Divorce is difficult under any circumstances. But divorcing a narcissist is beyond difficult. It’s nothing short of hell on earth.
By Karen Covey - Divorce Lawyer, Mediator & Coach
In simple terms, a narcissist is someone who is (or appears to be) in love with him/herself. 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 attention and admiration, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy for others."
Contrary to what it seems, however, narcissists are not really in love with themselves. Behind their apparent confidence and grandeur lies a very fragile self- esteem. They make themselves appear to be perfect because they are terrified of being seen as imperfect in any way.
Because narcissists have such fragile self-esteem, they are sensitive to even the tiniest criticism. They often react with anger or contempt when they don’t get what they want. They also have difficulty regulating their emotions and reactions.
It’s not surprising then, that getting divorced often throws narcissists into a full-blown existential crisis. Because they are so traumatized at the thought of looking like they are anything less than perfect, they do everything in their divorce to make their spouse look like the real bad guy. They also need to “win” on a level that only a raging two year old can understand.
Because of all this, divorcing a narcissist is usually ugly, expensive, and exhausting. (Sorry!) That’s because narcissists refuse to accept that the normal rules that apply in divorce have anything to do with them.
If you are married to a narcissist, here are 10 tips that will help you survive.
One of the biggest mistakes that those married to narcissists make is to underestimate how truly horrible their divorce is probably going to be. (Sorry!) They start by trying to work things out themselves, or do things amicably. While that’s a fabulous strategy if you’re married to a normal person, when you’re married to a narcissist, “being nice” only leads to your being taken advantage of in an epic way.
While “lawyering up” immediately is also not necessarily your best strategy, if your spouse is a narcissist, the sooner you can get good legal advice, the better off you will be. You don’t have to hire a gladiator right out of the box. But you do need a strong advocate by your side.
When you’re divorcing a bully, you need a lawyer who isn’t afraid of your bully. At the same time, you also don’t want a lawyer who loves to fight.
Narcissists thrive on drama. If you hire a lawyer who also thrives on drama, you’re going to create a whole lot of excess drama in your divorce! Your best bet is to find a lawyer who can fight, but won’t create a fight – someone who will protect you, but not make your divorce even worse than it already is.
Yes. I mean for you. Narcissistic behavior can be crazy-making! Having a therapist who can help you cope and can act as your reality-check through your divorce can (literally!) save your sanity!
What’s more, a therapist who is experienced in dealing with narcissistic personality disorder can also provide you with great tools and tactics that you can use while you’re trying to deal with your divorce.
If you're reluctant to be seen at a counselor's office, you might consider using online counseling, like that offered by BetterHelp (Please note our website receives compensation for referrals to BetterHelp).
Narcissists excel at getting people to side with them. They’re charming and will do their best to paint you as the bad guy in every way that you can imagine (and probably a few you never dreamed of!). What’s more, if they can get to your friends and family first (and they will try!) they may spread lies that will ruin your relationships with those people forever.
While you’ll never be able to stop your narcissistic spouse from talking trash about you to everyone, the sooner you can gather a close support group around you who know the truth, the better your chances will be of actually having a close support group.
Narcissists have no problem lying. They do it all the time. They will tell you one thing today and the opposite thing tomorrow. They’ll also deny that they ever changed their story. PLUS they will be so convincing that after a while even you will start to believe them!
Getting everything in writing is the ONLY way you can document what is really going on. (Just remember that if you want to use documentation in court, using emails and texts that your spouse wrote will be much more convincing than using what you wrote. After all, simply because you wrote something down doesn’t make it true. But if your spouse emails you that you can pick up the kids at 4pm and then later claims s/he said 8pm, you have proof of your spouse’s lie.)
Narcissists thrive on drama. Court rooms are made for drama. That’s why being in court often only fuels the fire in your divorce. Plus, if your narcissistic spouse is charming, attractive, and intelligent, s/he will probably do really, really well in court – especially at first. (Think about it. Your spouse charmed you way back when. What makes you think s/he won’t charm the judge, too?)
It will take many, many court appearances before your spouse’s true colors start to show through. There’s also no guarantee that that will ever happen. If your narcissistic spouse is a really good actor, you can get through your entire divorce with the judge thinking that YOU are the one who’s crazy! That’s why using mediation or Collaborative Divorce can often be a better choice when you’re divorcing a narcissist.
Yes, I know how crazy that sounds. But it’s actually one of the best strategies you can use to get through your divorce with your sanity intact. Here’s why. Narcissists love to win! The more you can find ways to make your narcissistic spouse look good, and feel like s/he “won,” the more you increase your chances of getting your divorce done.
The key, of course, is to try to make your spouse feel like s/he won without having to lose the things that are truly most important to you. That’s not always easy, and it’s not always possible. But if you can manage to do it, this is a strategy that can actually work with your narcissistic spouse.
When you divorce a narcissist, you have to fight A LOT of battles! If you throw all of your time and energy into fighting each and every one of them you’ll end up broke and exhausted. You also stand a greater chance of losing the battles you care the most about simply because by the time the important battles come around you’re too drained to give them your all.
Instead of fighting every single fight your narcissistic spouse draws you into, decide in advance which fights are worth your effort, and which one you just want to let go. (This is another reason why advance planning helps so much when you are divorcing a narcissist.) If you can walk away from the fights that don’t matter you will save enormous amounts of time and energy. You also may be able to drive your spouse a little crazy wondering what you’re up to!
Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries. Partners respect each other’s opinions and accommodate each other’s needs. Narcissists, however, typically don’t respect other people’s boundaries. That means that, when you’re married to a narcissist, your needs usually go un-noticed and unmet.
Because your narcissistic spouse wouldn’t allow you to have boundaries during your marriage, setting them during your divorce can be challenging. Yet, setting clear boundaries about what kind of treatment you will – and won’t – put up with from now on will help you start to separate from your spouse. It will also establish the tone of your post-divorce relationship, which is especially critical if you have to co-parent together after your divorce.
Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint. Nowhere is that more true than when you’re divorcing a narcissist. (Divorcing a narcissist is actually more like an ultra-marathon!) If you want to make it to the end, you’ve got to take care of yourself all along the way.
I know it sounds cliché, but getting a good night’s sleep, eating right, and exercising regularly will help you deal with your divorce better. Talking to a therapist and having a solid support group will help you feel less lonely and isolated. Making the time to do the things you love, and to laugh once in a while, will also help make your problems seem a little lighter, even if only for a moment.
Karen Covy is a divorce attorney, advisor, consultant and coach who is committed to helping couples resolve their disputes as amicably as possible. She is also the author of When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially, and Legally. You can find out more about Karen at karencovy.com.
The following articles can help as you work your way through the all the issues of divorcing a narcissist:
Handling Your Spouse's Reaction
Divorcing a Mentally Ill Husband