I was surprised the first time a new client asked me, “Do you have experience dealing with narcissists?” I did not expect the term to be in general usage by lay people. For me, it evokes the complex psychiatric system of classification of mental illnesses which is used by highly trained professionals and involves specific diagnostic criteria.
Now, many years later, I am no longer surprised. And yes, I have a great deal of experience in dealing with narcissists in the divorce process. Although I am not qualified to make a psychiatric diagnosis, I do have my own observations about and strategies for handling the narcissistic spouse.
A narcissist is more often a male, and is likely to represent himself in his divorce case rather than retaining counsel to represent him. Charm is one of his most effective tools. In fact, his wife is often fearful that he will succeed in charming her divorce lawyer! A narcissist thinks he is always right, and has to have the last word. He lacks empathy for his wife’s point of view and cannot put himself in her shoes. He finds it virtually impossible to compromise, and is therefore unable to come to an out-of-court settlement of the issues in his divorce case.
So when the opposing party has the characteristics and behavior of a narcissist, what does the spouse who is trying to divorce him need to keep in mind? Here are four suggestions:
- Develop realistic expectations about settlement versus litigation. Most divorce cases do settle, and it is generally wise from both a financial and emotional perspective to try to settle your case. However, when the other party is a narcissist, this is unlikely to be a successful strategy. Be clear from the very beginning that most likely a judge will have to be the one to tell your spouse what the terms of the divorce will be.
- Conserve your financial resources. Be strategic in planning the most effective way to pursue your case. Don’t run up legal fees on steps which do not move you toward closure.
- Choose the most important issues. Not every issue in your divorce is of equal importance. Do a cost-benefit analysis so that you are putting your resources and energy into the most critical issues.
- Rely on your attorney’s expertise. It is likely to be quite difficult for you to disengage from your narcissistic spouse. Your attorney is more objective and has been around this block many times before. Select an experienced divorce lawyer, work closely with him or her, and then rely on that judgement and experience as your case proceeds.
And remember: although the path will likely be a more tortuous one, be clear that you will get divorced.