Breaking free of a marriage with a narcissist is complex. Preparation is key.
- Divorcing a narcissistic spouse is typically high-conflict and overwhelming so it’s important to mentally and legally prepare.
- Ending the marriage requires organization, strength, and a team of dependable, supportive individuals.
- Strategies including enlisting a strong attorney and therapist, keeping rigorous records, and cutting off direct communication.
Getting a divorce is challenging enough. But when one spouse suffers from a personality disorder, the issues get far more complicated.
When your spouse is a narcissist, diagnosed or not, getting through a divorce will likely be just as confusing and hard as your marriage has been. While this may be difficult to bear, you likely already know that divorcing a narcissist will be challenging. It is not, however, insurmountable.
As a family law and matrimonial attorney, I have worked with many clients who have faced a narcissist on the other side of the table, so I have learned a few things over the years that might help as you get ready for this challenging period in your life.
I spoke with Susan Pava, a Marriage and Family Therapist, to talk about the disorder and its typical characteristics.
The Signs of Narcissism
I spoke with Susan Pava, a Marriage and Family Therapist, to talk about the disorder and its typical characteristics. She explained that a person diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has the following traits: little self-identity, poor emotion regulation, a feeling of superiority, intolerance of others’ opinions, a sense of entitlement, an inability to appreciate others, a lack of empathy, disregard for others’ needs and a truly desperate, insatiable demand for positive attention and the approval of others. This last bit they seek is termed “narcissistic energy.”
Pava went on to say, “because their egos are fragile and their self-esteemso heavily guarded, a narcissist’s thoughts and therefore behaviors are heavily armored, protecting them from their own self-loathing that’s at the very core of their being. Deep within they experience a profound sense of emptiness brought on by early childhood trauma like psychological abuseand neglect, both of which are experienced as emotional pain. Because of these traits, narcissists are highly toxic individuals to be around.”
I have seen firsthand how narcissists employ control and gaslighting throughout a marriage and then use these well-honed techniques in a divorce to attempt to manipulate the process to their advantage.
However it plays out, divorcing a narcissist is certain to be high-conflict and can get out of control quickly unless you are mentally and legally prepared, and have a team in place to support you.
1. Do not alert the narcissist of your plans until you have your team in place.
You will need to deal with numerous issues including documenting financial records before you formally file for divorce. Alerting them to the fact you want to leave the marriage may not be in your best interest. Remember, however, each person’s situation is different. Therefore, seek experienced counsel and someone who will have your back.
Important note: If you believe you or your children are in immediate danger, do not remain under the same roof and do not wait to act. (see Resources)
2. Enlist a strong advocate as your attorney and, if possible, a mental health professional before you tell your partner of any plans to separate or divorce. Attempt to find an attorney who has experience working with adversarial spouses who suffer from or are affected by personality disorders. Speak with mental health professionals, friends, and family for referrals. Narcissists, for example, do not compromise easily, and you need to choose an attorney who will go the distance with you, and ideally, has experience working with someone who is controlling, and in many cases, simply irrational.
3. If you are being abused emotionally and/or physically, including being harassed via text or email, ask your attorney about filing temporary restraining orders including Orders of Protection that keep this abusive person away from you and your family.
4. Keep a record of everything. A narcissist will often lie, will likely want to litigate, and they won’t go down without a fight. It is best to be prepared and ready. Keeping copies of important documents as well as emails and texts that refer to specific incidents is very important. This information will be helpful later if you need to convince the court that your partner has been lying. Share this record of information with your attorney and therapist. Evidence and witnesses can be very helpful in proving a case.
5. Do not let this person get in your head any more than they already are.Do yourself a favor and insist they communicate through your attorney about financial issues, as they know how to manipulate you and will do everything they can to keep you off balance. Financial abuse is a very common technique used by narcissists to get the upper hand.
Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children.
Breaking free of this marriage is going to take a lot of strength and organization. And you need to form a team of people that you can depend upon, including your friends, family, therapist, and attorney.
As I often say: The very best way to protect yourself from experiencing any of the above is to recognize the signs of mental illness before you enter a relationship. Love does not need to be blind, and the signs should not be overlooked or ignored. Be careful with whom you have a relationship, a marriage, and most importantly a child. Marriage is a partnership and you should choose your partner carefully.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you are fearful for your or your children’s safety, please visit The Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or (206) 518-9361 (Video Phone Only for Deaf Callers) or Safe Horizon.
NOTE: This article is not intended to serve as legal or mental health advice. Each situation is unique. Please reach out to a local therapist or attorney to address your issues specifically.