DIVORCING FROM OR CO-PARENTING WITH A NARCISSIST: How to Deal with a Narcissist in a Divorce Situation

Category: Family Law

As an Arizona State Bar Certified Specialist in family law matters in Arizona, I have divorced my share of narcissists (or rather helped my clients divorce the Narcissist to whom they were married).  Additionally, I have had many clients who were narcissistic in their behaviors. Part of this is that any marriage in which one person is a narcissist, has a much higher likelihood of ending in a divorce.  Part of this may also be that in thousands of divorces that I have been involved in, these cases have particularly stood out.  Finally, part of this may be that a divorce tends to bring out the worst in both sides, and even minor cases of narcissism tend to be exacerbated while going through the divorce process.  Think you are married (and getting a divorce from) a narcissist?   Here are some things you need to know.

First, narcissistic personality disorder involves a person having “an unreasonably high sense of their own importance” to the level of it becoming a personality disorder.  We are, by human nature, all a bit selfish, especially while a divorce is pending (and we must look out for our own best interest).  However, a narcissist will take the normal selfishness of human nature to an extreme.

Arizona is a no-fault divorce state, so simply having a diagnosis showing that the other party is narcissistic will not automatically guarantee a victory in your case regarding financial issues or child related issues.  If the narcissism is coupled with other mental health issues which impact that parents abilities to parent or co-parent, the Court may consider these mental health issues in determining parenting time and legal decision making issues.   Generally, the Judge will require more than the testimony of the soon-to-be ex-spouse, as it is not uncommon for most people divorcing to believe that their soon-to-be ex-spouse has various mental health issues.  The Judge will want to hear from a psychiatrist or psychologist, who has evaluated or interviewed the parent.  This can be an expensive undertaking, but in certain cases perhaps very much worth the cost and effort involved.

Care must be taken in not accepting the narcissist’s version of reality.  Part of the difficulty in dealing with a narcissist and similarly with a habitual liar, is that often these individuals begin to fully believe what they are saying.  What was initially a lie, becomes their view of reality.   This can cause spouses, and even Judges to have a difficult time telling what is truth and what is a lie.  If your spouse is a narcissist, use caution to ensure that you are not simply accepting their version of reality.  Also, make sure that your attorney is properly prepared for trial to show that the other party’s reality is in fact fantasy. In a he-said/she-said situation when both parties fully believe what they are saying, it is a coin-toss that the Court will get it right.  However, in a he-said/she-said situation in which one party has documentary proof to back up their side of the story, it becomes much more simple for the Judge to determine who is correct, and who needs to undergo further psychological assessment.

Care must be used in settlement negotiations with a narcissist.  Because of their over-active selfishness, it is not unusual for them to believe that what is “fair” to them is what is “fair” in the case.   I have heard narcissists explain why something that any other person would view as clearly one-sided, as the only fair outcome.  They will have rationalized in their mind that because such an outcome may be best for them, it may be best for everyone involved.   Ultimately, there are two ways to settle a case:  1) reach an agreement, or 2) go to trial.  In general, it is best to reach an agreement as this is faster and much less expensive.  However, when one party is extremely selfish and narcissistic, it is very difficult to meet in an appropriate middle ground.   Too often, with a narcissist on the other side, reaching an agreement may require giving up too much; and conversely, getting what is fair may require paying more to take what could have otherwise been a simple case to trial in order to get the Judge to impose a fair result on a narcissist who was unable to agree to what was fair.

Another characteristic of a narcissist is their need for attention, or to feed the narcissism.   This is seen during the case, but then often manifests itself more at the end of the case (or what should be the end of the case).  Two healthy people who have finally resolved their case by trial or by settlement, are both exhausted financially, emotionally, and otherwise, and are looking for a break from the litigation.  Narcissists, who need the attention, may continually dig and drive and push to keep the other person involved.   They do not care that it is negative attention, they simply crave attention of any kind.  Be careful not to feed the narcissist when possible, and help them move on to other projects.

Co-parenting with a narcissist may be very difficult.  They tend to lack boundaries, making it difficult to co-parent without them trying to enter into your life and your decision making.   Although the two of you may have joint legal decision making, be sure to set very clear boundaries as to what types of decisions you will both be making together, and which type of decisions each of you will separately make in your own homes.

Narcissists also lack empathy, and have an inability to see things from other people’s perspective.  This selfishness makes the divorce difficult, as explained above, but also makes co-parenting very difficult as the typical give and take of a healthy relationship may be absent.

If you believe you are dealing with a narcissist, whether in a divorce case or ongoing co-parenting, you may want to ensure that you have experienced legal representation on your side to help you deal with the narcissistic behavior and tendencies of your ex or soon-to be ex.  If you have determined that you need experienced legal representation, please call 480 733-6800 and ask to speak with Douglas C. Gardner, or visit our website at: