
If you decide to divorce a narcissist, prepare for the worst. This can be a major blow to your spouse’s self-esteem. You may need to limit or cut off all in-person contact for a time. Ask a friend or relative to accompany you if you must meet your ex, for example, to pick up personal belongings or for custody transfers.
If your spouse is abusive, get help. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to speak to a trained advocate who can talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence. When looking for help, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are and whether there's anything you can do to prevent others from monitoring them. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911 and try to get to a safe place.
Many abusive narcissists will pretend to be a victim by claiming that the abused spouse is actually the abuser. They may do this to take the attention away from their own abusive behavior, to get back at the victim spouse for getting help and exposing the narcissist's true character, or to make it seem like the abusive behavior was the victim's fault. Family law judges are familiar with these tactics and will demand evidence of emotional or physical abuse before considering any action against the victim spouse.
Limit Contact and Hire an Attorney
The best practice when leaving a narcissist is to have absoultley no contact, but this is often impossible for parents of young children who must agree on visitation schedules, extracurricular activities, and medical issues. If you must communicate with your ex, do it in writing, and keep it short, civil, and to the point.
Even if you’re able to establish boundaries around communication and meetings, you should hire a family law attorney to handle some or all of your divorce case. When interviewing attorneys, let them know that you believe your spouse is a narcissist, and ask if they have experience with narcissistic exes. Continue searching until you find the right fit. Tell your lawyer about any history of abuse—you may need a restraining order.
If you can afford to do so, ask your attorney to handle all communications with your spouse. This will provide you with a buffer and reduce some of the emotional strain involved in engaging with your ex. But remember that your lawyer will charge an hourly fee for this, which will add to the total cost of your divorce. If you can't afford this option, make sure you only respond in writing and only when necessary. Do not engage in electronic arguments: Remember that anything you write may end up as evidence in court.
A Note About Gaslighting
Gaslighting—a term coined by the 1938 film Gaslight—is a method of manipulation used by narcissists to gain power and make others question their own reality. Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. says that gaslighters often follow these tactics to wear their targets down over time:
- tell blatant lies
- deny they ever said or did something, even if you have proof
- use what is near and dear to you as ammunition
- their actions don’t match their words
- after a bad act, they compliment you or use positive reinforcement—a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter and cause you to think they aren’t that bad after all
- project their own actions or thinking onto you
- align people against you and tell you that people close to you believe you’re crazy—this tactic makes you feel like you don’t know who to trust or turn to
- tell you or others that you’re crazy, and
- tell you that everyone else (your friends, family, the media) is a liar.[ii]
Your spouse may use some or all of these schemes during your divorce—lying to you, friends, family members, attorneys, judges, mediators, the children, and child custody evaluators. Your spouse may deny conversations or events that you know happened or invent things that never occurred. For example, your ex may agree to custody arrangements over the phone, but later claim the conversation never happened. This is why all divorce-related communications and agreements must be handled by your attorney and/or made in in writing.
Assume your spouse will gaslight you at every encounter so you aren't surprised or confused by this conduct. The more you can mentally prepare for gaslighting and other narcissistic behaviors, the less they will affect you.
[i] How to Spot a Narcissist, Scott Kauffman, Ph.D.
[ii] Gaslighting: Know It, Identify It, and Protect Yourself, Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.