Divorcing a narcissist is a difficult task.
Oh, who am I kidding…That doesn’t begin to describe the uphill battle you have in front of you if you’re getting a divorce from a narcissist.
It’s important not to sugarcoat things so you know what to expect.
Dealing with the complex and skewed thinking of a narcissist coupled with how well they can hide and twist the truth can lead to considerable challenges for someone who finds themselves trapped in this kind of marriage.
Having survived her own divorce from a narcissist, Tina Swithin became a strong advocate to assist people in similar situations by founding an organization called One Mom’s Battle in 2011. Tina’s objective is to educate the family court systems on dealing with narcissists and lend support to others like her who find themselves in this difficult situation.
I sat down with Tina Swithin to discuss her experiences, along with her advice, strategies and observations for dealing with a narcissist in a divorce.
How can you prepare for divorcing a narcissist?
There are several factors that are really important.
First, I think it’s important to educate yourself on narcissistic personality disorder.
Ten years ago, when I began my battle, all I could find online was the diagnostic criteria of NPD, narcissistic personality disorder.
And I see it as somewhat of a spectrum disorder. I believe we are all narcissistic to some degree, which is actually healthy. But then there are those who are very high on the scale, or they cross over into the diagnosable arena.
And today, there are so many articles, information, support groups for those going through what I consider to be a category-five divorce hurricane.
Number two is building your team. I encourage people to build their team with a therapist who truly understands this disorder. And, sadly, and surprisingly is that many therapists don’t understand it beyond the diagnostic criteria, or what they’ve learned in school.
I’ve come to discover that the therapists who truly understand what it’s like to divorce a high-conflict person like this are the ones who have experienced a narcissist in their own upbringing or in their personal lives.
Also, as part of your team, you need to find an attorney who really understands this disorder.
That’s not to say your attorney is going to go running into the courtroom and trying to label the other party as a narcissist. That’s simply not going to happen.
But, it’s important for your attorney to understand the disorder so they can support you behind the scenes when it comes to communication, your needs for boundaries, your need for a very black and white, detailed parenting plan or divorce agreement.
An attorney who understands this disorder will understand that back and forth negotiations and mediation are typically a waste of time and money. That’s where I see people spend the most money on attorneys.
The back and forth negotiations when you’re dealing with this type of person just doesn’t work.
The third thing is to collect everything you can as it relates to your finances. Bank statements, paycheck stubs, retirement accounts, savings accounts, lifestyle spending patterns…you want to really be able to paint a full financial picture for your attorney.
How do you tell a narcissist that you want a divorce?
Wow! That’s a very difficult question to give a general answer to. Narcissists share many of the same characteristics, but just like with anyone, they are all very different and individual.
So, if there’s physical violence in the relationship, or you fear that the person can become violent, it’s always better to be safe.
I personally found myself in a women’s shelter with my daughters, because I feared for my own personal safety. And I would have never guessed that would have been the outcome in my case.
So, it’s always better to err on the side of safety. And it’s another reason why it’s so important to have a trusted team with a therapist and an attorney who can assist you with a safety plan if one is needed.
Many of the people I have assisted already have a plan in place. This means having a new apartment or home lined up, and they’ve secured sentimental items and important documents, because it’s really difficult to gauge how somebody who is so unpredictable is going to react.
This is especially true if they have deep-seated abandonment issues from childhood or something like that. It can be a very scary situation.
What are some of the ways that a narcissist tends to react to divorce?
It really depends on the person who you’re with.
I often asked my coaching clients for the profession of their ex-husband or ex-wife, because it provides incredible insight into the inner workings of their mind. It’s really important to profile the narcissist that you’re with almost like the FBI would profile a criminal.
If they’re in the sales industry, it means that they’re very skilled at impression management, because they’ve been trained to speak smoothly, say all the right things, and close the deal. If they’re in law enforcement or a military position, there are typically more control issues that come into play.
If they’re someone who has a public image to maintain, such as a judge, a doctor, a pastor, a politician, or if there are really big control issues for them as a person, they will not react well to a divorce if it’s your decision.
As a result, I know a lot of people who have strategically allowed the narcissist to be the one making that final call that the marriage is over. This makes them feel like they have that sense of control, and it gives them a better chance of saving face in the community if they’re the ones to end the marriage.
How do you negotiate a divorce settlement with a narcissist?
Well, this is equivalent to negotiating with a terrorist.
A narcissist is singularly focused on winning at all costs. Their game is all about manipulating you. That’s what fuels their fragile little egos.
I’ve always said, going back to the beginning days of my own divorce and custody battle with one of these individuals, his goal was to see me eating Top Ramen out of a dumpster on a Friday night. And ten years later, I still maintain that as true.
We finally have a label for this type of individual. Years ago, when I first told my dad that my therapist said this is a person who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, I was so excited to have a label for it. Because I had a definition for what I was enduring
My dad read about it, and then he commented, and he said, “Well, back in my day, we just called them assholes.”
He said, “Great! You have a label for him, but this kind of issue has been around forever. It’s just great to have a deeper understanding of who you’re up against.”
So, you really need to understand what drives them, what “winning” means to them, and then find ways to create leverage.
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If you’re sick of feeling like you can never win and ready to regain control, do yourself a favor and get this course.
How do you co-parent with a narcissist? What are some of the best practices and things to avoid?
This is one area that I don’t sugar coat. It’s not an easy path.
Just like the disorder itself, there are so many variables at play. The problem is the courts want to see everyone co-parenting. But regardless of this, you know the other party is the equivalent of a modern-day Hitler.
The judge doesn’t know you. And they don’t know your ex. What I find is that the courts really give people about a year-and-a-half to two years of a window.
They know that you’re there in court for a reason. Your marriage is over, you hate each other. So it’s kind of like a grace period for that beginning phase, where they expect that there’s going to be conflict.
Once you get past that one-and-a-half to two-year mark, that’s where the court starts taking notice, and asking, “Hmmm. What’s the issue? Who is the problem in this situation?”
It can be really frustrating when the courts don’t see them the way you do. But, unfortunately, it’s the reality.
Many of my clients express dismay that the other party has never participated in the parenting and all of a sudden, they are presenting as parent of the year. Even more difficult and bewildering in that type of situation is that the judge is actually applauding this act that they are putting on.
So, I like to play devil’s advocate here.
There are parents who have been very hands-off, due to career demands, or other things. Divorce can be a wake-up call for them, where they’re saying, “Wow. I’ve lost my spouse, my home, my family. I need to step up to the plate and be a parent.”
The court gives everyone the benefit of the doubt until it’s proven otherwise, and that can take time.
Parallel parenting is ideal in a situation with a narcissist, which means you don’t co-parent. What happens in their house is their rules…that’s how it is. And in your house, everything is very separate and parallel.
However, this isn’t what the court typically wants to see. They want to see the two of you singing Kumbaya together on Sundays.
That means your job is to present yourself as the best co-parent that the courts have ever seen. So we encourage people to use programs such as Talking Parents, coParenter or Our Family Wizard, keeping all communication in writing and very courteous. I always say regardless of how you’re being attacked, in writing or in e-mails be courteous.
Pretend you’re not writing to the other party. You should be worried about what the court will read.
So don’t engage in the back and forth, or a game of “he said, she said.”
Keep your side of the street very clean and operate from your place of truth. Which, hopefully, is that “I’m a great parent and a great co-parent, and I have no control over the other party’s actions.”
Are there some other pieces of advice you can offer when going up against a narcissist in a custody battle?
For me, it’s really not about winning or beating anyone. At the end of the day, I’ve won if my children are thriving.
I had to accept, very early on, that my children were also on their own journeys, that my hands were tied by a very broken court system that really does not act in the best interests of kids.
Parental rights carry a lot more weight than children’s rights. So, winning for me is empowering and educating my kids to weather the storm of having a narcissistic parent.
I taught my daughters very early on about what red flags are in people. They know that they have emotional boundaries and physical boundaries.
They know that with me, they are loved unconditionally. Their dad’s love was very conditional.
They were possessions to him, and that’s true of any narcissistic parent. They don’t have the ability to truly love or be loved with anybody, even their own kids.
These are real-world lessons that we should be teaching our kids. And they can be accomplished without ever pointing a finger or labeling their unhealthy parent.
When they make that connection on their own, it’s more powerful than anything I could ever say about the other person. That’s really focusing on your part of the equation and how you can empower your kids in a situation like that is important.
What are some of the tactical moves that a narcissist employs? Tell me about the narcissist’s “playbook” in divorce?
The narcissist wants to win at all costs.
They use a variety of tools to accomplish this goal. And it’s really important to know what’s inside their toolbox.
I actually label them and describe them. One of the things that I often share is the projection tool.
This can be a really confusing one in court because it muddies the waters. They project their own thoughts, feelings, impulses onto a person who is innocent of those thoughts, feelings, or impulses. So, for example, if the narcissist is an alcoholic, they’re going to try to beat you to the punch and tell the court that you have a severe alcohol problem.
Then there is the control tool. Regardless of who ended the relationship, in the mind of a narcissist, you are not permitted to move forward in life.
The loss of control is all-consuming and unbearable to them. They are driven by their need to control you. That’s where boundaries are going to become really important.
What a lot of people see is the delusion tool. They have an uncanny ability to twist facts and situations until they no longer resemble reality.
This can be really confusing in a child custody battle, because you are trying to present facts and truth, but the court is saying, “Why would someone lie about this?” It can be very bizarre.
There is also the deception tool. A narcissist can pass a lie detector test because they are so convincing. And they appear to believe their own fabrications.
Many times, they will lie even if there is no reason to lie. And when they’re doing it, they are delivering an award-winning presentation to the court.
Another is the rage tool. Failure to comply with the narcissist’s demands can bring forth a rage that could put a steroid user to shame.
So, if you’re dealing with someone who has a really bad temper, this can be a scary situation. It’s where I often tell people if you have to exchange your kids, always try to do it in a public setting, and even better, somewhere where there are cameras present.
There’s probably many more that are individual to different narcissists, but the main ones that we see are the ones I’ve just mentioned.
What’s the best advice that you could give someone who’s divorcing a narcissist?
Always take the high road.
Never engage in “he said, she said.”
Stick with facts.
Don’t muddy the water.
And, again, this is where it’s important to have an attorney who gets it. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Perhaps the best advice is to remember that this is a marathon. It’s not a 5K. The narcissist comes racing out of the gate at a full sprint. But by mile 10, they’re running out of steam.
So, if you pace yourself, and know that even if they’re putting on the best presentation, and even if they are able to fool people in the short run, it’s typically short-lived.
The reality is, if you are in a custody battle, the narcissist is truly incapable of parenting for the long term. Parenting is tedious and unrewarding for them.
So over time, they lose interest. And they know that nine times out of ten, your number one button is your kids. And that’s why they push it so hard.
It’s a way to hurt you.
Overall, choose your battles wisely. Get to know your local court system.
Because I represented myself in court, it was even more important for me to familiarize myself with my court rules, expectations, even the personality, temperament, and potential biases of my own judge. So, I would go sit in the courtroom as an observer.
This is the number one piece of advice I would give someone regardless of whether they have an attorney or not, is because if I were in courtroom A with one judge, I would present my case one way. But if I were right next door in courtroom B with a different judge, I would present my case completely different based on what I know about each of those judges.
What advice would you give to someone to avoid getting married to a narcissist in the first place? Narcissists are often charismatic and charming. That can be alluring. How do you see through the smoke and mirrors? What are the warning signs that someone should look for?
Pay attention to words versus actions. Their words and actions are often not in alignment.
A lot of times they are so charming, so charismatic.
Pay attention to their long-term friendships. Most narcissists will have very superficial friendships. Also, key into their family lives.
I call this borrowed judgment. When you are first dating someone, it’s so exciting, you get all wrapped up in it.
And your cognitive thinking is a little bit off-kilter. So, have someone in your life whenever you’re in a new relationship that you trust, you trust their judgment, you can tell them the good, bad, and the ugly.
That’s because what I’ve found in my own situation is he was so over the top charming and presented to be loving, that when little things would creep up, like a little lie or something that just didn’t add up, I would not find myself sharing that with my family or friends.
I had talked him up to be such a great person that he was presenting himself as. But when something happened I would think, “Oh, that’s just a little thing. And it’s not that big of a deal.”
Share the good, the bad, and the ugly with someone that you trust, so that they can help you when your thinking is not at its top.
If someone is in the midst of divorcing a narcissist and needs help, how can they get in touch with you? Are you working with people nationwide?
I founded my organization One Mom’s Battle back in 2011. And at the time, I truly felt like I was just one mom. I didn’t know anyone else going through this.
The reality is there are a lot of moms and dads struggling with these types of individuals. I just started it as a blog but it has grown to reach the far corners of the world, and has turned into my entire life’s mission and, it’s become a lifeline to many people. I want to educate the family court system on this disorder, and also lend support to those who find themselves in this situation.
There is also a One Mom’s Battle Facebook page that is very, very active and a great support resource.
I also offer consultations and coaching calls to people all over the world. People can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking for more great advice about divorce? Here are a few of our favorite resources:
- 101 Financial Pitfalls of Divorce
- What Are The Types of Divorce
- How Should I Prepare for Divorce
- The Ultimate Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist
- 29 Warning Signs That You’re in a Failing Marriage
Tina Swithin is an author and family court advocate who resides in San Luis Obispo, California with her husband and two daughters. She prides herself on making lemonade from life’s lemons.