One of the most overwhelming things about going through a divorce is trying to wade through all the information about how to do it the “right” way and decide what’s right for you. Well-meaning friends and family may give you advice that tends to apply to someone with a reasonable ex. But what if you don’t have one of those? When you have a spouse who tends to be a narcissist, it can mean that you may in for additional stress or all-out war in your divorce…unless you learn how to defuse this high conflict personality type. What works to keep tension in check? Here are five strategies to help you get through your divorce from a narcissist with your sanity intact.
Educate yourself about narcissism. As much as you would like to have an amicable divorce, when divorcing a narcissist, you must accept that you most likely will not have one. By definition, narcissists tend to be emotional manipulative; they thrive on chaos and drama. Despite what your optimistic friends and family tell you, a former spouse with narcissistic tendencies might not “play fair” or put the children’s needs ahead of his or her own.
Still, despite these negatives, there are ways to protect yourself and the divorce process itself. Read books about narcissism to learn helpful ways to interact with this personality type without getting sucked into the drama. Hire a family law attorney skilled in navigating high-conflict divorce proceedings. And see a therapist trained in high-conflict divorce, because that’s the kind of divorce you’re going to have.
Be prepared to litigate—but don’t immediately discount mediation either. Mediation works best when two parties can discuss issues calmly face-to-face and entertain collaborative solutions. A high-conflict ex is simply not going to participate in that kind of process. On the other hand, because high-conflict personalities tend to feed on conflict, litigation with such a person often spirals out of control, resulting in a protracted, expensive, and emotionally draining court process. Consider a middle ground: Look for a mediator with experience implementing a highly structured process. This kind of mediator will help you stick to an agenda, will encourage frequent attorney consultations, and will caucus as necessary with each of you, reducing the emphasis on face-to-face interaction. Think of this style as akin to “shuttle diplomacy,” a term inspired by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and later President Jimmy Carter, two skillful international mediators who achieved results by moving back and forth between hostile Middle Eastern powers in the 1970’s. Above all, don’t let your partner use mediation to wear down your defenses. Keep your attorney and your therapist or “divorce coach” close at hand, and insist on ending a mediation session—or moving on to court—before agreeing to anything that you know is not fair and reasonable.
Don’t show emotion. A narcissist wants to stay emotionally engaged with you, even if he or she initiated the divorce. Allowing you to move on feels like a loss of control, something your ex can’t tolerate. In order to keep you engaged, a narcissist may pull nasty punches: shower you with hostile texts, e-mails, and voice mails; bad-mouth you to the children, and anyone else who will listen; make false allegations against you, and find any opportunity to make you feel crazy, stupid, and incompetent. If you respond defensively, try to explain why you are right, yell, or break down in tears, consider that you will only be providing the narcissist with the self-gratification of seeing you miserable. What to do instead? Stay calm, try to disengage as quickly as you can from the real-time or virtual conversation, and save your emotional reactions for your therapist’s office.
Adopt a “just the facts ma’am” communication style. Remember: when interacting with a narcissist, a good goal is to disengage as quickly as possible. While it may be tempting to respond to any vitriol thrown at you with your own sarcastic comeback, or to defend your position, doing these things will just provide the narcissist with the hoped for emotional response and invite more drama. Instead, take yourself and your pride out of the equation and imagine that you’re a journalist reporting the facts of a story. Your job is to communicate about logistics and financial matters such as child support, not set the narcissist straight.
Keep firm boundaries. Narcissists believe that the only rules worth following are their own, while other people’s rules are meant to be broken. To maintain order and control in your life, you must be vigilant about setting and keeping firm boundaries. Unless there is a true time-sensitive issue, you really don’t need to respond to your ex’s texts and e-mails immediately. And stick to your court-ordered visitation plan. Do not let your former spouse manipulate you into inconveniencing yourself and your children just to suit his or her schedule.
Implementing these strategies won’t necessarily get you the settlement you want, but they will help you get through your divorce so you can enjoy the rest of your life.
Are you dealing with a narcissist in your divorce? Our attorneys have the experience and skills required to minimize conflict. Please contact us to schedule your initial attorney consultation.