Last year I worked a high conflict divorce. The couple could not agree on one out of the one hundred issues presented by a divorce with a child. We were helping the husband, a guy who wore a tie to work and was genuinely easy for everyone at R + E to like, which perplexed us considering his incredibly toxic marital dynamic. Our client is responsible, a hard worker, and tried to be a good father. As it turns out, there was only one explanation for the relational mess that was keeping the file room overflowing at the office.
He was divorcing a narcissist.
His wife had the ability to take her life story and embroider it with an irrational level of exaggeration. She was ruthless and shameless about her adulterous behavior. She had a sense of superiority you could feel in her presence. She craved attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to get it.
Being a veteran divorce attorney, I knew after hearing our client describe life with his wife we were dealing with some sort of personality disorder. This was affirmed when I met her in person. It’s not uncommon as a divorce lawyer to see individuals with personality disorders, because people with these conditions always struggle with their relationships. We were torn between whether or not she was undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), because these two can look very similar. Statistically, more men are narcissistic and more women are borderline, which is why I flipped strait to BPD in the DSM-V when trying to put clinical words to the behavior being described by our client.
People who have borderline or narcissism are reactive and their moods can pivot on a dime. This quick change in mood is triggered by failure, rejection, abandonment, and/or lack of control. People with either borderline or narcissism share an unspoken very low sense of self-worth. But the difference in borderline and narcissism is what a romantic partner will witness behind closed doors.
If you are living with someone who you suspect has borderline, you are going to experience their intense fear of abandonment – “I hate you don’t leave me!” Your relationship will often be co-dependent, and when your partner senses the slightest bit of pull back from you, they will use emotionally manipulative tactics to put you back in your place. Individuals with borderline are often very caring because they crave intimacy, but their mood swings and hypersensitivities get in the way of a healthy relationship. Remember, unhealthy can be with unhealthy, but healthy and unhealthy will never work.
If you suspect your partner is a narcissist, the most obvious trait is a lack of empathy which limits their ability to understand other people. They might seem charming and full of self-confidence at first, by love bombing you, but their focus is maintaining a grandiose façade full of lies they use to feed their ego. When you know the whole story, it never adds up. A narcissist is completely oblivious to how their words and actions affect others. A narcissist does not understand subtle social cues. When their shortcomings are exposed, they will flip the switch and play the victim. Gaslighting is their most common tactic to make their partner feel small and unintelligent. Gaslighting is when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. For example, your spouse may say, “I’m sorry you think that I hurt you.” Another good example is, “You should have known I would react this way.” They also may simply deny what actually happened, by making you doubt yourself and make you question your own sanity. A narcissist believes they deserve the best of absolutely everything, but they are too unstable to achieve independent success, so instead they manipulate others.
We eventually decided our client’s wife was a full-blown narcissist. The case was more litigious than it ever should have been, simply because she was insufferable throughout the entire process and her grandiose sense of entitlement created hundreds of thousands in unnecessary attorney fees on legal points her legal team eventually abandoned.
Divorce brings out the worst in a narcissist.
If you think you are married to a narcissist, unfortunately there is little those in the mental health field can do, because the narcissist does not think they have a problem. Even if a narcissist recognizes their life has become unmanageable, they believe they are smarter than any therapist, pastor, psychologist, or lawyer you call upon to help save the relationship.
The following five tips may help you navigate if you think you are divorcing a narcissist in Mississippi:
- Don’t accept their harmful behavior. It is unwise to argue with a narcissist, but you can draw boundaries in your life and disengage from the harmful behavior they are displaying.
- Respond, don’t react. It is tempting to react to the manipulation tactics, but it is important to focus on the issue at hand by always bringing attention back to the real problem despite the narcissist’s effort to monopolize the conversation.
- Expect push back. Once you speak up and set boundaries, the narcissist will immediately feel attacked. Prepare to stand your ground because if you take a step back, they will not take you seriously.
- Know when it’s time to leave. Narcissists are masters of deception, and sometimes it not worth losing sight of your self-worth to stay in a relationship that is not meeting your needs.
- Find a support system. Try to build healthy relationships and a support network of people. Spending a lot of time in a dysfunctional relationship can leave you emotionally drained, so consider seeking help from a licensed therapist as you deal with the journey ahead. Seek a community.
Divorcing a narcissist is a personal challenge that will test your limits. Every shortcoming your soon to be ex-spouse has will be exposed, which triggers a volcanic eruption of manipulation and negative energy. A narcissist only thrives when worshipped, which comes to a quick halt when you retain a divorce attorney. When you show a narcissist you are moving past the relationship, they want to punish you for abandoning them. Unfortunately, sometimes things have to get worse before there is a faint light at the end of a long tunnel. This is most certainly true for someone divorcing a narcissist. While there is an achievable future free from the control of the narcissist, there will indeed be a struggle to get there.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 20 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. He has helped many people gain freedom from narcissists. He cowrote this article with Mandalin Blanton, a charismatic 3L from Mississippi College, who is honest, soulful and a natural born leader.