Divorcing a Narcissist
No matter who you are (and who you’re married to), getting a divorce is hard. Especially in the beginning, when everything is new and wounds are freshest, things are tense and emotions are running high. A lot of people tell me in the beginning that they don’t expect to be able to reach a settlement at this point in their divorces, and they don’t foresee that things will get better.
In most cases, though, things do settle down. It takes a lot of energy (and money!) to stay angry for so long, and there’s really not much benefit to it, anyway. Sooner or later, most people settle down and focus on whatever it is that is most important to them. For a lot of people, it’s the kids. For others, it’s how the house will be handled. For still others, retirement takes center stage. Whatever “it” is for you doesn’t really matter; it’s just good to know that, most of the time, in most cases, things do settle down over time.
As you probably already know, though, no two divorces are exactly the same. There are definitely some divorce red flags that we see that clue us in to a problem that might be brewing.
If you’re married to a narcissist (or suspect that you are), you’re probably in for some trouble. Of course, that’s no surprise to you—for some time now, you have been married to the man, after all. You know, probably better than anyone else at this point, all about his moods and peculiarities.
Though I think there are far fewer husbands with actual narcissistic personality disorders than there are women who suspect their husbands are narcissists, the fact remains that a lot of narcissistic traits abound in divorce cases—and, frankly, cause a TON of trouble. It doesn’t matter whether your husband is or has been clinically diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder; what matters is that you know that, because of the type of person he is, he won’t allow you to leave without a fight. Only about 8% of men are actual, diagnosable full blown narcissists, but that doesn’t mean that lots of other husbands don’t carry some of the same personality traits and cause similar troubles.
What IS a narcissist? How do you know if your husband is one?
Being a narcissist, at least clinically, is about a lot more than just being obnoxious and full of yourself. (Though that’s certainly a start!) Someone who is boastful and brags a lot isn’t necessarily a narcissist (think of that person who drives you crazy on social media). Being a narcissist is so much more than that.
A person with a true narcissistic personality doesn’t have empathy for other people, and has trouble tuning in emotionally with their wife or children. Paradoxically, though, when you first meet them, they seem incredibly charming. They suck you in that way.
After they have you in their web, though, their behaviors tend to change. If you’re married to a narcissistic person, as you probably already know, their lack of empathy makes them feel like they aren’t accountable to you (or anyone else) for their behavior. In fact, if anything, it’s everyone else’s fault when things go wrong. Narcissists tend to use other people (and manipulate them) to suit their own purposes, and it’s difficult (or impossible) to get them to work together to resolve problems.
Over the long term, in a relationship with a narcissist, things will gradually evolve until the world revolves around the narcissist. Since they can’t empathize with people, there’s really very little give and take; it’s mostly take.
Why is divorce harder with a narcissist?
The divorce process, by itself, is inherently the same, and isn’t more or less difficult just because your husband suffers from a personality disorder. It’s not the divorce process itself; it’s the person on the other side of the case that can make things harder than they have to be. In general, of course, as you’re probably already aware, narcissists tend to make most things harder. Because of their personalities, they can’t just let go of their spouse, and divorce becomes just another opportunity to take advantage. Many narcissists tend to make the entire divorce about revenge and, unfortunately, the court process (with all the different attorneys, judges, guardians ad litem and others) is a great stage for the narcissist. Especially in cases where there are children at stake, narcissists really use the opportunity to use the children as a pawn in their game.
If my husband is a narcissist, or has narcissistic traits, what should I do to make my divorce run as smoothly as possible?
I see lots of husbands with narcissistic traits. I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t diagnose anyone officially, but I see this type of behavior all the time.
Hire an attorney familiar with narcissists
One of the most important things you can do to move your divorce forward, and avoid getting stuck in the quicksand-like traps he’ll set for you, is to hire an attorney who is familiar with narcissistic husbands. It’s all too easy to be seduced by his charm; it is, in fact, how he wound up with you! Still, you’ll want someone on your side who knows how to play the game, and how to avoid letting him get the upper hand he so desperately wants.
Many of these types of divorces end up litigated, because it’s difficult for a person with a narcissistic personality disorder to negotiate an agreement. They prefer to blame their partner, like I mentioned earlier, seek revenge through the judicial process. Having someone on your side who can defend you will go a long way towards showing him that he can’t continue to push you around anymore.
See a therapist
As you already know, most narcissists won’t seek professional help. And, if they do, they really only blame others for their problems and the problems of all the people around them.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t get help yourself. Sure, you’re not the one suffering from a personality disorder, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need a little extra help developing the tools and tricks for coping with a partner who suffers from one. Even if you are separated or in the process of divorcing, you’ll still want those tools and tricks in your arsenal. After all, in most cases, particularly where there are children involved, it’s not like you walk away free and clear on the day that your final decree is signed. In most cases, your ex stays in your life, at least in some small way, and you’ll want to take steps to protect yourself from the abuse you’ve experienced so far.
Take charge of your life. Talk to someone with experience. Get suggestions for how to deal with the every day frustrations. It may not be you with the problem, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work towards a solution—at least, as far as it relates to you.
Remember the kids
It’s important for parents to remember that, whatever they’re going through, their kids are going through, too. If you’re divorcing your narcissist husband, chances are your kids have a pretty good idea of what’s up. They don’t know what to do about it, and it’s pretty likely that they’ll be used as pawns at some point in the process. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t control what your husband does or how he treats anyone else around him—including your kids.
Just like you did for yourself, though, you can help give your kids the tools they need to learn how to deal with dad’s behavior. You can take them to see a therapist to help work through the feelings they’re having about the divorce, and to talk over anything that happens in the mean time. You can also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with you, and do your best to respond to their concerns in a productive way. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s important that they know that you’re there for them, won’t use them as a pawn, and that they can trust you. Then prove it. Whenever something happens with your child’s father, take a step back and ask yourself whether you should react at all. Are you playing into his hands? Are you giving him the reaction that he wants to see? What are you modeling for your kids? And, most importantly, what impact is this behavior having on them? Remember that, even when you don’t think they can see or hear, kids are picking more up than you can imagine.
Divorcing a narcissist is difficult, but not impossible. You’re strong enough to do it, you just have to make the decision and ensure that you’re providing yourself the protection that you need to move forward productively. Talk to a therapist, hire an experienced attorney, and make sure you’re ready, as a parent, to deal with whatever your child’s father throws your way (and, of course, in the way of your kids).
For more information, or to schedule a confidential appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.