How to divorce a narcissist: A complete guide and what to expect
Whether you’re entertaining the thought or are in the midst of it all, separating with or divorcing a narcissist requires sound preparation and professional help.
By Esta Pinto
We aim to help you get through this time in the safest and sanest manner possible. So we’ve engaged a panel of our experienced family lawyers and clinical psychologist, Colleen Respondek, to share their collective expertise, to help you get through one of life’s (maybe most) difficult challenges.
Read on to get their professional advice for dealing with such a situation.
What is narcissism?
“There is some variation along a continuum, but generally, if the person is severe enough to be diagnosed with narcissism, they could have a grandiose sense of self and be extremely self-focused,” describes Colleen.
“They are likely to have a very fragile ego, requiring constant admiration. Anyone dealing with the narcissist would have to be very careful to make them feel important all of the time. Narcissists will often use manipulation and other tactics to try to get people to do what they want. They can have problems with a lack of conscience, with feeling remorse and guilt and so on due to their need to feel special .”
So what knowledge can you arm yourself with before, during and after the divorce to begin to recover your sense of self?
Preparing to divorce a narcissist
1. Practice self-care and put yourself first
Whether it’s journaling, spoiling yourself, meditation, therapy, or something else, make taking care of yourself your number one priority.
“Some narcissists will have made life very difficult for you. They may have eroded your self-esteem for a long period of time during the relationship. So by the time the relationship is breaking up, your confidence and self-esteem may be very low,” says Colleen.
So be aware of this and be mindful of your thoughts and emotions. Remember to be compassionate to yourself, so you can get back on track and feel more like yourself again.
2. Prepare your support network
“Divorcing a narcissist can be really tricky because it’s a form of rejection. We’re talking about someone who can be very unpredictable. The approach to divorce would have to be taken cautiously. It will be essential to ensure you have support systems in place just in case that person becomes vindictive or potentially even violent or criminal.”
“Make sure you have those safety mechanisms in place, including family, friends, and external services”, continues Colleen. “The conversation that you have with the narcissist is likely to be more successful if they can come to feel the same way as you and can agree. If they don’t want the divorce, it could become risky very quickly.”
Remember – your safety is paramount. If you are in immediate danger, call 000 for police and ambulance help.
3. Shield and protect your children
There are some things you can control, and that is the way you handle conflicts in front of your children, as well as how you communicate about the other parent to your child.
“While divorce is extremely difficult for children, it’s not so much divorce and breakups themselves that affect kids badly. It’s ongoing hostility between parents,” says Colleen. “So if there’s a parent that’s continually saying all these awful things about one of the other parents, that’s really damaging to children. And narcissists may be more prone to behaving in this way because they’re often unable to empathise with the child or the partner. They may just want to hurt the partner or re-establish their grandiose sense of self.”
“Children may also be used to manipulate the other party. So if you’re divorcing the narcissist, you will want to ensure there are excellent supports in place for the kids as well. Make sure that they’ve got people outside of the family that they can talk to or check-in with.”
“Help them understand that they can still love that parent, but that parent’s behaviour is not acceptable. This will put the foundation in place that will help your child not to internalise the behaviour of the narcissist.”
At the stage where you’re currently divorcing the narcissist? Keep reading for advice from our Heads of Legal:
- Shelley O’Connell – Australian Family Lawyers, Adelaide;
- Courtney Mullen – Australian Family Lawyers, Canberra;
- Annabel Murray – Australian Family Lawyers, Sydney; and
- Anna Carr – Australian Family Lawyers, Perth.
4. Focus on the big picture
When you divorce a narcissist, keep the end goal in mind during your legal negotiations, and pick your battles wisely.
“When divorcing a narcissist, it’s more important than ever to keep your focus on the ‘big picture’. Getting to a negotiated outcome can be much more difficult with a narcissist who always has to ‘win’ and is always ‘right’. It may be easier to achieve an outcome if you can allow the narcissist to feel like they have ‘won’ on some points,” says Shelley.
“If you are able to concede some issues that might not be as important to you, you can still ensure you are getting a favourable deal overall,” she adds.
But tread carefully.
“Yes, compromise”, advises Courtney Mullen. “But don’t roll over too much because the fight is hard. Make a commercial decision about settling rather than feeling strong-armed into an emotional one.”
5. When communicating and interacting…
Try to disengage and treat your interactions with them brief and business-like.
“If the other party is behaving badly, do not lower your standards to their level but behave well, treat them politely and civilly, act with honour and integrity and set the bar by example for them to rise to,” specifies Anna. “Respond professionally. Do not react.”
“Don’t argue or engage in the fight or the drama created by the narcissist,” Annabel adds.
6. Keep good records
“Keep a chronology, as this is useful for court preparation,” shares Anna.
Courtney concurs, “Keep good records of your spending and follow advice from professionals.”
If you have children together, read Courtney’s top recommendations for co-parenting apps that will help you manage record-keeping.
If your separation or divorce with the narcissist is near-final or final – congratulations. You’ve come so far, and the road to recovery and healing lies ahead. Keep reading for some final advice from our legal and psychology panel.
“Hopefully, with having legal representation, the two parties will have a fair settlement. The narcissist may not necessarily feel that the settlement is fair because of that sense of entitlement and self-importance. This person could continue to harass or try to “get even” or find other ways to continue to make life hard for their previous partner,” says Colleen.
In that case?
“Focus on what you can control and let the rest go,” advises Courtney.
This could be anything from doing anything to make yourself feel ‘safer’, from changing the locks on your doors, keeping copies of all communication post-divorce or separation, and working on letting go of any dependence on the narcissist, whether financial, emotional or physical. Related reading: 10 signs of financial abuse in a relationship (and what to do if you recognise them).
Annabel advises seeking victim counselling or support to continue to aid your healing if you haven’t already.
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