EP 188: How to Divorce a Narcissist – and Win (or at least Survive)

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Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.

In this episode, we’re going to discuss how to divorce a narcissist and when, or I should say at least survive the divorce process, and really come in in one piece, and come through this situation in the best position possible given a particularly difficult spouse to handle during the divorce process.

The reason I bring this topic up, I haven’t talked about it in a while, and through the coaching calls I’ve had over the past few weeks, many of you are identifying that your spouses have some form of pretty severe or extreme narcissism, and are wondering, and have been asking, “Well, how do I deal with that, and what kind of strategies can I employ? What are some things that I should be thinking about?”

I’ll say of course individual circumstances always matter, and if you want to talk about your case, we can do that via a coaching call, but I also want to give you some general tips and strategies and things to think about, and also for those who haven’t really thought about narcissism with any depth and thinking about that in the context of your spouse, I want to go through some of the characteristics of what someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or what a narcissist is, and then also go through really just three very specific strategies to help you get through that situation.

Let’s first start with what a narcissist is. The technical term, you heard me mention it earlier, is narcissistic personality disorder. It is a disorder, and it does have a clinical and psychological definition that’s very specific, and I’m going to actually read off some of the symptoms of that.
One of the things I do want to bring up though, is it’s a continuum, so what that means is some people would score, if I wanted to keep the language simple, some people might score 100 out of 100, as they are an extreme narcissist, but some of us, including some of us listening, still have forms of narcissism, we all do, but we might be a five, or we might be a 10, or might be a 20, but your spouse could be an 80, or a 90, or 100, or I bet some of you think your spouse might be off the charts.

What I’m going to do, is I’m going to read the definition of some of the symptoms. These come from the Mayo Clinic website, and it says that, “People with narcissistic disorder can have some of the following,” and I know some of you are going to be nodding your heads as you listen to these descriptions, so here we go.

So people with the disorder can have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration, expect to be recognized as superior without achievements that warrant it, exaggerate their achievements and talents, be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate, believe they are superior, and only can associate with equally special people, monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior, expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations, take advantage of others to get what they want, have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others, be envious of others, and believe others envy them, have an arrogant, or I should behave, in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful, and pretentious, insist on having the best of everything.

That is the first set of characteristics. Believe it or not there are more, but I know just from that reading, some of you have a pretty clear sense and probably know where those behaviors come in with your spouse. Maybe it’s not your spouse, and that wouldn’t be relevant to the divorce context, but I know we all have friends or might know some people in popular culture who you can clearly identify these characteristics with. I will not name any names, but I think it’s pretty obvious for some.

Now, the definition from the Mayo Clinic also has some other characteristics they say, and it says, “People with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism,” that’s very important, “and they can become inpatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment.”

Now, I’m just going to give you all a little insight into me. That one definitely falls in my category. I do love special treatment, and that one’s me. But anyways, other things is that they have significant interpersonal problems and feel slighted, react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person or make themselves appear superior, have difficultly regulating emotions and behavior, experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change, feel depressed and moody because they feel short of perfection, and have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, or humiliation.

That’s a lot. That is a ton of different things, but in conversations I have with you every day, I know a lot of you are living with spouses that share these characteristics. These are daily behaviors that you are living with, and you’re trying to figure out how this process is going. One of the extra challenges with someone who shares these narcissistic characteristics is that most narcissists don’t think that anything is wrong with them.

One of the challenges with diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder is someone who is a narcissist will not sit down to be diagnosed, and they won’t think that anything is wrong. In the divorce process in particular, which is what we’re talking about, it really drags on the divorce process, because everything becomes bigger than it needs to be.

Now, while I’m not saying that the issues that you’re facing in divorce are small, they are big, but what happens is usually you, the person who are listening, has pretty reasonable expectations, and needs, and wants during this process, whereas dealing with the narcissist can be just complicated, and their expectations are the opposite of unreasonable. Every time you force them to give an inch or ask that they give an inch, they react in … they overreact, I should say, kind of in an out of control manner, and it just becomes a much bigger fight than necessary.
Compounding that is I like to say … I had this funny thing. One of my first jobs I had when I was working on Wall Street, I was a financial advisor at a very good firm, and there were lots of financial advisors working there. I noticed something very interesting that applies to the narcissist in the divorce context.

What was interesting is the personality of the financial advisors, their clients would also share a similar personality to that advisor. What do I mean by that? So there would be a financial advisor who was very ADD, always wanted things really snappy, was kind of all over the place, and when their clients called, their clients were the same way, very ADD, a little bit all over the place, kind of snappy, and that was interesting.

Then conversely is there would be an advisor there, and he would be very thoughtful, very deep thinker, very analytical, relatively quiet, not kind of a big sales personality, and when that person’s clients called, that’s what they were like, the clients. They were generally very thoughtful, very analytical, very deep thinkers. It was interesting because I was sitting around, I don’t know, 20 or 30 very successful financial advisors, and in general, all of their clients matched their personalities, and it was one of the weirdest things I had noticed.

Why do I bring this up? Well, in the divorce context, it turns out that narcissists tend to find lawyers with those same personality traits. What could have been even a reasonable process becomes that much harder, because not only is the spouse suffering on the scale of narcissism to an extreme degree, but their attorneys are often further complicating that situation rather than helping it.

It turns out, at least in my experience, I can’t speak for everyone, but oftentimes, those with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have very narcissistic attorneys who are just a pain and a half to deal with. I can’t stand them, to be quite frank. Least favorite people to deal with in the legal process.

I don’t mind a mean attorney, I don’t mind any form of attorney except for the narcissistic ones. I can deal with the mean ones, but those who are just full of themselves and have clients who are equally that level are the biggest pain. I think if you were to talk to any very good divorce attorney, they would say the exact same thing. Every town and every city across America, there are attorneys who share these capabilities, and also attract those very frustrating clients who are probably like your spouse if you’re listening to this.

Now, all that said, let’s shift gears a little bit. What do you do? What are the strategies … and I’m really just going to go through three … strategies that you can put into place to deal with a narcissist during the divorce process? I like to only discuss three strategies, because if you focus on these three things, you will be focused on the right things, and actually, I use the word, “focus,” because one of the challenges with dealing with a narcissist is small things become big, and you can quickly lose sight of the big picture, or as I like to say, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

I only want you to focus on a few things, and if you focus on those few things, you will get through in the grand scheme of things in the best position possible. So what are those three things? The first is document everything and get organized. The second is make sure you get an experienced attorney, and the third is you’re the CEO. Remove emotions from this process.
Now, I’m going to get into each one of these three things, and intentionally, this is a little bit longer episode, because I think it’s a very important one, and I’m going to go through these three topics. First one, document everything and get organized. Even though you’re dealing with a narcissistic spouse, it’s only one part of the process.

You still have everything that you’re dealing with in divorce. Your spouse’s personality characteristics are just something on top of that. It’s a little frustrating, but you still have to deal with all the custody issues, hidden assets, unwillingness to compromise, trying to come up with a settlement agreement.

One of the things that really helps during this process is staying … not only staying organized, but documenting everything that’s going on, and everything that’s happening. When I say, “document everything that’s happening,” is it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with all of the major events in your divorce process, particularly with a narcissistic spouse. Sometimes I’ll talk to you or work with you over a long period of time, and you’ll have 100 specific examples of things that have happened.

Of those 100 examples, it’s just really hard to keep track, like what’s going on, because you’re living with these things, but we’re trying to help you from the outside, and trying to catch up on these stories, and make sure that we do the best we can for you. So here’s what I suggest you do when dealing with a narcissistic spouse, is you put together a timeline, a very, very simple timeline in chronological order, of the things that are happening. If you have evidence of those things, you supply the evidence of them. I really mean one or two pages of just the main things in the divorce.

What would I do? I would take a document, or a spreadsheet, or write it by hand, you put the date. So you’re going to put June 4th and the year, and you’re going to say, “Spouse yelled at me for this, and this happened,” or whatever. Then you’re going to say, “June 18th, X amount of money was suspiciously withdrawn from bank account. Unsure of where it went.” And you’re going to put behind that, is you’re going to put a bank statement with that withdrawal on June … I forgot what date I already said, we’ll just say June 20th.

Then you’re going to go to July, and say, “In July kids were with spouse. They did not eat for 18 hours according to them. Came home hungry, no food, and were unhappy,” and you’re going to write that down. You might say, “On July 17th,” and whatever happened. You might say, “Police were called.” Sometimes that happens with many of you. You’ll say, “Here’s the police copy of the police report.”

Whatever the different things are, I’m just making up those examples off the top of my head, but you’ll have a very simple timeline with the date, one sentence or two sentences of what happened, and if you have evidence of it, any evidence of what happened. Might be text messages, might be photos, might be bank statements, might be any number of things that could have happened, and you’re just going to put that together in one file, and keep it organized.

One of the biggest challenges for your attorney or for me when it comes to helping you through this process is not only … The most frustrating thing about dealing with a narcissist is it can be very isolating for you, and very overwhelming for us trying to help you. The goal is … and I’m going to talk about each of those.

Let me talk about overwhelming for a second. So many things are going on, it’s hard for me or hard for your attorney to keep things straight sometimes in terms of all of these different things that happen. If you have proof of them, if they’re relevant for the divorce process, if they’re he said she said type things, and we just need to keep them in order. So maybe we show this to a judge later, or maybe something’s not relevant, or maybe it is particularly relevant, but we need to be able to keep those things straight.

The other thing that’s relevant about that, is I said it can be very isolating. The other thing that’s particular … many things are particularly frustrating with dealing with a narcissist, but almost universally, narcissists are loved except by their family, or I should say their spouse in particular.

I know that everyone who might interact with your spouse might love that person. They might think, “Oh, Johnny’s great,” or, “Oh, Jill is awesome. Love getting a beer with Jill,” or, “Have a great relationship with Johnny, I always say hi to him. I know he’s the best.” Always walking around the restaurant, or walking around town greeting people, and everyone knows who they are, and very well liked, but when they come home, they’re a terror to you, and they don’t treat you well, and it’s awful, and it’s very isolating, because you might feel that people don’t believe that this person is actually not as good as everyone thinks.

One of the ways to combat that is to really prepare yourself, and document all of these things that are happening. If you have evidence of these things that are happening, and documented clearly, it’s easy to change the narrative in this divorce process about who this person is, and really get the truth about them out, and advocate yourself and fight back. Narcissists are often bullies, and they like to yell and scream and everything else, but there is a truth that is happening, and you can expose that truth when you have the appropriate evidence together.

A lot about point number one, document everything, get organized. That is crucial in this process. Point number two is get an experienced attorney. Now, I talk about attorneys a lot on this show, and I don’t have a ton of additional things to add, but I do want to talk about an attorney in the context of the divorce process.

Now, my last episode was how to find an attorney if you don’t know anyone, so listen to that. Also in the store, if you get the Quick Start Guide, I have a big section on how to manage and improve your relationship with your attorney. Even with some of the coaching clients, particularly those I work with over a longer basis, I’ll help you strategize, well, what’s the best communication process with this attorney, and how do we do it effectively?

What I wanted to bring up though, is if you follow my resources on picking an attorney, one of the questions if you know, and if you’re listening to this episode, doing some additional research, and you figure out that your spouse really has some pretty severe narcissistic tendencies, well, that really comes into play as you pick your attorney.

In particular, in your initial consultation, you should be asking … well, one is you should have this beautiful timeline that’s clearly documented, and you should say, “Look, I’m dealing with a narcissistic spouse,” one question you should ask, “Have you dealt with spouses like this before? Do you have strategies in place? How do you feel like we should approach this given the information we have? If this were to go in front of a judge, what do you think? Will the cost of this divorce be more because of the nature of my spouse? Can you tell me how things would change, or what I should be thinking about? Will the length of time be longer because of my spouse? If my spouse weren’t like this, would you have a different approach?”

These are kind of questions that you should be asking your attorney during your initial consultation or your early consultations, because it can be very relevant as you think about who you hire as your divorce attorney. Now, I know some of you will look for attorneys that specialize in narcissism, or will have it on their website. I’ll tell you this, that’s probably not the best method.
Most attorneys that I know that are very good that I work with who are super experienced, they are not … they don’t necessarily have a section of their website dedicated to narcissistic spouses. That said, I guarantee you, they have all dealt with them all the time, because that is just part of this process, and part of what they do. Just because someone’s website doesn’t say it, I wouldn’t say that’s a cause for concern. I would just look for a generally very good, very competent attorney, and I promise you, they will have seen it dozens or hundreds of times, unfortunately.

So the second thing was getting an experienced attorney. Now, the third thing is you are the CEO of your divorce, now remove your emotions from this process. Much easier said than done, but let me tell you what I’m getting at. Whether you are a stay at home mom, or dad, or maybe you’re the one who was out working, it doesn’t really matter.

If you were a stay at home parent and you’ve been running the household this whole time for the last two years, or 25 years, whatever it is, you have been the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer of your household. If you’ve been the one at work every day for the last two or 25 years, however long you’ve been married, you have been the financial earner out after it, earning the money, and earning the lifestyle.

Whatever the case is, you have a lot more experience and a lot more capabilities than you probably give yourself credit for. When it comes to dealing with a narcissist, or a narcissistic spouse, one of the things that you should be doing is really treating this divorce process as if you are the CEO of this divorce process, which you are. You have many more skills, regardless of what your spouse might say to you. Oftentimes they’re trying to belittle you, or they’re berating you, or they’re just a terror at home.

I get it, but it doesn’t lower your individual value, and it actually … you have a lot more to it than you think, and a lot more skills than you think. When it comes to deciding what the best courses of action are during the divorce, you need to take that individual person out of it to the extent you can. It’s almost impossible to remove emotions from the process, but go to therapists, talk to friends. I give lots of different advice in this podcast or via the Quick Start Guide in the store, or via coaching calls on this subject, but the point is, is when you try and decide what’s best for you, you need to treat it through the lens of, “All right, I have to … this divorce process will end one day.”

It might not feel like it now. For some of you it might be a few months, and for others it might be a few years, but whatever that time period is, it will be over at some point. Really, your main goals should be, “Well, when this process is over, I’m going to have 10, or 30, or 50, or 70 years life left ahead of me. How do I make the smartest decisions today regarding my finances, regarding my kids, regarding my family today, that will set me up for the next 10, or 20, or 50, or 70 years of life?”

When you think about those decisions, you have to take the emotions out of them. You have to think, “Well, what are the dollars and cents? What are realistically the best options for me, my children? If I were a third party thinking about this, and if I were giving myself advice 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, what would I say to myself today as I go through this process, or what advice should I be getting from a third party that will really … If I were just the boss of this process, the CEO of this process, what decisions would I be making to get me through it?”
If you make decisions from emotions, your emotions can easily lead you astray during this time, but if you make your decisions through logic, you can start to cut through all the fluff, cut through the bullying, cut through the rough nights, cut through all of this, and really focus on, “Hey, here’s what I want. Here are my three goals,” or, “Here are my five goals.” I’ve talked about goals on this in the podcast.

“Here’s what I want for my future. I know he or she is going to say this or that, or whatever in this process, but that doesn’t matter. Here’s what I’m focused on, here’s what I’m going to fight for for myself, here’s what I need to get through this process in one piece. That is what I’m going to fight for, regardless of what my spouse decides to do or tries to do, because I’m the CEO. I’m the boss of this process, and I’m going to put myself in the best position possible for my future, and for my kids’ future.”

When you start to adopt that attitude, you will really shift the way that you think about dealing with divorce with a narcissist, and it will be a much better position for you for the future, and for the long-term in setting up things the way that you need to set them up. You will be putting yourself in a position to fight back, and to make the smartest decisions you can to put yourself into a position to get you into a good spot not just for the next six months or the next year, but really for the rest of your life.

So as I said, three pieces of advice for dealing with a narcissist. The first is document everything and get extra organized. The second is make sure you get an experienced attorney who has the knowledge and strategic thought and thinking, and knows how to handle a narcissist, and the third is remember that you are the CEO of this process, and you need to treat yourself as such.
Try to use logic and smart thinking over emotions during this process, even though it is a tough time for you unquestionably, but know that if you think about it, the smartest way possible, you will get through this process in one piece, and you will get yourself through this process in a position to set yourself up for a great future.

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