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Divorce and Narcissism


We, as a society, are becoming more aware of the relationship between mental illness and the destruction of marriages; in particular, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This Personality Disorder has a difficult combination of symptoms.  Sustaining a marriage with a narcissist is problematic and it becomes a very complicated problem when it’s time to divorce.  To understand what divorcing a narcissist entails, it’s important to understand a bit about Narcissism.

(I am not a counselor, but I am an attorney.  Please listen to your counselor first.  The purpose of this article is to help you think through some issues I have seen in my practice.)


According to the DSM-IV, narcissism is defined by a person pervasively demonstrating at least five of the following nine characteristics:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

A careful reading of these criteria will tell you that they are subjective.  As their spouse, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to recognize the difference between true narcissistic personality disorder and your X just being a pain in the neck.  Also, keep in mind that just because someone is a narcissist, you don’t automatically “win” the divorce.


Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) diagnosis or,  just the presentation of NPD symptoms impacts the strategy you need to employ to get a good outcome in your divorce.  These strategies include:

  • Don’t look back.  You will never realize your full self in a relationship with a narcissist because by diagnosis, you can never be their equal in their mind.   Furthermore, they can never understand or accommodate your emotional needs.  They will only undermine your successes.
  • Don’t engage. Plan your divorce, build your case, and ignore them. Your divorce is your effort to build a life for yourself and your children.  Don’t distract yourself from planning this important move by engaging your X.  In the words of a Judge I have practiced in front of for decades, “Tend to your own knitting.”  It can be hard, but what they do need not matter to you.
  • Protect your kids.  Protecting your kids means getting them to a counselor. Then, privately tell the counselor about your concerns.  Support the counselor’s work to guide the children’s learning of appropriate boundaries and coping mechanisms for dealing with a narcissistic parent.  If limitation is important, that counselor will need to let you know and back you up in court.

You want to have your kids in counseling because it is highly likely that the divorce will result in a narcissistic parent getting custody (and attempting to remove you from their lives) or, more likely, you getting custody and the narcissistic parent gradually disappearing from the children’s lives.

That may be a relief for you but it likely will be emotionally devastating for your children.

  1. Get your money upfront.  The narcissist will delight in owing you money.  They desire to maintain control over you by putting you in the position of chasing them to get paid.  They want power.  Get what you can now and walk away.
  2. Stay safe.  As you go through the divorce process, your spouse will gradually lose power over you, both financially and emotionally.  That’s scary for a narcissist and they will likely react more and more desperately, pushing those boundaries harder – up to and including acts of violence.  Err on the side of caution.  Yes, if in doubt, call your lawyer.   Yes, if in doubt call the police.

All divorces are emotional, but if you’ve been married to a narcissist, or even someone with narcissistic tendencies, you are likely suffering deeper injuries than most.

Luckily, we derive special pleasure in working with people to build their new lives (and new self esteem in the process).  Give us a call 865.637.6550 and let’s get started! -Margaret