We’ve probably all said it at least once. “He is crazy!” “She is a lunatic!” Mental health issues can cause an otherwise amicable separation to become a devastatingly difficult one. This is especially true when your spouse is a Narcissist.
Narcissism is not a myth. It is not a buzz word. It certainly is not some arcane mental health diagnosis that is not present in many of our daily lives. In fact, because many narcissists are fully capable of maintaining lucrative employment and personal relationships, it is not uncommon for only those close to the individual to really be subjected to the chaos and drama that fuels a narcissist. Whether your spouse has a “true” diagnosis or not, being in a relationship with a narcissist can be one of the most emotionally draining experiences.
This brings us to Mary’s story (names changed to protect the innocent-and the not so innocent). Mary and David (not his real name) were married for nearly a decade. David had a wonderful job where he traveled and made sufficient money to support Mary and their children. Mary was an active stay at home mother who actively participated in the PTA and maintained the family’s finances. To Mary, they were happy and in love. She thought David felt the same, and maybe he did in his own way.
Unfortunately, after their third child was born, Mary expressed that she needed help at home and that David’s traveling was taking its toll on her and the children. She asked David to stop traveling so often and help more around the home. Mary secured a part time position in marketing to assist with the financial deficient David traveling less would cause. It was at this point that David made it clear that there was something wrong with Mary and surely she understood how important his job was. David began to criticize everything Mary did. She was too fat, the house was too dirty, the children were not well behaved, and the food she prepared for the family was not good enough. Mary could not do anything right. Her employment was silly. Her opinions were wrong. Her desires were not as important as Davids. She just was not enough. David began making suggestions on ways she could be a better mother and wife. He gave her advice on what she should be eating and commented on her failures to work out enough.
Every conversation became an argument. He would argue with her over everything. If Mary gathered to courage to question this treatment, she was told she was crazy or imagining it and asked if she was hormonal. One day when David was home from traveling, she picked up his phone to look something up on the internet, only to find that David had changed his passcode. When Mary asked what his passcode was, he became angry with Mary for touching his phone, and started to shout at her suggesting that maybe she was having an affair and that is why she wanted to “check his phone.”
This behavior continued and escalated for months including David finally disclosing that he was having an affair blaming Mary for being unattractive, lazy and a bad mother and wife. He told her that she gave him no choice. Mary felt confused, hurt, angry, and yet could not help but wonder if she had caused his behavior. Mary tried to change herself. She tried to clean the house the way David demanded. She made sure the children were well behaved in front of David. She ensured they only ate healthy and balanced meals. She gave up her friends and interests to ensure that she lost weight and always looked the way David wanted her to. She quit her job and focused on David. Despite this, David continued his affair until Mary felt she had no choice but to end their marriage.
Months later, Mary finally came to the realization that it did not matter what efforts she made or to what lengths she went…David was a narcissist.
While Mary’s story may not be your story, it certainly is not the only time we have encountered a divorce from a narcissist here at Arndt & Sutak. Whenever someone claims their spouse is a narcissist, I take note, having seen the damage that a true narcissist can inflict during a divorce. There is no doubt that the term “narcissist” gets tossed around pretty easily. Its an easy label to attach to any over-bearing, bullish, vain or full-of-themselves individual (it is equally important to note that not all narcissists are men; women can also be narcissists). However, from what I have observed as a divorce attorney, while it can be very easy to fall in love with a narcissist and profoundly more difficult to live with one, the divorce process with one has its own host of pitfalls. Consider the following before or during your divorce:
Top 10 tips for divorcing a narcissist:
- A narcissist will present themselves to others as the victim. Try not to allow the narcissist to bait you into trying to defend yourself or clear the air surrounding all of their slander and lies. Trust that the truth will come out. Ever heard the cliché that a leopard can’t change their spots? This is true when applied to the narcissist’s lies.
- They will try to set you up. They need you to be the broken one, the bad one or the irrational one to help preserve their self-worth. They will say and do offensive, hurtful and often egregious things to provoke you and to feel powerful. These attempts are designed for you to react dramatically so they can discount you and “prove” their point to everyone else. Narcissists live by the mantra that your “bad response” is better than no response and they will attempt to use whatever emotional “ammo” you give them.
- Set new personal boundaries without identifying them. Advertising your personal boundaries to a narcissist is inviting them to continue to attack them. Don’t allow your path for well-being to fuel them by cutting you down when you can avoid it.
- Practice self-care. Taking care of your mental and physical health is crucial to your overall well-being both during and after the divorce. Consider engaging a mental health professional who specializes in narcissistic behavior who can often identify narcissism simply by the pattern behaviors of the spouse and can assist you through the emotional roller coaster of the divorce process.
- Don’t expect the narcissist to change. An unreasonable person during your marriage will not suddenly become reasonable now that a divorce is pending. Focus instead on what you can control.
- They will attempt more power plays than a hockey game. To a narcissist, differences in a relationship are a battleground. As they typically are driven by the need for superiority, they are unable to speak to you as an equal. Instead, they argue, invalidate and demean. It is not uncommon for them to attempt to talk over you and become mean when you attempt to explain your thoughts or feelings. This is about their need to regain control and raise themselves above you.
- Drop any assumptions about loyalty. A narcissist will expect and demand that you are loyal to them. However, it is a mistake to assume that they will reciprocate. Living with a narcissist highlights that they can often be loyal only to themselves, approaching relationships that merely feed their need for attention, favored treatment, feelings of superiority and entitlement. Once a narcissist no longer sees you as a “tool” to assist them toward that end, they will fill that need elsewhere often blaming you for their lack of loyalty.
- Don’t feed the trolls. In our world of social media, you may have heard this phrase repeated countless times. It applies to the narcissist. One of the best ways to minimize divorce drama is to communicate effectively. Resist the urge to debate or defend yourself in emails and texts even when you are right. When you must engage in communication, try to stay concise, factual, neutral in tone, and firm in your responses. When you provide your opinion or your feelings, the narcissist will attempt to discredit, challenge, and argue with you to regain control. [See tip 1 and 2.] While this is by no means a “you” problem, you have to focus on what you can control rather than on expecting a different reaction from the narcissist. [See tip 5]. You may have also heard the adage, why defend that which needs no defense- this applies to interactions with your narcissist. While the narcissist’s demeanor or tone may suggest that you need to explain why you think or feel as you do (especially when its different than their opinion), this is merely the narcissist’s attempt to regain control. The narcissist implies that since they can’t possibly be wrong, you’d better have a good reason for disagreeing with them. Its not worth your time or energy.
- An all out attack is not necessarily the legal response to a narcissist. A confident and secure attorney is often a narcissist’s worst nightmare. Divorces from a narcissist can be resolved when the narcissist is held directly accountable for their behavior, rather than being “attacked.” However, this approach requires two people who are capable of compromise – which is not the narcissist’s strong suit. So make sure that you consider an attorney who is also comfortable with litigation and comfortable in front of a judge in the event you can’t settle out of court.
- Watch out for gaslighting. Gaslighting is all too common when divorcing a narcissist. Your former partner will use this tactic just as much during divorce proceedings as before and may even try to pull out all the stops in an effort to trip you up. Some common tactics used to gaslight are: Making you look and feel crazy to others, Actions will not match words; Turn others against you; Lies (with a side of more Lies); Deny until they die even in the face of the truth and proof.
While the narcissists behavior is their problem, you are the one left to respond and react with their words and actions. It is completely unfair that even when you are attempting to untangle yourself from the narcissist that you have to exert so much mental energy to respond to them when these behaviors are their problem. It is important in these moments to focus on the reality- You are on the path to a new life. Imagine and dream about what you want your future to look like and make your plan of action to create that future. Visualize your new life and taking the steps to get there. Precious little will affect the narcissist more than realizing that you are beyond their control and that you have obtained your new freedom and happiness that is completely separate from them.
Want to stop the gaslighting? We can help you learn your rights and protect yourself. Call us today to safeguard your future at 732-867-8894.