Narcissists love to win. Divorce, to them, is a game. That makes divorcing them in any reasonable kind of way extremely challenging. Their expectations are usually unrealistic. They don’t feel a need to compromise. Even if you don’t think of your divorce as a game, at some point you can’t help but wonder how you can win when divorcing a narcissist?
Understanding Your Narcissistic Spouse
Before you can even think of resolving your divorce with a narcissist you first have to understand who you’re dealing with. That means you need to know a little bit about narcissism itself.
According to the Mayo Clinic:
Narcissistic personality disorder … is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.
- They have a grandiose sense of self-importance.
- They are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Narcissists believe that they are “special” and that normal rules don’t apply to them.
- They require excessive admiration.
- They have a very strong sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations.
- Narcissists have no problem exploiting others.
- They lack empathy (even for their own children).
- They are often arrogant.
Narcissists are also highly reactive to criticism, can be inordinately self-righteous and defensive, react to contrary viewpoints with anger and rage, and project onto others the negative traits they can’t accept in themselves.
They also love drama.
All of these qualities make your typical narcissist a nightmare in court.
How You Can “Win” When Divorcing a Narcissist
Divorcing a narcissist is usually expensive, ugly, and exhausting. Narcissists are usually high maintenance and high conflict spouses. If you want to know how you can “win” when divorcing a narcissist, it starts with redefining what “winning” is.
In a normal divorce, most reasonable people would define “winning” as reaching an amicable and reasonably fair settlement as quickly and inexpensively as possible. When you’re divorcing a narcissist, however, “winning” often means simply coming out of your divorce alive!
Narcissists define the word “fair” only as what’s fair to them. They don’t care whether a settlement is fair to you. As a matter of fact, if a settlement is fair to you, then, by definition, they believe it is unfair to them!
Narcissists also typically don’t care how long their divorce takes, or how much it costs. As a matter of fact, the more expensive and time consuming it is, the easier it is for them to play the victim. Often, the longer your divorce takes, the more your narcissistic spouse feels s/he is winning.
Even though “winning” in the normal sense of the word may be impossible when you’re divorcing a narcissist, if you define “winning” as getting the best resolution possible without spending your life’s savings and destroying your kids, then winning your divorce becomes achievable.
Here are seven steps to take if you want to have any chance of “winning” your divorce from a narcissist.
1. Hire an Experienced Divorce Attorney.
Do NOT try to get divorced without an attorney! No matter what your spouse says in the beginning, your divorce is not going to be easy or amicable. You need your own lawyer to guide you through this!
You also need to get an attorney who knows what s/he is doing! Hiring a lawyer who just graduated from law school three months ago simply because s/he will cut you a break on price is a bad idea!
Hiring a shark attorney is also a bad idea! While you may think you need a super aggressive attorney to put your narcissistic spouse in his/her place, the truth is the opposite. Narcissists love conflict! They love to fight. An aggressive lawyer will just fan the flames of the fire – at an enormous cost to you!
What you need is a reasonable, realistic divorce attorney who can fight when s/he needs to and back down when doing that makes more sense. You need someone who will help you create a solid strategy, and then will help you execute that strategy step by step, one step at a time.
2. Assume the Best but Prepare for the Worst.
Don’t assume that the judge will see through your narcissistic spouse just because you do. Narcissists are charming. Your narcissist is GOING to charm the judge! (… at least at first. .) Remember, you were drawn in by your narcissistic spouse’s behavior, too!
You also want to be careful not to let yourself get sucked into blindly trusting your spouse, either in or out of court. While you don’t want to make your divorce harder by refusing to believe anything your spouse says, you also don’t want to get taken to the cleaners either.
How do you walk the line between being paranoid and being careful? You start small, and you keep your eyes and ears open. Make a small agreement with your spouse. See if s/he keeps his/her end of the deal. Meanwhile, pay attention to what’s happening around you. Don’t just listen to what your spouse says. Watch what your spouse does. That will tell you much more.
(HINT: Just so you know, everyone blows this step at first. Everyone slammed by their narcissistic spouse at least once, and usually a couple of times. The goal here is not to be perfect. It’s to minimize your damage. Getting taken a couple of times sucks. Getting taken a hundred times not only sucks, but it can end up costing you everything you’ve got.)
3. Document EVERYTHING!
Narcissists lie. All. The. Time. Do NOT assume that your narcissistic spouse is going to tell the truth in court just because s/he swore to do so under oath! Also do not assume that if your spouse lies s/he is going to get caught, charged with perjury, and go to prison for the rest of his/her life. In the real world, that hardly ever happens. This is not T.V.
If you want to show that your narcissistic spouse is lying, you need to prove it! That means that you’ve got to document everything.
Put all of your conversations with your spouse in writing. Use email and text messaging as much as possible. Both of those forms of communication leave trails behind. They will save you from getting mired in a “he said/she said” battle in court.
Not only do you have to document your conversations, but you have to organize them as well. All the documentation in the world is unless if you can’t find the documents when you need when you need them.
Finally, do yourself a favor. Do NOT give all of your documentation to your lawyer all of the time. Unless you want to pay your lawyer thousands of dollars to review documents that ultimately may not matter, only give him/her the documents s/he needs or asks you to produce.
4. Make a Plan.
Part of what makes a narcissist’s tactics so successful is that s/he purposely does things to throw you off balance and make you question yourself. Divorce itself also throws you off balance and makes you question yourself. When you put those two things together, it’s often hard to keep your feet on the floor and stop your head from spinning.
Setting your goals and making a plan to achieve them can keep you grounded. It points you in the right direction from the start.
If you can make a plan for your divorce BEFORE you are up to your ears in craziness, you have a much greater chance of getting through your divorce in some kind of rational way.
(Of course, divorcing a narcissist rarely goes as planned. Even still, just starting with a plan puts you way ahead of the game!)
5. Act, Don’t React.
If you want to know how you can win when divorcing a narcissist, you start by keeping your own emotions under control. The more you react to your spouse’s craziness, the more your spouse wins.
When your narcissistic spouse does something outrageous, if you react by screaming, crying, raging or acting like an emotional basket case, YOU become the one who looks crazy. Don’t let yourself lose your cool in court, or go crazy in front of your kids.
If you are having trouble controlling your emotions on your own, get a therapist! Not only can you vent to your therapist, but s/he can also provide you with valuable insight into your spouse’s behavior as well. That, alone, can be worth millions.
Another way to get yourself out of reaction mode is to start by having a clear plan of action with your spouse from the start. Take the time to set goals. Decide on a plan of action. To the best of your ability, follow your plan. Sure, plans change. You will probably have to change your plan multiple times. But at least if you have a plan, you have some chance of being in the driver’s seat in your divorce.
6. Prepare Yourself for a Marathon.
Divorcing a narcissist usually takes a long, long time. Believe it or not, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
When you first start your divorce, things may not go well for you. (Sorry!)Your spouse may charm the judge, the lawyers, your friends and maybe even your family. S/he may convince everyone that s/he has been abused, victimized and totally taken advantage of. Meanwhile, your spouse will paint you as a monster.
But it’s hard to keep up that kind of an act forever. Eventually, your spouse’s stories will start to crack. If you have been documenting everything properly, you will be able to prove that your spouse is lying. When that happens, the tide may start to shift. Those who thought you were crazy may start to change their opinion.
At the same time, staying the course for years can take a huge toll on you. That’s why you have to start with the idea that your divorce will probably be a marathon. Play the long game. Take care of yourself! You need to eat right, exercise, and try to get some sleep. Most of all, be kind to yourself. What you’re going through is really rough! Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up for not being perfect.
7. Put Together a Strong Support Team.
When you’re going through a difficult, high-conflict divorce, you need all the support you can get. To get that support, you need to put together a strong team. You need people who will listen to you, support you, and help keep you sane.
So, who should be on your support team? Start with good friends and family. (NOTE: You probably shouldn’t include your spouse’s family on your support team. It doesn’t matter whether they like you better. Blood is thicker than water. You don’t have to dump them. Just don’t count on them to be in your “inner circle” of support.)
A good support team should also include good divorce professionals. You already know that you need a good divorce lawyer. You also need a good therapist. But you may need other professionals as well.
Your kids may need their own therapist. Depending upon your circumstances, you may also want to enlist help for your kids from their teachers or counselors. If you have financial issues, you will probably benefit from having a financial planner. All of these people and more can help you get through your divorce in the best way possible. Remember, it takes a village.
8. Create Ways For The Narcissist To “Win.”
Yes, I know this one sounds crazy! It also can be hard to do. It takes a lot of creativity and planning to create situations that meet your needs, while still allowing your narcissistic spouse to feel like s/he “won.” But doing that can be one of the most effective ways to put your divorce behind you – and maybe even on terms that are sort of reasonable!
Remember, narcissists need to win. If you can get your own ego out of the way and let them win, you win too. (Don’t forget: getting divorced from a narcissist can be a “win” itself. You end the craziness. You get to move on with your life.)
Obviously, this strategy has its limits. You can’t become a doormat or put yourself into financial ruin just to get divorced. (Okay, you can. But it’s not a great idea.)
But, if you get your own emotions out of the way, you can analyze your divorce from a business perspective. If “winning” costs you more in time, money, and heartache than whatever it was that you won, then you lost. If “winning” your divorce messes up your kids so badly that they need to be in therapy for the rest of their lives, then you lost.
Sometimes, keeping the big picture in mind will allow you to let your narcissistic spouse “win” so that really, you do, too.
9. Minimize Contact Between You and Your Spouse.
The less you have to see and deal with your spouse, the easier your divorce will be. The trouble is that your narcissistic spouse isn’t likely to waltz quietly into the sunset so you can have some peace.
S/he will refuse to move out of the house. If you have kids together s/he will call and text you incessantly about your kids. S/he will also make every visitation exchange a challenge.
To minimize the drama in your divorce you need to separate from your spouse as quickly as possible. Once you do, eliminate as much face-to-face and telephone contact as you can. Do everything via email and text.
Also, keep a record of every email and text. (See #3, above!) You never know when the documentation you’re keeping will come in handy. (If your spouse starts claiming that you falsified his/her emails, start using a parenting app like Our Family Wizard or CoParently.
10. Make (and Enforce) Strong Boundaries.
Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that identify the ways that people must treat you.
Narcissists usually have a problem respecting other people’s boundaries. That’s because their own sense of self (and of self-worth) is so shaky that they often see others (i.e. YOU!) as nothing more than an extension of themselves. If you’ve been married to a narcissist for any length of time, chances are that the boundaries between you have started to blur in many ways.
Establishing and enforcing strong boundaries with your narcissistic spouse during your divorce will start to separate you from your spouse. It will also help you save both your sanity and your dignity.
The more you allow your narcissistic spouse to treat you badly during your divorce, the more painful your divorce will be. What’s more, if you continue to allow yourself to be treated like dirt, eventually the judge (and even your lawyer!) will start to lose respect for you. That makes it even less likely that you will get what you want and need out of your divorce.
Divorcing a Narcissist Isn’t Easy
Trying to win when divorcing a narcissist is challenging. It often makes you redefine what “winning” really means to you.
“Winning” may end up being just getting through your divorce without going crazy. Or, it may mean doing your best to protect your kids so that you can raise them in a more positive environment.
Whatever “winning” means to you, know that it is possible to get through your divorce from a narcissist with your dignity and your sanity intact. It won’t be easy – and you certainly won’t end up getting everything you want. But, with enough time, patience, and support, you can do it.
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