Six Essential Tips When Divorcing a Narcissist
By Camille Boyer, Calgary Family Lawyer
Divorcing a narcissist can be very difficult as the process can become highly conflictual even if you are attempting to settle outside of court. Many cases involving a narcissistic personality end up in expensive family law litigation. However, there are some strategies that you can employ to reduce the conflict and ultimately the resources you spend to get your divorce finalized.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined by the DSM-5 as a personality disorder with the following characteristics:
- a long-standing pattern of grandiose self-importance and an exaggerated sense of talent and achievements;
- fantasies of unlimited sex, power, brilliance, or beauty;
- an exhibitionistic need for attention and admiration;
- either cool indifference or feelings of rage, humiliation, or emptiness as a response to criticism, indifference, or defeat; and
- various interpersonal disturbances, such as feeling entitled to special favors, taking advantage of others, and inability to empathize with the feelings of others.
While a formal NPD diagnosis may not always be present, family lawyers and the Courts frequently come across persons with narcissistic traits or behaviours, which are often exacerbated during divorce. Even if a former spouse does not meet the criteria for NPD, their conduct during separation may be highly narcissistic. These separations are incredibly challenging as they often result in increased litigation and high conflict. When children are involved, the divorce can be even more difficult or even traumatic.
Practicing family law means dealing with persons with NPD or persons who exhibit narcissistic traits on a very regular basis. The following are six practical tips when divorcing a narcissist:
Narcissists seem to have no issue with bending the truth to suit their own narrative. When divorcing a narcissist, one could be faced with misrepresentation, lies, or outrageous accusations. Narcissists are also often superficially charming and effective liars, which makes the allegations and accusations more convincing. The strongest protection against a narcissist’s narrative will be documentation and proof. For example, the narcissist may claim to have always been responsible to care for a child, or that the other parent never pitched in with childcare. The statement alone, particularly when paired with the narcissist’s flair for theatrics, can be very convincing. However, documentation such as daycare pick-up/drop-off logs, text messages, or calendars, can reveal the truth and cause the narcissist’s story to unravel. Poking holes in their story and challenging their credibility is an essential component of defending against them.
The narcissist’s inability to empathize means that they will pursue their own agenda relentlessly and without any concern for others’ needs or feelings. Setting boundaries with a narcissist means communicating firmly and clearly what is expected and appropriate. For example, a narcissist may repeatedly text or call their ex, demanding responses to trivial or irrelevant requests. Trying to keep the peace, this ex may acquiesce to these requests which only leads the narcissist to further intrude on their lives and privacy. Setting a boundary may mean limiting responses only to important information or waiting 24 hours before responding to multiple messages. As another example, a narcissist may withhold a child arbitrarily or show up late for pick-ups. Setting a boundary when parenting with a narcissist often requires a detailed parenting Order, which includes specifics on parenting schedules and communication.
Hold firm on your boundaries
Unfortunately, most narcissists will push back against any boundaries that have been set. They often lack respect for rules and authority unless it serves them in some way. In extreme cases, narcissists may even repeatedly breach Court Orders. In these instances, it is crucial that the narcissist is held accountable. While dealing with a narcissistic ex is understandably challenging, it is extremely important to stand firm on boundaries. Otherwise, the narcissist will likely believe they can continue to do as they please with impunity. Often, these behaviors start small with minor or ‘petty’ boundary breaches. Left unchecked, the narcissist will only continue to push further without regard for anyone else. You cannot give them even one inch.
The partners of narcissists are often empathetic and sensitive. When in distress or under pressure, this can exhibit as emotional, reactive, or irrational. This dynamic plays out all too often in family law, where the charming and manipulative ex-spouse triggers an emotional reaction that ultimately only further elevates the narcissist’s narrative. Keeping calm is key to surviving the process.
Get support for yourself
Divorce is one of the most stressful life events a person can endure. The added stigma or guilt a person feels while going through a divorce is only compounded by the isolation and low self-esteem the former partner of a narcissist may be dealing with. Finding a counselor, therapist, or even a trusted friend or family member to lean on will be essential to getting through the divorce.
Accept the reality of your situation
Divorcing a narcissist will not be easy or amicable. This process will be painful and is often long, drawn out, and stressful. Accepting this reality and being prepared for it may hopefully make the process more bearable. An aggressive legal approach is sometimes necessary but is often not the best approach with a narcissist as it often emboldens and angers them. Having a lawyer who is calm, strategic, professional, and organized will often be the best defense against a narcissist.
A divorce or separation from a narcissist can be very difficult and care must be taken in how you approach your case. If you are considering, or in the process of divorcing a narcissist, we strongly recommend seeking legal advice from a family lawyer with experience in high conflict separations. The family lawyers at Crossroads Law have significant experience and a history of successfully defending and protecting clients against narcissistic former spouses across Alberta and British Columbia. Contact us now for your free 20-minute consultation.