Help! I’m separating from a narcissist

I see a disproportionate number of people with narcissistic traits embroiled in high conflict family law disputes.

The typical characteristics of the narcissist which I see are:

  • Lack of empathy – do you find yourself thinking, if only I could make my spouse understand what I mean? Forget it, it’s not that your spouse doesn’t understand you. The narcissist spouse simply doesn’t care.
  • Inability to be accountable – in the narcissist’s mind, it’s always someone else’s fault. Usually yours, because you’re the closest scapegoat.
  • Sense of entitlement – the narcissist believes they have the right to do whatever they want, including hurting you or the children.
  • All or nothing thinking – the narcissist thinks in win/lose, black/white terms They are rigid in their beliefs and are unable to take on board different points of view.
  • Circular conversations – do you find yourself having the same arguments with your spouse without the issue ever being resolved? It is extremely difficult to communicate with a narcissist because they are unable to be emotionally truthful.
  • Manipulation, deflection and counter-attack – the narcissist will project their own feelings and behaviour onto you, all designed to make you feel guilty and confused about what is really going on. It’s not uncommon for people living with a narcissist to feel like they’re going crazy!

You might not realise it, but at the core of the narcissist is a fundamental sense of self-inadequacy. The narcissistic traits are a defence mechanism against this tremendous fear that someone, somewhere, sometime will recognise that they are an inadequate person.

The narcissist is at their worst when separating (remember they think win/lose), Common things I see from the narcissist spouse at separation are:

  • Threats to take / keep the children from you.
  • Manipulating the children into feeling sorry for them / angry at you.
  • Threats to ruin you financially, including threats to use the legal system against you.
  • Hiding financial information from you.
  • Deliberately running down the family home / family business.
  • Persistent, petty little niggles – refusing to help pay for a phone bill, going back on their agreement for your child to go to dance class that is now ‘on their time’, ignoring your emails when you need them to do something for the children or for the family home.

I’ve found the following approaches helpful in dealing with the narcissist when separating:-

Non-legal approaches:

  • Have boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable, and enforce them! – Your ex-partner keeps sending you narky texts aimed at pushing your buttons? Block their phone number. If you have children together, tell your ex-partner that you will communicate with him or her just about the children, and then stick to it.
  • Keep your communication with the narcissist brief and non-emotional – use BIFF responses: brief, informative, friendly and firm.
  • Disengage from the narcissist – you don’t have to defend or justify yourself. Really, you don’t. Your spouse can say whatever they like, you can simply agree to disagree.

Legal options:

  • Consider making an Application for a Protection Order to stop your spouse from contacting or approaching you if they are harassing, intimidating or bullying you.
  • Accept that the narcissist will not compromise or negotiate unless they have to – this is who they are and it will not change.
  • This is one of the rare situations where I will recommend taking court action early on. There’s no point spending money on solicitors’ letters that will get you nowhere in negotiations. Let the court-imposed timeframe and process help drive the narcissist towards a compromise.

Justine Dean – Samford Family Law