Divorcing a Narcissist: What you Need to Know

by | 16 Dec 2020

Narcissists can be a nightmare. And divorcing one is often a nightmare too. 

But for many people, the first time they hear the word ‘narcissist’ is when they file their divorce application. It’s a mystery to them, and unravelling this mystery is crucial.

Divorcing a narcissist can be an especially painful challenge, but you can survive the process.

Firstly, it can help to recognise narcissism. Narcissists don’t think and behave like other people and their behaviour doesn’t make sense at first glance. (No, it’s not you!)  A toxic ex may have a diagnosable personality disorder, or may just display narcissistic tendencies.

The Mayo Clinic explains that ‘Narcissistic personality disorder [is] one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others’. Maybe it’s a relief to understand that there was something fundamentally wrong – and that your marriage was unsustainable despite your best efforts.

The second way to manage divorce with a narcissist is understand how the narcissistic cycle of abuse works.  This can help you to make sense of what’s happened and also to give you a clearer understanding of why you can’t leave your divorce to change: you need strategy and support.

Simplistically, the cycle of narcissism involves three phases: lovebombing, discarding and hoovering. It’s a predictable cycle, and it repeats. If you have ever wondered why the narcissist in your life doesn’t have a long back-history of friends and relationships, narcissism may be the reason why. 

Think back to the start of your relationship and you may well remember falling madly, deeply in love with your ‘perfect partner’. Back in those days, nothing would have been too much trouble for them. This phase is known as ‘lovebombing’. You probably remember (with fondness) how they went out of their way to fulfil your wildest dreams and your relationship felt like a fantasy. But don’t beat yourself up for your naïveté. By that stage, you already stood no chance of escape: the narcissist had you in their sights and would do anything to ‘catch’ you. I say anything, I mean anything.

Sometime later, the cycle changes – often out of the blue. This is phase two: the discard. One day you say something and BAM! Your partner becomes an angry beast, full of rage. Accusations, criticism, blame… It’s in marked contrast to the initial stage. During discard you may be trying to make sense of what happened; feeling responsibly and questioning what happened to the person you fell in love with. This is especially true if you were unaware how narcissism plays out.

The final stage of the cycle is the ‘hoovering’: a painful game of ‘cat and mouse’. What feels like repair and recovery is most likely not. Disconcertingly, it’s a time when things appear to be getting better. There may be remorse, generous gestures and a return to lovebombing. There will also be lies, blame, and unpredictable outbursts. After a few rounds, the ‘mouse’ (that’s you) ends up dead. This phase attacks your mental health and makes your self esteem vulnerable: in most cases, you will doubt yourself and your sanity, yet still love them. By now, the narcissist is usually entertaining new supply and you will find yourself discarded as soon as that person (or should we say ‘victim’) has been ‘hooked’. 

Even during divorce, narcs can use powerful, alluring and contrived tactics to persuade and punish you. Despite your suffering, they may appear charming to everyone else.  Often these tactics will be hidden: any one in isolation appears innocent, but in combination the pattern emerges. This is part of the problem: narcissism doesn’t make sense.

There is only one way to keep the peace with a narcissist, and that’s by servicing their needs entirely. This can be hard enough on a ‘good day’ but is a challenge during divorce: narcissists hate being told what to do and they love arguing with you about what they think is right. Their games and tactics can increase stress and legal fees to match, which is why you need to be alert and prepared. Divorce can become complex and convoluted, especially if you are suffering agonising self-doubt throughout. Professional support can make all the difference. 

No contact is nearly always the best way to proceed when divorcing a narc. Where ‘no contact’ isn’t feasible (e.g. you are coparents), limit communication to the bare essentials and keep it in writing if possible. I do not underestimate what a challenge this can be, but it’s a reliable strategy in the absence of any others. Expect to be tested and tempted to break ‘no contact’ and steel yourself to stand firm in your resolve. This is about getting across the finish line as quickly as possible.

Invest intensively in your recovery: the struggle is real and you are probably already feeling depleted. You are likely an empath (narcs like empaths, because empaths make them feel good) and it probably won’t come easily to you to ignore them, to shake off a feeling of guilt and to stand up for yourself. 

A word of warning: despite narcissistic personality disorder affecting approximately 5% of the population (which makes it quite likely that your ex suffers), few people have a formal diagnosis. If your divorce involves Cafcass or court, you will do yourself no favours by complaining that your ex is a narcissist. The language of court is facts so stick to descriptions and examples rather than making judgements.

Your recovery needs to be of central importance. Despite the challenges, many people have successfully divorced a narcissist and recovered. Don’t be scared but instead look forward to being out of their clutches.

Here are links to further resources to find out more about narcissism:

Dr Ramani (world expert in narcissism) 

Knowing the Narcissist: HG Tudor
Website of the psychopathic narcissist (includes information about dealing with a parental narcissist)

Sam Vaknin – resources created by another psychopathic narcissist. 

Website of Tina Swithin – an American mom who divorced a narcissist and writes extensively on the subject 

Read one woman’s story here

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