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Divorcing a Narcissist: How They Use the “System”

Divorcing a narcissist is a major step for a survivor of narcissistic abuse.

Putting an end to the relationship just by filing for the divorce will have a huge impact on the narcissist’s self-esteem and it may lead him or her to engage in Machiavellian moves in an attempt to control you. They are likely to display aggressive attitudes and behaviors and will have difficulties letting go of the relationship.

If there are kids involved in the divorce, the narcissist may try to keep them as a source of validation and affection. 

The Mind of a Narcissist During Divorce

As divorce is generally seen as a loss, a personal failure, a narcissist’s need for validation and positive feedback is shaken.

To compensate, they will seek validation from third parties. This kind of approach can be explained by the narcissist’s fragile self-esteem and inability to tolerate rejection.

Summers & Summers (2006) found that narcissists are prone to using the “divide and conquer” tactic during a divorce. 

Because their sense of self-worth is usually based on external image, they may have been dependent on the relationship they have with their spouse and, therefore, act in defense mode in the divorce. They will behave during their divorce as if they are simultaneously fighting a fierce war and are a hopeless victim. 

When divorcing a narcissist, look out for behaviors that are toxic, manipulative and controlling.

Common Strategies to Look for When Divorcing a Narcissist

Divorcing a narcissist is an important milestone when victims reach it, as it can mean the beginning of a whole new life. [Read The 5 Stages of No Contact with a Narcissist]

Unfortunately, it can also mean the beginning of a different layer of their abuse, as they use new avenues open to them through the divorce process to hurt you. 

Below are three of the most common approaches a narcissist uses during a divorce to abuse their partner. Being able to recognize them can help you better prepare for them and ask for help.

 1. Manipulating you to get you to drop the divorce 

Karyl McBride, author of Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family, states that narcissists are likely to try to regain their “lost territory” through tactics of manipulation and control.

They could say things like: “You can’t have a good life without me,” and either use threats or try to win you over with expensive gifts or promises. 

If that doesn’t work, they may try to keep tabs on your schedule and daily routines and play the victim in a divorce.

These behaviors can come off as odd, but they result from the narcissist feeling their inner gratification become threatened and their determination to win it back. 

2. Alienation of the child(ren)

Summers & Summers found that the practice of parental alienation is often seen in divorces involving a narcissist.

Parental alienation occurs when a parent manipulates a child into believing their other parent is a bad person. Alienators do not set boundaries with their kids and frequently spoil them in order to gain their allegiance. This may result in a distorted sense of reality for the child that can become very self-absorbed and an alienator him/herself. [Read 5 Signs You Have Been Raised by Narcissistic Parents

Parental alienation can become so extreme that the child experiences feelings of hate and rage against a once-loved parent and may begin to exploit the alienated parent on behalf of the narcissistic parent. 

Narcissists engage in this behavior with their children due to their immature self-esteem, which is still dependent on the proximity and approval of loved ones.

3. Creating a high-conflict divorce process

McBride stated that some of the most intense divorces are ones involving a narcissist.

In the process of divorce, the narcissists will bring all of the tools they possess in order to keep their reputations intact and unharmed. It is not uncommon for narcissists to have the best lawyers or counselors, regardless of their income, because they need to keep up a perfect image.

They may use this powerful legal team to manipulate or to cause their “enemy” to become unfocused. Sometimes they do it just to run up legal bills for the other partner. 

Also, because narcissists are lacking empathy and regard for the feelings of others, they may gain pleasure out of the suffering they cause. When they use their attorneys and the courtroom to create conflict, act aggressively or cross the line and behave disrespectfully, they feel as if they are “winning” and their partner is “losing.” [See The Ultimate Narcissist Abuse Dictionary to review unfamiliar terms]

Narcissists’ divorces are rarely peaceful. They usually involve a whole team of professionals in order to get the legal, social and emotional aspects of the separation back to a functional state. 

Divorce-proof your mental state and your physical environment ahead of time against these tactics and seek help from professionals who are familiar with narcissists’ tactics. This can help you better ensure your safety and quality of life while you’re divorcing the narcissist.

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Sources

McBride, K. (2016). Will I ever be free of you? How to navigate a high-conflict divorce from a narcissist and heal your family. Atria Paperback.

Summers, D. M., & Summers, C. C. (2006). “Unadulterated Arrogance: Autopsy of the Narcissistic Parental Alienator.” The American Journal of Family Therapy, Vol. 34(5), p. 399–428.

Nicolette Cojocaru

Nicolette is a Romanian licensed psychotherapist who focuses on person-centered psychotherapy and works in an educational center. She is currently completing her Master of Science in child, couple and family psychotherapy.

3 Comments

  1. Christopher Gale

    I got smoked by the narcissist in my divorce! I “fell down” I.e. like the movie “Falling Down” with Michael Douglas I just became distraught and emotionally lost. I was in Therapy and seeing a Psychiatrist as well as went to marriage counseling with her. This was my 3rd marriage and divorce but the first two were with the same person who was my High School sweet heart. Both of those divorced were honest and fair with no stormiest, The Second Wife was anything but fair and honest!

    The 2nd wife who had significant narcissist tendencies was pure insanity full of false accusations and guided by her false narrative. I lost everything because I was an emotional basket case and had problems at work, lifelong depression and my medication stopped working plus my support network of my Grandfather, Father, Step Mother and Mothet had all just recently passed away. Beyond that my wife had been working on the divorce behind my back for months and had already started another relationship without me knowing.

    The bottom line was that she hired the best lawyer around and had already stashed money and planned for my demise with some pretty amazing lies and accusations. I got screwed in every aspect possible as well as online warfare including being sent nasty grams, sex tapes, bikini photos and taunting type crap. The whole thing just broke me down but here now a couple years later I’m still struggling going from well off with over $1mil. In assets to being broke and living in an rv. I atleast

  2. Patty Tricker

    You will never fully understand the meaning of this until you are divorcing (he filed!) a chief of police who uses his knowledge and relationship with the judge to drag things on! And lie!!!! OMG. Everything he did, he accused ME of in court. Played the victim to the hilt!

  3. The process got easier for me and the tactics he was using when I stop taking it personally. They had nothing to do with me but were all about him. He didn’t treat me well when we were married so why would he be reasonable when I filed for divorce. In court he present his case based on the fact that I didn’t want him to move away to go to university (I was 17 and madly in love) so he didn’t go. He wanted me to give him spousal support because he never has reached his full earning potential. He, of course, makes way more than me. Its going on 4 years and he still hasn’t settled with me as he wants to keep everything.

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