Putting Narcissism & Divorce into Perspective: Negotiate with Caution

divorcing a narcisst In a couple of recent posts, we discussed what it can be like to go through a divorce from a narcissist. In “Divorcing a Narcissist: 5 Steps to Protect Yourself” we talked about how your narcissistic soon-to-be-ex-spouse might blame you for everything and try to control every aspect of the divorce—including your post-divorce life. In “Divorcing A Narcissist: 5 Strategies For Getting Through It” we offered some tips for defusing high conflict interactions with an ex who feeds on conflict and will stop at nothing in trying to gain the upper hand.

If you’ve been reading all of this and you recognize your own ex in our descriptions, you might be feeling more than a little bit discouraged and intimidated. Perhaps you were hoping for a low conflict divorce, were considering mediation, or at least hoped to settle some of your issues out of court. If your ex is so self-centered that seeing anyone else’s side is out of the question, how can you possibly proceed?

Well, take a deep breath and a step back while we take a closer look at some of these issues:

What exactly is a “Narcissist”?
As discussed in the Fifth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)—a guide to standard criteria for the classification of mental illnesses—individuals with “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (NPD) have significant impairments in self-functioning. They typically have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, but may paradoxically feel quite worthless underneath their façade of bravado and entitlement. This underlying sense of worthlessness can cause them to be excessively critical or disdainful, as they seek to bolster their own shaky self-esteem by putting others down. Narcissists crave attention and admiration from others and often set very high goals for themselves to insure that they receive it; they may also feel entitled to special treatment for no objectively discernible reason. They may be attuned to the actions and emotional expressions of others insofar as others are able to provide them with ego gratification or material rewards, but they have difficulty empathizing with others. They have trouble understanding or caring about how others actually feel or about how their actions affect others. Mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder or substance abuse can exacerbate NPD, making treatment and recovery of both the complicating disorder and the personality disorder more challenging.

If you are divorcing a spouse with clinical NPD, you need to stay on guard. Personality disorders tend to be relatively stable over time—you cannot expect an individual with NPD to suddenly “see the light” or to go through a spontaneous period of rapid personal growth. Even with the benefit of psychotherapy, a true narcissist will have difficulty making lasting and substantial behavioral changes.

Narcissistic Traits Don’t Necessarily Mean that Negotiation is Futile

The grim clinical description above, however, represents an extreme. Narcissism, like other personality profiles, exists on a spectrum. There is a big difference between a full-blown narcissist who satisfies the criteria for NPD and someone who demonstrates a few narcissistic traits.  Most of us do possess at least some degree of narcissism because to some extent, it is simply human to have our own agendas and to be very concerned with our personal welfare. In fact, some of the most successful people tend to demonstrate a high degree of narcissism, as traits like confidence and high self-esteem correlate well
with success in the business world.

The breakdown of an important relationship can bring out the worst in any of us. The personal losses that so often go hand-in-hand with the collapse of a marriage are especially likely to intensify self-focus and may trigger frantic efforts to minimize further losses. The resulting stress can also exacerbate any pre-existing mental or emotional disorders. As noted above, other mental disorders can complicate narcissism, however some disorders can also masquerade as narcissism. This means that what looks like intractable NPD can sometimes be better explained as part of a more treatable mental problem such as depression, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder or substance abuse. If this is the case, successful treatment may result in the apparent “narcissism” receding dramatically.

So, before you lose all hope of being able to negotiate calmly and logically with a self-absorbed spouse, ask yourself if he or she has always been so callous and selfish, or whether the current situation is causing a reactive change. Ask yourself also whether your spouse is truly being unreasonably selfish, or whether he or she is just adamantly invested in reducing further personal loss. Then, regardless of your conclusions, try to shift your mindset to see your spouse’s perspective. Whether or not this perspective is reasonable, mind shifting can help you pinpoint and highlight specific compromises and creative solutions that are likely to appeal to your spouse. The more you are able to do this, the better chance you have of making progress. If you want to try to mediate your divorce—even with the kind of structured mediation process we previously discussed, this kind of approach can go a long way.

When Efforts at Compromise Fall on Deaf Ears

There are, unfortunately, some individuals with clinical NPD who will be so vindictive and so invested in causing their divorcing spouses harm that they will not be able to focus on the gains they can achieve through compromise, and will instead leave their exes no recourse but to march into a courtroom with swords drawn. The family law attorneys at Weinberger Divorce & Family Law Group are well-aware of this, and we are fully prepared to act as your gladiator attorneys in court if this turns out to be the best choice in your particular situation.

Our tips for getting through a divorce from a narcissist will be helpful regardless of where your own soon-to-be ex falls on the continuum. Even if you are one of the unlucky few with an ex on the most extreme end, you have the best chance of making progress if you can maintain your own emotional detachment and focus on the most important issues. Keep a firm handle on your boundaries and keep your emotions in check. Don’t let yourself get intimidated and give up too much, but at the same time, don’t waste any emotional energy reacting to someone else’s drama. Remember that the difficult emotions surrounding your divorce will begin to fade as soon as you have resolved your issues, but the practical ramifications can last for years.

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 free attorney consultation.

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