Narcissists have what’s called a “high-conflict personality.” They don’t think or operate the same way as other people. They often thrive on conflict, going out of their way to engage in it. They are the classic example of people who make everything all about them. They have difficulty moving on from setbacks.
If you’re divorcing a narcissist, you have a lot of coping in front of you, and a lot of it may seem counter-intuitive. Here are some tips from marriage and family therapist Virginia Gilbert.
1. Don’t admit when you were wrong. With a normal person, admitting you were wrong shows you’re taking responsibility for your part of the problem. It helps people connect after conflict and moves things forward. With a narcissist, apologizing will reinforce their suspicion that you are incompetent, stupid or mentally ill. Worse, they may retaliate for the perceived wrongdoing.
2. Don’t share your feelings with a narcissist. Many high-conflict personalities are bullies who will do anything to win. They are looking for chinks in your armor to exploit, and crying, yelling or pleading will not bring sympathy. Showing your true feelings will simply invite attack. Find a therapist, support group or another safe space to share your feelings.
3. Prepare for drama and retaliation. Narcissists need to feel like they are in the right, and they often refuse to move on from perceived slights. They are likely to threaten legal action, and they may follow through — dragging you back into court over minor issues or indiscretions.
Whenever your divorcing spouse threatens you, even when it seems frivolous, respond with a factual, non-defensive email describing what actually happened. Save all hostile communications from your ex, especially if they cross into threats of violence. If they violate the court orders in your divorce, keep a record.
4. Minimize your contact with your ex. Even well-meaning people can be narcissists, and they may simply be unable to choose anything but drama. To a narcissist, maintaining the conflict feels like maintaining the relationship. They may stalk you, cyber-bully you, bad mouth you — even to your children. All of these are meant to draw you back in.
Don’t bother trying to defend yourself. Whatever you say will only increase the conflict. The only way out of the trap is to keep communication limited.
5. Try parallel parenting, not co-parenting. Although an amicable co-parenting relationship is best, high-conflict personalities may simply be unable to co-parent positively. A narcissist or other high-conflict parent will continue to focus on battle, building up grievances and threatening consequences.
In co-parenting, you try to create a united front with your ex, with similar rules between homes. You try to cooperate in problem solving. You try to move past the anger and sorrow and focus on creating a healthy family environment for your children.
In parallel parenting, you recognize that there is no healthy way to interact with your ex. The greater the conflict level, the more you separate yourself and your parenting from your ex. You may have separate birthday parties to which your ex is not invited. You may schedule separate parent-teacher conferences. You avoid the natural urge to be authentic with your ex and focus on strategic disclosures and iron-clad boundaries.
Finally, if your divorcing spouse has been diagnosed with narcissism or another disorder, share that information with your divorce attorney.