Divorcing a Narcissist

Separating from a narcissist

By Ezra Sarajinsky

· Read time: 7 minutes

Divorcing a narcissistic partner adds a whole layer of complexity to the separation process.

Narcissists love drama, and dislike compromise. These are factors that are only going to frustrate a clean separation or divorce. However, once you recognise that you are dealing with a narcissist, there are some strategies you can employ.

Defining a Narcissist

We hear a lot about narcissists these days. What exactly is one?

Narcissism refers to an excessive preoccupation with oneself to the extent that it leads a person to disregard the needs of others. While occasional narcissistic behavior is common among individuals, true narcissists consistently show a pattern of ignoring others and their feelings. Additionally, they often lack awareness of the impact their actions have on those around them.

Narcissism can manifest as a personality trait, but it can also be a component of a broader personality disorder.

For a more rigorous definition we can consult the DSM-5, which is what psychologists use for a clinical diagnosis. 

According to the DSM-5, Narcissistic Personality Disorder exists when at least 5 of the following 9 criteria are met:

  • Exaggerates achievements, seeks recognition without merit.
  • Fantasises about unlimited success, power, or love.
  • Believes in uniqueness, seeks association with high-status individuals.
  • Requires excessive admiration from others.
  • Expects special treatment, feels entitled.
  • Exploits others for personal gain.
  • Lacks empathy, disregards others’ feelings.
  • Often envious of others or believes others envy them.
  • Displays arrogant or haughty behaviour.

How does a narcissist manifest in family law proceedings?

While uncontrolled narcissistic rage, much like intense emotions in general, can pose challenges during the divorce process, narcissists often possess certain advantages. 

Over the years, they have likely honed their mannerisms, speech, and outward demeanour to garner admiration and favour from others. 

Skilled in concealing their deeper insecurities, narcissists often exude an air of superficial charm. Instead of resorting to overt displays of anger such as yelling or physical altercations, narcissists frequently employ manipulation, gaslighting, and deception as outlets for their rage. 

Despite the underlying fury driving their behaviour, the subtle methods through which narcissists vent their anger often go unnoticed by the outside world.

The Narcissist in Parenting / Matters

During the divorce process, narcissistic rage frequently leads to particularly harmful behavior, especially when children are involved. This rage often prompts narcissists to discard moral boundaries and adopt a mentality of “anything goes.” 

Their deep-seated insecurity and inflated self-importance lead them to believe that their role in the children’s lives is so crucial that even actions directly harmful to the children are justified. 

Furthermore, their lack of empathy may enable them to disregard the detrimental effects of their behavior on the children.

Narcissists rely on their arsenal of manipulative tactics—lying, manipulation, and gaslighting typically reserved for interactions with adults—to subject children to the full force of narcissistic manipulation. 

Children often struggle to defend themselves against the predatory behavior of a narcissistic parent. In the most troubling cases, narcissists fixate on winning over the children to their side, employing excessive attention and manipulation that far exceeds their usual conduct outside of legal proceedings. 

Narcissistic parental alienation is often more insidious than overt alienation tactics, as narcissists employ subtle manipulation and cover their tracks effectively, making it challenging to detect their actions in the context of alienation.

How can narcissists be managed through proceedings?

Negotiating with a Narcissist

In numerous divorce and custody proceedings involving narcissists, reaching a settlement often requires either:

  • ensuring the narcissist feels a sense of victory through the settlement or
  • cornering the narcissist into a challenging legal position, leaving them no alternative but to settle. 

Due to their blend of anger, insecurity, and entitlement, coupled with a potential attraction to the drama and conflict of litigation, most narcissists do not prioritise compromise or resolution as a primary objective.

While many individuals are eager to resolve contentious divorces, surrendering and compromising may be deeply unappealing to a narcissist.

Mediation with a Narcissist

There are distinctive hurdles that can arise when trying to mediate with a narcissist.

Narcissists are frequently adept at manipulation, making genuine compromise during mediation challenging. Additionally, they may resort to tactics such as gaslighting, inducing doubt in the other party’s perception of reality.

Nevertheless, it’s important to anticipate potential manipulative tactics and select a mediator with expertise in managing high-conflict scenarios. If emotional distress or significant power imbalances become apparent, reconsidering the appropriateness of mediation is advisable.

Litigation with a Narcissist

Most people hate going to court and the litigation process. 

Narcissists often love it. 

Narcissists frequently find themselves embroiled in conflicts, disputes, and interpersonal turmoil – and love the drama. Many thrive on negative energy and the attention they receive when at the center of attention. 

Moreover, narcissists are often drawn to legal proceedings because they perceive opportunities within the discovery process, court hearings, and other stressful aspects to assert dominance and thwart their adversaries. 

Within the courtroom, narcissists often display natural charisma and adeptness in social manipulation. They excel at instigating targeted provocative behaviour designed to trigger reactions from others, which they will try to exploit to their advantage.

In family law proceedings, narcissists commonly employ delay tactics or obstructionist strategies that frustrate their opponents without necessarily crossing ethical or legal boundaries. 

They possess a keen awareness of procedural and behavioural rules that can be bent or broken with significant consequences, often pushing these limits to incite frustration or overreaction from their counterparts. Narcissists are accustomed to a cycle of alienating and reconnecting with loved ones, utilising sentimentality, grand gestures, and insincere displays of emotion to penetrate emotional defences before abruptly turning on their opponents to provoke outrage. 

In short beware. Narcissists rely on their insatiable appetite for drama to navigate through the litigation process, while their adversaries become worn down by their constant gaslighting and exploitation of legal loopholes, resulting in escalating stress and mounting legal fees.

Some strategies to manage yourself and the narcissist

The narcissist has already had many years to know you, and this may have made them an expert in knowing how to manipulate you. 

Now it’s time to consider how they can be managed. 

Understanding their motivation

In numerous aspects, narcissists are custom-made for navigating the divorce process. Yet, beneath the surface of their persona lies an overpowering sense of fear and insecurity. 

Many narcissists possess only a vague awareness of the underlying motives propelling their actions; they operate on instinct and frequently resort to deceptive rationalisations. (A fundamental incapacity for genuine self-reflection is a common trait among narcissists.)

Recognising the underlying fears and insecurities fuelling the narcissist’s conduct often serves as the initial step to neutralising their tactics.

Knowing their weakness

Every narcissist possesses vulnerabilities. Effective litigation demands a keen focus on identifying and exploiting the specific weaknesses exhibited by your narcissist.

Certain narcissists place great emphasis on external validation and accolades, making their need to safeguard their reputation a potential vulnerability ripe for exploitation in legal battles. 

Others thrive in perpetual interpersonal turmoil, constantly cycling through friendships and alliances while engaging in manipulative and attention-seeking behavior, positioning themselves as the focal point of drama. 

These individuals’ propensity for recklessness and sensation-seeking creates vulnerabilities in the litigation arena. 

Alternatively, some narcissists operate covertly, seeking sympathy and recognition through subtler means. Compared to their more overt or malignant counterparts, they may exhibit less energy and dynamism.

The key is to understand their motivation, the form their narcissism takes, and then ways around that.

Protect and nurture yourself

As lawyers handling cases involving narcissists, a significant aspect of our role revolves around assisting clients navigate the narcissist’s provocations while maintaining their morale and focusing on long-term goals and strategies. 

Litigating with a narcissist can be draining and disheartening and just disregarding their disruptive behaviour isn’t a viable solution, given their propensity for destruction. 

However, reacting excessively to their antics often exacerbates the situation. 

Clients embroiled in legal battles with narcissists have frequently endured years of manipulation, deceit, and coercive control. 

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