Divorce is not easy to go through, and it can be even more challenging when you’re divorcing a narcissistic spouse.
According to experts, here are some effective methods to guide you through this process:
Miles Mason, Sr. JD, CPA
Divorce Attorney | Founder, Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC
Your experienced family lawyer will help guide you through the process
Divorce is a bit odd in that rarely are lawyers going to make the difference by “making the right moves on the chessboard.” Most experienced family lawyers will tell you success is most often based on avoiding bad decisions. In some situations, defensive strategies make more sense.
Here are some of the very best strategies and tactics for beating the narcissist in court:
Learn, learn, learn. Understand what comes next. Information is power. Do everything possible to avoid surprises. Knowledge of the process reduces fear.
Accept what you cannot change
- You cannot change your judge.
- You cannot change your opposing counsel.
- You cannot reduce the narcissist’s anger.
- You cannot force the narcissist to accept a reasonable divorce settlement.
You can do everything possible to improve and increase your relative negotiating leverage.
Hire an expert witness early
If your lawyer recommends hiring a particular expert witness early, do it. Your goal is to gain as much negotiating leverage as possible. The right expert witness early could make the difference down the long road.
Understand the role of your lawyer
Your legal team makes recommendations, and you make decisions. Batch your questions by writing them down as they pop into your head. Ask for appointments to meet with your experienced family lawyer to ask your questions.
Understand that just because your lawyer does not respond to you immediately, that does not mean your lawyer is not engaged in your case. Learn how your lawyer prefers to communicate with you.
Some lawyers can’t have daily e-mail exchanges, some may prefer scheduling telephone conferences, while others may be more comfortable holding in-person conferences once every week or two.
Prepare intellectually and emotionally
Intellectually and emotionally prepare for making tough decisions on the difficult road ahead. If you need help from your emotional support team, ask for the help you need.
Documents matter in order to prove a narcissist is lying
When the narcissist-spouse digs in and refuses to exchange discovery voluntarily, you must dig in, too. If your lawyer needs to go to court to compel the production of information and documents, don’t worry. This is a very common practice in divorce.
One of the best ways to prove a narcissist is lying is with documents. Documents such as tax returns, financial statements, and loan applications have been the weapon of choice to crush many a narcissist.
Subpoenas are the tool to help you overturn important rocks to look under—details matter.
Be conservative with money
Be conservative with money in anticipation of court proceedings—litigation is expensive. One goal of the narcissist is to pressure their spouse into giving up after exhausting all of their financial resources. Be ready for this strategy.
When narcissists refuse to negotiate, relax
You now know this is a very common tactic. Talk with your experienced family lawyer about your options. Many experienced family lawyers will strongly suggest scheduling and preparing for trial as a counter-tactic to encourage settlement.
This counter-intuitive advice is often concerning to rational and normal persons. But it is true. There are a number of tools and procedures your family lawyer can exploit to advance theprocess towards trial. Trust your lawyer on this even when it may not make complete sense.
You are paying your lawyer for their experience and judgment in such matters.
Ignore what you cannot control
When the narcissist refuses to listen to their own lawyer, this can be an extremely frustrating part of the divorce. You can’t control what the narcissist will or won’t do—especially in relation to listening to their lawyer.
Ignore what you cannot control. Pay attention to what you can impact.
When the narcissist violates the wrong court order, take advantage of it
When the narcissist defies court orders, seek detailed advice from your experienced family lawyer.
How do you prove it? Which violations will annoy the judge?
Not every violation of a court order is important, but some are very important and must be brought to the attention of the judge. Picking your battles wisely is a very important consideration. Contempt may be one tool available.
When the narcissist violates the wrong court order, take advantage—timing matters. If your lawyer recommends you take action, listen carefully.
Learn and explore your options
When the narcissist uses your children as pawns, this can be the most despicable tactic imaginable. Your children become collateral damage. This tactic is part of the narcissist’s standard operating procedure. Your suffering and the children’s suffering become one and the same.
Talk to your experienced family lawyer about your legal options:
- Seek a court-ordered temporary parenting plan?
- Ask the court to issue particular injunctions to curtail the destructive behavior?
- Court-ordered family counseling?
- Ask the court to order an independent child custody evaluation?
- Ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem?
- Seek advice from a consulting forensic clinical psychologist?
You have options. Learn them.
Memories fade over time. Learn what goes into a parenting journal. Write detailed factual summaries for your lawyer. Include everything important to you. You may not know what can be vitally important at a later stage of the divorce.
Many lawyers are better at retaining the information they read rather than having it told to them. Plus, what you write down can be used by your lawyer to prepare notes, motions, petitions, and memorandum. Rarely is this ever a waste of your time.
Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
Licensed Professional Counselor, Arvada Therapy Solutions, PLLC
You’ll need a strong and well-developed plan
Divorcing a narcissist needs a strong and well-developed plan, especially if you have children together.
You will need to plan not only around the logistical issues that will arise but the emotional ones that will likely come up through one of the toughest journeys you may ever take.
Appropriate documentation can make or break your case
But what specifically do you need to document? This can be tricky as much of what you are documenting may not be admissible as evidence in court, and the laws are different depending on what state you live in.
For example, some states allow for an audio recording of others without their consent, while in some states, it is illegal to do so. Is the evidence considered hearsay, or can the legitimacy of the information and documentation be determined?
Your attorney should be able to help explain what types of documentation can be used as evidence in your case.
Get your support system ready
One of the most important aspects of preparing for a divorce with a narcissist is creating a strong and supportive tribe of people to help you along the way.
This tribe will consist of both personal family/friends and professionals and will help combat everything from the smear campaign to setting boundaries around co-parenting to financial help to childcare help and, of course, legal support.
Find an attorney well versed in working with survivors of domestic violence and/or “high conflict” cases.
Some of the questions that you can ask when interviewing the attorney are:
- How they handle the possible hearing for Emergency Changes to Parenting Time
- Filing contempt charges when the narcissistic parent does not follow orders (they likely will not)
- How transparent they are when it comes to the amount of money you will likely spend
Divorcing a narcissist will be a much longer case than a “normal” divorce. Find a therapist for you and your children who are well-versed in domestic violence and narcissistic behaviors.
Some questions to ask a possible child therapist are:
- How they handle communication with parents to avoid triangulation
- What level of confidentiality do they hold for your child(ren)
- Do they charge for speaking with a court evaluator
- If you believe you need it, do they testify in court on behalf of your child(ren)?
Find trusted friends and family who can help with emotional support, child care, possible financial concerns and can be used should a safety plan be necessary.
Communicate with your children
Like with everyone else, your ex will talk poorly about you to the children. It may be in a more covert way, or it may be blatant. You will absolutely be branded as the bad guy.
It may make you want to explain what is happening in detail to your kiddos to make sure they understand why you are doing what you are doing and all of the things the abusive parent has done or is doing.
Typically this is not helpful. Less is more.
Your children will eventually come to understand their narcissistic parent’s behaviors based on their relationship with them. If you can show them unconditional love, they will feel the difference. If you can hold your tongue and not speak poorly about the other parent, they will hear the difference.
Set your expectations
This will be a long and very difficult process. Think about how it has gone in the past when you attempt to hold your narcissistic partner accountable or attempt to set boundaries with them. Probably not very well.
Your ex-partner will try to do anything for the “win.”
They often feel invincible because no one has ever held them accountable, and they also do not believe that they are in the wrong, no matter how abusive their behaviors are.
So, be ready for the mask of the perfect citizen and perfect parent to come on anytime you are in front of a judge or evaluator and then for the abuse to intensify outside of court, maybe in ways you have not seen before.
Carrie Mead, LCPC
Psychotherapist, Maryland Therapy by Carrie
Recognize that there is a problem
The first step is to realize that you are in an abusive relationship. This is harder than it seems because you have endured maltreatment for so long that it feels normal.
Clients often come to me in a state of denial about the toxicity of the relationship.
My job as a psychotherapist is to help them gain clarity, courage, and self-respect. Clients are often dismissive of their partner’s behavior, and they downplay the severity of the treatment.
For example, they might say, “My husband is a jerk, but he does make a lot more money than me, so why should I get to spend it?” First, we must accept that this behavior is unacceptable and dangerous. Grounding the client in reality is extremely important.
Signs of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome
Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome occurs to the victim of the abusive relationship. Any person who has endured subtle but chronic and increasingly obvious emotional abuse is likely to develop symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome.
Gaslighting and manipulation are the top tactics used by narcissists. This means they deny your reality and blame you for everything.
For example, when you spill the coffee because they pushed you, they say, “You are so clumsy, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you even pour coffee without making a mess?”
Other symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome include:
- Low self-esteem
- A warped sense of reality
- Intense indecisiveness
They might develop maladaptive behaviors like addictions to spending, gambling, or drugs to escape reality.
Prepare to leave
When you have made the mental decision to leave your narcissistic spouse, you must be extremely thoughtful, careful, and courageous.
Any wrong move and your partner will either swoon you back (remember, your self-esteem is low and your sense of reality is warped. If he tells you that he will give you more money for your impossibly low monthly budget, you believe him), or he will make it nearly impossible for you to leave.
The narcissist will go to great lengths to isolate you, manipulate you, scare you, and he (or she) will very likely limit your access to money, friends, resources, transportation, and a job.
In preparation, you need legal advice before you tell your spouse that it’s over. This is imperative. The lawyer will help you understand your rights, and they will go over the ‘dos and don’ts’ that will ultimately make or break your case.
Additionally, you will want to have started to save money in secret, most likely, and have a plan of where to go, what to take, and what to say to him or her. This all takes time, effort, and emotional energy. All of which you will feel you lack.
Depending on your situation, you may also need to consider removing your social media or internet presence and tracking information for your phone.
You must assume that once he knows you are leaving, he will make your home life more difficult, and he will further access your ability to reach joint accounts or even car keys. Once you decide to leave, you must follow through, and then you can begin healing.
Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq.
Matrimonial Law Attorney | Co-Founder, Jacobs Berger, LLC
Remember to choose your battles wisely
Hidden low self-esteem can cause people with a narcissistic personality to look for confirmation that their feelings of superiority are merited.
For example, narcissists tend to want to feel like they have won every argument – from folding bathroom towels to dividing parenting time when making a child custody agreement.
Pro tip: Avoid being sucked in. If you let your spouse’s desire to fight result in an argument each time you speak, you’ll exhaust yourself. Instead, we suggest choosing a few important “battles” rather than all of them.
Document anything and everything
Since narcissists are experts at lying and manipulation, they can present themselves as charming when it suits them. They may say one thing today and give an opposite response on the same topic tomorrow.
When you point out any contradictions, they’ll typically just deny they ever said anything different and use their charm to convince you that they’re right and you’re wrong.
With that, it’s important to keep meticulous records of everything, especially on conversations or issues you have identified as important, so you can keep your facts straight.
Pro tip: Try to keep all of your interactions via written communication, like email and text, so you can save screenshots. Why? So you’ll have a visual record of their changing facts or opinions. It’s also important to keep voicemails as additional pieces of evidence if your case ends up in court.
Build a strong support system
Narcissists want people to like them, and they spend a lot of time winning people over – especially during a divorce.
- Have open conversations with a therapist and the people you’re closest with, especially when you’ve decided to file for divorce.
- Be honest with them about what’s going on so you can share your side of the story. Although this won’t prevent a narcissist from trying to win your support system over, it can help your loved ones from being swayed.
- If a narcissist does create any drama, avoid it and keep people out of your circle if they’re sucked into the drama.
- You need to surround yourself with people who can help you on your path forward.
Be realistic about the divorce process
Unfortunately, separating from a spouse who is a narcissist typically leads to a high-conflict divorce. While you may be hopeful for an easy, drama-free divorce, it can be beneficial to temper any expectations of how the process will go so you are prepared for what may be ahead.
With the right divorce strategy and support system, including a good divorce lawyer, you have a higher chance of avoiding getting wrapped up in unnecessary drama.
Pro tip: Make and stick to your boundaries. You should limit your interactions with your spouse and remember that you don’t have to respond to them immediately.
Also, take time to care for yourself – when you’re not functioning at your best (or closer to it), you’re more likely to slip back into unhealthy patterns and neglect your needs or boundaries.
Hire the right divorce attorney
This may seem like an obvious tip, but it is important to work with a divorce attorney who has experience in divorce with high-conflict personalities.
If your attorney already has an understanding of how a narcissist will react and what tricks they’ll pull, you’ll already be further ahead on your path.
- Do your research and take your time when selecting an attorney to work with.
- If your soon-to-be ex-spouse tries to rush you, don’t let them because this is your decision.
- Make sure you’re hiring someone who fits your needs, not those of your ex.
Child Custody and Divorce Lawyer, Stephen L. Cawelti, Family Law
Divorcing a narcissist may seem daunting, but staying in a toxic marriage will deteriorate your mental and physical well-being.
Below are my top 5 tips for divorcing a narcissist.
Keep meticulous records
Keep meticulous records of every conversation you have with your soon-to-be ex-spouse. If possible, try to correspond with your spouse in writing (via email, letter, or text). If you do speak on the phone, try to have another individual present and keep a log of what transpired on the call.
Do not forget to include critical information, such as the date, time, and subject matter of the call. Obviously, try not to raise suspicions if you can avoid it.
If you have children, keep a log of how much time your spouse spends with them. They may tout to the judge and their lawyer that they spend a lot of time with your kids, but a log from your Google Calendar, Notes on your iPhone, or even a folded-up piece of paper will give your lawyer ammunition against this argument if it is inaccurate.
If your spouse has primary custody of your children and ever tries to deny you access to them, keep a record of that as well. If they don’t follow a court order for your visitation, make a police report. Denying court orders is a big no-no and will not bode well for them in court.
Don’t drag your kids into the mess
It is common for a narcissistic parent to try and turn everyone (including your kids) against you. While it may be tempting to use the same methods to fight back, don’t. Courts do not look kindly on parents who attempt to alienate the other parents from their children.
Stay calm, let your divorce lawyer fight your battles, and continue to keep meticulous records.
You can’t control the behavior of your ex, but you can control yours. Be the role model that you wish your ex could be for your kids, and avoid trash-talking them in front of your children. It may feel like your playing the long game, but it usually pays off. And your kids will appreciate you for it.
Remain calm and professional
Narcissists are master manipulators, and they know how to push you beyond your emotional capacity. Often, they will bait you into an argument and then play the victim.
If possible, limit contact with your ex during the divorce. Resist the urge to argue with them, and keep all of your communication calm and professional.
As said in tip #1, your conversations can be used as evidence in court. Show the court that even when baited, you remain stable.
Hire the right divorce lawyer
Find an attorney who is a master negotiator, has extensive experience in court and is committed to protecting your rights and interests. Don’t be afraid to speak to several divorce attorneys in your area to get a feel of their approaches to handling family law cases.
Many individuals who are divorcing a narcissist think they need to hire an overly aggressive “pit bull” type lawyer. This could not be further from what you need.
An overly aggressive lawyer can take your case off the rails, set the wrong tone in negotiations, interfere with your settlement, and drive up legal fees. Don’t confuse volume and aggression for the expertise and “emotional intelligence.”
Make copies of everything
Never count on being able to get copies of critical financial documents or for your spouse to do the right thing (especially if they are a narcissist).
Make copies of everything: Your escrow paperwork for the house, your spouse’s 401k balance back when you first got married, especially anything that goes back 7 years or more.
In divorce, every dollar counts. We’re talking about your financial future here.
This same tip applies to the condition of the house and things inside it. Take a cell phone walk-thru video, open the drawers and cabinets. Things disappear, and accusations get made, so protect yourself with evidence before it’s too late.
Take care of yourself
A narcissist does not take rejection easily, and there is a high likelihood that they are going to try to make your life a living hell during the divorce. Set boundaries in regards to how much contact you will allow from your ex, and let your divorce lawyer fight your battles.
Go see a therapist to help you navigate the emotional rollercoaster that your ex most certainly has dragged you on and surround yourself with a support system. Eat well, exercise, and if you have children, remember that taking care of yourself will ultimately help you to be a better parent.
An experienced divorce lawyer who understands Narcissistic Personality Disorder is needed
Narcissists don’t share or lose. They must perceive themselves as winners. Mediation becomes out of the question, and an experienced divorce lawyer who understands the Narcissistic Personality Disorder is needed.
The narcissist cannot tolerate any challenges to integrity, culpability, or fairness. Prolonged divorce proceedings can be expected if the spouse initiating divorce wants the narcissist’s true identity to be revealed in court so that fairness and reason can take hold.
Regard for children
If there are children, the impact of divorce proceedings will not be viewed empathically by the narcissist. These children most likely have already been hurt by “The Parental Alienation Syndrome,” where they are chronically misled into viewing the non-narcissistic parent as at fault, deceptive, and unloving.
These are children who already have been hurt by a disregard for their individuality due to the narcissist’s focus on admiration of him or herself.
Custody is complex because the spouse who has been dependent upon fulfilling the narcissist’s whims and desires, especially for grandiose admiration, has been hurt and confused. It may be a testament to the emotional growth of the non-narcissistic spouse to seek a divorce so that the individual can regain some autonomy and strengthen a sense of self.
To prevent chronic parental alienation, the divorcing spouse would need full custody. The narcissist cannot be trusted to consider the best interests of children because they’re self-absorbed and only offers approval to a child if the child favors and aggrandizes the narcissistic parent.
Prepare for the divorce proceedings
The initiating non-narcissistic spouse needs a clear paper trail and witnesses to support their views. Documenting incidents of the narcissist’s rages, lack of empathy, denial of culpability, and time spent and not spent with children is paramount.
In addition, preparing character witnesses who will speak positively about the character traits of the non-narcissist will support legal proceedings. In court, the lawyer will recommend remaining calm despite the narcissist’s provocations. This well-trained lawyer will take the lead.
Careful and thorough discussions about legal expenses must be considered from the start and throughout the proceedings because a lengthy process can be expected unless the non-narcissist does not need financial support or gives in to lost revenues and property in order to shorten the emotional and legal process hoping potential benefits of mental health can take priority over financial assets.
You’ll need emotional support and professional guidance throughout the divorce and its aftermath
The initiating, non-narcissistic spouse seeking a divorce will require emotional support and professional guidance throughout the divorce and its aftermath. The narcissist will not desist in interrupting the life of the ex or the children even after the divorce is finalized.
Kris Parker, Esq.
Family Attorney | Co-Founder, Hendry & Parker, P.A.
It’s paramount that you and your attorney work to expose your spouse’s behaviors to the court
As a divorce attorney, the first piece of advice that I would give is: Do not marry a narcissist. For those ill-fated spouses faced with divorcing a narcissist, there are three things to remember:
- Your spouse will never consider your personal needs when negotiating any settlement agreement.
- Your spouse will feel entitled to get what he/she wants in the divorce and will not budge unless it’s the only plausible choice.
- Your spouse will only be defensive to any type of criticism, whether it is justified or not.
The problem with most divorces involving narcissist spouses is that it is difficult to prove that they are indeed a true narcissist. To prove this, one would need to be diagnosed by a mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
If there has been no prior diagnosis, you could motion the court for a psychological evaluation. Courts will be more likely to grant such a proposal if both parties are willing to undergo the evaluation.
Suppose a mental health professional diagnoses your spouse with narcissistic personality disorder. In that case, a judge will be put on notice that your spouse is self-absorbed and will always ignore the needs of others.
If you have a minor child as part of marriage, it is also a good idea to motion the court to appoint a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem is an attorney who will carefully investigate all sides and report its recommendations to the court.
The guardian ad litem will spend ample time interviewing your spouse and acquire a good understanding of his/her behavior patterns. A good guardian ad litem will expose these patterns of narcissism to the court so that the judge can consider this disorder in doing what is best for the minor kid(s).
Dissolving a marriage with a true narcissist is always a brutal affair because a narcissist has excessive interest and admiration of themselves and an inability to consider the needs of others.
It is paramount that you and your attorney work to expose these behaviors to the court so that the judge understands that your spouse is only interested in himself and his interests.
Dean Tong, MSc., CFC
Forensic Trial Consultant, Abuse-Excuse | Master of Science Degree in Child Forensic Studies in Psychology and the Law
It’s best to go along to get along
Many States require divorcing couples to attempt mediation. And, certainly, it’s in the best interest of divorcing couples’ emotional sanity, wallet, and physical and mental well-being of their children to try and reconcile their differences and avoid litigation and conflict in Court.
Collaborative divorce and arbitration can achieve a successful, less-scarring resolution to marriage dissolution. But what happens when one party is a narcissist and is into self-aggrandizement and gaslights the other party?
Attempted mediation means just that, and it does not necessarily achieve success. Divorcing a person who is all about themselves, who lacks empathy, and who questions your own reality is going to up the ante in the legal process.
Mediation, or conciliation, or working it out without Attorneys, and a Judge who is forced to make a decision and financial expense is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Take no prisoners
Divorcing a person who displays narcissistic features or traits, or worse, has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM-5 is going to make it very difficult to avoid high-conflict litigation and a protracted court process.
If children are involved, it’s exacerbated. The reason is simple; the narcissist is going to want the kit and caboodle – the kids, the house, and the money.
It’s going to cause the person divorcing the narcissist to go into litigation mode. That’s going to set into motion an aggressive and litigious posture on behalf of the non-narcissist’s attorney. And that could include firing off Depositions Duces Tecums to depose the narcissist et al request for admissions and propounded interrogatories.
These are legal impeachment tools used by an Attorney to try and discredit the narcissist’s credibility, and in part, under oath.
All’s well that ends well
If the divorce case is a he said – she said credibility shoot-out in Court, the Judge will be charged in deciding which litigant is more believable or not.
But, when kids are involved, the case takes on a whole new life form because the Family Court is required under the law to rule in the children’s best interest and not in the best interest of the adults.
In the end, the Judge will rule in accord with the rules of evidence, statutory law, and case law, and whether or not issues such as mental health, domestic or child abuse, or one’s fitness as a parent is a deal-breaker for the Court.
Lindsey Egan, Esq.
Family Law and Estate Planning Attorney, Egan Law Center
If you’re living separately, I recommend letting your partner know before you file for divorce
One thing my clients with narcissistic partners struggle the most with during the divorce process is how to tell their partner they are going to be filing for divorce.
Many fear the angry outbursts, the manipulation, and the intimidation tactics that are sure to follow to keep them under the control of their spouse.
Although I usually recommend letting your partner know before you file for divorce, if you are already living apart from your spouse and are truly too afraid to tell them, then it is entirely possible to avoid the conversation altogether and have a constable serve them the papers themselves.
However, if you are still living with your partner, this can backfire tremendously once they are served, which is why I only recommend this path if you are living separately.
I’m always trying to think of ways I can lessen the emotional burden on my clients who are already dealing with the pain of a divorce.
Mary Joye, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Winter Haven Counseling
Pair legal counsel with mental health counseling
Your attorney is not your therapist, and you don’t want to use billable hours to talk to someone who can’t offer much in the way of emotional health. Conversely, your therapist is not your attorney.
Legal counsel paired with mental health counseling which is far less costly per hour, will help guide you through the murky waters of divorcing a narcissist. Because of their sense of entitlement, most narcissists have a mindset of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”
They don’t understand the meaning of “fair,” and nothing you can do or say will likely result in a positive outcome for you.
Trying to get them to see why they should be fair isn’t a good option as they are controlling and unreasonable. Allow legal counsel to guide you to the parameters of what the law says is fair because that is what the judge uses to make decisions.
Mental health counselors can educate you on how narcissism manifests during a divorce and how to navigate your emotions as it relates to their irrationality.
Avoid contact with them as much as possible
Because narcissists use intermittent reinforcement to trauma bond others, they may be excessively nice or frighteningly cruel during a divorce. Worse yet, they may vacillate between the two, which is intentional on their part, and it will leave you with self-doubt and confusion.
They are manipulating you with false kindness, empty promises, or fear to motivate you to do their bidding and cave into their agenda.
Become very educated on how to extricate yourself from narcissistic abuse. It can be excruciatingly painful, but when you get on the other side of it and realize how you may have played into their hand, you will not likely ever fall prey to a narcissist again.
Don’t give them too much information
It is best not to tell a narcissist much when you are in a divorce. This includes telling them you want a divorce before you actually file for one. If you tell a narcissist that you want a divorce, they immediately go into survival tactics such as hiding assets and racking up debt you will owe half of if you are unaware of it.
This also applies to filing. It is often best to simply file and let them be served with divorce papers by surprise. Though this may seem cruel to some, realize and remember how they often shocked you and how much it hurt.
Narcissists don’t have empathy even for themselves, and though they may act hurt, they are really enraged, and if they play the victim, you may feel sorry for them. Their hope is to make you feel sympathy so they can have more time or get you to do what they want for their agenda to maneuver things in their favor.
They often use guilt, shifting, and bringing up the past to evoke your sympathy.
Giving them notice is really giving them time, and information can become ammunition they can use against you. Stay away from them and be as close to friends you can trust at this time; they will be your support team.
Getting on with your life as soon as possible is not easy with a narcissist, but you won’t fall into traps you will regret later.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Psychotherapist
A cold war by tech is often the easiest way to cripple a spouse
Narcissists often respond by making a display of their control when folks leave them and punish them. A cold war by tech is often the easiest way to cripple a spouse.
Here’s what you can do prior to leaving or announcing that you’re leaving:
- Make a list of what your spouse controls
- Who has the passwords to bills you will need access to?
- Who knows where the birth certificates are?
- Who has access to medical insurance info, mortgage, car loans, etc.?
- What is the info you need to access bank accounts, credit cards, and investments?
- Make copies/screenshots of everything
- Send yourself a pdf of financial statements and investments dating back a year, so if things are mysteriously moved, you have a paper trail.
- Get your own copy of your birth certificate, your children’s birth certificate, past tax forms, marriage certificates, and car titles. Store them where your spouse has no access.
- Hint: Do not store it in the house
- Know all of the necessary info – What has your name (i.e. you have financial liability) on it? What has your partner’s name on it?
- Have passwords and user Ids for all such things and research the rules of how to remove your name from various bills. You could call up the company and propose a hypothetical:
- If someone was splitting from their spouse how would they remove their name?
- If the other partner refuses to comply with their normal procedure, how do they handle it?
- Change your passwords to personal accounts, emails, social media if your spouse knows them.
- Take off the auto fill-in for user accounts and passwords from any tech your spouse has access to that you used to access your accounts.
- Unlink cloud accounts, find my friend and photo storage accounts
- Remove the ability to have access to text messages or send text messages from any iPad that your spouse or children have access to.
- Have passwords and user Ids for all such things and research the rules of how to remove your name from various bills. You could call up the company and propose a hypothetical:
- Move any important things early on – Start moving small important things that you can’t live without now (to a parent’s or friend’s house, a new address, or a storage facility where your spouse has no access).
- Think about if your spouse has ever made threats about what they would do if you left. If you know their dating history prior, think about how they did breakups before.
- Did they call mutual friends and speak negatively about them?
- Did they call the ex’s boss or family?
- Did they demand the return of a car that had their name on it even if the ex was making the payments?
- Figure out how to mitigate the impact of the behaviors you know your spouse is capable of.
- Submit your change of address form and voting registration before you leave.
- Reframe from warning mutual friends or spouse’s family members of your decision until you leave as they may tell your spouse.
- Have an emergency app you can hit if you are in danger.
- Have an alternative place to go when you tell your spouse – Do not expect to tell him, have dinner and go to bed in the same bed peacefully.
- Interview lawyers, pick one and have them on retainer before you walk out the door. Make sure it is an actual divorce attorney and not a family friend – narcissists are great at researching the law and using it to their advantage.
- Refrain from picking up the late-night calls, do not respond to text diatribes or demands to meet with you right now. Refer them to your lawyer. If there are kids involved, try to pick up and drop them off in a public place where there are witnesses.
- Agree to disagree – Ignore the baiting of how they don’t understand why your left or smear campaigns about your character. Show up as you are with your loved ones, and people will figure out the truth if it is any of their business, which oftentimes it is not.
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, Ed.S., LMFT
Marriage & Family Psychotherapist | Author, “A Short Guide to a Happy Divorce“
Keep the process of wanting a divorce confined to as few people as possible
Any partner who has lived with a narcissist is most likely divorcing them because of their narcissist behaviors. It is best for you to keep the process of wanting a divorce, seeking out a divorce attorney, and all the proceedings that follow, confined to as few people as possible.
You will trigger immediate, negative reactions/retaliations, given a narcissist’s delight in believing they never have such serious problems.
State clearly that you want a divorce
If you have had any therapy sessions alone or together, it can be helpful to use a session to explicitly explain that you want a divorce, and yes, you are certain.
You should advise the therapist about what you will be doing in the session, so the therapist is prepared in a variety of ways that will be helpful.
For example, a therapist might speak with each of you alone, first, and then bring you together. For some in this situation, it becomes impossible to talk at home, and only a therapy room is safe, particularly emotionally for the one initiating the divorce.
Support is essential
You will need solid support; divorcing a narcissist can become a lengthy process. You will be blamed, and a narcissist will find ways to make you suffer. A very close friend or family member, along with a therapist, will help.
But even with support, you will have to be able to pick yourself up and stay strong in your beliefs over and over again before you are free.
Normally in my work with clients who are divorcing, who have done therapy, and who are in agreement, I would advise: “Do everything that you can to stay out of the court system. Mediate. Negotiate. Give and take. Give a little more. Brainstorm together for resourceful and reasonable resolutions. Vow not to let attorneys think or speak for you.”
Unfortunately, I cannot give this advice when narcissism is involved.
Writer and Content Creator | Creator, Cute With Kids
Divorce is hard. But divorcing a narcissist? Well, that’s a nightmare.
But before you fall apart and give in to everything they demand, here are a few tips that will help you successfully divorce a narcissist and live to tell the tale.
Come up with a plan of what you will do and where you will go
Keep your plans private. Do not tell the narcissist you are thinking about or considering divorce. Do not worry about their feelings. They will use this to their advantage.
While you have time on your side, come up with a plan of what you will do and where you will go.
- Are you a stay-at-home parent?
- Are you the breadwinner?
- Who will stay in the home?
Once you have figured out these details, it will be easier to move forward with confidence.
Consider your finances
Money becomes a means of control in divorce. This is exaggerated to the extreme when divorcing a narcissist. They consider the money theirs, not yours – regardless of how long you were married or who earned it.
Understand that a narcissist doesn’t care about being fair. So what can you do? Go set up a new bank account in your name only—transfer money into it.
Put yourself first because they certainly will not.
A narcissist will use money to control you, intimidate you, scare you, or convince you to do what they want. They may threaten that if you dare hire an attorney, they’ll fight you until there’s no money left. They may even tell you that if you don’t hire an attorney, you can figure it out together and have half the money.
Do not trust them. They are only telling you what you want to hear in order to get their way. What happens if they move all the money into an account you can’t access? Believe it or not, this is common. Once money disappears, it’s very hard for attorneys to track it- and even harder to get it back.
Do not believe our narcissist spouse when they say they’ll always take care of you financially—they won’t.
Get support from a good therapist or counselor
Find a good therapist. A narcissist typically thrives on conflict. They have no problem making your life a living nightmare now that the marriage is over. Moving forward, you are an inconvenience to them, and they don’t mind hurting you.
You won’t get closure or answers by talking to them about your marriage. However, you will get much-needed support from a good therapist or counselor.
These professionals are trained to navigate high conflict divorces. Throughout the divorce, a narcissist will attempt to rewrite the narrative and paint you as a terrible person. Their story may be that you are crazy, emotionally unstable, ruined their life, didn’t support them, didn’t help them in their time of need, etc.
All of this is untrue, of course, but having a professional help you navigate this crazy time will be an asset during the divorce.
Protect yourself and find an attorney
Mediation works when both parties are honest, fair, and willing to compromise. A narcissist doesn’t have those qualities, so don’t expect them to magically appear in a divorce. Your spouse may attempt to convince you that the two of you can work things out on your own.
It sounds so appealing, right? But consider the reason you are divorcing them.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Were they ever willing to compromise and truly work things out fairly in your marriage?
- Did they ever take responsibility for their mistakes or wrongdoings?
If the answer is no, get yourself a good attorney and get ready for an uphill battle.
Set those boundaries
Most of us aren’t good at setting boundaries. That’s normal. But guess what? Setting boundaries will protect you moving forward. So now is the time to learn.
Narcissists hate boundaries because of their need to control everything. Does this sound familiar? Once you set boundaries, narcissists lose that power and control over you. Narcissists typically target individuals who are kind, empathetic, and willing to compromise—all qualities they fundamentally lack.
They are used to calling the shots, telling others what to do, and gaslighting partners into questioning their own opinions/beliefs. So how do you combat that? Set boundaries.
- Should they be coming into your home after you separate? No.
- Should they be hanging out in your front yard for 20 minutes during exchanges? No.
- Should you engage in long conversations about the divorce? No.
- Do you need to respond to every text/email/phone call they send you? No. Read it, think about it for 24 hours, then respond if necessary.
Use the BIFF method
Communication will be tricky when you divorce a narcissist. In person, communication should be kept to a minimum. It can be emotionally upsetting and won’t solve any problems. It may even cause new ones.
Remember, there is a difference between a reaction and a response.
Allowing yourself 24 hours before responding to a non-emergency text or email will protect you. It gives you the necessary time and space to craft a response. But what about endless emails and texts? Simple.
Use the BIFF Method: Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm.
Keep the conversation limited to the topic at hand. Keep emotions out of it. Be clear but firm. Only respond to what truly necessitates a response.
Think about the kids
Do you have children? Understand that to a narcissist; children are pawns. They typically put on a show to the outside world that they are a super dad or super mom. Yet behind the scenes, they’ll let everyone else (like you or grandma) do the work.
If the narcissist doesn’t have an audience, they’ll stop performing.
Parenting is hard work, and it’s selfless. Narcissists are selfish. Everything they do is about them. Since narcissists only think of themselves, they are unable to put their kids’ needs ahead of their own.
But make no mistake, narcissists will typically fight for joint custody. Not because they actually want it or can handle it, but because they have an exaggerated sense of grandiosity. Or worse, they just want to hurt the other parent. They don’t care about what the children want or what you think is best for the kids.
Again, this is not about anyone except the narcissist, their desires, and the need to control.
For example, even if the narcissist was the most uninvolved parent prior to the divorce, they will paint themselves to the family court system as the most involved parent in the world. As a result, and because courts typically set custody at 50/50, be prepared if you are trying to fight for the majority of custody.
So what can you do? Document relevant mental health or substance abuse issues. Request a parent evaluator in your custody case. Try and maintain a routine for the kids that is similar to what they are used to.
Use a co-parenting app such as Talking Parents. This app not only organizes all your messages but it allows you to document incidents in one easy app. Everything in the app is admissible in court and can easily be sent to an attorney or judge as a PDF.
Finally, be the supportive parent that your children need. They are lucky to have you.
Founder and CEO, Hello Divorce
Do whatever is necessary to help keep your emotions in check
Narcissists want to ‘get the best of you.’ This means they will try to manipulate you at all costs. They protect themselves by hurting you. So, the best thing you can do for your divorce (and your sanity) is to keep your cool.
Do whatever is necessary to help keep your emotions in check – Join a support group, hire a divorce coach or therapist, and most importantly – practice self-care. Award yourself for any victory!
Swallow your pride – especially if you are trying to keep your divorce out of court
Your job is to get through your divorce with the least amount of damage. The goal is not to teach them a lesson or get revenge. That will just take you down.
Say things like, “Thank you for clarifying — that makes much more sense.” Appealing to their ego can help make conversations a lot more productive, even if it can be annoying.
If you can’t hire a lawyer to represent you, consider “Legal Coaching”
Strategy is everything. Ideally, when you’re divorcing a narcissist, you will have an experienced lawyer on your side. Not everyone can afford one or justify the expense, and I’m certainly sensitive to that.
But even if you can’t hire one to represent you, consider a couple of sessions with a lawyer (aka “Legal Coaching”). S/he can help you get a strategy in place, review forms before you sign (or file them), and give you negotiation pointers along the way.
Everything has to be in writing and as specific as possible
Sometimes it’s in the form of a signed and field agreement (best). But along the way, do your best to confirm agreements in writing – text or email.
When you are divorcing a narcissist, expect that enforcing orders or agreements will be tough, so the clearer it is, the less wiggle room you are giving them and/or the opportunity for them to charm their way out of responsibility with a judge or arbitrator.
E.g. “My understanding is that we agreed to share equally the cost of X’s school tuition at Y school through June 2022. Please confirm that this is our agreement.”
In summary, there are five actions I recommend for a successful outcome:
- Consult with an expert who has experience with narcissism, such as a legal coach, lawyer, or therapist;
- Read the book “Splitting“ by Bill Eddy;
- Rely on your trusted inner circle of family and friends for support;
- Stay committed to your strategy with your narcissistic ex (but tweak it if it’s not working);
- Watch Rebecca Zung’s youtube channel for amazing tips;
Marriage And Family Therapist | Director of Marketing & Content, Divorce Answers
Gain access to the essential financial paperwork and make a copy for yourself
If your spouse is in charge of the finances, this step will be one of the most crucial. You must gain access to the essential financial paperwork and make a copy for yourself.
Your spouse is going to do everything they can to make you pay for leaving them. This includes withholding financial documentation. You must get your finances in order before a divorce mentioning and proceeding happens.
This financial paperwork is comprised of your:
- Income tax returns
- Business financial statements (net worth/income statements)
- Income information
- Personal property tax returns
- Banking information
- Financial statements submitted to lending businesses, banks, or other entities within the last 5 years
- Loan applications within the previous 5 years
- Brokerage statements
- Life insurance policies
- Real property
- Stocks, mutual funds, bonds, etc.
- Pensions, money plans, profit sharing, etc.
- Outstanding debts
- Wills and trusts
- Personal property (i.e., documents, jewelry, artwork, furnishings, cars, collectible items, etc.)
- Safe deposit boxes
- Mileage/travel awards
- Anything you consider being an asset
These are the most common financial documents you may need. You can discuss any further documentation with your divorce attorney before you file a petition for divorce.
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