Until a few years ago, the term “narcissist” was rarely used. Over the last couple of years, however, one of the most frequent questions I am asked by prospective clients is “are you experienced in dealing with narcissists?” Intrigued, I did some further research and I was surprised to see so many in my industry now claiming to be divorce lawyers specialising in divorcing narcissists.

As this is such a popular topic, I thought it worth exploring in more detail. This blog post will therefore attempt to answer some questions like what is a narcissist, narcissistic traits to look out for and some practical advice on how to navigate divorcing a narcissist while keeping your own mental health and wellbeing intact!

What is a narcissist?

I think it is important to make a clear distinction between a narcissist (the dictionary definition being “a person with an excessive interest in themselves”) and someone who is diagnosed as suffering from a real personality disorder.  In my experience, and I suspect that this is the case for most family practitioners, I rarely deal with anyone actually diagnosed as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder by someone qualified to do so. There is perhaps a good reason for this, and that is because narcissists seldom recognise that they have an issue and are therefore unlikely to seek help let alone diagnosis. 

Where does the term “narcissism” come from?

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter known for his beauty and apparently all who saw him fell in love with him.  When he saw his own reflection in a pool of water, he fell in love with it and gazed at it for the rest of his life, eventually pining away and dying whereupon he turned into the Narcissus flower (aka daffodil).

Narcissism traits and behaviours

I think that many of us show some narcissistic traits. But if someone demonstrates many of these traits, it can be extremely difficult for the other person in the relationship and can have very profound effects on their own mental health.  A long-term relationship with someone showing narcissistic traits will often leave their partner socially isolated and lacking confidence.  This makes it especially important that their chosen solicitor has the experience to help and guide them through the divorce process. 

There are of course many different degrees of narcissist, and (as suggested) many are undiagnosed.  In my experience, the type of behaviours complained of include control, a desire to “win”, a lack of empathy, a refusal to accept that anyone else might have an opinion or that they may be right!

These together should be red flags for any adviser that the road ahead may be rocky. Our ideal “opponent” recognise the need for fairness, the effect of their behaviour and conduct on those around them, and wish to separate and move forward with as little damage as possible to all concerned. This is not the thought process of a narcissist who needs to win and not lose face, whatever the cost both mentally and physically.

Let’s examine the particular issues faced when dealing with partners who demonstrate narcissistic traits and how they make your choice of solicitor so important, with a brief look at what you should try and avoid during your divorce.

Divorcing a narcissist – identifying narcissistic traits and navigating through the challenges

1) Controlling Behaviour

A trait of narcissistic behaviour is to seek to control. A common method of control is to undermine a partner’s confidence and push them away from their support network (friends, family or even colleagues), to isolate them, so that reliance and focus is upon the narcissist themselves. If you are in this situation, I know that making the decision to separate or divorce is a time when you have already summoned up a great deal of strength and courage. I am very aware when I speak to new clients that just picking up the phone to speak to me is often a huge step into the unknown. You should have not hesitate to make this call. I am always happy to have an initial chat by phone, gain an understanding of the help you are seeking and discuss how I might assist you to take things forward, even if you are not yet ready to take the leap and you are just feeling your way.

If you have concerns about the funding your divorce, you may find this article helpful: How to secure legal advice and representation when your spouse controls the family income

2) Breaking away from a narcissist

If you have been in a relationship with a narcissist, it is likely they will have expected compliance from you. The decision to end the relationship is therefore in itself a courageous move to break the hold, so seeking a divorce may be seen by the narcissist as a breach of the expectation of compliance. Although it is the very behaviour of the narcissist that is the cause of the relationship breakdown, that is not how they will see it. They will seek to place the blame firmly at the feet of the partner trying to get away from the destructive relationship. My job is to give you a full understanding of the process, and with that the tools and confidence to stand up to these emotional attacks.

3) Lack of empathy

This inability to see anything from the viewpoint of another person makes very difficult any discussion about the reasons for a decision to end the marriage. Often I am told that it is “just impossible to talk to them” and “they just dismiss everything I say as invalid”. The long-term effect on a person’s confidence of having their opinion disregarded or being told they are wrong should not be underestimated. It impacts on a person’s ability to break away from the narcissist and to have any confidence in their own decision-making abilities. Divorce means taking the reins yourself and necessarily making decisions that will impact on your future independence and security. This can be particularly frightening if you have been controlled and put down by a narcissist for many years.

3) Manipulation

Using the other persons emotions to manipulate them into compliance is another trait which is frequently raised. Frequently I hear about circumstances where the narcissist will deliberately provoke an emotional reaction only then to use the reaction as a metaphorical stick to further “beat” their partner. This can be particularly difficult when children are the subject of the dispute. Amicable co-parenting is extraordinarily difficult with a parent who seeks to lay blame, creates issues where there are (or should be) none, and lacks any empathy for the effect of their behaviour on the other parent or child.

For practical tips on reducing the heat during co-parenting communications, read: Managing co-parenting relationships and reducing conflict

If you have concerns relating to domestic abuse and/or impacts on your children, these links may be useful:

4) The divorce process

No matter what glowing references you might read after the event, few people glide through a divorce and financial settlement or dispute about the arrangements for children without any issues.  The goal may be clear: getting away and starting a new life independent of the other; and the reward at the end will be freedom. But the process will inevitably be difficult. Some couples come to a mutual decision to separate, and they achieve their goal of separation with relative ease. Sadly, this is often not so for the person in a relationship with a narcissist, and every step is likely to be more challenging than is should be. This makes your choice of lawyer very important. There is no substitute when dealing with a challenging opponent for extensive experience and knowledge of the law and the court system that you will use.

Visit our Divorce & Separation page for more information and FAQs on the divorce process.

Visit our Children issues and support and Financial provision pages for more information on financial and children arrangements, which are dealt with separately.

5) Choices and goals

At the outset I suggested that family lawyers are unlikely to be specialists in “narcissism” per se. What we should bring to the table is many years of legal experience and how to use the law to best reach the “goal” of separation (both physical and financial independence) without deviation. 

A narcissist will try and delay the ending of the relationship as it is the control of the relationship upon which they thrive. Even if the end of the relationship is inevitable they will stall and seek to delay the divorce process. This has the added benefit for narcissist that it will increase the costs and possibly reduce the ability of their partner to continue the “fight”.  This is another reason why it is important to have a plan with your solicitor and not be deflected from the process by the actions of the other party.

After 30 years of giving advice to people about how to end their relationships, keeping focussed and on track and not being phased by nonsense intended to derail the process and avoid the “goal” is second nature to me. I am very familiar with all these tactics and have helped numerous people successfully navigate through them to achieve the freedom and life they deserve for them and their children.

How you can help yourself and your solicitor during divorce proceedings

Here are some of the things you can do that will make a real difference and give you the best possible chance of achieving your goals:

  • Maintain your mental health and seek a counsellor who can support you through the process. As your solicitor, I will listen and help but my speciality is to guide you through the legal process. You will need to make decisions along the way and give clear instructions. The better your mental health, the better you will be able to get to the other side. Although I often become friends with my clients and we remain in touch, during the process your solicitor can become an expensive friend if used as a sounding board too!
  • Listen to your solicitor and not your partner and avoid corresponding with them by quick media such a WhatsApp. A narcissistic partner who may have controlled for years is not going to stop now. These interactions will be designed by them to undermine your confidence in your decision making with your legal advisers. When you have agreed a course of action, stick to it.
  • Prepare well for meetings. It is helpful to stay one step ahead of the narcissist and if we can anticipate the steps they will take we can keep on track. Share your knowledge of how your partner thinks and works with your lawyer. You know the other person best and what makes them tick. This is helpful in planning your divorce.
  • Prepare your funding and get your paperwork in order. Divorcing a narcissist may be a longer process and cost more than you would like and you must discuss costs openly with your solicitor and save costs where you can. Respond quickly to requests for information from your solicitor, do the leg work to gather information where you can and provide information in the best order possible.  This will save your solicitor time and ultimately lead to a saving in costs. Read this article on ‘Making the most of your divorce lawyer’ on how to prepare fully and cost efficiently for a divorce.

I hope this blog post has been helpful. If you have any questions on this topic or would like to discuss your circumstances in complete confidence, you can contact me on 07809 340314 or harriet.reid@silkfamilylaw.co.uk

Photo credit (woman lying in bed): Jen Theodore on Unsplash