Published on December 17, 2022

If you have found yourself saying ‘My ex is a narcissist’ your views may have been invalidated and ignored; your boundaries overstepped. You have been exploited, compared to others, argued with and demeaned. You are wondering who you even are, questioning your ability to make decisions. Perhaps you are worried you might be lured again by their charm? Perhaps, confused, you are wondering whether it is actually you who is the narcissist, as many do.

Narcissists lack empathy – although they can pretend to feel another’s pain, they actually just can’t care. You will have to model empathy for your children, so that they develop it themselves.

Separating from a narcissist is fraught with problems. You see, underlying that sense of superiority and entitlement is actually a person with a very fragile sense of self-esteem. They construct a false self (often a larger than life persona) to hide behind, an ‘armour’ which needs to stay intact. This armour is kept strong by validation from others; it prevents them having to face their own lack of self-worth. They need constant attention, all the time, in the form of adoration, drama or conflict. This is known as ‘narcissistic supply’.

In separation, suddenly this armour has been breached and their less than perfect life, exposed. This causes ‘narcissistic injury’, triggering narcissistic rage. And everything that follows is as a result. Awareness of what is likely to happen is key to coping.

As this uncontrollable rage pours forth, a narcissist will try to annihilate their former partner in every way they can
- financially, mentally, spiritually, even using the children as pawns to do so, weaponising them against you. They will badmouth you to alienate the children from you. They may refuse to pay for them in order to financially punish you, not caring about the effect on them. They might enlist them to take items from your home or to feed back information about you. They may suggest that they live with them, even though very often they are terrible parents – selfish, demanding of attention and immature. They may even make false allegations of abuse.

Narcissists lack empathy – although they can pretend to feel another’s pain, they actually just can’t care. You will have to model empathy for your children, so that they develop it themselves.

Limiting contact to the bare minimum is essential. Only communicate in the written word, preferably by email, not in real time to their face or by phone. Never respond to communications immediately – calm down first, and see the ranting accusations for what they are – a ploy to rope you in to the drama they need. Consider whether you even have to reply at all, even to lies and attempts to discredit you. Do not be fooled by pity plays – they are just attempts to pull you back into the game that they must win.

Employ the ‘grey rock technique’: becoming as boring as you can to them, so that they slink off to find new sources of supply instead of you. If you have to see them, don’t make eye contact. Speak in a dull monotone using as few words as possible. Take away all emotion, both from the spoken and the written word. They’ll most likely ramp up their bad behaviour at first, but hold firm – do not be drawn in or let them push your buttons.

Breaking free of a narcissist is a momentous act of courage. Divorce and separation will be a drawn out affair. There is no justice in divorce with a narcissist, but there is an opportunity for growth, and true happiness. Be strong.

Choosing The Right Professional Representation Is An Extremely Important, Yet Difficult, Decision.

You are looking for someone who:

a specialist family lawyer;

has a sufficient level or air of seniority to hold the awe of your spouse;

understands all methods of possible dispute resolution

currently available (and which will be unsuitable for your situation);

will recognise the behaviour traits to which you have been subjected;

can manage the process and advise you specifically on how to deal with your particular situation.

If separation is your decision your representative will need to comprehend what an enormous step you are taking. If it is a decision which has been forced upon you it is vital that they understand the pain (probably physical as well as emotional) which you will be experiencing. They need to recognise how this will impact on your ability to make decisions.

Getting this selection right at the outset can save you a great deal of time and money in the future. Having the right person providing you with advice and support will be invaluable.

The spouse suffering from NPD is likely to react in a very predictable way for those who recognise the disorder from which he/she is suffering.

The Narcissist Will Demonstrate:

The need to win;

Lack of empathy;

Supply gained from manipulation;

A need to have the last word;

A need to be in control;

Lack of morals or guilt (rule breaking).

The narcissist will imply multiple characteristic abuse tactics within the divorce which will include:

Financial abuse;

Emotional abuse;

Devaluing your legal team.

Your lawyer will need to be cognisant of the ‘need to win’. It may be more important for you to remove yourself from this relationship than to achieve the best possible financial outcome. When negotiating, always ensure that there is room for the narcissist to have the last word. It is pointless to impose time deadlines as the narcissist will always ignore them.

You and your lawyer will need to work together to be one step ahead of your spouse and ensure that they do not take control of the process.

Where children are involved you need to take special care to ensure that all child arrangements are as detailed as they need to be allowing no room for misunderstanding or incorrect interpretation.

Signposting to additional support and relevant organisations can be found in this link.

Postscript. Issues arising out of divorce or separation with a narcissist can often prove stressful for the couple and other family members. This article written by Dylan Watkins GP offers a useful overview for those who may be struggling.

Karin Walker & Dr Supriya McKenna are contributors to ‘Separating With Children 101’, 3rd edition (Bath Publishing, 2023).

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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