by Bari Zell Weinberger, Esq.
You won’t get a dime from me. I’ll make sure you never see the kids again. You’ll be out on the streets. I’ll spend every cent I have to fight you…
Do any — or all — of these threats sound familiar? If your answer is yes, there is a good chance that your soon-to-be former spouse is a narcissist. Controlling, combative, and rarely contrite, a narcissist can turn an unpleasant divorce into a full-blown nightmare — unless you know the legal secrets for keeping this arrogant personality type in check.
Whether you are dealing with someone with only a few narcissistic traits, or you suspect your spouse may have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), before the rage-filled head games can begin, here are some divorce strategies to help keep conflict in your divorce to a minimum.
Get Everything in Writing: Narcissists by their very nature can be manipulative and exploitive, mainly because they generally feel entitled to get whatever they want. It’s also common for extremely self-centered types to blame everyone else for their problems and perceive themselves as the victims — even as they bully their spouses and children.
It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to reason with a true narcissist. At the same time, however, good communication can be very helpful when going through a divorce, which is why you may want to consider limiting communication with your spouse to written forms only, including emails, texts, or messages sent between your attorneys. When we write, we tend to reflect on our thoughts; this can help mild narcissists take pause and maybe take a step back before hitting send. For spouses more on the NPD end of the spectrum, written communication can serve as evidence of their abusive ways, if ever needed. Some divorcing parents even have it explicitly stated in their custody agreements that communication between co-parents must be written except in case of emergency.
As you ease into written communication, be a good role model by sticking with short, neutral messages (i.e., we will be at library at 4 pm today for the custody swap. Will you be there?), and don’t take the bait! Because of the narcissistic tendency to view themselves as the victims, your spouse’s inflammatory texts or emails may be an attempt to spark your anger and get you to say something you regret.
Another area where “getting it in writing” is important applies to all temporary custody and support orders, including alimony, that may be put in place before the finalization of your divorce. Some couples on friendly terms may have casual agreements concerning custody or child support before final orders are agreed upon. However, when dealing with a volatile personality, verbal agreements can seriously backfire and lead to, “I never agreed to that!” kinds of accusations. A written order can prevent this kind of disagreement. If you need to establish temporary orders for child custody or spousal support, as soon as you meet with your attorney, describe your spouse’s personality type. Your attorney will know how to proceed.
Gather financial paperwork as soon as possible: As a means of control, a narcissist spouse may be more likely to drag their heels on providing financial paperwork needed for calculating alimony, child support and asset division. This includes pay stubs and tax returns, bank statements and credit card bills, stock portfolio and retirement account information, and more. In some cases, a narcissist may decide to hide assets as a means of revenge.
To head off this kind of behavior, as early as possible in the divorce process, or even before you file, collect as much financial paperwork as possible. [Use this financial checklist for divorce to understand what you should be looking for.] If your narcissist spouse has had most of the control over your marital finances, run a credit report to help identify financial accounts open in both your names. If you file your taxes jointly, you can request a copy of your tax return from the IRS. This information may establish a fuller financial picture or even give you clues about possible hidden assets.
Leave the Kids Out of It: A narcissist spouse may be bent on using children as a weapon in your divorce. Avoid this kind of warfare by having custody exchanges in public places and/or having a support person with you on these occasions. If your spouse tries to lure you into an argument in front of the children, immediately end the conversation and walk away. Extra support in the form of therapy could be very helpful for you and your children during this time. Also, keep a journal detailing your day-to-day life as a parent. If your spouse accuses you of being a bad parent, this journal may become a valuable piece of evidence for disproving these types of allegations.
Get a Restraining Order: For those with extreme narcissism, annoying and overbearing behaviors can sometimes cross the line into harassment and stalking. For example, you agreed to text each other, but now your spouse has begun sending angry and threatening texts in the middle of the night. In this case, remedies such as taking out a Temporary Restraining Order may be necessary to stop this behavior and could help keep you and your children safe.
Don’t Necessarily Rule Out Mediation: Divorcing a narcissist could be more likely to end up in litigation, but a court battle may not be a foregone conclusion. In some cases, divorce mediation, an often less costly alternative for settling a divorce with the help of a neutral third party mediator, can work out just fine IF you are able to find a mediator with experience implementing a highly structured process. A mediator experienced in facilitating negotiations with a narcissist will know how to help both of you stick to an agenda, will encourage attorney participation, and will caucus as necessary with each of you, reducing the emphasis on face-to-face interaction. This approach should be discussed with your attorney. Depending on the circumstances, litigation may be your best option for achieving a fair settlement.
No matter what path you take, your divorce may not be easy, but it can be manageable. And just like every other person who enters this process, narcissist spouse or not, hold tight to the belief that a brighter tomorrow is in your future.