Divorcing A Narcissistic Spouse
Going through a divorce is often an emotionally and financially challenging experience regardless of the circumstances; however, navigating the divorce process with a spouse who has a narcissistic personality makes the process even more difficult. Fortunately, there are strategies to help ameliorate the stress and challenges clients may feel when divorcing a narcissist.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) as a diagnostic tool, which categorizes narcissistic personality disorder as the individual showing pervasive patterns of grandiosity, needing admiration, a sense of self-importance, entitlement, power, and a lack of empathy.
Narcissists have difficulty forming intimate relationships due to these impairments in self and interpersonal functioning. Additionally, narcissists are interpersonally exploitative and manipulative.
What to Expect
Narcissistic personality disorder is consistent across situations and stable throughout time. Being aware of the personality traits of a narcissist assists attorneys in helping their clients learn how to best negotiate with a narcissist and accept their behavior will not change.
For most people, divorce is an extremely emotional process. For a narcissist, divorce is seen as an opportunity to manipulate and emotionally torment the other spouse. They use subtle coercion and fear tactics to obtain control of the divorce process.
Narcissists commonly see themselves as victims, when in reality, they are the oppressor in the relationship. Typically, their sense of self-entitlement and tendency to exaggerate make them uncooperative and difficult to deal with. However, they often excel at manipulating and charming their attorney and frequently, the judge. Additionally, narcissists are highly competitive and feel as though they must “win” every situation.
By way of example, narcissists feel as if they are above the law and refuse to provide any financial documentation or follow court orders. Negotiating is not an option considered. They find satisfaction in dragging out the divorce process and accumulating legal fees.
Many narcissists use their children as leverage and are unable to recognize placing them in the middle of a divorce is a problem. They tend to manipulate their children to obtain information about the other parent. Some narcissists present false allegations to gain an advantage in the divorce process. Their lack of empathy destroys any care or concern they could possibly have for the other parent or their children.
Narcissists firmly believe their needs are superior to all others and are accustomed to easily convincing people to believe whatever they want. Be mindful of their manipulative ways and avoid playing into their hand, adding fuel to their fire by arguing with a narcissist or trying to make them understand reality. Also, ALWAYS run scenarios by your attorney before agreeing to anything with a narcissistic spouse. Otherwise, the focus will shift to the attorney being to blame for the lack of agreement.
Narcissists can be distracting and difficult to follow; tending to prolong issues and fabricate new ones. Identifying an end goal right away may help you maintain focus on the situation. Choose your battles wisely and focus your energy on your end goal. Don’t attend to every argument.
It is often beneficial to set boundaries and know what behaviors will be tolerated from the narcissist. Even if they push back or violate them, having tangible boundaries will help you avoid being taken advantage of, and fighting pointless battles.
Narcissists often attempt to thwart attorneys’ efforts to obtain financial information. As a result, you may find a narcissist attempting to sell property, transfer funds, or purposefully misplace important documents. To avoid such issues, ensure your attorney conducts discovery immediately.
The sooner a narcissist is forced to respond to discovery, the less time afforded to engage in deceitful behavior. Ensure your attorney follows up consistently with opposing counsel to better manage the narcissist during the discovery process.
Similarly, it is wise for an attorney to file for temporary relief and/or injunctions before the narcissist is able to concoct a plan to avoid financial obligations. It also might prevent the narcissistic spouse from withholding or alienating the children over time. Reduce the narcissist’s power to manipulate and control the situation by obtaining court orders on all temporary matters. Your attorney should provide a clear strategy for you in this realm.
Formalize everything in writing – email and otherwise – to avoid allowing the narcissist to delay the divorce process and misconstrue facts. Written communication may also lessen the narcissist’s tendency to lie or abuse a situation. With that in mind, only respond to emails or text messages which are absolutely necessary and avoid engaging in toxic conversations as much as possible
Oral agreements with narcissists are ineffective and leave their spouse believing they will cooperate and agree on terms and then rescind agreements for seemingly no reason. If the narcissistic spouse refuses to cooperate and sign an agreement previously reached, the attorney must document all negotiations. This may be future evidence of the narcissist’s unwillingness to cooperate and show how the litigious behavior increased fees. Those fees might ultimately be recoverable to you.
Dealing with a narcissist is extremely frustrating, however, the solution is to combat narcissistic behavior strategically and cautiously, especially when in court.
To the extent it is possible, remain calm and take the high road when dealing with a narcissist. Most narcissists have difficulty keeping their story straight and their manipulative ways eventually unfold.
Beth F. McCormack practices exclusively in family law matters, with experience in complex litigation, as well as mediation and collaborative law.The philosophy under which Ms. McCormack practices is founded on compassion and empathy. She sees it as her responsibility to be aware of her clients’ needs, seeking the most appropriate solution for each individual. Litigation is always a viable option; however, negotiating a fair and reasonable settlement is often the less stressful and most-cost effective solution. In order to better serve her client’s needs, Beth became a Collaborative Law Fellow with the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois.
Ms. McCormack has repeatedly been nominated by her peers in Leading Lawyers (since 2013), Best Lawyers (since 2016) and Super Lawyer (since 2012) publications and takes great pride in that she believes strongly in the importance of attorneys working collaboratively to create the best outcome for their clients. Ms. McCormack has been named Top 50 Women Super Lawyer and Top 100 Super Lawyer. In 2017, Ms. McCormack was named Most Influential Woman Lawyer by Crain’s Chicago Media.
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DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.
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