There are few tasks as daunting as staying married to a narcissist. But divorcing a narcissist? It can seem nearly impossible! The choice to leave a narcissistic or abusive partner can be a difficult one, but in many cases, the decision to divorce a narcissist is a defining moment in one’s own survivor story.
Divorce is a complicated and emotional process, and a narcissist may use this to their advantage to escalate or manipulate the situation. Because those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder operate on a sense of entitlement and self-importance, you may find yourself dealing with a spouse that lies, blames, gaslights you, or projects their insecurities in an attempt to regain control– even as they show a blatant disregard for you or your children. And while the legal process might be unpleasant, there is hope!
The tips below have been formulated through a combination of personal and professional experience to help you know what to expect when divorcing a narcissist.
5 Things to Expect When Divorcing a Narcissist
1. A narcissist may fight for custody.
Be prepared to fight for custody. As my children’s primary caretaker, I didn’t think custody would be a challenge. The thought of a contested custody battle never even crossed my mind. I had never heard of parental alienation, nor was I aware that parental alienation is the most commonly used tactic against abused women when fighting for custody. We don’t automatically conflate domestic violence with contested custody, or vice versa, but it’s actually pretty common to have documentation of domestic violence within a contested custody case.
After supporting my husband through school, we decided I would stay home to be with our children. As the only caretaker they knew, I wasn’t worried about custody. I stressed the importance of family and planned on my husband having regular visitation and remaining a major part of our lives. In preparation, I requested that the guns be removed from the house, that he attend a parenting class, and that he attend an anger management class.
But I had not prepared for him to challenge my fitness as a mother, to portray me as mentally unstable, and then sue me for full custody. I was shocked when a custodial evaluation was ordered for me. I was shocked that his instances of abuse were never mentioned. I was shocked that he could spin the narrative and pose as the victim. Most shocking, perhaps, was that people believed him. It took some biting remarks from the custodial evaluator for me to realize that a narcissist would stop at nothing, and I couldn’t afford to be surprised (or shocked) by anything. Although this left me on guard much of the time, I became painfully aware that each time I was even a minute late could be used as evidence that I was unfit or keeping him from seeing the kids.
2. A narcissist may view loss or abandonment as a direct threat.
Don’t take it personally. When divorcing a narcissist, they may seem like they are upset about losing you. A narcissist may even use rage or violence to manipulate you into reconsidering. While it may seem natural to equate a big show of emotions with caring, a narcissist is more likely to be upset about losing control than they are about losing you.
When someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder perceives criticism, abandonment, or loss, they may develop a narcissistic injury. A narcissistic person may view loss or abandonment as a direct threat to their fragile ego. Rather than reacting to a loss with feelings of grief, a narcissist will instead develop an intense rage. With my husband’s narcissistic injury, I had to learn that it wasn’t about me either. He wasn’t upset that I left. He was enraged because he no longer had his image of the perfect family to introduce to his colleagues, support him on his website, and assure him that he was always in control.
3. A narcissist can be persuasive in their version of “the truth.”
Never underestimate the lengths that a narcissistic person will go to get their way. Although I live by Mark Twain’s quote, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember a thing,” I don’t think Mark had ever met a narcissist. I assumed that I could walk into the court and tell the judge the truth, but my husband had his own version of “the truth.” And he was convincing. Narcissists believe their narrative, and often they’re quite persuasive in telling their version of “the truth.”
Like an old library card catalog, the brain of a narcissist seems to cross-reference and fact-check, always ready to connect one lie to another. In court, my narcissistic spouse would attempt to discredit everything I said. And over the years, he developed his working toolbox. His narrative presented me as an unfit mother, mentally unstable, and guilty of alienating the kids. If a narcissist believes their narrative, their action is justified. Be prepared to counter anything that comes your way.
4. A narcissist might fight dirty – document everything safely.
Document everything in a safe and secure place. I vividly remember sitting in that first hearing and having nine years worth of emails, documents, and other personal computer files pulled out of a file box. The information used by his attorney should not have been admissible, and I soon realized that my attorney was not well-versed in dealing with these litigations.
5. A narcissist may gaslight you into thinking you’re crazy or wrong.
Don’t doubt your decision. You are not crazy! Narcissistic abuse can cause doubt, fear, and overthinking. Healing is possible, but deconstructing the trauma can take time. When divorcing a narcissist, they may try to make you appear mentally unstable. The force behind a narcissistic person’s narrative can be scary, but counter the intimidation with preparation. Change the narrative in your head. Trust your instincts. And if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
6 Tips to Consider When Divorcing a Narcissist
1. Divorcing a narcissist requires an experienced attorney.
Seek legal representation from someone that has experience in litigation against a narcissist. While most family attorneys will have experience in litigating a contested divorce, litigating against a narcissist is an active skill that requires intentional training, research, and experience in the courtroom. Look for someone knowledgeable in the divorce process, alimony, custody, property division, child support, and mediation.
2. Divorcing a narcissist requires some serious self-care.
Don’t forget to maintain your health. Divorcing a narcissist can be a lonely process and it’s easy to lose sight of yourself. But the importance of self-care, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and physical activity cannot be understated! Turn to healthy coping mechanisms that contribute to your wellness.
A narcissist will try to discredit you. A narcissist will try to wear you down and make you look weak. When divorcing a narcissist, you can reclaim your strength by continuing to care for yourself. If you are not already in therapy, consider adding this layer of support. Our licensed therapists and counselors provide trauma-informed care to those suffering from narcissistic abuse, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Our registered dietitians and nutritionists can help you learn how to nourish your body with food with nutrition counseling, intuitive eating, and meal planning.
3. Divorcing a narcissist requires you to control your reactions.
You can only control your response. You cannot control what a narcissist might do, but you can be prepared for their actions and condition your response. Often, the best response is no response. Narcissists can be explosive, but they’re always predictable. Learn the patterns and know what to expect. You can’t control how a narcissist reacts to a trigger, but divorcing a narcissist requires you to control your reactions. You will need to be in control of how you present in court, how you co-parent, and how you react to provocation.
4. Divorcing a narcissist requires you to mitigate the collateral damage/worry about the kids.
When divorcing a narcissist, the burden of the children’s well-being may lie solely on you. While no one wins in a divorce, when the divorce includes a narcissist, the lack of empathy can be especially hard on kids. Although they may be fighting for custody and feigning interest, a narcissist has likely given little or no consideration to a child’s wellbeing.
Even more, children can feel torn between two homes, and the need to please both parents, all while adjusting to a new normal. Help your kids transition smoothly by keeping them out of it! Try not to disparage your spouse in front of them, and keep conversations age appropriate. Don’t put the kids in the middle by asking them to communicate for you. After a divorce, or after narcissistic abuse, a child may need counseling to process their feelings.
5. Divorcing a narcissist requires organized, documented communications.
Communicate in writing via emails or texts. You can ask your attorney about using one of the court apps that automatically saves all communications. Depending on the situation, try to keep things short and to the point. And before you hit send, verify your information is accurate. At one point, an email I had sent with the wrong date set off a flurry of emails about my attempt to alienate the children. Even the most innocuous mistake can be used against you. Have a trusted friend read your message before you send it or follow your attorney’s guidance on the best way to respond.
6. Divorcing a narcissist requires preparation/protection.
Be prepared for a narcissist to bite back, even when they could be harming themselves. While they may stonewall you, narcissists tend to follow the same predictable patterns. Know that a narcissist may refuse to settle outside of the courtroom, refuse to negotiate, refuse to provide accurate financial information and documents, refuse to abide by court orders, and even refuse their own attorney’s advice.
If you are contemplating or currently going through a divorce and fear your spouse exhibits narcissistic behaviors, there are ways to prepare! Consider taking these actions to protect yourself and your financial independence when divorcing a narcissist.
- Ensure you have funds on hand for attorney fees, court-ordered evaluations, and a Guardian ad Litem.
- Be prepared for a lengthy divorce.
- Gather copies of all important documents like insurance cards, social security cards, birth certificates, bank statements, health records, and school records. Discuss any financial concerns with your attorney and check if you can get a court order to freeze financials. Narcissists are often motivated to drag out the divorce until the money’s gone and they can use it as a bargaining chip.
- Be open and clear with your attorney when communicating about billing hours. They will charge you for their time, so be direct. Ask what you need to provide and when, and how to best send important information. Keep emails and other exchanges short and to the point for the most effective communication.
Reach out today or tune in soon!
To learn more about recovering from narcissistic abuse, you can find my new podcast “Hope After Narcissistic Abuse” here. It is my hope that listeners will leave each session with a renewed optimism that healing and joy are still within reach after divorcing a narcissist.
Find our pilot episode available on all platforms on January 4th! Join our licensed professionals as we discuss trauma-informed care and deconstruct the abusive patterns of narcissists. You’ll also be able to sign up for the course, Hope After Narcissistic Abuse, at an early bird discount.
And January 11th, Miles Mason, Sr. joins “Hope After Narcissistic Abuse” to share his top tips as a divorce attorney. Join Amy and Miles Mason, Sr., as they discuss the signs of financial abuse and how to approach financial independence and/or safety. Plus, how to look your very best in court. Miles Mason, Sr., represents Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC, handling divorce in Memphis, Tennessee since 1996. Mason is respected in the community as a divorce lawyer and family advocate because of his dedication to helping families create brighter futures.
If you or a loved one needs help after divorcing a narcissist please reach out to one of our experienced therapists today. New Hope Counseling and Wellness Center provides expert counseling and therapy in Columbia, SC, including Richland County, Lexington County, Kings Grant, Heathwood, Soda City, Melrose Heights, Rosewood, Shandon, Forest Acres, Hamptons, and Old Woodlands.