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13 Essential Tips if You Are Divorcing a Narcissist

4. By engaging you in a court battle, the narcissist is still using you to feel powerful.

Narcissists need to be in relationships to self-regulate, and by dragging you through court, he or she will feel a thrilling surge of power and control. If the narcissist simply lets you go, he or she would have to find someone else to fill the need. Unfortunately, this also means that the narcissist doesn’t care how the long the process takes—which is surprising but true. Again, most people want to put the unpleasantness and stress of divorce and all of its attendant negotiations and give-and-take behind them; that’s just not true of the narcissist, which makes going up against one that much harder. “It’s a way of staying connected,” Malkin says. “Better to be your enemy than to become a nobody in your eyes.”

5. He or she wants you to capitulate.

It’s not enough that he can say that he or she won—the narcissist needs a symbolic trophy to prove it and the easiest way to achieve that is for you to fold your tents and go away. Besting other people makes the narcissist feel good, and going to court is often waged as war of attrition.

How the narcissist changes the nature of the divorce

The likelihood is that you’ve ended up in court because of his or her refusal to discuss terms on any reasonable basis. Going to court and having a judge decide may actually make the narcissist more comfortable because it means he or she doesn’t have to take responsibility for the outcome, especially if it’s not favorable. That sounds counterintuitive, but the narcissist doesn’t want to give anything up willingly and the court system assures that, win or lose, it won’t be his or her fault. Paradoxically, ceding control permits the narcissist to maintain the illusion of control. Additionally, the process is likely to include:

1. The strategy of obstruction

Depending on which state you live in, family court proceedings can take a lot of time, and the narcissist will instruct his or her attorney to eat up as much of it as possible. Be prepared for the filing of lots of motions, requests for more time and delays, “emergencies” and the like. No matter which one of you is the plaintiff, the narcissist will be the self-described victim in all of his or her filings, the marriage revisited and retold. The thing is that the narcissist only believes his or her truth, even if it tests credulity. Narcissists may not be averse to lying in sworn documents, even about things that can be easily shown not to be true, because showing that they’re not true takes up more time and paper (and legal fees)—and that’s part of the strategy. Kirkpatrick notes that other tactics may include delaying when he or she thinks it can help or get under your skin, not showing up for court dates, including misleading information in filings and appeals that then needs to be challenged, and not disclosing information fully so that there are additional rounds of attorney correspondence and discovery requests and the legal fees continue to mount up. Because the narcissist is expert at self-presentation (and believes in his or her own superiority), the working assumption is that the judge will believe his or her story. (And if he or she is wealthy, and outwardly successful, and you’re less so, the ploy might well work.)

2. Refuse to negotiate or settle.

Again, time is an arrow in the narcissist’s quiver and he or she also knows that the longer the process takes, the easier you’ll be to manipulate and pressure. He or she is counting on that. Because a narcissist is by nature a game player, Kirkpatrick reports, “There are patterns to dealings with a narcissist in settlement negotiations. They make low ball offers or offers that are patently objectionable. They fail to respond to all aspects of the proposal so that there are always bargaining chips to be used to stall the negotiation or begin at the beginning again, and they fail to respond to the matters presented. Do not expect any good faith dealings.

“They lack the ability to negotiate towards a middle ground; they will likely keep stating the same position over and over again, even when the facts and circumstances have changed.”

3. Run up your bills.

Yes, money is used as a bludgeon in most cases. The narcissist most likely sees it as a necessary expense—if, in fact, he or she intends on paying his attorney in the end.

4. Paint you black.

Yes, whatever Jello or mud is available, whether true or not, will be thrown to see what sticks to the wall. You should be prepared to be maligned both in the paperwork, in the courtroom itself, and in the world at large—it’s part of the narcissist’s lack of empathy, lack of interest in relational consequences, and desire to win no matter what the cost. Kirkpatrick notes that these filings will then have to be defended against or corrected, eating up more time and money and, of course, opening the door to the judge’s believing the narcissist. Additionally, Kirkpatrick comments that getting his or her story out there—told to new friends, old ones, family members, and people associated with your work and profession—is also typical of the narcissist’s efforts to pollute the waters, cause harm to reputation and children, while garnering support for him or herself.

5. Go back to court again and again even after a settlement or divorce.

For all the reasons outlined above, the narcissist is likely to keep on using the court system to resolve any real disputes as well as to promulgate new ones. As noted, the narcissist games the system. If there are children involved, Kirkpatrick tells me, “It’s endless. Lack of back and forth communication, not sharing schedules, appointments, or itineraries, signing up children for activities that fall on both parents’ time without notice and discussion when the parent doesn’t have the legal authority to do so are pretty typical after a high-conflict divorce. Add in trying to get the child’s psychological records without legal authority and invading the child’s privacy, and not paying bills in a timely fashion. Then there’s the warfare which is less than stealth: sending frequent emails that complain, harass, and show that he or she is grilling the child or children about the other parent or household and putting down the parenting received.” These can all become issues which must be resolved through the courts, as the narcissist well knows.

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