Divorcing a Narcissist

Learn more about narcissism and how it may affect your divorce.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Considering Divorce? We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
First Name is required
First Name is required

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 some aspects of it, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy. "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 least likely 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:

  1. has an exaggerated sense of self-importance—has feelings of entitlement and self-centeredness and exaggerates achievements and talents
  2. preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal romance
  3. believes they're special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
  4. requires constant attention and admiration from others
  5. has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  6. exploitive—takes advantage of others to meet their own needs/reach their own goals
  7. lacks empathy—cannot recognize others' feelings and needs
  8. often envious of others or believes other people are envious of them
  9. 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.

Narcissistic Behaviors

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 thir 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 years of narcissistic abuse—and this may be when they first 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 save your marriage or you've already filed for divorce, it's a good idea to speak to a mental health provider to get emotional support and guidance about how to approach these difficult conversations with a narcissistic spouse. Disarming the Narcissist, by Wendy Behary is a good resource.

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. 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—your spouse may lie to you and to 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.

Don't expect a narcissist to follow any agreements that aren't in writing. Your spouse may deny or try to revoke oral divorce agreements you've made. For example, your spouse may agree to custody arrangements over the phone, but later claim the phone call never happened. You should insist that all divorce-related communications and agreements are made in writing.

Assume your spouse will display these behaviors at every encounter so you aren't surprised or confused by this conduct. The more you can mentally prepare for your spouse's gaslighting, the less it will affect you.

Narcissistic Rage in Response to Divorce

Narcissistic rage is a reaction to "narcissistic injury," which occurs when a narcissist's self-worth is threatened. When narcissists feel like their true selves have been revealed, they may begin to rage. For example, if you question your spouse's behavior in marriage counseling, or a 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 a high-conflict divorce. 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.

Hire Professionals

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—if so, you may need a restraining order.

If you can afford to do so, ask your attorney to take over most or all of the important communications with your spouse—at least while the bulk of your case is pending. This will reduce some of the emotional strain involved in engaging with your ex.

Finally, it's essential to speak to a mental health professional that can provide guidance on how to deal with a narcissist and avoid becoming unnerved during your divorce.

[i] How to Spot a Narcissist, Scott Kauffman, Ph.D.

[ii] Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.


[i] Scott Kauffman, Ph.D.[i]

[i] Scott Kauffman, Ph.D.

Considering Divorce?
Talk to a Divorce attorney.
We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you