In recognition of the World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day on June 1, I wanted to address some of the very real challenges for anyone divorcing a narcissist. According to psychcentral.com, over 158 million Americans suffer from narcissistic abuse. As a divorce lawyer of over 30 years, I have seen patterns of behavior in divorces involving narcissists. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, one thing is certain–a divorce from an abusive narcissist is never pretty!
In his book, “The Laws of Human Nature,” the brilliant writer Robert Greene observes we are all, to a certain degree, narcissists but there is a malignant form known as deep narcissism. According to Greene:
You can recognize deep narcissists by the following behavior patterns: If they are ever insulted or challenged, they have no defense, nothing internal to soothe them or validate their worth. They generally react with great rage, thirsting for vengeance, full of a sense of righteousness. This is the only way they know how to assuage their insecurities. In such battles, they will position themselves as the wounded victim, confusing others and even drawing sympathy. They are prickly and oversensitive. Almost everything is taken personally. They can become quite paranoid and have enemies in all directions to point to…They frequently display extreme self-confidence. This always helps to gain attention and neatly covers up their gaping inner emptiness and their fragmented sense of self. But beware if this confidence is ever truly put to the test.
When it comes to other people in their lives, deep narcissists have an unusual relationship that is hard for us to understand. They tend to see others as extensions of themselves, what is known as self-objects. People exist as instruments for attention and validation. Their desire is to control them like they control their own arm or leg. In a relationship, they will slowly make the partner cut off contact with friends–there must be no competition for attention.
Sound familiar? If so, the breakup from such a personality is odious and difficult. Here are a few things I have observed from the divorcing narcissist’s playbook:
You are Not Crazy. One of the first tools in the narcissists toolbox is to make you think you are crazy. Oftentimes they will engage in a form of psychological abuse known as “gaslighting,” which is a manipulative way of getting you to doubt your sanity. Get a counselor immediately as a sounding board and reality check. Odds are that you are not the crazy one in the relationship.
Trust your Lawyer. Commonly a deep narcissist will be threatened by his or her loss of control over you. And the person taking away that control is your lawyer. Your narcissistic spouse will pull out all of the stops to rupture the relationship. You will hear things such as, “your lawyer is incompetent, “ or “your lawyer is just trying to run up your bill.” Don’t buy into the fiction (unless of course your lawyer is not doing the job and then replace him or her at your earliest chance). But assuming you have employed a competent lawyer, don’t fall for it. If your lawyer was as incompetent as your spouse would have you believe, do you really think they would want you to terminate the relationship? That’s unlikely. The deep narcissist isn’t worried about you, he or she is worried about them self.
Don’t trust your spouse. “Trust me, I’m only looking out for your best interest.” What a bunch of bunk. Narcissists are only looking out for their own interests. And while these manipulative personalities may have convinced you over the years of their concern for your welfare, now is the time to see through the fiction. While some personalities are offended that you may not trust their goodwill and good motives, disregard the ploy. And if you do feel the need to trust, make sure to “trust but verify.”
Bullies and braggarts. Deep narcissists will brag to you about how they have all the answers or some surprise coming your way. Don’t take the bait. Again, this is just mind games and fear-mongering by your terrified narcissistic spouse. Just keep a calm countenance and accept things as they come. As Gandhi once said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” The best way to manage a bully, whether it be the kid on the playground or your spouse, is to stand up to them. Don’t take it anymore!
Hardball negotiating. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a client tell me that his or her spouse’s offer is non-negotiable and that if it is not accepted, the final settlement will result in much less than the magnanimous offer. Let your lawyer value what a fair settlement should be, not your abusive spouse. A good lawyer will know the value of a fair settlement and advise you on the pros and cons of various settlement options. And by the way, very few offers are truly non-negotiable.
Keeping the fire going. I have seen many cases where a narcissistic spouse refuses to settle on objectively reasonable terms, either as a mechanism to continue to punish you or because of a continuing need to control you. Plus, they like the attention the lawsuit provides them. It is up to your lawyer to identify this dynamic and set the case for trial sooner rather than later. And of course, your spouse will then blame you and your lawyer for “running up the bill” by taking the case to trial. Ignore the fake news. Do what you need to do to end the madness.
Burning down the house. Sadly there are some sick and twisted people who would rather figuratively “burn down the house” rather than pay you your share. These people exhaust all of the family resources litigating, mostly over inconsequential things. They literally spend dollars fighting over dimes. And there are very few strategies for neutralizing these deranged suicide bombers. Be aware, be smart, and work with your lawyer to develop strategies to manage the damage the best you can.
Working the crowd. Narcissists are very treacherous legal adversaries. They will convince your friends and family that they are the victim and you are crazy. Many are adept at the “poor me” routine. And it may work for a while. Rest assured: true friends and loyal family members will see through the facade relatively quickly. Also, from my experience, your concerns about your “charming spouse” wooing the judge are usually unfounded. Most deep narcissists fall apart when under pressure or on the witness stand. Few can withstand the pressure of being confronted.
Open your eyes. As a therapist friend of mine observed, living in an abusive relationship with a narcissist is hard to see. She analogizes a frog in the burning pot. If you throw a frog into a boiling pot, it will jump out. But if you gradually turn up the heat while it swims around, it will slowly boil to death. Living with a narcissist is like the frog slowly boiling. Because of the incremental nature of the daily abuse, you are blind to the fact that your soul and self-esteem are being destroyed. Find a skilled therapist and an experienced divorce lawyer to help you jump out of the boiling pot of a narcissistic relationship.