What To Know About Divorcing A Narcissist, From Lawyers & Psychologists
Although the process for divorcing a narcissist is similar to any other divorce, the narcissist is likely to make things a lot more complicated. A narcissistic spouse can create conflict by manipulating the divorce process, lying to make the non-narcissistic partner look like the "bad guy," or using the kids as pawns to hurt you.
Common narcissistic traits, like lack of empathy, entitlement, and lack of responsibility, will make reaching an agreement and keeping the peace nearly impossible. However, with the right lawyer and plan of action, it can be possible to leave the relationship for good.
There are a lot of emotional hurdles to keep in mind when breaking up with a narcissist, but here are a few things to keep in mind specifically when you're divorcing one.
How a narcissist may manipulate divorce:
They may drag out the court battle.
"The narcissist is always engaged in the contest," therapist Wendy Behary, LCSW, tells mbg. They will manipulate a divorce through whatever means in order to show you who is in charge and "win the contest," she explains.
There are a number of ways they could drag out the battle, but here are a few according to Behary and lawyer and negotiation expert Rebecca Zung, Esq.:
- Filing false pleadings or motions (generally weaponizing the court system)
- Refusing to provide documents
- Ignoring court orders
- Not meeting deadlines to submit paperwork
- Withholding assets and money
Overall, these actions can make it very time-consuming and costly to divorce a narcissist. A good lawyer will come in handy.
They may refuse to negotiate or settle.
When it comes to losing, most narcissists will not back down. Negotiating, compromising, or settling will be out of the question for them. They may outright deny the terms of a settlement agreement—or, more maliciously—they will continuously "move the goal posts," Zung says. That might look like offering a settlement but then constantly changing the terms.
This process drags out the court battle and, if it occurs frequently enough, may cause the non-narcissist to grow weary and give in. Remember, this is a manipulation tool, and it's important to not waver.
They may attack you or twist your words.
Since narcissists are deeply insecure, many don't want to come across like the villain or the reason the marriage didn't work out. "Because they carry so much shame, divorce is a sign of failure to them," Behary says.
To avoid this, they may twist the words or actions of the person they're divorcing—making them look like the bad guy. "Even when they are the initiators of the divorce process, but especially when they are not, narcissists will attempt to one-up their partner," Behary says.
According to Zung, they may do this by creating smear campaigns, manipulating text messages and other correspondences, or straight-up lying about what their spouse has said or done.
They may bring the children into it.
It's not uncommon for narcissists to use their children as pawns, Zung says. "They will threaten for custody if there are children involved, even if they don't have the wherewithal to provide reasonable living situations for the children in their guardianship," Behary adds.
They may become violent.
Outside of the courtroom, narcissists may begin stalking, threatening, or becoming violent with the person they are divorcing, Zung says. These intimidation tactics could cause the other person to surrender out of fear for their life or their children's lives.
"If your narcissistic partner is a malignant narcissist—which means that they not only lack empathy but that they have a sadistic streak and might even enjoy hurting you—then you need to be prepared for a very hard time," psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., writes at mbg. "They have learned to cover over their feelings of helplessness with threats, rage, and other forms of intimidation, which all too often can turn to violence."
(Here's more on what a narcissist does at the end of a relationship.)
Tips for divorcing a narcissist:
Make sure your partner is actually a narcissist.
First and foremost, make sure the person you're calling a narcissist in court is actually a narcissist. That doesn't mean you have to hire a psychologist to diagnose them—generally, it's not too hard to figure out. "Narcissists have a very predictable pattern of behavior—it starts with love-bombing, then heads into devaluing and discarding," Zung says.
These people will have no empathy or compassion for your emotions. Usually, they'll make their partner feel erased, and the relationship will lack reciprocity, according to Behary. In general, these behaviors will amplify during the divorce process.
"They have no sense of self, so they have to derive all of their value from the external world. That value is called narcissistic supply," Zung explains. In a divorce, they get their narcissistic supply from manipulating the court proceedings, in the various ways mentioned (threat of custody battles, refusing to sign documents, etc.). "That's why it takes so long to divorce a narcissist and why it costs so much," she adds.
Take stock of your financial situation.
"Many people are financially dependent on their narcissistic partner, or their partner is financially dependent on them," Paul explains. "This, of course, can cause huge issues that you need a good attorney to help you with."
Paul recommends speaking with an attorney early on in the process or potentially before you even initiate the breakup to make sure your bases are covered. Zung recommends having a stash of cash just in case. It may be helpful or necessary to start saving up money in a separate bank account that your spouse does not have access to.
"Clients of mine who left a malignant narcissist ended up for years in court with huge expenses over children or didn't receive child support," Paul writes.
Have a plan to keep yourself physically safe.
"If you know that your narcissistic partner can be violent, it's vital that you prepare well before leaving," says Paul. "You may need to move without letting your partner know where you are, and you might need to do this suddenly and all at once when they aren't there. If needed, consider a women's shelter for safety."
Here's our full guide on how to leave an abusive relationship safely.
Remember: You're not in this alone. Get support from your friends and family. You can call a domestic violence hotline (phone numbers are at the top of this article) and speak to an advocate who can help you think through all the details and create a safety plan to safely exit the relationship.
Make sure your lawyer is aware of your ex's behaviors.
"Find a lawyer who is narcissist-savvy," Behary advises. You need a lawyer who knows how to provoke the narcissist to an extent, so the courts get a glimpse of what the non-narcissistic partner is up against, she says.
Narcissists can be manipulative, so having a lawyer who knows what they're up against is critical.
Keep a strong record and have a plan.
As soon as you become aware of your partner's narcissistic behaviors and have plans on divorcing, Zung says to start documenting everything. This includes text messages, emails, threats, expenses, or anything else that may seem relevant in court. Then with the help of your attorney, "create a super-strong strategy, which includes having invincible leverage," Zung says.
Cut off contact completely after the divorce.
Narcissists are experts in charm and manipulation, Paul points out. One way they may approach the divorce process and aftermath is to continue trying to reel you in--whether to suck you back into the relationship or to find new ways to hurt you. Worst of all, she notes, narcissistic abuse can often lead to trauma bonding, wherein the victim continues to feel attached to the narcissist because the ups and downs have produced an extremely emotionally intense relationship that feels thrilling and irreplaceable.
That's why Paul advises to cut off contact with a narcissist completely after divorce, particularly if they have any violent tendencies. "It's best to have no contact with your narcissistic ex after leaving," she says, "but if you do have to have contact due to children, be sure you always have someone with you and insist that all communications transpire through an attorney."
Be sure to keep your perspective.
Remember what matters to you, what you want out of the divorce, and why you want out of the divorce. Don't be fooled by the narcissist's charming traps or their less-charming threats.
"Since your narcissist partner might use every manipulation they can think of to get you to stay, it's important for you to write down why you are leaving," Paul says. "It's too easy to forget the awful stuff and just remember the good stuff when you are alone and feeling lonely."
Behary says it may be helpful to work with a therapist who can teach you to respond calmly and confidently in the face of a narcissist.
The bottom line.
Divorcing a narcissist may be a bit more complicated than a traditional divorce, but it's doable with proper planning. If possible, hire a lawyer who understands narcissism and is willing to fight for you but also to support you through every step of the process. A therapist familiar with narcissism can also be beneficial.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.