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How to divorce a narcissist

28 Dec

Being married to a narcissist is hard, divorcing one is even harder. Here is how to avoid the pitfalls and walk away in one piece.

Man looking in to a broken mirror

If I had a pound for every time I was told by a client that they are divorcing a narcissist I would be a very rich woman. It can be a buzzword that gets thrown around, when in fact it is a personality disorder. But why is this? 

In my experience divorce often brings out the worst in people, their behaviour can be irrational, selfish and even extreme. Often this is coming from a place of fear and being in defense mode. It also can make us reflect on our relationships, particularly when speaking to friends or family who then give you their take on a situation. It is really important, therefore, to know what a narcissist is and make a clear distinction between a narcissist and someone who is just hurting and lashing out. 

What is a narcissist?

A narcissist is “a person who has a condition in which they are only interested in themselves and what they want, and have a strong need to be admired and a lack of understanding of other people's feelings” ~ Oxford Dictionary

What makes dealing with a narcissist particularly difficult is narcissists rarely recognise that they have an issue and are therefore unlikely to seek help, let alone diagnosis. Which is why often marriages break down and the spouse dealing with the narcissist is more likely to try and get help than the narcissist themselves. 

In fact spouses of narcissists often seek individual therapy for help with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression brought on by years of abuse - and this may be when they first discover they're married to a narcissist.

Because narcissists feel very little guilt or remorse over their own conduct, they're likely to blame their spouses for marital problems and resist counseling. Whether you want to save your marriage or you've already filed for divorce, it's a good idea to speak to a professional to get emotional support and guidance about how to approach these difficult conversations with your narcissistic spouse.


Narcissism traits and behaviours

Narcissism like any personality disorder has a spectrum. Narcissism varies from person to person, and some aspects of it, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because of toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitativeness. At the highest end of the spectrum is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is a mental disorder that affects mostly men—up to 75% of the people diagnosed with NPD are male according to Psychology Today. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to be diagnosed with NPD a patient must display at least five of the following behaviors over a period of time:

  1. They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance - have feelings of entitlement and self-centeredness and exaggerate achievements and talents
  2. Preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal romance
  3. Believes they're special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions
  4. Requires constant attention and admiration from others
  5. Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
  6. Exploitive - takes advantage of others to meet their own needs/reach their own goals
  7. Lacks empathy - cannot recognise others' feelings and needs
  8. Often envious of others or believes other people are envious of them
  9. Grandiosity - demonstrates arrogant behaviours or attitudes


A common method of manipulation used by narcissists to gain power and make others question their own reality is Gaslighting. Here are some of the common behaviours of Gaslighters:

  • They tell blatant lies
  • Deny they ever said or did something, even if you have proof
  • Use what is near and dear to you as ammunition
  • Their actions don't match their words
  • After acting out, they compliment you or use positive reinforcement—a calculated attempt to make you to think they aren't that bad after all
  • Project their own actions or thinking onto you
  • Align people against you and tell you that people close to you believe you're crazy - isolating you from others
  • Tell you or others that you're crazy
  • tell you that everyone else (your friends, family, the media) is a liar. Your spouse may use some or all of these schemes during your divorce—your spouse may lie to you and to solicitors, coaches, mediators and the children. Your spouse may deny conversations or events that you know happened or invent things that never occurred.
Being aware of the narcissistic behaviours will help mentally prepare you should your spouse use gaslighting or any other tactics during your divorce. 

Here are my tips for how to divorce a narcissist;

1. Don’t expect an amicable divorce

This probably sounds completely wrong for a divorce coach whose entire ethos is for an amicable divorce, but when dealing with a narcissist, sadly, that just isn’t an option. One of the biggest mistakes that those married to narcissists make is to underestimate how horrible their divorce is probably going to be. They start by trying to work things out themselves, or trying to be fair. And while that’s absolutely the best 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.

Although I do not advocate “lawyering up” immediately if your spouse is a narcissist, the sooner you can get good legal advice, and emotional support the better off you will be. 

2. Get a Strong, but Reasonable, Divorce Solicitor

When you’re divorcing a bully, you need a solicitor who isn’t fearful to take on the situation. At the same time, you also don’t want a solicitor who loves to fight. 

Narcissists thrive on drama. If you hire a solicitor who also thrives on drama, you’re going to create a whole lot of excess in your divorce, and that is costly in more ways than one! Your best bet is to find a solicitor 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. There is more help on how to find the right solicitor here. 

3. Work with a coach

Dealing with a narcissist takes its toll emotionally! They have also not become a narcissist overnight, you will have been dealing with years of this behaviour which will have left a mark. Having a coach who can help you cope and can act as your reality-check through your divorce and help you build a better future is key to your success – not only to get you through your divorce to come out better and stronger with the best chance of building happy healthy relationships in the future. 

What’s more, a coach 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. 

4. Assemble Your Support Team BEFORE You Divorce

Narcissists are experts at getting people to side with them. They’re charming and will do their best to paint you as the bad guy. What’s more, if they can get to your friends and family first (and they will try!) they may spread lies that can ruin your relationships with those people permanently. 

While you’ll never be able to stop your narcissistic spouse from slandering 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.

5. Get EVERYTHING in Writing!

Narcissists have no problem lying. They will tell you one thing today and the opposite thing tomorrow, and then convince you that they never said it in the first place. After a while even you may even start to believe them. Getting everything in writing is the ONLY way you can document what is really going on. 

6. Stay out of court as much as you can

Narcissists thrive on drama. Courtrooms are made for drama, which is why court often fuels the fire in divorces. Narcissists are usually very charming and intelligent, therefore it may take many, many court appearances before your spouse’s true colours start to show. There’s also no guarantee that that will ever happen. That’s why using mediation or Collaborative Divorce can often be a better choice when you’re divorcing a narcissist. 

7. Find Ways Your Narcissistic Spouse Can “Win” 

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 is to try to make your spouse feel like s/he won, without losing the things that matter to you the most. That’s not always easy, and it’s not always possible. But if you can do this as a strategy then you should be able to move on with your own life. 

8. Pick Your Battles 

When you divorce a narcissist, everything can feel like a battle! If you throw all of your time and energy into fighting each one you can end up to exhausted for the ones that really count.

Instead of fighting every fight your spouse draws you into, decide in advance which fights are worth your time and effort, and which ones you can let go of. This also helps with the point above of letting them feel like they have won. The truth is the winner is you walking away as quickly and cleanly as possible to a life that is better without them. 

9. Set Your Boundaries and Stick to them

Healthy relationships have healthy boundaries. Partners respect each other’s opinions and accommodate each others’ needs. Due to their lack of empathy Narcissists typically don’t respect other people’s boundaries or needs . Chances are during your marriage your needs will have been unmet and boundaries will have been non-existent. Because your narcissistic spouse wouldn’t allow you to have boundaries during your marriage, setting them during your divorce can be difficult. However, setting clear boundaries about what you will – and won’t – accept from now on will establish the tone of your post-divorce relationship, which is especially critical if you have to co-parent together after your divorce.

10. Take Care of Yourself

Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint, when divorcing a narcissist there is also a level on top of that. In order to make it to the end, you have to take care of yourself. You are going to be asked to make really important decisions that will affect the rest of your life, all the while entangling your life with someone who is not going to make it easy. So, make sure you are looking after yourself -  getting a good night’s sleep, eating right, and exercising regularly. This will help you deal with your divorce. Get professional support and have a solid group around you to help you feel less lonely and isolated – making the time to do the things you love, and to laugh as much as you can.

I hope you have found this article helpful. What you face is not easy, but it is not forever. You can get through this and with the right support get there quicker and unscathed. If you need more help please reach out. 

I wish you all the best.


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