Stages of Divorcing A Narcissist | Part 1

The Complete Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist is a seven part series. Stages of Divorcing a Narcissist is part One.  Help I’m Divorcing a Narcissist. Signs of Narcissistic Abuse. Why narcissists drag out divorces. Narcissists will try to turn people against you. Divorcing the Covert Narcissist.

Divorcing a narcissist can be a nightmare. Narcissists are egocentric with an inflated sense of self-importance. They feel superior.

Surviving divorce from a narcissistic spouse can be a tribulation. There is an inherent and intuitive fear that the narcissist counts on. Although most narcissists are men, a wife can also be narcissistic.

Narcissism is sometimes described as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Learn the signs of narcissism and the more common traits of someone who has suffered this emotional abuse.

Narcissists Use the Same Tactics

While every person is unique, narcissists tend to employ the same general tactics in divorce. This is a major weakness on their part and you should exploit it.

One common tactic for the narcissist is dragging out the divorce. We will help you learn why and how best to respond.

Another common tactic for the narcissist is doing everything possible to turn people against the other spouse. The best defense preparation is knowing this will happen. Either the narcissist will try to be the “victim” or will outright lie about you. Expect the narcissist to be successful with some of your friends, possibly even your family.


What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder? NPD is a mental condition. Common usage of the term “narcissist” does not always match the clinical definition of the disorder. Only clinical psychologists have the education, training, and experience to diagnose this mental health condition. That being said, know that in our videos we only intend to use the description of narcissism as it is commonly used.

Our Favorite Strategies for Divorcing the Narcissist

We will share our favorite strategies for divorcing the narcissist. The narcissist’s behavior is somewhat predictable in a divorce, and they may seemingly act against their own best self-interest. This gives us an opportunity for planning strategic responses.

Learn what happens in a divorce and how the narcissist tries to use the system against you. Learn how the narcissist makes the process much more expensive and emotionally exhausting than it needs to be. From there, you and your lawyer can create an action plan.

Hire the Right Attorney for You

One important key is hiring the right attorney for dealing with a narcissistic spouse. To some degree, most family law attorneys who have practiced long enough will have experience in these situations. However, believe it or not, not every family lawyer is comfortable with conflict. Many family lawyers do not have the specialized training on narcissistic behavior that is acquired by attending comprehensive legal seminars and reading family law publications. Strategies for divorcing the narcissist often require counter-intuitive planning, processing, and execution.

Your narcissist spouse has studied you and knows which of your buttons to push. We offer you a few tips for returning the favor. Using the narcissists’ tactics against them is not as difficult as you may think. With a little creativity and a big bag of determination, you can destabilize the narcissist just enough to tip the scales in your favor.

Settlement or Trial?

There are only two ways to get a divorce: settlement or trial. Many narcissists refuse to settle. No rational person wants to go to divorce court for fun – except the narcissist. A narcissist revels in trying to use the system against you. The drama of the courtroom gives them an opportunity to display their superior skills in either playing the victim or charming the judge. Instead of dreading divorce court, you should plan to win. Beating the narcissist in court may be required to resolve the divorce.

Custody Battles

One of the most destructive aspects of divorce is the raw carnage of custody battles. What is at stake for the rational parent? The best interests of the children. On the other hand, narcissistic parents use the children as pawns for retaliation and revenge. They seemingly have no concept of what “winning custody” even means. The goal is for the other parent to lose and for the narcissist to look “good” to the world. A little planning here can go a long way.

Co-parenting with a narcissist is never straight-forward. Narcissists say one thing and do another, repeatedly. Their relentless parenting requests change more often than the weather. Co-parenting is emotionally exhausting because narcissists don’t actually care about the children. Understand that co-parenting with the narcissist is not a problem you can solve. You can only manage the collateral damage.

   a. Help I’m Divorcing a Narcissist

How does a narcissist behave during divorce?

While going through a divorce is not easy for anyone, when the person you are divorcing is a narcissist, it can be a living nightmare. A narcissist is someone who is totally egocentric and has an inflated sense of self-importance. Narcissists feel superior to others and have very little capacity for empathy. This makes them extremely problematic to deal with, especially during a divorce.

You do not have to be a victim of your narcissistic spouse. There are steps you can take to protect your rights when attempting to end a marriage with a toxic narcissist. Seeking support from others and gaining understanding about narcissism is the key.

Because of their excessive need for attention and admiration, narcissists have learned how to make themselves attractive and appealing to others. Consequently, their personality disorder may not be immediately obvious. On first meeting, they can come across as outgoing, enthusiastic, and charming. They may seem ambitious and successful, boasting about their many material possessions, talents, virtues, achievements, and friends.

Narcissists tend to gravitate toward influential careers, ones associated with the most power and social status. Narcissists are often found in the worlds of entertainment, politics, law, academia, athletics, or any other endeavor where they can garner recognition for their apparent excellence and superiority. It’s often their success or the illusion of their success which attracts people to them.

Unfortunately, narcissists are psychologically incapable of having genuine relationships. From their perspective, marriage is more like a business deal. Narcissists get married because a person fits the image of perfection. They typically choose spouses who are young, physically attractive, emotionally accommodating, and who come from the “right” social and economic background. The narcissist tends to idealize the other person in the beginning of the relationship, only to devalue that person later in order to feel superior.

As time goes by, cracks begin developing in the narcissist’s façade. Egocentricity starts creating problems in the relationship. In the beginning of a marriage, life with a narcissist may seem relatively normal. But after a few months or years, things start becoming chaotic. The life of a narcissist is often unstable, full of lies, with unpredictable relationship conflicts.

Narcissists can only feel good about themselves if they make others feel inferior. They must always be right, which means their spouses must always be wrong. There is a skewed sense of reality when married to a narcissist, since they are also masters of manipulation. It is not unusual for a narcissist to brainwash the beleaguered spouse into believing she is the crazy one in the relationship, not the narcissist.

Sometimes the exhausted spouse of a narcissist begins to feel so emotionally battered that they finally decide to file for divorce. Other times it is the narcissist who decides to leave the marriage. Either way, once involved in a divorce, the emotional abuse gets worse as the narcissistic spouse pulls out all the stops in an attempt to “win” the divorce at any cost.

Although there are women with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, pathologically narcissistic individuals are more likely to be men.[i]

Your attorney needs to be well-informed about the impact a pathologically narcissistic parent can have on child custody proceedings and the parenting plan. Expect other professionals to be involved in the case, such as an independent child custody evaluator, parenting coordinator, mediator, and family therapist. All of these professionals must be well-versed on how to deal with the narcissistic parent. Be prepared to take a strong stance to protect your child, both during and after the divorce.[ii]

   b. Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Narcissistic abuse is real. Some common signs a spouse is enduring narcissistic abuse include:

  1. Self-Doubt: Self-doubt may deprive an abused spouse of the ability to make routine decisions on daily matters. Second guessing a lifetime of decision-making on significant issues, self-doubt can lead to paralysis – the inability to take action.
  2. Helplessness: Helplessness stems from the abused spouse’s inability to make anything in the marriage work. Helplessness may be associated with depression.
  3. Withdrawal: Confusion, embarrassment, humiliation, and shame cause the abused spouse to withdraw socially.
  4. Anxiety: The abused spouse’s anxiety traps him or her in a constant state of worry over everything. Anxiety may impact diet, sleep, and drug or alcohol use.
  5. Rewards Kindness: Because the narcissist always expects something in return, the abused spouse learns to reward any act of kindness received with something, including sexual favors.
  6. Focuses on Others’ Needs: The abused spouse has learned to respond immediately to the narcissist’s every demand. It becomes automatic and spills into other relationships. Some describe it as a relentless nightmare of walking on egg shells all the time, just to keep the peace.
  7. At Fault: Blamed for everything by the narcissist, the abused spouse is brainwashed into believing he or she is responsible and, therefore, must fix every perceived problem.
  8. Does More: The abused spouse must expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to accomplish whatever the narcissist desires. This means working harder, staying busier, and taking on more responsibilities.
  9. Difficulty Setting Boundaries: Devalued on every level by the narcissist, the abused spouse lacks both self-confidence and self-worth. This leaves the abused spouse vulnerable to abusive situations and other abusive relationships.[iii]

How does a narcissist behave during divorce?

How does a narcissist behave during divorce?

How does a narcissist behave during divorce?

Do not expect a narcissist spouse to cooperate or go away quietly. During a divorce, narcissists can be manipulative and exploitative, feeling neurotically entitled to get whatever they want. Steven N. Peskind, Chicago family lawyer, says:

Deep narcissists will brag to you about how they have all the answers or some surprise coming your way. Don’t take the bait. Again, this is just mind games and fear-mongering by your terrified narcissistic spouse. Just keep a calm countenance and accept things as they come.

Narcissists blame everyone else for their problems. Because they are so self-centered, narcissists often perceive themselves to be victims even while bullying their spouses. True narcissists believe they are above the law and feel that rules do not apply to them, making them notoriously difficult to deal with. It is common during a divorce for narcissists to:

  • Refuse to provide financial information and documents;
  • Refuse to negotiate;
  • Refuse to listen to their own lawyer;
  • Defy court orders;
  • Use the children as pawns.

Regarding your lawyer, Peskind adds:

Commonly a deep narcissist will be threatened by his or her loss of control over you. And the person taking away that control is your lawyer. Your narcissistic spouse will pull out all of the stops to rupture the relationship. You will hear things such as, “your lawyer is incompetent,“ or “your lawyer is just trying to run up your bill.” Don’t buy into the fiction (unless of course your lawyer is not doing the job and then replace him or her at your earliest chance).

The narcissist finds losing influence over the estranged spouse’s life hard to accept. They will attempt to find ways to control the ex-spouse even after the divorce is final. This is much easier to do if there are children from the marriage. A narcissist will work over-time attempting to control the ex-spouse through child support, visitation time, and co-parenting decisions.

Aspects of divorce proceedings that naturally motivate most parties to negotiate earnestly toward settlement are completely lost on the narcissist spouse. Believing in his or her superiority while claiming the role of victim (even as the domestic abuser), a narcissist may experience a “thrilling surge of power and control” in dragging the other party through endless, exhausting court proceedings. Divorce brings out the worst in the narcissist (or as the narcissist sees it, the best).

Why narcissists drag out divorces.

Why narcissists drag out divorces.

Because they are so competitive, narcissists love the adversarial nature of the legal system and excel at manipulating it to their advantage. They project all of their own faults onto their spouses. They play the role of victim. They accuse their spouses of lying, cheating, and being mentally unstable. Much to the frustration and detriment of their spouses, narcissists are often good at making themselves likeable and believable to their lawyers and the judge or jury.

Narcissists thrive on taking charge. In their minds, sheer force of will is their superpower that solves problems and steamrolls life’s difficulties. In many situations, sheer force of will has been their savior. One of the most comprehensively destructive strategies is making the divorce “a land war in Asia.” In other words, the narcissist’s strategy involves starting a fight too big to win. (See the movie: The Princess Bride.)

To make the process painful for others, narcissists are willing to act against their own best self-interest. To “cut-off your nose to spite your face” is a tactic for long-term success. Narcissists view the sacrifice of time, money, and annihilation as worthwhile to achieve the goals only they can comprehend.

Dragging out a divorce is not a tactic created by narcissists, but it is frequently used by them. There are specific counters to this. The first step is to understand the tactic for what it is – a tactic. From there, you can begin planning your strategy with your experienced family law attorney. Here are three suggestions to discuss:

  1. Determine whether time is on your side. Regardless of whether you want a divorce immediately, sometimes there may be a financial advantage to not move as fast. Discuss this with your lawyer.
  2. Draft a settlement offer. If you want a settlement, consider asking your attorney to draft the first proposal. You will need to know what you want and have the information and documents for the technical requirements. This is a very important thing you can do, and it is in your control.
  3. File a motion for a scheduling order and seek to set a trial date. Even if you don’t want a trial, be proactive. You’re in the game, so play the game. Attempt to put your narcissistic spouse “on the clock.” Even if your lawyer says such tactics rarely result in actual trial dates, for whatever reason, pressing the matter over and over may be better than sitting on your hands and waiting. 

Narcissists will try to turn people against you.

Another favorite tactic of the narcissist is turning people against the other spouse. Expect it. Plan for it.

Your narcissistic spouse will attempt to turn people away from you by:

  • Saying terrible things about you to those in your network – a parent, sibling, best friend, coworker, employer, priest, pastor or rabbi.
  • Sharing inappropriate things in your personal life that should never be shared publicly. By betraying confidences, twisting the truth, or lying. If you shared a confidence or family secret with the narcissist spouse, then he or she may use your words to turn people away from you and hurt you. The narcissist weaponizes the secret once shared.

How do they pull this off? With charm, charisma, generosity, deceit, and manipulation. Characterizing themselves as “the good spouse” in the relationship, they generate sympathy for themselves. It’s an exploitative performance par excellence.

This strategy is intended to weaken support for the other spouse and strengthen support for the narcissist. It’s about gaining power and winning. It’s about taking allies away from the other spouse and moving them to the narcissist’s side of the game board. Machiavellian indeed.

Building your emotional and financial support team is important, but be careful in whom you place trust and confide. Understand, your family members and closest friends may share information with a narcissistic spouse out of compassion. This happens far more often in divorces than one might think.

Using other people makes the narcissist feel important and in control. Some people do the narcissist’s dirty work out of self-preservation while others unwittingly carry out the narcissist’s campaign by spreading misinformation. Narcissists frequently use people as pawns, or “flying monkeys,” to shore-up their own positions, weaken the other spouse’s, inflict additional emotional abuse, and ultimately win the game.[iv]

If there are information and documents you may need to keep secret, then tell no one. Remember Gibbs’ Rule #4 from the TV series NCIS: “Best way to keep a secret. Keep it to yourself. Second best, tell one other person – if you must. There is no third best.”

Divorcing the Covert Narcissist.

The relationship with a covert narcissist may be even more toxic than with an overtly narcissistic spouse. While regular narcissists are always “in your face” and self-promoting, covert narcissists differ in a number of ways. For instance, they may seem passive, quiet, shy, reserved, and have periods of anxiety or depression. They can come across as nice, yet fragile. By playing the victim, the covert narcissist manipulates the other spouse.

Covert narcissists are often passive aggressive, masters of subtle belittling and back-handed compliments. At first helpful, generous, and kind, what they really want is to use the other person. Once in control, the passive aggressive behavior begins and does not stop. They use the silent treatment to assert control. While you experience narcissistic abuse, everyone else sees your spouse as being nice.

They only focus on self and must be the center of attention. If they have health problems, then they exploit the condition by playing the victim without accountability. Pretending to be kind and generous can be exhausting, so disappearing to some quiet space with no engagement allows them to restore energy.

Like all narcissists, they lack empathy for others. The covert narcissist will pretend to be empathetic, but it’s a learned response and not sincere. In fact, he could care less.

Consider three tips if divorcing a covert narcissist:

  1. Watch for gaslighting: Gaslighting is a tactic used to destabilize another’s sense of reality. Don’t let a narcissistic spouse get away with doing subtle things to convince you that you’re the crazy one in the marriage.
  2. Stop financial abuse: Regain control of your finances by starting the process of putting money aside where it can’t be controlled by the covert narcissist. Stand up to the financial bullying by subtly acknowledging the narcissist’s behavior, but without letting it get a rise out of you.
  3. Don’t react to provocation: A covert narcissist will push your buttons to provoke a reaction from you. That’s the objective. Don’t take the bait. Your spouse may even be secretly recording you. Reacting proves the manipulation worked, so the narcissist will expand on that tactic.

View more of our 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.


[i] A New Way to Understand the Narcissistic Male, S.K. Whitbourne, PhD, Psychology Today.

[ii] Help! I’m Divorcing a Narcissist, K. McBride, PhD, Psychology Today.

[iii] What Are Typical Behaviours of Narcissistic Abuse Survivors? M. Jansen, PhD, Psychology Today.

[iv] Are You a Narcissist’s Flying Monkey? C. Jack, PhD, Psychology Today.

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