Divorcing a narcissist can be an emotionally jarring experience for spouses and their children. Partners often feel scared, frustrated, and overwhelmed by the process. They may worry that they will be gaslit or have their reputation smeared during this time. That said, it’s important to look after yourself and try to stay calm. Even if it feels scary at first, you can and will get through this separation.
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder rooted in a sense of superiority, arrogance, and little regard for others. People with NPD may present as conceited and inappropriate in social settings. They may undermine or demean others to get their needs met.
Those with NPD often have complex histories of trauma. They have limited concepts of self, causing them to rely on external sources for validation. Subsequently, someone with NPD wants to feel loved by others. However, they often struggle with themes of control and entitlement, making it difficult for others to actually be close to them.1
You may be married to someone with narcissism if you frequently feel like you’re in lose-lose situations. Narcissists often rely on techniques like gaslighting, passive-aggression, or deceit in order to control their loved ones. As a result, you might feel like you need to spend most of your time catering to your spouse. While people with NPD can certainly experience love for their spouses, love may be conditional. If their needs are not met, they may become vindictive or explosive.
According to the DSM-5, NPD is characterized by:
- Grandiose behaviors: Grandiosity refers to having an unrealistic and pervasive sense of superiority. People with NPD often believe they are special and entitled to certain privileges
- Lack of or limited empathy: People with NPD often struggle to connect emotionally to others. They may find other emotions burdensome.
- Obsessive need for admiration: NPD coincides with a strong need for external validation. Someone with NPD may seek continuous reinforcement via other people, professional achievements, or other forms of narcissistic supply.
What to Know Before Divorcing a Narcissist
Divorce is never easy, but personality disorders can add extra layers of complexity to this process. Someone with NPD is generally competitive and hates to lose. Many times, they will do whatever it takes to “win” a divorce, whether that means getting as much money as possible or seeking full custody over children. You should anticipate this type of response beforehand to prepare yourself emotionally.2
Before pursuing divorce, factors to consider include:
Your Spouse May Love-Bomb You
Your spouse may not be able to tolerate the concept of divorce. They may, therefore, try to convince you that they’ve changed, that you’re true soulmates, or that they will never hurt you again. They feel threatened by your leaving and will essentially say or do anything to keep you. However, once you’ve restored your commitment to them, they often return to their usual ways.
They May Play the Victim
Your spouse might try to rally friends and family against you. They may accuse you of being a bad person or giving up on the marriage. If you ever divulged something personal (like having a mental illness), they may exploit this as a way of rationalizing the divorce. For example, they might say, Her depression was just getting worse and worse. I kept trying, but there was nothing I could do.
They Will Try to Game the System
Someone with NPD often presents as charismatic and intelligent. They will work hard to try to convince lawyers or judges that they’ve been wronged. Sometimes, these attempts are through direct lies. Other times, it’s by trying to exaggerate issues or engage in narcissistic smear campaigns.
They May Not Show Remorse For Your Feelings
Even if you’re trying to be amicable, your spouse might “play dirty.” They may present as entirely aloof or cold during this process. Typically, that’s because they want you to feel guilty about your decision. Or, they don’t want to show any form of emotional weakness.
They Won’t Quit
Narcissists don’t ever want to feel like they’ve lost something important to them. If they can’t control you, they will try to control your money, assets, or children. They will often present as relentless in their desire to ensure they get their cut of the deal.
10 Tips for Divorcing a Narcissist
It’s important to prepare yourself logistically and emotionally before divorcing someone with NPD. In most cases, you don’t want to make this decision on a whim. You will need support during this time, and you should also anticipate hostility and conflict. That said, it will not last forever. Staying calm and focused is paramount.
Here are 10 tips for divorcing a narcissist:
1. Organize Your Plans Before Doing Anything
In most cases, you don’t want to tell someone with NPD you intend on divorcing them until you have details set in place. Otherwise, you risk them trying to sabotage your every effort. Likewise, if your spouse is physically violent, your safety (or the safety of your children) may be at risk. It’s crucial to create a safety plan ahead of time.3
2. Keep Copies of Everything
There’s no such thing as having too much evidence. Save records of text messages, emails, or other documents. If you were in a verbal argument where narcissistic abuse or narcissistic rage was present, write down what happened and stay as objective as possible. Consider seeking written testimonials from others. Keep in mind that someone with NPD will often contort the truth to fit their narrative. But the more evidence you have in your favor, the better.4
3. Aim to Stay Calm & Cool
Even though it may be tempting to fight back, try to resist this urge. Maintaining your composure is critical for disarming a narcissist and protecting yourself. You maintaining a neutral reaction may exacerbate more narcissistic gaslighting. But the less you give in, the less you will be affected by such manipulation.
4. Stay Connected to Support
As much as possible, lean on your loved ones during this time. You need people who will provide you with reassurance and have your back. Consider joining an in-person or online support group for people navigating divorce.
5. Avoid Badmouthing
Be mindful of venting about your feelings to mutual friends or family members who may still be in contact with your spouse. Your spouse might try to solicit others to “check on you,” only to use that information against you later. In addition, negative gossip tends to perpetuate ongoing feelings of anger and helplessness.
6. Secure a Strong and Successful Lawyer
Find a lawyer with substantial experience in narcissistic abuse. You want a professional who understands the insidious dynamics of these types of marriages. You also want someone who recognizes the manipulation tactics your spouse may use in court.
7. Set and Implement Healthy Boundaries
Do not let your spouse walk all over you. You need to protect your well-being and secure your future. If you must stay in contact (i.e., you’re co-parenting), consider reviewing boundaries with your lawyer ahead of time. You should expect that your spouse will try to challenge those limits; but the more you can stay consistent, the more autonomy you will have.
8. Review Your Digital Boundaries
Block your spouse on all social media and email accounts. Change passwords to any personal account that they may be able to access (your own bank accounts, shopping accounts, etc.). If you must communicate, let them know exactly how they can reach you, such as by calling you directly or going through your lawyers.
9. Keep Prioritizing Self-Care
Looking after your mental health is essential during this time. Divorce can become a devastating, drawn-out process. Optimal self-care can include uplifting activities like journaling, meditating, spending time in nature, or cuddling with your pets.
10. Let Your Children Share Their Feelings
If you have children, it’s important to offer space for them to process their thoughts and feelings. They may blame themselves or worry about how the divorce will affect their schedules. Remember that routines are important for kids of all ages. As much as possible, try to maintain some sense of consistency.5
How Therapy Can Help
If you’re considering a divorce or already going through one, you may benefit from seeking professional support. According to the Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test), divorce and marital separation rank as the second and third most stressful life events respectively.6
Therapy can help with any toxic stress or anxiety symptoms you may be experiencing. It can also provide support for spouses recovering from the impacts of being married to someone with NPD. Find the right therapist with experience in marital issues and personality disorders. If you’re questioning therapy, discussing this ambivalence during an intake session can help you make a better-informed decision about whether you want to engage in treatment.
Therapy options to consider during and following a divorce with a narcissist include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: CBT can be helpful for learning how to identify problematic thoughts and reframe them in more adaptive ways.
- Group therapy: Group therapy can connect you with like-minded individuals experiencing similar difficulties with marital issues or divorce.
- Family therapy: Family therapy can help spouses and their children cope with divorce appropriately. Keep in mind that it’s rarely advised to engage in couples therapy with a partner actively abusing or harassing you.
- Trauma-informed therapy: Look for a therapist with experience in understanding and treating trauma. Trauma-informed methods may include EMDR, TF-CBT, or other evidence-based models.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT can be supportive in increasing acceptance and mindfulness during distressing moments.
- Experiential therapies: If talk therapy is challenging, experiential methods such as art, dance, or equine therapy may be beneficial in coping with distress.
Divorcing someone with NPD can be challenging and emotionally exhausting. Prepare yourself for a difficult journey. But keep in mind that staying in an unhappy or toxic marriage has worse consequences, both in the short-term and long-term. Knowing what to expect can help you feel more empowered during this process.