This article provides a few basic tips on how to deal with a narcissistic spouse during a divorce. However, each situation—and each narcissist—is unique. The severity of narcissistic behaviors will vary greatly from person to person. If you have specific questions about your own case, you should speak to a licensed mental health professional and an experienced family law attorney.
The term “narcissist” is tossed around quite a bit, with many people mistakenly assuming it refers to someone who’s simply vain or conceited. Although some narcissists may be self-absorbed, that quality is just the tip of the iceberg.
Narcissism runs along a spectrum and includes several personality traits. Some of the traits, like confidence, are healthy; others are quite harmful, such as a lack of empathy and exploitiveness—which is the tendency to use and exploit others in order to meet your own goals and needs. Those who fall on the high end of the spectrum and display at least five narcissistic symptoms over a period of time may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). For more information about narcissism and how it may affect your divorce, see Divorcing a Narcissist.
If you suspect that your spouse is a narcissist you should learn as much as you can about this personality type. Look for articles and books written by legitimate sources, such as practicing psychologists, psychiatrists, Ph.Ds, scholars, or reputable organizations, like the American Psychiatric Association. A good starting place is the book Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, written by Wendy Behary, LCSW, who specializes in treating narcissists and the people who live and deal with them.
Divorcing a narcissist can be an emotional nightmare that leaves you drained, confused, and exhausted. It’s important to invest in one-on-one therapy. Look for a licensed mental health provider who has treated narcissists, those suffering from narcissistic abuse, and/or partners who are trying to end a relationship with a narcissist. Make sure to check in regularly with your therapist before, during, and after your divorce.
When you’re in the throes of a divorce with a difficult personality, settlement may be impossible. Trying to work things out with your narcissistic ex may even make things worse. A narcissist will take what you say out of context, twist your words, or even worse, tell blatant lies about your conduct. While your case is pending, it’s best to hire an attorney to represent you and take over all communications with your spouse.
A lawyer can also explain your rights and make sure you aren’t being bullied into an unfair settlement agreement. If you end up in a nasty court battle, your attorney will be able to represent you in court—essential when you have a narcissist on the other side.
You may need to hire (or re-hire) an attorney after your divorce is over as well. Narcissists can have a hard time following agreements, even those in writing. They may disobey the final divorce decree and court orders, which will cost you time and money to enforce. For example, even if your spouse agreed to pay a certain amount of support, after the case is over, your ex may begin to miss payments or complain about paying. Hiring an attorney who can threaten an enforcement action in court may be enough to get the narcissist to comply.
If you can’t afford an attorney to handle your divorce, consider using a consulting attorney who can review proposed agreements and complete other limited projects. Some courthouses have volunteer family law attorneys who provide limited advice and information. You may also qualify for pro bono (free) services through a local bar association. Ask the clerk at your family law court for information on where to find free or low-cost legal services.
If you decide to divorce a narcissist, prepare for the worst. If you ended the relationship, your spouse may be reeling from this massive blow to his or her self-esteem, which can trigger aggression, narcissistic rage, and even physical abuse.
You may need to limit or cut off all in-person contact with your spouse. This can be very difficult for co-parents of young children who must complete custody transfers. Ask a friend or relative to accompany you whenever you need to meet your ex. Another alternative is to use a custody and visitation center where parents in high-conflict custody cases can drop off and pick up their children. Ask the local court or an attorney for referrals.
If your spouse is abusive, get help. Let your attorney know about any domestic violence: You may need a temporary restraining order. 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.
Because your spouse may employ some of the gaslighting techniques mentioned below, be sure to insist that all divorce-related communications are made in writing, especially if you don’t have a lawyer.
Document everything, including unacceptable behaviors—make notes in a journal or calendar of any bad or intimidating conduct, missed appointments, missed parenting time, and missed support payments. Let your attorney know about each event in case your lawyer wants to follow up and/or make a record of them via letter or email.
Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic commonly 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 a period time:
Your spouse may use some or all of these gasligthing techniques during your divorce. And if your spouse has moved on and is dating someone else, you may see a sudden shift as well, called the “discard phase.” According to C. Bailey-Rug, author of Life After Narcissistic Abuse (2015), once the narcissist is able to find someone else to provide much-needed admiration, you will be quickly discarded. The new partner only witnesses the narcissist’s ideal self (what you experienced in the beginning of your relationship) and the cycle repeats itself. Your spouse may even start claiming to have been the victim in the relationship, and may use this new strategy in your divorce. You may hear untrue accusations intended to make you look bad and make your ex look like a victim.
Prior to every meeting or court appearance, take a few minutes to remind yourself that your spouse may try to gaslight you. Don’t take the bait. A narcissist thrives off of conflict and watching you react—don’t give your ex this satisfaction. If you’re prepared, your spouse’s gaslighting is less likely to throw you off guard. If you must respond to something outlandish, and you don't have an attorney who can respond on your behalf, stay calm. Simply state what is false, and give your side of the story.
Even if you don’t have any face-to-face encounters, your spouse may try to gaslight you through an email or text. If your attorney is handling all communications, send it to your lawyer. If you're dealing directly with your spouse, try to ignore it. If you must respond, but it isn't urgent (for example about a future holiday visitation schedule) wait several hours to a day to reply, and keep it short, civil, and to the point. Only respond to the matter at hand. If you feel like you need help or your spouse is intimidating you, you may want to ask an attorney about a restraining order.