Getting a divorce is challenging enough. But when one spouse suffers from a personality disorder, the issues get far more complicated.
And 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: which might seem difficult to bear.
(But you already know that.)
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 a learned a few things over the years that might help as you get ready for this challenging period in your life.
First, I spoke with Susan Pava, to talk about the disorder and its typical characteristics.
She told me 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
- A truly desperate, insatiable demand for positive attention and the approval of others (“narcissistic energy”)
Dr. Pava went on to say,
“because their egos are fragile and their self-esteem so 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 abuse and neglect, both of which are experienced as emotional pain. Because of these traits narcissists are highly toxic individuals to be around.”
I have seen first-hand how narcissists employ control and gaslighting throughout a marriage and then, use these well-honed techniques in a divorce 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.
So, what do you do if you are involved with a narcissist and want to leave the marriage?
1. Do not alert the narcissist of your plans until you have to. You will need to deal with numerous issues including documenting financial records before you formally file for divorce, and alerting them to the fact you want to leave the marriage before you properly plan may put you in harm’s way.
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 therapeutic 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 with 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 lose without a fight. It is best to be prepared and ready. Keeping copies of important documents, and keeping copies of emails and texts that refer to specific incidents is very important, and this information will be helpful later if you need to convince the court that your partner has been lying. If there are people in your life who can validate your experiences, ask them to be witnesses. Share this record of information with your attorney and therapist. Evidence and witnesses can be very helpful in proving a case.
3. 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, as they know how to manipulate you and will do everything then can to put you – and keep you – off balance.
5. 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.
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. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
It is important for callers to understand that you cannot erase your phone cache, and abusers can pull info from the device itself or the phone bill. If you have the ability to phone or research using a friend’s device, please consider doing that.
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.