Beware of your narcissistic spouse - 7 tips to divorce a narcissist

The term narcissism is derived from the Greek myth about the self-absorbed Narcissus who was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in the water. Eventually, Narcissus killed himself over his unrequited love for his own image.

Narcissism can be categorized into two main types — grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Individuals with the former tend to be charming and outspoken and often take on leadership positions. Famous figures like Donald Trump and Kanye West have been suspected to be grandiose narcissists. Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, possess more subtle traits and are usually characterized to be outwardly introverted and frequently shy away from the spotlight.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum, ranging from a few traits to a full-blown personality disorder. Full-fledged narcissism is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood, and is indicated by five (or more) of the following traits1:

1. Having a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g, exaggerating achievements and talents, expecting to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Being preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believing that one is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should only associate with, other special or people or institutions with high-statuses.

4. Requiring excessive admiration.

5. Having a sense of entitlement (e.g. having unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with one’s expectations).

6. Being interpersonally exploitative (e.g., taking advantage of others to achieve one’s own ends).

7. Lacking empathy i.e. being unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

8. Often being envious of others or believing that others are envious of oneself.

9. Showing arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.

If you have observed the aforementioned traits in your spouse, you may have valid suspicions that your spouse is a narcissist. Do inform your lawyer of this suspicion as this can have an impact on how your divorce will be handled.

Considering a narcissist’s insatiable desire for control and victory, one can expect a narcissistic spouse to refuse mediation or to settle on reasonable terms.

Narcissists crave attention, especially from their spouses, and such attention may not always be positive attention. Creating chaos in another person’s life is something that a narcissist may strive to do to receive negative attention from that person. For example, a narcissist may aim to exert psychological stress on his or her spouse by charming and persuading family and friends to turn on his or her spouse. As narcissists often possess a lack of empathy, their own children may not be spared from their antics – some may resort to manipulating their children in a manner adverse to their children’s interests to alienate their children from their spouses.

In this article, we share feasible tips on dealing with a narcissistic spouse during a divorce.

1) Stay calm

A narcissist has the propensity to distort the truth, so it is crucial that you keep your cool during interactions with your spouse. One of a narcissist’s favourite moves is creating chaos for others, so that they can revel in seeing others struggle and feel superior as a result. Your spouse may try to incite you to have emotional outbursts to get attention from you or, if such outbursts are recorded, to evidence emotional instability on your part during the divorce proceedings so that the Family Court Judge sees you as the crazy one and them as the reasonable one.

Therefore, try to remain calm in your dealings with your spouse and avoid reacting defensively, for example, displaying any emotional distress or angry outbursts.

2) Limit communications

Limiting communication with your spouse helps to prevent them from exploiting your emotions or making false accusations against you. Try to keep interactions minimal and in writing. Not only will this allow you more time to compose yourself mentally and think before responding, but it also enables everything to be recorded in writing so that your spouse cannot go back on their word or misreport conversations.

3) Prepare copies of important documents

Divorce proceedings with a narcissist can very much seem like going to war— one might expect a narcissistic spouse to resort to underhanded tricks in order to win, such as hiding or disposing of paperwork.

In order to remain one step ahead, it would be wise to compile as many documents that you can find, such as credit card statements, investment records, insurance policies, etc.

We have had experiences with narcissistic spouses who would go so far as to lie to the authorities and make false accusations against their spouses. In one case, a client’s spouse had made baseless allegations of violence against him. Thankfully, our client had maintained and kept extensive records and proper evidence of his dealings with his spouse during the divorce, and was able to defend himself against those allegations. It is therefore vital to keep or retrieve proper records of everything.

Records need not be confined to financial records and statements. For example, mobile phone communication, emails and photos can help your case if you wish to establish that there has been abusive behaviour by your spouse. Properly evidenced facts and figures will be more credible to a court than allegations without evidence.

4) Choose your battles wisely.

As narcissists crave praise and affection, being on the opposite side of a divorce from a narcissist will likely establish you as an ‘enemy’ from their perspective. This can trigger feelings of abandonment and rage in them, prompting them to take extreme measures to regain a sense of control over the situation.

What could have been an amicable divorce can quickly turn into a high-conflict one where your spouse may seek to take everything away from you.

The narcissist’s game, especially wealthy ones, is to outspend you and ruin you financially. They may take out unnecessary applications to put pressure on you or simply to frustrate you.

Prioritise what is most important to you and decide on things that you can give up on. Letting go of some less important things to you can satisfy your spouse’s thirst to ‘win’, while at the same time safeguarding what is more important to you.

It is crucial to pick your battles wisely, as narcissists may be willing to prolong divorce proceedings in order for the chance to win, in the process wasting both parties’ time, money and energy. Setting realistic goals and choosing to give up on secondary things may be more worthwhile as you can avoid an unnecessarily long and hostile divorce process that you and your family will otherwise have to endure.

5) Have a solid support system.

Abusive narcissists tend to isolate their victims. Divorce is itself an emotionally exhausting process, so it is important to confide in family members, friends or even therapists with whom you can share your side of the story with. In the midst of the turmoil, you may neglect your own well-being. Do surround yourself with people whom you trust to advise and take care of you.

You will need a strong support system to maintain your mental health throughout the divorce proceedings. Do not be embarrassed to seek help for fear that your feelings are not justified. This is especially so if you have suffered from emotional manipulation by your spouse, as you may be used to being blamed and invalidated.

6) Create a parenting plan if you have children with a narcissistic spouse.

Co-parenting with someone you are embroiled in a divorce with is particularly challenging, much less with a narcissist who may use your children as a pawn in the proceedings in order to win. Therefore, designing and following a parenting plan for the period during the divorce will reduce confusion and conflict for both parents and children. You can enlist a family lawyer’s help to draw up a legal custody and access agreement to specify the sharing of costs and visitation / access schedules during the school term and during holidays.

Making the proposal as detailed as possible minimises any grey areas and serves to hold your soon to be former spouse accountable for his or her responsibilities in order to give your children a sense of normalcy and clarity. Though this may cost more compared to a generic parenting plan, it is advisable as you can set clear boundaries with your spouse for your children’s best interests and to reduce the risks of further disputes in future.

Furthermore, it will also serve to lessen the amount of contact and friction between you and your soon to be former spouse, thereby creating a more pleasant environment for your children to grow up in.

7) Seek an experienced family lawyer.

Hire a divorce lawyer who understands how divorcing a narcissist differs from normal cases. Though it takes a psychologist to diagnose someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, lawyers who have experience in acting for clients with narcissistic spouses can recognise certain traits and may be able to flag to you that your spouse is a narcissist.

Divorce lawyers who are experienced in handling protracted and complex divorce cases involving a narcissist can anticipate what a narcissistic spouse may do or say and devise a more effective strategy for you.

One must remember that narcissists love conflict, they love a battle and they will do anything to win no matter the cost. So unless you have unlimited money, you need to find a lawyer that can balance the unreasonable demands with logic and the tools of law to stop the narcissistic divorce train from running you into financial ruin.

Your lawyer needs to understand when to push the button of law and when not to react. Remember the narcissist’s goal is to get you to react. Your lawyer needs to be your rock to give you much-needed emotional and legal support, and be able to outwit your narcissistic spouse’s tactics to protect you from being manipulated.

We have been involved in many matrimonial and divorce proceedings involving narcissistic spouses, and have worked with clinical psychologists that are experts on narcissism While these cases tend to be more protracted than other normal divorces, narcissistic spouses tend to behave in a similar pattern. If you believe you are married to a narcissistic spouse, and plan to divorce him/her, please feel free to contact us to assist you in the strategy and your divorce journey.

If you would like to discuss any of these further, please do get in touch with us.

Jacqueline Chua, Managing Director

+65 6280 7388

1From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, 2013