Psychology Today

Legal Matters

Divorcing a Narcissist? Be Prepared

Retain an attorney who will handle the narcissist instead of being handled.

June 13, 2019

You have likely heard the term “narcissist:” Armchair psychologists, and some licensed practitioners, have been known to diagnose public figures in politics and entertainment with “narcissism” on social media or in the news. You may even be living with a narcissist as you read this blog and trying to figure out how to disentangle yourself from a life with this person.

Narcissism is a surprisingly common personality disorder, with as many as three million cases diagnosed per year in the United States, and a presumption that many more people are undiagnosed. Like other mental health issues, there are many ways narcissism manifests in a person’s daily life and relationships, and some people have more of the typical qualities than others.

But what is a narcissist, exactly? Perhaps the simplest illustration is that the term is said to come from the story of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection.

The Mayo Clinic defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a “mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

As a family law and matrimonial attorney, I frequently collaborate with therapists on child custody and high-conflict divorce cases. And I have dealt with my share of cases involving a narcissist on one side of the table.

Through this work I have recognized that one fundamental challenge of dealing with a narcissist is that some appear engaging and charming to the “outside world” because they are master manipulators. And because the narcissist is a master manipulator who has little to no capacity for empathy, he/she believes that he/she can manipulate the divorce process to his/her advantage.

Additionally, if there are children involved, there is a good chance the narcissist views the children as his/her belonging—or as I often say, another “asset”—and certainly an extension of himself or herself, which can make any resolution of custody that much more difficult. The narcissist will often fight to the bitter end, finding it difficult if not impossible to place the children’s best interest ahead of the narcissist’s desire to win the “asset,” even when the asset is his/her child.

So, what do you do if you are planning on divorcing someone who has been diagnosed as, or displays the traits of, a narcissist?

  • Ideally, enlist an attorney and therapist before you commence the legal process, as there are many issues to address and plan before you formally file for divorce.
  • If you are already working with an attorney, let her know of your specific concerns early in the process including during the initial consultation.
  • If you are not already working with an attorney, find someone with whom you connect and who you believe will have your back through the process.
  • Ask the attorney during the consultation what if any experience the attorney has working with adversarial spouses who suffer from or are affected with personality disorders. Narcissists do not compromise easily, and you need to choose an attorney who will go the distance with you.
  • Additionally, consult with a therapeutic professional if possible. Having a professional who has expertise in this area can be a significant benefit and help add perspective during the difficult rollercoaster of the divorce process.
  • Understand that your goal is not to “win” every battle. Instead of interacting, why not walk away? The narcissist can’t torture you when you aren’t in the room. Allowing yourself to get caught up in the merry-go-round and circular logic that can define the way a narcissist relates is a waste of energy—which is the narcissist’s intent. Except when necessary as to the children’s needs, it may be best to interact as little as possible, and to avoid any emotional hot-button issues, as well as to deflect any legal threats or conversations to the lawyers and save your energy for other things. You will need that energy to make it over the finish line.
  • Do your best to keep your children out of the conflict. You cannot count on the narcissist to place the children’s interests before his/her own. With a lack of empathy, the narcissist will often use the children as pawns, and because a narcissist can appear very charming to the “outside world,” the narcissist may attempt to turn your friends and even your children against you in order to gain an edge in the litigation process. Do not be surprised to find the narcissist spinning the narrative to make you the villain and the narcissist the victim, particularly if you are the one leaving the marriage.
  • Keep a record of any concerning interactions, particularly those interactions that involve your children. Share this information with your attorney. Evidence and witnesses can be very helpful to prove a case of any behavior that has endangered the children if there is a custody battle.
  • Keep in mind that while it is often better to ultimately resolve your matter rather than proceeding toward trial, when dealing with a narcissist, it may be best to prepare for litigation.

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.

Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children.

These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or psychological advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, contact a family law attorney in your area as soon as possible. 

Originally published June 13, 2019 in Psychology Today.