The Intelligent Divorce

And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting

The Narcissistic Ex, Part II

How to deal with exes who can't get over themselves

Last week, we discussed narcissistic personalities in divorce. Now, let's elaborate on this subject, and go over some some precautions that may help you when dealing with a narcissistic ex husband or wife. You may think that a narcissist is simply selfish and draining to deal with, but individuals with such a demanding sense of self are sometimes teetering close to the edge.

The danger of divorce and the narcissist: Divorce brings many pressures to bear on anyone going through it; worries about money, custody, legal issues, abandonment, betrayal and especially loss. One can never underestimate the tsunami like power of stress in divorce—it can regress your ex spouse to a more manipulative and primitive state.

There are two major paths to the narcissistic ex during a divorce.

The first is that you simply married a highly narcissistic person and will have to deal with the consequences of that choice. He was compelling, handsome, and successful—and you thought that he loved you. Well, he may only have loved the fact that you loved him. He may have been in love with being in love. But, once the fairytale ended, he started criticizing you for all your alleged faults. And, when criticized he would lick his wounds or attack. You married a man who always wanted to win, and you got tired. Unfortunately, an ex like this tends to worsen with divorce because he hates the loss of control, but you have respite and hope for a new life down the road. You are not trapped by one bad decision; divorce can give you a second chance.

In some ways the hardship of a frankly narcissistic ex is easier than the second path to dealing with this pathology during a divorce. More commonly, your ex was not a narcissist prior to the divorce. She may have been self-centered or self preoccupied, but she related relatively normally. In marriage, this can be annoying, but it's not a game changer. Then, with the powerful stresses of divorce descending upon her, things have changed.  In simple terms, the stress of the divorce has unlocked something that had not existed before—and you find yourself dealing with a full fledged narcissist. She will be deceitful, self serving, manipulative and profoundly unfair.

It will not be easy.

People often say, "This is not the person I married—what happened?"  Unfortunately, there's a lot of truth in this statement. In many ways, you were married to another woman. And, for the next year or two, if she regresses into a narcissistic character style, you and the children will likely suffer. Technically, we call this second example a regression leading to a Narcissistic Character Trap. The outcome is the same as a pre existing narcissistic personality, but in the case of a Character Trap (which is temporary by definition) your ex's new behavior may catch you by surprise.

The pathological narcissist sees your divorce as a function of your imperfections, so he or she will often times seem totally unaffected by your history together. It is as if all of the love you shared never happened.

This attitude may extend to your children. In the movie "Imagine That" Eddie Murphy plays a business executive and divorcee who has made no attempt to relate to his daughter until he discovers that she can predict changes in the stock market. This is a cute Hollywood storyline and a classic narcissist move. Even when they have relationships, for a narcissist, it's all about what you can do for them. And, for a lot of spouses, this is difficult to accept.

As Dr. Andrew Klafter tells us: for many narcissists, "passionate love turns to passionate hate." The divorce is an injury to his or her self worth and can trigger something known as narcissistic rage. Fits of narcissistic rage can occur at any time that the narcissist feels their idealized version of themselves has been challenged. He may not love you like he used to, but he's vulnerable to your anger or assertion of power. If you confront him, betray her or simply do what is right for you, a person with pathological narcissism will want to make you pay.

Divorcing the narcissist while staying sane:
There is no easy way to deal with an ex spouse who has a narcissistic personality problem. But I will break down my suggestions to two key components. One is psychological and the other is entirely practical.

First the psychological—you must radically accept your situation. You must get past your hurt and dismay. He simply doesn't love you anymore and may treat you like a rag—even if you gave him the best years of your life. Erroneously, you may think that if you please him, tomorrow will be a better day. Such ex's may be nice, but there is often an ulterior motive, and once you stand up for yourself, you will feel his wrath.

My advice is simple even if it hurts. Get over it.

There is no greater loss of emotional resources than lamenting about how unfair it all is—or worse—hoping that he will now change and be nice if only you just give in this one time. So much of life is unfair. Breathe deeply and move on.

You will have to grieve both the divorce and that you are stuck with a very difficult ex. She will exhaust you if you let her. A radical acceptance of your situation will save you much heartache—and prevent many mistakes.

A good therapist is invaluable. In addition to accepting the way things are, it's useful to examine your own dependency and how you may give him more power than he deserves. Once you find some equanimity, this prospect will be less upsetting.

Practical advice: The practical way to deal with a narcissistic ex during a divorce is to plan for the reality that she will usually be thinking about what is good for her—and rationalize from there. She may claim it's about the children, but it's probably about her own convenience. This will drive you crazy mad and you will have to just let it go.

Note that a narcissist will almost certainly look good in public but infuriate you in private. If she humiliates you in word or deed, refrain from any acts of violence or perceived violence. An accomplished narcissist often has a strong public presence and you will be the one who is blamed. You will have to accept this unhappy state of affairs and act pragmatically.

Your friends may even think that you were a fool to leave him.

Get a good attorney and make sure you know your rights about money, custody and visitation. You will have to look over the money situation carefully, because a true narcissist will feel little obligation to be honest with you. Ask you lawyer how best to watch out for yourself. Limits are important. On visitation, keep to the letter of the agreement, particularly in the beginning, because he may take advantage of any ambiguities—and always with a "good" reason.  

Later, for the sake of a friendlier divorce, you can always loosen up on your limit setting if the agreement is going well.  Once he or she perceives that you are protecting yourself properly, you may have a better working relationship going forward. That is an achievement.

Tragically, some narcissists do become dangerous when challenged. As a rule, narcissists hate to be criticized, even in a good relationship - so imagine what a divorce can bring. They're angry that you are disturbing their brittle equilibrium and may need to inflict damage in order to feel better. The more primitive narcissists can escalate into an Avenger style of functioning and become a real criminal danger. Some will hold onto the rage for a long time, while poisoning the kids or your friends against you, and taking advantage whenever they can. Your job is to calmly set limits again and again while not giving them more ammunition (like acting out of control in public), which will be used against you.

Note that narcissists are very sensitive to public scrutiny, so working effectively with your attorney (and the court) to document her incredibly self serving behavior may keep the behavior in line. Obviously, when concerned about your safety, an order of protection may be appropriate, even if these orders are of questionable value. In addition, it's useful to get to know the local police, in case you need to call for help.

Time helps: The sicker narcissists may never let go of their anger and sense of injustice. You may have to live with this burden for some time to come. This is a real hardship. My advice is to embrace your life, set the right limits, raise your kids and look forward to the future. You get one life, so what choice do you have?

The good news is that over time most narcissists move on to other relationships and get caught up with other dramas. You may well get a reprieve. In fact, your relationship may improve dramatically, as you are no longer the center of their resentment. And, if the narcissistic behavior was a result of regression associated with the divorce, it's not unusual to see the behavior abate after a year or two.

Thankfully, this is a common outcome.

Final note:
When appropriate, and as hard as it is, accept that you are dealing with a narcissist.

Accept that all this can be exhausting.

Accept that it is truly unfair and then redouble your efforts.
   
Know that your kids will benefit from your consistency and your backbone.

And, know that your efforts are worth it.

 

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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