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Are You Divorcing a Narcissist?

The term has become so common and so misused that it has almost lost its meaning

Key points

  • "Narcissist" is a trending buzzword for divorcing couples, but a real narcissist, or NPD, occurs only in between 0.5 and 5% of the population.
  • Situational narcissistic-type behaviors are common in divorce because of fear of the future.
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder, on the other hand, is long-standing, characterological, and stable over time and situations.

These days, everyone seems to be divorcing a “narcissist.”

Most often, it is the complaint of a woman about her husband. No criticism intended, just my observation. And it is all over social media, spawning a trend with many others jumping on the bandwagon. I am using "he" in this post, but it applies equally to women.

The term has become so common and so misused that it has almost lost its meaning.

What do you mean when you say your spouse is a narcissist?

That he thinks only of himself? That he focuses most on what matters to him? That he doesn’t seem worried about what happens to you or the kids?

Does it remind you of when you were a teenager and thought most boys had little empathy for others and just wanted to brag about their conquests and accomplishments? Or were you that boy?!

These might be described as narcissistic traits that are situational for most people. In other words, during a life crisis (like a divorce), most people will become very focused on their own needs, their survival, while the interests of the spouse or children may be more marginalized. This happens because you are terrified of the future, the wounds caused by the breakup, or of the losses that you see coming. These self-centered “narcissistic” emotions are normal in a life crisis.

So what is a “Real Narcissist”?

It is a personality disorder that can only be diagnosed by qualified mental health professionals. The incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is very low, less than 5 percent in the U.S., and perhaps as low as 0.5 percent, and more common among men. So not everyone is divorcing a narcissist, but probably is divorcing someone who is very self-focused, as most people are during a divorce.

The criteria for the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder are spelled out in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental health professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists.

These symptoms or criteria must be long-standing, characterological, stable across the lifespan and all situations, and not just triggered by a life crisis. In addition, these tendencies cause impairments in many areas of the person’s life. Co-workers are irritated by him, would-be friends often reject him, and intimacy is usually impossible.

Here are some of the traits of a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):

  • Grandiosity (trying to impress, arrogant, ostentatious, pompous, haughty, and pretentious)
  • Lack of empathy (disregard for the feelings of others)
  • Aggressive behavior and sense of entitlement
  • Attention-seeking (even exhibitionist) behaviors
  • Approval-seeking behaviors (cannot tolerate criticism)

“A grandiose sense of self-importance. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. A belief 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. A need for excessive admiration.” (

This is a rare, life-long condition that is very difficult to treat.

Why do so many think their spouse or ex is a narcissist?

When you look at the list above, you might be saying, “Yes! That’s my spouse (or ex)!” But when you honestly look back at your relationship with him, did he always have these traits or behave in these ways? Probably not, which is why you fell in love with and married him. People with NPD generally are rejected and lack intimate relationships. They don’t often get married because “no one is good enough” for them!

In the middle of a divorce, when you feel your life has been turned upside-down, he probably feels that way too. And your life has been turned upside-down! You are overwhelmed with grief, sadness, anger, fear, guilt, or shame. You don’t yet know how your future will look or if you and your children will be able to recover. You don’t know yet whether you will ever be able to love again. This is all normal in an abnormal situation, and divorce is an abnormal situation for you.

In my experience, this tsunami of emotions does cause people to focus on their own needs. You may worry about money, where you will live, how much you will be seeing your children, or whether you’ll have to go back to work.

Narcissistic-like behaviors are common and even typical for people going through a divorce. But it is very rare to divorce a “real” narcissist.

Demonizing your spouse or your ex (“He’s a narcissist, so he… should not see the kids, or should support me more, or shouldn’t have betrayed me,” etc., etc.) doesn’t help you to resolve your divorce in a respectful way. Speaking of your soon-to-be-ex as "a narcissist" may harm your children and damage their relationship with their father and possibly also with you. You may alienate friends or family by asking them to take sides.

So what do you do when you are infuriated at his self-centered behaviors?

  • Acknowledge your frustration and anger.
  • Recognize that you are both responding to fear.
  • Normalize unusual behaviors triggered by an unusual situation (divorce).
  • Take a deep breath and seek support from a trusted friend or therapist.
  • Avoid demonizing him, especially on social media, where this is a “trend.”
  • Get support from a divorce coach to help you take care of your own needs during the negotiations.
  • Focus on your children.
  • Stay out of court.

The references below provide more information about NPD.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2021


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