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Divorcing a Narcissist

This will not be your normal breakup.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

When Ellen entered her first therapy session with me, she held a card in her hand that she’d printed out from Without speaking, she handed it to me. It read, “We divorced for religious reasons. My partner thought he was God and I didn’t.” While I smiled at the humor, it gave me a good sense about what she would tell me in her story.

When Mark and Ellen first met, Ellen felt caught up in a whirlwind of excitement. Mark was charming, witty, and seductive. Ellen believed that what she and Mark felt for each other was true love. She didn’t realize until after they’d married and had children that Mark’s charm was that of an artful narcissist. Despite his initial showy displays of love, Mark cared only about himself and consistently manipulated others to get his needs met. He emotionally abused Ellen and their children. When Ellen decided that she had had enough and filed for divorce, Mark was appalled. He could not believe that Ellen would abandon him and ruin his life. He saw himself as the victim.

Unwilling to compromise, unable to see things from any perspective other than his own, consistently angry and vindictive, Mark created havoc for Ellen through the divorce, lashed out during each phase of the proceedings, and had excuses for even his most egregious behavior, blaming others (especially Ellen) for his actions. He never thought twice about using his children as pawns. The judge got increasingly frustrated as Mark and Ellen showed up in court again and again.

When a divorcing couple is made up of a narcissist and a non-narcissist, the narcissistic spouse can single-handedly create all kinds of conflict. The narcissist’s actions cause the “normal” spouse to go into defense mode, especially when children are involved. To outsiders, it looks like a fight between equals, but what is really happening is that the non-narcissist is trying to protect the children from a bully. Many people do not recognize the qualities of narcissism, even when they are involved with a narcissist.

A common perception among divorce lawyers, therapists, custody evaluators, judges, and other professionals is that, whenever you have a “high-conflict” divorce, both parties are responsible for the conflict. Many professionals assume that difficult, drawn-out custody battles are caused by two parents who are stubborn, selfish, and perhaps a bit crazy. As Michael Friedman wrote in The American Journal of Family Therapy, “The concept has even entered into what might be called family court folk wisdom: We say that Mother Teresa does not marry Attila the Hun or that it takes two to tango.” What we see happen then is that both parties are painted with the same brush and the antics of the narcissist are not understood or seen. The reality is that a narcissist can unilaterally create a nightmare of a divorce.

Although the example of Mark and Ellen speaks to a male narcissist, many divorces and relationships involve female narcissists; I have seen an even draw in my practice. This is not a gender issue.

When narcissists feel that they have lost, or feel rejected or abandoned, they don’t forget it. The issues remain in their mind as: “It’s all your fault" or “How could you do this to me?” They want to strike back and often do so through children and finances. They suffer from what is called the narcissistic injury. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines narcissistic injury as “vulnerability in self-esteem which makes narcissistic people very sensitive to injury from criticism or defeat. Although they may not show it outwardly, criticism may haunt these individuals and leave them feeling humiliated, degraded, hollow, and empty. They react with disdain, rage, or defiant counterattack.”

While “normal” divorcing couples usually take about three years to fully adjust to the changes in lifestyle, narcissists never get over a divorce and continue to blame their partner for their feelings of inadequacy, lack of happiness, or lack of love, even long after the divorce is final.

If you think you are breaking up with a narcissist or are divorcing a narcissist it is important to be well prepared and have sound professional help. If you have children, it will be even more complicated. My book, Will I Ever Be Free of You?, has tips to help you. A continued challenge remains as we proceed in educating divorce professionals and the courts about the ramifications of narcissistic behavior in divorce.