Divorcing a Narcissist: Six Family Lawyers’ Advice


What do narcissists do in divorce? Have you faced an opposing spouse who is a narcissist? In that situation, what is your advice to your client? What advice do you have for young family lawyers opposing a narcissist for the first time? What are your favorite negotiating tactics when the opposing party is a narcissist? How to protect yourself when divorcing a narcissist. How do you outsmart a narcissist in a divorce? What will a narcissist do during divorce?

See information about the attorneys below.

Q: Have You Faced an Opposing Spouse Who is a Narcissist? In Those Situations, What Is Your Advice to Your Client?

Steven Peskind:

I actually have a page on my website called “Liars, Cheats, and Scoundrels” that is about dealing with narcissists and divorce. And because of that page on my website, I get a lot of calls from people. So, I do have a specialty in dealing with narcissists. My advice is that it is going to be a long, painful divorce, and don’t expect it to be done quick and don’t expect it to be painless. And not unlike the advice with dealing with bullies, you need to be aggressive, and you’ve got to be careful with them. They’re very dangerous.

Joe Booth:

When you get into the annals of conflict cases where you’re facing a spouse instead of trying to resolve a situation, narcissism has got to be part of the heavy hitters of all of them. Substance abuse, general mental illness, physical abuse, and narcissism not only interplay, but they would be the key reasons why relationships can’t just redefine themselves and move along.

So, have I ever? It’s more like, if it’s a high conflict case, when is it not dealing with somebody suffering from some level of narcissism? There’s this forever dissatisfied nature that a narcissist has, an inflated sense of their own worth and self being that’s founded on a deflated sense of where worth itself and being. They’ll never be satiated. They can’t believe anything that is, because they’ve the house built on sand. So yeah, narcissism is probably the primary carcinogenic to marriages and relationships.

Randall Kessler:

I think the question should be, have I faced an opposing spouse who’s not a narcissist? Because I hear so often that, “My spouse is a narcissist.” And sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know off hand who’s a narcissist, but we certainly have faced people that are narcissistic that have control issues that feel like they’re always right. And the only way, in my opinion, that you can resolve those cases… Well, there are two ways. One is you go to trial, and you prove your case, and you show the judge why your client’s the victim and entitled to money. The only way to settle those cases though, which is the other way to resolve the case, is to “let them win”. And of course, we don’t just give in and say, “Take whatever you want,” but they’ve got to feel like they’ve won. And it takes a lot of listening.

How to Outsmart a Narcissist in Divorce

There’s a Chinese proverb, “You learn more when you listen than when you talk.” So, you listen. You go to mediation, and you ask, “What do you want? What is it that makes you feel like you win?” And sometimes, “I want her out of the house,” or “I want the big screen TV,” or “I want to be called the joint custodial parent,” or “I want to make the decision about where my child goes to school.” You take that and you work with it.

“Okay. It’s important to you that you’re recognized as the smarter, educational focused parent. Our client will agree that you can make the educational decisions as long as you pay for private school, and as long as you give her some ability to weigh in. You can choose three schools and let her choose one of those or let her choose three and you get to make the final decision. But you’ll be the final decision maker, right? That’s what you want. You’ve scared her into giving up that right.”

I think the only way to resolve a case against a narcissist is to let them feel like they won, or to just know it’s going to be a fight and prepare for trial and find a lawyer that’s ready to go to trial. A lot of lawyers don’t like trial. A lot of lawyers are afraid to go to court. If you’re fighting a narcissist and you don’t want to give in, you’re going to have to have a trial. Judges are hired for a reason. We pay judges as taxpayers, you have a right to use them, let them make a decision. If your spouse is a narcissist and won’t compromise, have a trial.

Scott Friedman:

So, what tends to happen when you do what I do is, is, initially, I don’t have any kind with the opposing spouse because I’m not their attorney. They’ve got a representative that’s representing them. But I do hear a lot from my clients that their spouse is a narcissist, and they describe very carefully why they think that they’re a narcissist.

So, with those folks that are telling me their spouse is a narcissist, I generally will, a lot of times have a meeting with that spouse, my client, and that spouse’s therapist to talk through how they can better deal with going through the divorce with a narcissist. My job isn’t to tell them how to live their lives with everything else. My job is to help them through the divorce process. So, I will generally want a meeting with therapists, my client, about how to handle narcissism when you have the spouse, how to handle a narcissistic parent with your children, how to advise your children on how to handle dad who’s a narcissist or whatever it may be, that sort of thing. So, I generally do that by meeting with the therapist and my client.

Barry Gold:

I have faced a number of cases where the opposing spouse is a narcissist, or more fairly I should say, my client views their spouse as a narcissist. That word gets slung around a great deal. Some of the mental health professionals will, probably all would if they were being honest, explain that at some level of narcissism is essential to a healthy psyche. This is the old, “If I am not for me, then who will be for me?” It’s when that notion of, “I’ve got to have some self-preservation,” which is a normal, healthy response, when that predominates above all else and then it is just a grotesque scenario.

When we get a true narcissist case, and we have a few of those cases pending right now, you’re always having to tell the client, candidly, “Hunker down. We’re going to be in this for the long haul. These are not easy cases to resolve.” The narcissist personality is not going to be amenable to responding to logical reason the way that a non-narcissist or healthier individual will be responsible to get that. And so, the idea that we’re going to reason our way through the process typically is just not going to work.

The narcissist also is not going to accept responsibility for anything that has gone wrong or is going wrong in their marriage, in their parenting, in whatever that may be. And then most hurtful probably, it’s a little harsh statement but I think it’s insightful, the narcissist views the individuals in their life; the spouse, the children, the relatives, coworkers, and so forth, similar to the way a Christmas tree would view the ornaments that are hanging on it. They are adornments. They aren’t really a part of it. They move, they’re taken off of it as the narcissist chooses and deems fit. They’re not connecting with these people as human beings.

And that’s a tragically sad situation, but the only way to handle the cases that way, at least in my experience, is to try to find what leverage you have and also get the court in involved early like you would in a bullying situation, and often again, with a rule 16 conference. Now you don’t go in and say, “Judge the other opposing side has a narcissist as a client,” but you can identify some of the issues that you’re having with discovery, with a variety of things as it may be.

And then you don’t threaten the other side; threatening, cajoling, begging, asking, and pleading are utterly useless. Whatever leverage you have, and of course I’m speaking of legal, ethical leverage that you have, it becomes an action and consequence. “If the other party does not do these things that they are legally or ethically required to do, then we will take the following action,” and then you execute on that action.
A narcissist has to know that whatever stated consequence will follow from an action or inaction is actually going to happen. You aren’t going to threaten it, you are simply going to do it. Not emotionally. We’re not angry. We’re not upset. We’re simply following through on what we say. That seems to be the most effective way.

The last piece is that probably a judge will have to decide the case. We probably aren’t going to be able to settle it unless the client is willing to accept less than what they should be getting.

Miles Mason:

Many family lawyers, including myself, have had ample experience dealing with opposing parties who are narcissists. Now my first advice to clients when they tell me about their spouse’s personality, I just say, “Look, hope is not a strategy. This person will use the procedure and the process of divorce to cause pain and suffering for everyone around them. There’s no question about that.” So, expect the worst, plan everything out, and build a strategy with your lawyer specific to your spouse’s idiosyncrasies, to put it nicely. Always remember, hope is not a strategy. And you and your lawyer have to craft a strategy that’s specific, tailored, and engineered to get you where you want to be as soon as possible with as little stress as possible, but understand that that stress is going to be intentionally caused by the other spouse as much as possible and as often as possible.

Q: What Advice Do You Have for Young Family Lawyers Opposing a Narcissist for the First Time?

Scott Friedman:

Don’t believe a word they say. Check, check, fact check everything. Narcissists tend to exaggerate or lie, flat out lie, to make themselves look better in the eyes of the court, in the eyes of their lawyer, in the eyes of the other parent or spouse. So, really fact check with people like that because they’re the victim, narcissists are always the victim, and it’s always somebody else’s fault.

Joe Booth: “With narcissists, there are patterns you can just simply expect.”

When you’re new to family law and you’re dealing with a narcissist, it takes a while to begin to realize that there are patterns that you can just simply expect. And that in dealing with a narcissist you again are in that role of trying to figure out whether you’re playing your game or you’re playing their game. And it’s really, really important, especially as a new advocate for a family law person, that you help your client remember your job is to tell their story, not to respond to someone else’s story they’re trying to lay upon you, and the voice of what you have has to run that way.

It’s also important to help steel your client to understand that this pattern will not change. Narcissism is a fundamental personality defect. And for the most part, once you’ve tied into a narcissist, that is the relationship you have, and you’re not ever going to fix it, change it, or do much to improve it. What you’re going to improve is how you respond to it and how you train your family to respond to it.

Randall Kessler: “You get peace by preparing for battle.”

You get peace by preparing for battle. I think a narcissist will try to scare you into a mission or try to act like they’re not worried about it. And believe me, I’ve had a lawyer as the opposing client tell me, “You want to litigate? Fine, I’ll litigate.” And I sat back, and I thought, “I get paid by the hour.” It’s not a threat to me to say, “We’re going to drag this out and go to court.” I get to make more money. So, it doesn’t bother me.
I think the way you get to get underneath the skin of a narcissist is you don’t let them bother you. This is your world. If you’re a lawyer, even if it’s your first time facing a narcissist, you know the system better than the narcissist does. You know, the system better than they do, and you know the judges, you know the lawyers, you know the law better. Be confident. The only one it’s going to lose is a narcissist and your client if it goes all the way to court.

But a narcissist is just a person, right? They’re just a person. And judges like to help the victims. Narcissist don’t usually come off as victims. And if you walk into court, every day I go to court, I’d rather walk in with the victim who needs the court’s help than the narcissist who’s going to be just fine with or without the court’s help.

If I’m the judge, I’m going to say to the narcissist, “You’ll make money. You’ll be fine. Ma’am, sir, I’m sorry you’re going through this, I’m going to make sure that you’re okay and you get a little bit of a head start.” I would tell the person facing a narcissist, “Don’t let it get to you.” Being a narcissist is not an advantage. You have the advantage if the other side is a narcissist, because there’s the old saying, “The easiest witness to have on the other side is the one where you simply say, “Sir, state your name,” and you just sit back and listen to him go on and on and on.

Barry Gold:

Get help from an experienced family law attorney. The young lawyer needs it whether they realize that or not. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to sign someone on as co-counsel or as first chair or second chair but find someone that they can go to for insight and advice. These can be very difficult cases. They can also be very stressful, emotional cases. They tend to consume energy and time that is vastly disproportionate to the issue that’s involved, and it really can be helpful to have an older attorney who’s been doing this a long time to provide insight. Get help from someone more experienced.

Steven Peskind: Narcissists will try to turn their spouse against their own lawyer.

I don’t know that the advice really is any different than I would give to my clients and myself. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul, don’t trust them, document everything. Okay, here’s I guess something that I would say, “Be scrupulous with your communication with your client, because what a narcissist is very savvy at doing is getting in their spouse’s head.”

“Your lawyer doesn’t know what he or she is doing. Your lawyer’s just trying to take your money. You need to trust me because I will take care of you. Your lawyer’s just trying to take your money, blah, blah, blah,” whatever the case may be. And the way that that needs to be countered is the lawyer needs to maintain an exceptionally good level of communication with a client to reserve the level of trust.

If you don’t return the client’s phone calls and you create a vacuum, the narcissistic spouse will move into that vacuum and will win the client’s allegiance, so to speak, and you will lose out in terms of your ability to help the client. So, that’s the best advice I’d give to a new lawyer.

Miles Mason: When dealing with narcissists, set time deadline and stick to them.

My best advice for young family lawyers who are opposing a narcissist for the first time is, don’t delay. If you set time deadlines, make the deadlines. If you tell the opposing counsel you want to have information and documents within a 30-day time period, follow up on day 31. Maybe even send a reminder before that. Narcissists will try to take advantage of his or her opposing counsel’s failure to follow up on important details. So, the little things become incredibly important, especially time.

Q: What Are Your Favorite Negotiating Tactics When an Opposing Party Is a Narcissist?

Randall Kessler:

So, there are a couple negotiating tactics that work with a narcissist. One is the walkout, right? You just walk out. Sort of harder and easier when you do a mediation by Zoom. You can just click “bye” and you’re gone. Of course, they can get you back on. There’s that old, “I’m going to walk right by their office, see where they’re sitting in the room, and I’m going to wave goodbye and we’re going to leave.” They’ve lost all their negotiation power. They can’t negotiate with an empty room. So, walking out is the ultimate drop the mic moment.

But standing your ground, just saying no. To me, I’d rather kill him with kindness. I’d rather say, “I’m here. I’ll listen to you,” because I learn when I’m listening. Let them feel like they’re convincing me. I don’t mind if the narcissist on the other side thinks that they’re getting me on their side. And it’s crazy how sometimes you hear people say, “I think that lawyer likes me on the other side.” Sometimes I do. It doesn’t matter to my job, whether I like him or not, but they’re just people. They’re going through divorce. So, let him or her talk, let him or her be heard, and then I can figure out, what is it that’s going to make that person go away? If they feel like they won or they feel like they got heard, they feel like they convince me that my client is a bad person. And I say, “Okay, I appreciate it. I understand everything you’re saying, and I can understand how you feel, and let us think about it and come back with an answer.”

I don’t have to fight for fight’s sake. It’s not my life, it’s their life. So, if they want to yell at me and tell me how bad my client is, they can tell me all they want. I’m still going to do my job. “Thank you. You told me what a horrible person I represent, but you know what? He or she’s paying my bill and I’m going to go to court with him or her and we’re do everything we can to win. But if you want to settle the case, I’ll talk to her about maybe compromising a little bit.” “You do that.” “Happy to.”

Joe Booth:  Tell narcissists they are right. Be astonished when they offer something reasonable.

The go-to negotiating tactic in dealing with a narcissist is to explain to them exactly how they’re right, hopefully sculpt the conversation so it’s their idea, and to stand in astonishment when they’ve suggested something so utterly brilliant as to divide the marital estate in half.

Steven Peskind: To deal with a narcissist, get a trial date and make an offer.

My strategy is to get trial dates, to work up my case, to make an offer and say, “This is our offer. If you want to accept it, we’re done. If not, we’ll see you in court.” I generally find, again, not unlike boys, that if you remain very strident and firm, that more often than not though they’ll either cave in or you’ll try the case sooner rather than later. If you negotiate with these guys for three years and figure out that they’re not negotiating in good faith, you just burned three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, get it to court early and as promptly as you can.

Miles Mason:  When divorcing a narcissist, anticipate moves and consider mirroring some of their tactics.

My favorite negotiating tactics when opposing a narcissist, two categories. Number one, I am going to explain to my client all the different ways a narcissist can create a negative negotiating framework. For example, one of the common techniques for narcissists is to offer a certain amount of say alimony. And then two weeks later say, “Well, you didn’t take that offer, so I’m going to offer you 15% less per month. And if you don’t agree to that, I’m going to offer you 15% less off that.” So, we call that backing up.

So, if my client knows the different ways that a narcissist or anybody negotiates it from a negative perspective, then it’s easier to deal with when it happens. And there’s probably 25 or so, depending on how you count it, tactics that can fall into that category, and I’ve presented numerous seminars on that. We call them Machiavellian negotiating tactics.

So first is knowledge. If you know what’s going on and you predict what’s going to happen, then your client’s going to be a lot more comfortable because you have a response. You see the tactic for what it is, and then you come back in a very stately, solid, well thought out way because you know, it’s coming.

Second, consider mirroring their tactics. So, when they play a childish game like reducing an alimony offer after two weeks because the settlement wasn’t completed in their timeframe, we’ll do the same thing. “Well, my demand just went up 15%.” So, they’re faced with the similar childishness. And that’s probably just going to be in a letter between the lawyers anyway. In a mediation setting, a strong mediator could go, “No, you’re not going to do that. I’m not even communicating.”

But the point is, know the tactics, mirror them, if need be, and that may make the narcissist incensed. It’s never going to placate them, keep that in mind. But you’re sending a message that you’re not going to be manipulated by negative negotiating tactics.

View our Seven part series, The Complete Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist:

  1. Stages of Divorcing a Narcissist
  2. Divorce with Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  3. How To Divorce a Narcissist and Win
  4. Financial Strategies for Divorcing a Narcissist
  5. How to Negotiate a Divorce Settlement with a Narcissist
  6. Divorcing a Narcissist with Child Custody Disputed
  7. Divorcing a Female Narcissist

More resources on Divorcing a Narcissist:

  1. Divorcing the Narcissist – Our original post describing the clinical definition and general introduction.
  2. Financial Abuse, Narcissists & Money: A Divorce Lawyer’s Perspective – Mason’s popular video sharing his experiences and thoughts.
  3. Divorcing a Narcissist: Six Family Lawyers’ Advice – Six nationally recognized family lawyers discuss their experiences and advice.
  4. Finding a Divorce Lawyer Who Can Handle Opposing a Narcissist – Mason’s thoughts on what divorcing spouses should look for.

Thank you for contributing your experience and expertise to our “Top Family Lawyers Answer Divorce Questions” video series.  You are the best. Cheers!

 

Randy Kessler
Atlanta, Georgia
Kessler & Solomiany, LLC
ABA Family Law Section, Past Chair

 

 

 

Melissa Avery
Indianapolis, Indiana
Broyles Kight & Ricafort, P.C., Of Counsel
ABA Family Law Section, Past Chair

 

 

 

 

Joseph W. Booth
Lenexa, Kansas
Law Offices of Joseph W. Booth
ABA Family Law Section, Co-Chair of Publications Board

 

 

 

Scott N. Friedman
Columbus, Ohio
Friedman & Mirman Co., L.P.A.
ABA Family Law Section, Past Chair

 

 

 

Stephen N. Peskind
St. Charles, Illinois
Peskind Law Firm, PC
ABA Family Law Section, Author

 

 

 

Barry L. Gold
Chattanooga, Tennessee
McWilliams, Gold & Larramore
TBA Family Law Section, Past Chair

 

 

 

Miles Mason, Sr.
Memphis, Tennessee
Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC
ABA Family Law Section, Author

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