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.
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.
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:
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:
If these sound familiar, it may be time to get help.
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.
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:
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 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 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.
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.