In prior posts on this blog, I have spoken a lot about narcissistic spouses, key traits, how to identify them, and what to do in advance to prepare for a divorce. In this installment, I want to talk about what happens and what to do during the divorce process when you are dealing with a narcissistic spouse. Just as these individuals have some typical personality traits, there are some common elements to these divorces, and it is important to understand them in order to mitigate the damage that a narcissist can do.
If It’s Not In Writing, It Didn’t Happen
Narcissists are practiced liars, who have no qualms about manipulating and transforming the facts to suit their needs of the moment. Not only is this incredibly difficult to deal with in a relationship, but it can also cause major problems in the divorce. In addition to advising my clients to gather key documents before initiating the divorce, I tell them to put everything in writing. Ideally, you should limit any direct communications to email. Texts are not as effective because they are harder to keep track of when you have to create an accurate record of what exactly was said. Keep your responses to short and eliminate any reactive language. Do your very best to take your emotion out of it. However, if you do have a verbal interaction, make sure to write down what happened and send them your version of the events immediately.
They Are In It To Win It
A part of the narcissistic pathology transforms any disagreement into a war for their very survival, and narcissists aren’t satisfied unless they feel they have a win. From a tactical perspective, it can be useful to work with your lawyer to come up with ways to give the narcissist what they want in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your health, welfare, and stability. Without compromising on the truly important issues, it is worth creating opportunities for the narcissist to get the things that have little or no meaning to you since this will satisfy their need to get out ahead.
Set Your Boundaries
If you were married to a narcissist, you probably spent years accommodating their needs for the sake of keeping the peace. In a divorce, it’s ok to set boundaries (in writing!) and stick to them. Rely on court orders or other interim agreements to assert your rights and try not to engage and react when they go low (and they will). It’s hard to counter the fight or flight instinct that a narcissist can trigger when they go on the attack, but it only plays into their game to respond and escalate.
Tell Your Truth Strategically
You will have to deal with your narcissist spouse telling outrageous lies to your kids, to the court, and to anyone else who will listen. It’s important to be clear and to the point about the factual truths. As tempting as it is to respond with your own attacks, this only plays into their game. When it comes to your kids, it’s ok to tell them the facts as you see them so they can balance out the story your ex is feeding them, but keep it simple, authentic, and non-reactive. When your spouse’s lies trigger you, instead of an immediate response, pause. You can speak (email) your piece when you are feeling calm.
The painful untruths you may hear from your kids’ mouths can be one of the hardest things to deal with. Although your children may not understand what you are going through, this is not the time to explain your feelings. When they get older, having spent years with their narcissistic parent, they will come to understand. Take this time to nurture them with all the love you have for them. If you continue to do this, no matter what lies your spouse tells them, your children will love you and ultimately understand your situation.
Keep Practicing Self-care
Divorce from a narcissist will be a painful process. It can be all-consuming and exhausting physically, emotionally, and financially. Make sure you have a support network, places where you can find some peace and light in the midst of the storm. Try to set limits on the amount of time you devote to thinking and working on the divorce so you can have space in your life for moving forward. You can do this, but you don’t need to suffer needlessly.
As a divorce attorney with years of experience helping spouses who are divorcing narcissists, I know how hard and draining the process is going to be. Practicing these tips will help.