Tips for Divorcing a Narcissist

Individuals displaying narcissistic personality traits may have an inflated belief in their own self-importance, often need constant admiration and reinforcement from others, do not handle criticism or rejection well, and have an overall sense of entitlement. If you live with a narcissist, you already know this, and these traits may be some of the reasons why you are seeking a divorce. However, divorcing a narcissist can be tricky.

If you indicate any level of dissatisfaction in your marriage, the narcissist feels rejected. The belief will be that you are the one that has the problem, not the narcissist, making you feel as if all the issues in the marriage are all about you. This is why marriage counseling is so difficult when narcissists, particularly undiagnosed ones, refuse to recognize their own problems.

When it comes to divorce, having a successful divorce without feeling you have simply given in to your entire spouse’s demands needs to be carefully thought out and planned.   Here are important tips to consider and discuss with your lawyer.

  1. Resist the urge to be bullied. A narcissist will want to take control of the situation and keep you from seeking the advice of others. For example, you may be told even before the filing of a petition for dissolution of the marriage or before retaining and discussing the matter with a lawyer that if this matter can be resolved now, they are willing to “give you” certain things in the divorce. They will also threaten that if you insist on seeing a lawyer and not accepting the proposal, they will not be willing to be “so generous.” The problem with such an approach is you have no idea whether the “offer” is good or bad. Your need to avoid confrontation could cost you thousands of dollars in the long run from what you legally may be entitled to receive.

In such cases, avoid confrontation and outright rejection of the proposal. Instead, listen to the proposal, thank them for the offer, but advise that you would feel more comfortable consulting with your legal counsel and getting back to them. Keep the approach direct, and avoid escalation. Making a rash decision because of fear that the “law” may not be as “generous” as your soon-to-be ex-spouse is rarely a good approach.

  1. Set up healthy boundaries. While setting healthy boundaries in any relationship is important, it is even more important when divorcing a narcissist. During a divorce, the narcissist will often attempt to start conversations with you (whether by text, email, phone, or in-person) about the issues in the divorce in an attempt to justify their position and force a resolution that may not be in your best interest. Set limits in terms of the issues to be discussed (i.e., only issues related to medical emergencies or exchange times for the children), method of communication (i.e., only by email or text), and time (only when the children are in bed, or after work). By setting boundaries early in the process, you will be able to proceed in a less stressful manner.
  2. Be mindful of how to conduct settlement negotiations. Many divorces involving a narcissist end up going to trial. The reason is that trying to resolve issues of alimony and property division with a narcissist, even when the law appears clear, is difficult. The law may not necessarily support the position of the narcissist, but that does not keep the narcissist from believing they are right. This is partially true because they are generally charismatic, outgoing, and successful in their business dealings. Accordingly, it is hard for them to believe that any judge would rule against them. Until a judge renders a ruling that then has to be followed, it is unlikely the persuasive reasoning outside the courtroom will be successful. However, there are ways to successfully negotiate a settlement with a narcissist. Consider the following:
  • Be realistic in what you want and what is important to you, and make those items the focal point of your negotiation.
  • Listen to your spouse without being judgmental or pushing back.
  • Reinforce positive behavior of your spouse during the negotiations.
  • Avoid criticizing their behavior.
  • Do not take anything personally.
  • Make the ultimate settlement something that they believe was their idea.

Narcissists will generally never accept your final offer. Accordingly, you often have to ask for more things you may be willing to let go to obtain a settlement that is fair, reasonable, and avoids the need to go to Court.

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About the Author:

Marlene Pontrelli is a Member in our Phoenix office and co-chair of the firm’s Family Law Practice. Marlene is a certified specialist in family law. Her practice focuses on all aspects of family law including dissolution, post-dissolution, paternity, child custody and child support matters. She is admitted to practice in California and Arizona. She is a judge pro tem for the Superior Court of Maricopa County in family law. She has extensive trial and appellate experience including appearing before the Arizona Court of Appeals, Arizona Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ms. Pontrelli has written several books, including as a co-author of the Divorce in Arizona book. She is a frequent lecturer in the area of family law and has conducted workshops throughout the country. Ms. Pontrelli is also an adjunct professor at The Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University, where she teaches the family law class. Marlene may be reached in our Phoenix office at 602-285-5081.