Narcissism and divorce go together like lamb and tuna fish (or spaghetti and meatballs - perhaps you are more comfortable with that analogy). The point is that having a narcissistic spouse (or being one yourself) rarely ends well.
Needless to say, because I am a divorce attorney, I have learned a lot about narcissism during the course of my legal career. On countless occasions, I meet with a potential client and the conversation starts with, “I’m divorcing a narcissist.”
That’s usually when I take off my divorce lawyer hat and put on my psychologist hat (disclaimer: I don’t actually have a psychology degree). It is important to know that not every egomaniac is a narcissist. Your ex may be an arrogant jerk, heartless and mean-spirited, but that doesn’t necessarily add up to a narcissistic personality.
Narcissists are notable for lacking empathy and accepting no responsibility - not even a little bit. According to the Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is 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.
With that in mind, the following are basic rules I have learned handling many divorces where the opposing party or (gasp) my own client is a bona fide narcissist.
It’s not about you.
In the narcissist’s mind, the focus is, and always will be, solely on them. according to the DSM-5 Manual, narcissists have a grandiose sense of self-importance and require excessive admiration, have no problem exploiting others, and have a strong sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations.
In the divorce context, thriving on constant conflict is the narcissist's way to stay connected and fight for his or her own rights rather than consider what works in everyone’s best interest. This conflict may be financially driven, but is more likely the result of a narcissistic injury. That person will never get over that you filed for divorce or abandoned them, and will continue to make life difficult for you (and your children). If you are divorcing a narcissist, that person will not forgive and forget. They will not move on easily, and the anger will linger for a long period of time.
It doesn’t matter what you do, the narcissist will not change. They are simple in that way, a highly stunted and undeveloped child who never really grew up. They are constantly deflecting, manipulating, lying, and blaming others. That is the only way a narcissist knows how to maintain control.
In other words, it’s never about you.
You cannot win the narcissist’s game.
This may be the most difficult rule to accept. The narcissist’s life revolves around creating chaos. It is a game that revolves around a narcissistic supply of narcissistic energy. This energy can come from a variety of situations, all of them giving power to the narcissist by keeping others off balance. The narcissist doesn’t care whether it is negative or positive energy. For example, while chaos can easily be found in the midst of divorce, it can also be created in the daily grind of running a business or the usually pleasant reward of taking a vacation.
If you are divorcing a narcissist, this may play out in many ways. Your spouse may file bogus claims, make threats or conjure up serious allegations, or spread lies throughout the community. Your ex may do things like excessively disparage you (perhaps in front of your child), resort to making up unfair and untrue statements, and refuse to financially support you or the children. Their entitlement needs get in the way of fairly dividing property and money, or agreeing to a reasonable custody arrangement. In the end, it is still all about them. They want vindication to show the world they were right!
If you respond in kind, or attempt to correct the narcissist, you are feeding the supply with your energy. It’s too late. You are feeding into the issue the narcissist wants to control and discuss. The narcissist wins. You lose. Rational thoughts mean nothing to the narcissist.
Don’t play the game. You cannot win. You can only lose.
The narcissist follows a predictable pattern.
Although the narcissist’s life revolves around chaos (see above), there is also a predictability to this behavior. If you take a step back from the situation, or somehow look at it from a neutral point of view, the pattern becomes clear. You will also notice that it cycles through other areas of the narcissist’s life, including work, family, and other relationships.
First, there is tension building. Second, there is an explosion. Third, there is a honeymoon period. The narcissist uses many tricks to initially cause anxiety, subsequently provoke fear, and finally charm and win the victim back. All of this is triggered by some external stressor, and escalates during major life events (such as divorce). If the narcissist is called out by family, friends, or co-workers, the behavior will get worse.
If you really think about this pattern, you will realize that it is a completely unsustainable cycle of triggers and behaviors, fueled by the narcissist’s need for more and more of the narcissistic energy supply. Because the narcissist cannot give up control, empathize, or be flexible, they will eventually break. Remember the first rule - it’s not about you. All you need to do is get out of the way, and the narcissist will self-destruct.
Contact a Wayside Legal Divorce Attorney
When faced with the prospect of divorcing a narcissist, you should be sure to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer about your separation and eventual divorce. The North Bethesda divorce attorneys of Wayside Legal have extensive experience with the psychology involved in these cases. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.