According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. “But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
As a divorce lawyer and mediator, I frequently hear clients describe their spouses as narcissists. While most of those described may not meet the true diagnosis of a mental disorder, I constantly battle opposing parties with narcissistic tendencies. These people exhibit a myriad of symptoms of narcissism such as belittling other, conceit, and entitlement.
Narcissistic personality disorder and even narcissistic tendencies cause a host of problems in many areas of life, particularly in relationships. In the context of a divorce, it becomes extremely difficult to settle a case amicably. The narcissistic spouse’s sense of entitlement creates the expectation of a lopsided property division. But the most insidious and destructive effect of narcissism involves the children. A narcissist cannot empathize with you or your children. He/she cannot see the effect his/her actions has on the kids. Unlike a property division, the destructive effects of narcissism continue after the divorce.
Place limits on the amount of contact you have with the narcissist. You do not need to be immediately available. There is no point in discussing how to divide your property. So don’t try. If you don’t have kids, there are few reasons to have any contact at all. If you do have kids, limit your phone calls, text messages, and email to the immediate needs of the kids.
Many times, the narcissist will try to get a reaction out of you by belittling or blaming you. The best response is absolute silence. If it’s a reaction your spouse seeks, he/she can find it elsewhere.
I constantly preach this to my clients whether there is a narcissist involved or not. Don’t stoop to the level of the narcissist. The truth of the matter is that the narcissist’s inflated sense of self is rooted in an extreme lack of confidence. Pointing out that a narcissist is not “all that” will make matters much, much worse. Most importantly, keep your kids out of the fight. Shield them from the discord of your relationship with your spouse. As hard as it may be, don’t disparage your spouse to the kids.
The narcissistic spouse will absolutely involve the kids. It may be as simple as disparaging you to the kids or as treacherous as alienating you from your kids. Get your children in to see a counselor. Therapists can teach children skills for coping with the narcissistic parent. And the counselor may be your star witness if you need to ask the court to limit your spouse’s time with the children.
Dealing with a narcissist is a power struggle. Many times, there is a long history of the narcissist holding all the power. If you’ve been conditioned to let your spouse have his/her way, let your attorney be your strength. Don’t show weakness. The narcissist will try to victimize you.
Understand that the narcissist wants to win. He/she will try to delay the case and eat up as much of your time and emotional energy as possible. He/she will try to run up your attorney’s fees. He/she will also throw as much mud at you as possible.
Make sure your attorney is aware of your spouse’s narcissistic tendencies and understands what that means. (As I mentioned earlier, divorce attorneys are constantly told that the other spouse is a narcissist. Your attorney should not dismiss that possibility.) Make sure your attorney is strong and proactive. Hiring the right attorney is an absolute must.
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