Do the nastiest divorces involve narcissists?

This post contains 15 essential tips if you are divorcing a narcissist.

Narcissism or more correctly Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder where there is a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour that has the following traits:

  • an exaggerated feeling of self-importance and sense of superiority to other people
  • an excessive need for admiration and fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness etc
  • a belief that they are unique, superior and a strong desire to associate with high-status people and institutions
  • a sense of entitlement to special treatment and the admiration of others and a willingness to do what ever is needed to get it
  • a lack of understanding or empathy for other people’s feelings and needs
  • a tendency to be envious of others and a belief that they are envious of them
  • rude and arrogant in their treatment of others

We can all be guilty of some or all of these behaviours or attitudes from time to time. People with a personality disorder tend to be rigid and fixed in a pattern of thinking and frequently behaviour outside the normal range.

Narcissists are outside normal range in terms of feelings of entitlement and their importance in the scheme of things, their need to be admired and inability to accept criticism. They are however very free and active in their criticism of others and fail to place any importance at all on other people’s needs, feelings or point of view.

Some information about the clinical condition

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  lists a series of symptoms usually displayed by people with NPD.  This disorder usually develops in adolescence or during early adulthood. Causes are poorly understood but it is believed that a combination of environmental, social, genetic and brain development factors.

When it comes to the environmental factors impaired attachment with primary care givers leading to a child feeling unconnected and unimportant to others. This feeling of being unwanted and unloved when combined with parents on either end of the spectrum is thought  to contribute to a distorted sense of self. That is, overindulgent, permissive parenting or insensitive, over controlling parenting don’t provide the right environment for the development of empathy and compassion for others. 

According to Leonard Groopman and Arnold Cooper, the following factors have been identified by various researchers as possible factors that promote the development of NPD:

  • An oversensitive temperament (personality traits) at birth.
  • Excessive admiration from others that is never balanced with realistic feedback.
  • Excessive praise for good behaviours or excessive criticism for bad behaviours in childhood.
  • Overindulgence and overvaluation by parents, other family members, or peers.
  • Being praised for perceived exceptional looks or abilities by adults. Being seen as exceptional by right rather than having to work for achievements.
  • Severe emotional abuse in childhood.
  • Unpredictable or unreliable care giving from parents often associated with insecure attachment early in life.
  • Learned manipulative behaviors from parents or peers.
  • Needing to be valued by parents and others as a means to regulate their own self-esteem rather than an internal sense of self-worth.

Cultural elements are believed to influence the prevalence of NPD as well since NPD traits have been found to be more common in modern societies than in traditional ones. About 1% of the population is believed to have this disorder and between 50 and 75% of those diagnosed are men. 

Abnormal decision-making

When it comes to the decisions required in separating and divorcing there is usually some pretty complex evaluation of options based on the likely return vrs the cost and risk to yourself and others.

People with NPD have difficulty in making decisions that Family Law professionals would consider sensible because they do not accurately evaluate their own capabilities, entitlements and rights and they under value the cost of their decisions to others, especially their children.

In the early stages of their relationship with their spouse they probably put them on a pedestal and loved them because they perceived them as adding to their status and prestige. Physical attractiveness and outward evidence of success is very appealing to a narcissist in their partners however at some stage they often begin to feel threatened by the traits that attracted them in the first place.

How many of the people making it all the way through court and then back for appeal have NPD?

Only a very small small percentage of separating couples actually end up with a court final hearing.  Family Court annual reports show the rate is about 5 – 7% of the cases that start with a court application end up with a Final Hearing. Many separations are resolved through negotiation or mediation and never end up in court at all.

I’m not aware if there is any data on how many of the matters that do go all the way to a final judgement include people with narcissism or other personality disorders or mental health issues. I don’t believe that data is collected but would be very interested if you know of any. I would be willing to bet that they are more than 1% of the people who will not settle have a personality disorder or a serious mental health issue. Fighting your way through court for a Family Law settlement is not the most rational of decisions for most people.

The usual considerations with regards to the financial cost and emotional impact do not matter to a narcissist because they believe that they will win because they can’t accurately evaluate their situation.

15 Essential Tips if you are Divorcing a Narcissist

1. He or she is in it to win it.

They don’t want to win, they need to in order to maintain their self image. That means that they will go to any length.  They will use up all their money, borrow and then continue as a self-represented litigant.  There are no real winners in our Family Law system. Costs orders are rare and it is a no fault jurisdiction. The best outcome of an equitable splitting of assets and sharing of responsibility for children is deeply unsatisfying for a narcissist.  He or she will inevitably see them self as a victim, regardless of the facts, and they have very little interest in compromise or collaboration. They would rather lose too than for you to get what you want. When negotiating with a narcissist it is important to be more cautious than you would normally have to be.

Being proven right is the ultimate goal, and the narcissist will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Often they will accuse their former partner of the behaviour they have done and appear firmly convinced (and convincing at first) that they are telling the truth. Perhaps they are aware of their lies, perhaps not but the reality is that they will very rarely accept the reality if it means that they lose or lose face.

Tip – don’t get into win / lose battles. Deflect, distract and don’t take them on head on. They will not swerve. 

2. He or she is a game player.

Narcissists play games and many use behaviours we now classify as being emotional and psychological abuse. Studies show this to be the narcissist’s relational pattern. They maintain power and the upper hand by keeping others off-balance.  They are not going to change because you have left them, they will probably get worse, at least for a while.

They will try to game the system. If your narcissist ex is the extroverted charming type with a lot of money they are likely to use the court system extensively to punish you. They are likely to make false accusations of child abuse and attempt to gain full parental responsibility. At first they may have some success until their behaviour becomes known.

Tip – keep accurate records and be prepared to be seen as “the bad parent” for a time until the system catches up. Control your frustration about the situation so that you don’t become what they are accusing you of being.  

3. He or she doesn’t count the emotional cost.

A lack of empathy is a classic indicator of NPD. This has more than likely resulted from poor attachment and lack of empathy from their care givers. The brain circuitry for empathy may be underdeveloped which means that it may not be that they don’t want to be empathetic and acknowledge the emotional impact of their behaviour, the may simply not be able to detect it. In a way they are blind to the feelings of others. That means that they have a total disregard for how their behaviour impacts you and more importantly your children.

It literally doesn’t occur to the narcissist that they could be causing harm and if it does it is low on their scale of what is important. Nothing is more important to them than satisfying their personal needs and wants. They do not worry about other people or the harm that they are doing to future relationships by their actions. Children are particularly vulnerable to being used as pawns in their battle to punish their ex for whatever they believe has been done to them.

Tip – tell them about the impact of the ongoing conflict on you and your children but don’t expect them to care.  Focus on helping your children to understand their emotions and develop empathy.  This is something that they can not do for them because they can’t recognise others emotions. Build your children’s resilience so that they can cope with their narcissistic parent as the court is likely to order contact no matter how unsuitable you feel the ongoing relationship is. 

 4. Dragging you to court makes the narcissist feel powerful.

Narcissists can’t self-regulate their sense of self and self-esteem. They need to be in a relationship with someone else who makes them feel powerful. That is part of the reason that they so often have affairs.  Dragging you into court makes them feel a sense of power and control over you. They can make you go to court and there is nothing you can do other than try and defend yourself.

If the narcissist simply lets you go, he or she will have already found someone else to help them feel powerful.  Often your narcissist ex will have found an enabler who believes their stories about how terrible you are and who will support them in their “battle for justice” further helping them to use the court system to punish you. Court is also a way of staying connected with you. For a narcissist it is better to be your enemy than to be nothing to you.

Tip – unless they want to a narcissist will not let you go completely. It is better to give them the message that they are very important to you as the other parent of your child rather than try and tell them that they are nothing to you. They will fight you to be seen as significant no matter the cost. 

5. He or she wants you to capitulate.

It’s not enough that they can say that he or she won. The narcissist needs a symbolic trophy to prove it. With regards to children they will be preoccupied with percentages and will probably want 50/50 or higher percentages of time with children. It is not about the child. It is about being seen as the having the biggest share. They want to be seen by others as having won.

Tip – find ways that don’t hurt you to give them a win and do everything you can do to avoid getting into a positional battle. They will outlast you ever time as they will continue fighting much longer than a normally organised person would be willing to. 

6. He or she wants to be judged. 

There is a high likelihood is that you’ve ended up in court if your ex is a narcissist because he or she will refuse to discuss terms on any reasonable basis. Going to court and having a judge decide may actually make the narcissist more comfortable because it means he or she doesn’t have to take responsibility for the outcome, especially if it’s not favourable. They enjoy having someone to blame so in a way it is a win win for them. They either get a good outcome by convincing the court that you are bad or mad or they don’t and can blame the court and the system for their loss.

Because making concessions is so difficult for them a negotiated outcome may be deeply unsatisfying for them. While going to court you give up control over the outcome it feels to them like they are in control because they have forced you to be in court.

Tip – avoid going to court if you can by carefully weighing up the cost of fighting compared to accepting the offers they have made in pre-court negotiations.  If court is unavoidable be very careful with costs (they will blow your costs out if they can) and work really hard on protecting and supporting yourself emotionally. They will make it feel like hell if they can. 

7. He or she will be obstructionist

Family court proceedings can take a lot of time, and the narcissist will instruct his or her lawyer to eat up as much of it as possible.  They will be slow with their disclosures meaning that you have wasted court dates costing you thousands each time. They will send lots and lots of long rambling emails and letters that cost you a lot of money for your lawyers to read and reply to. They will file actions in case and request delays for emergencies.

They will describe themselves as a victim of your behaviour in their affidavit. They will work on making you appear to be violent, abusive, drug addicted, with severe mental health issues or any combination of the above. They will not  recognise, even to them self, that they are lying.  We all rewrite history in our own minds to better reflect us as the hero. The narcissist does this to the extreme because they can not tolerate any sort of self-reflection or acknowledgement of wrong doing. They will also lie in sworn documents even when their lie can be proved false. Sometimes this is a game and they do it to burn up more of your money in showing that it is not true. Sometimes they do it through sheer arrogance and the belief that they can do whatever they like.  Other tactics may include delaying when he or she thinks it can help or get under your skin, not showing up for court dates, including misleading information in affidavits and appeals that then needs to be challenged, and not disclosing information fully so that there are additional rounds of lawyer correspondence and discovery requests and the legal fees continue to mount up. Because the narcissist is expert at self-presentation (and believes in his or her own superiority), the working assumption is that the judge will believe his or her story. If he or she is wealthy, and outwardly successful, and you’re less so, the ploy might well work.

Tip – courts work on evidence. Keep track of what happens in a journal. Collect evidence when and where you can. Keep costs down by asking your lawyers not to respond in detail to his rants. There are ethical considerations but a one line “Your recent correspondence is noted” meets that.  Be prepared for things to get worse before they get better and keep evaluating the relative merits of continuing to fight. Pick your battles. 

8. He or she will refuse to negotiate or settle.

Your ex knows that time is on their side.  The longer the process takes, the easier you’ll be to manipulate and pressure. He or she is counting on that. Because a narcissist is by nature a game player and they love power based negotiation because they can use the process to tie you up in knots. They will make very low, objectionable offers. They will not respond to all aspects of a proposal so that they retain bargaining chips and opportunities to stall or delay. They will not negotiate in good faith.  They lack the ability or desire to negotiate towards a middle ground because they don’t want things to be settled if it means that you can get on with your life. They will likely keep stating the same position over and over again, even when the facts and circumstances have changed.

Tip – don’t try and negotiate directly with the narcissist. Use a professional Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner who has an understanding of narcissism and high conflict personality styles such as those who work with Interact Support. 

9. He or she will paint you as being the bad one.

Whatever mud is available, whether true or not, it will be thrown at you to see if some of it sticks. You should be prepared to be maligned both in the paperwork, in the courtroom itself, and in the world at large. Your friends and relatives will get calls and if you have been keeping the issues in your relationship quite some of them will believe it and may ostracise you. The typical narcissist will try to efforts to pollute the waters, causing harm to your reputation and children, while garnering support for him or herself.

It’s part of the narcissist’s lack of empathy, lack of interest in the damage they do to relationships and desire to win no matter what the cost. They really do not suffer any pangs of guilty conscience from lying about you to others.

Tip – remain calm and dignified. Let the people who are willing to believe the worst go, they are not worth it. Keep a core group of loyal friends to support you. Counter their arguments in court but work with your lawyers to minimise the costs involved. 

10. He or she will go back to court again and again even after a settlement or divorce.

For all the reasons outlined above, the narcissist is likely to keep on using the court system to resolve any real disputes as well as to create new one. As noted, the narcissist games the system.

If there are children involved there will be endless frustrations. A lack of back and forth communication, not sharing schedules, appointments, or itineraries, signing up children for activities that fall on both parents’ time without notice and discussion when the parent doesn’t have the legal authority to do so are pretty typical after a high-conflict divorce. Add in trying to get the child’s psychological records without legal authority and invading the child’s privacy, and not paying bills in a timely fashion. Then there’s the warfare which is less than stealth: sending frequent emails that complain, harass, and show that he or she is grilling the child or children about the other parent or household and putting down the parenting received. These can all become issues which must be resolved through the courts, as the narcissist well knows.

Tip – talk to your lawyers about sole parental responsibility and also about what is required for your ex to be declared a vexatious litigant.  Eventually the court can start putting in clauses to limit this behaviour and after a massive amount of time and expense prevent further litigation.  If they are harassing you a Family Violence Intervention Order may be required. (different names in different states) 

11. They will claim that you are mad and then try and make it a reality

The mind games, gas lighting and constant lies are all part of a campaign to undermine you and take the dominant position. It is important that your lawyer understands NPD and that you get a counsellor to help support your mental health during the process. It will be long and hard and may take it’s toll on you unless you work very hard to prevent it. Making you unable to work or cope would be seen as a win with no consideration on how that may impact your children.

Tip –  A good therapist, will be looking for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder which is common in abuse survivors.  Remember that your lawyer is not a therapist and your therapist is not a lawyer. Don’t mix up the roles as it will cost you if you do. 

12. They will undermine the confidence of your lawyer if they can

It’s not always obvious that your ex is a narcissist, especially if he or she appears to be well-spoken and well-off.  Because the perceptions of others is so important to them they are very, very good at fooling people. After all you fell in love with them and probably enjoyed a honeymoon period when they treated you like you were a god or goddess.

Your ex many not be clinically classifiable as having narcissistic personality disorder but their narcissistic tendencies may only fully come out during the divorce process. That is because it’s during conflict that the narcissist feel most threatened and the negative aspects of their personality are most strongly expressed.

If your lawyer does not understand high conflict personality types they may begin to believe the tale that your ex is spinning. Especially if you are very emotional and defensive in your efforts to be believed. The same may apply to the court report writers, Independent Children’s Lawyers (ICL’s) and even judges.  you will have to be very vigilant with them or switch lawyers yourself. You need a lawyer who will believe and support you and not tell you that it is all in your head or act towards you as if you are imagining the issues.

Tip: Discuss the patterns of your ex’s responses and the best way to deal with them and make sure that your legal team knows what to expect and has a strategy.

13. They will tell lies, exaggerate and make things up

A narcissistic ex will not try to keep things quite. They will work really hard to win the hearts and minds of everyone you know, everyone you will come in contact with through your separation and divorce and all of their social media connections. It is important that you keep accurate records so that you can provide evidence to discount their lies to court.  Even if you’ve never been much of a record keeper, this is the time to become one. If you get caught up in the court process at some point things will come down to a he said / she said contest.  Your ex will lie, distort and otherwise twist the facts to their best advantage. If you have hard evidence then you will be able to counteract the false claims and undermine their credibility.

Tip: Keep a detailed journal of dates, places and times. Receipts and other third party evidence can support your account. We’ve had cases were a client was out of the country or interstate at times where there were accused of doing things by their ex. Proof of flight itineraries and expenses helped to destroy the argument against them.  

14. They will used anything you give them against you 

What ever you do don’t sink to their level and avoid giving them ammunition. That mean that regardless of how unfair it is or how tempting it is do not indulge your anger and frustration.

Use the BIFF Response to keep your replies to emails and text messages Brief, Informative, Friendly but Firm.  BIFF response has been developed by the High Conflict Institute as one of the many strategies available to cope with difficult people such as people with NFD.

The BIFF Response means you do not have to (and should not) do a line by line response to their long and hurtful emails and letters, do not leave angry voice messages and text messages. It doesn’t take much for you to switch from being a victim of abuse to being seen as a perpetrator. Especially if you are dealing with gender bias.

Tip: Don’t lash out. Ever. Don’t talk badly about them, don’t call them names, don’t do anything that will give them ammunition. They will creatively edit your messages and comments and use them against you. Narcissists hide low self-esteem under an armour of arrogance and they will twist the story to make you look bad if they can. 

15. They will use your children against you. Resist the temptation to retaliate

Do not drag your children into your battle. It is very easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole and to become as bad as your ex in terms of the negative impact you are having on your children.  Do not make comments about your spouse in front of your children or to the people he or she hangs out with, as they will get back to him or her and fuel more retaliation. They will quiz the children and try to win their affections from you with gifts, permissive parenting or alternatively with very authoritarian parenting. Remember that they are more than likely the way they are because of their own upbringing. It is not an excuse but it may be a reason.

Tip: Research shows that with one good enough parent children can thrive. Don’t indulge in a tug of war. If they are giving over the top gifts and doing other things you can’t console yourself that at least they are spending some money on the children.  Eventually your child will see their narcissistic parents bribery and mudslinging for what it is an attempt to manipulate their own children. In the long run they will not win if you keep yourself respectful, calm and protective. 

Do you have any more observations or tips for dealing with a narcissistic ex so as to avoid the legal, financial and emotional impact of their behaviour?

Book in for an Interact Support consultation if you need some assistance with your Family Law goals and process. 

Author: Joanne Law