Divorcing A Narcissist Starts With Changing You, Not Them
Therapists explain the key strategies that can help you make this difficult shift and come out ready to heal on the other side.
Divorce is never easy. Even when you decide to part ways "amicably," you still feel like you somehow dropped the ball or failed. And no matter how much you talk beforehand and how in agreement you think you are, something will always come up along the way. That's especially true when you're divorcing a narcissist because, in short, narcissists don't like to lose.
When you first began thinking of divorce or upon initially filing for divorce, you may not have even realized your soon-to-be ex was a narcissist at all. Something was wrong with your relationship, so you decided to leave. That's amazing! You probably already feel like an enormous weight has been lifted off your shoulders, right? But, as you reflect on that person and your relationship with them, you might realize the problem was much bigger than you initially perceived.
Suddenly, you're left with a ton of questions — and even more trepidation on how to proceed.
What is a narcissist, and how did I marry one?
Narcissism comes with its own spectrum, both medically defined and popularly defined. Many people have been called narcissists who are just vain. Alternatively, some people have spent years in therapy and gotten an official diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or malignant narcissism. And then, somewhere in between, are those who are very clearly narcissists in our eyes but who have never been officially "diagnosed."
When you started your relationship, perhaps you loved how confident your partner seemed and how worthy they made you feel. They probably showered you with praise, something called "love bombing." Somewhere along the way, though, they decided you weren't "good enough" for them, and things began to spiral. Whatever kind of narcissist you're dealing with, you're in for a long road ahead as you try to separate from them.
Before diving into all that, let's look at what a narcissist is.
What are the signs of narcissism?
"While it is normal and healthy to focus on one's own self-worth, a narcissist does this at the expense of others' well-being," Dr. Amelia Kelley, a trauma-informed therapist and author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship, previously explained to Scary Mommy. "A narcissist displays an extreme level of self-involvement that negatively impacts relationships with others, often as a result of personal insecurities or unresolved past trauma. Clinically, narcissism is not treated with medication, nor is it considered a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. Instead, it is deemed a personality disorder that is managed rather than cured."
Other hallmarks of narcissism include entitlement, manipulative behavior, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and arrogance. Yikes, do those hit the nail on the head? Now you're beginning to see that your relationship issues were much more significant than just two people who didn't mesh.
How will a narcissist behave during divorce proceedings?
Even if your narcissist ex agreed to part ways, they might not be keen to "lose" in divorce court. As previously mentioned, your narcissist's entitlement or arrogance will likely lead to a nasty fight. Whether you're fighting over custody or a car, you could be in for a long battle.
"You can expect your spouse to fight you each step of the way. In a narcissist's mind, they do not fail; they do not make mistakes," Berenji And Associates Family Law Attorneys explain on their blog. The law firm goes on to say that you can expect your soon-to-be-ex to find every way possible to make this your fault. They'll use everyone from friends and family to your own children against you.
The good news? You've probably dealt with this person long enough to know what to expect from them. People might think you're crazy when you start fretting over everything your spouse might do or say to "win" in the divorce. But if there's ever a time to calculate for the "what-ifs," it's during a divorce with a narcissist.
What steps should you take?
Laura Reagan, a licensed clinical social worker, integrative trauma therapist, and host of the Therapy Chat Podcast, says the first step is realizing you'll need help.
"The key to escaping a relationship with narcissistic abuse is to understand that you can't change your partner, but you can change yourself," Reagan tells Scary Mommy. "Find a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse, attachment trauma, codependency, and/or intimate partner violence to develop a sense of empowerment and reconnection to your own wants and needs."
What will that look like? She explains, "Therapy will focus on learning effective communication and setting boundaries, as well as identifying the patterns from your family of origin that made this type of relationship feel normal for you — at least at the beginning. Healing the attachment and/or trauma wounds from your early years will change the dynamics of your relationship, and you will be able to make decisions about how you want this relationship to go forward (or not) and what is acceptable to you from a more grounded perspective."
A few other practical tactics to try:
Gather your evidence.
That threatening voicemail? Save it. The conversations you had with your best friend after every fight, where you told them about each argument and your partner's behavior? Print it. Your narcissistic spouse will try to look like to victim. Don't let them.
Try to communicate in writing.
Need to know who's picking up Ella from soccer? Text it. Not sure who should pay this month's water bill? Send an email. If anything goes wrong, you need detailed proof that you didn't drop the ball.
Just like those old voicemails and texts with friends might serve as a log of the past, you need to log your communication from this day forward. Your spouse may try to avoid written communication so that it becomes a "he said, she said" sort of scenario.
After each conversation, log as much as possible, including all the critical details. While you'll still be caught up in a bit of "he said, she said," having that log will show that you knew what you were getting into with this person and did your best to keep records.
Prepare for a long, expensive fight.
True story: I know of a divorce that stretched on for seven months because the couple split ways and the husband wanted the car, despite living in New York City and not actually needing a car or having a place to park it. Those seven months equal a ton of court time, paperwork, and emails or phone calls from your lawyer — all done on billable hours.
But don't let the potential cost of divorce keep you in an awful relationship. Talk upfront with your lawyer about how things will proceed. Find a lawyer who, after paying your retainer, will keep a record of billable hours and bill you once the divorce is finalized. This will allow you to proceed and separate from your spouse without worrying that your lawyer will stop doing their job midway through if you're short on funds one month.
Plan ahead and remain calm.
Narcissists know how to get under our skin. They're great at playing manipulative games and making us look like the crazy ones. All those conversations you've had in your head, all the time you spent worrying over every possible response your spouse could have to anything you say? That will benefit you now. Talk to your lawyer ahead of time about anything you're each concerned about. Spend time dwelling on those what-ifs so you're not caught off guard and are prepared to deal with them.
When it's all said and done...
There are no winners or losers in a divorce. It sucks for everyone. But if you do your best to plan and prepare, you can come out free from your narcissistic spouse and with everything you need to heal.