By Attorney Marsha Summersill
What is a narcissist?
A narcissist is someone characterized as having a narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder is defined by psychologists as a mental condition in which an individual has an inflated sense of self-importance, an insatiable need for outside attention has difficulty in relationships, and has a clearly defined lack of empathy for others.
One of the lesser-known defining elements of a narcissist is that despite the outward impression of self-confidence, they possess delicate self-esteem and are easily hurt by even small amounts of criticism.
Someone with a narcissistic personality disorder will often have problems in many areas of their life. Narcissists have difficult times in relationships, at work or school, and those difficulties can find their way into other important parts of their life.
Because of the narcissist’s need for constant outside admiration, they will often be disappointed in normal relationships and will find them unfulfilling. Because of this, the narcissist will typically seem unhappy, dissatisfied, and disappointed.
What does narcissistic mean?
To be narcissistic means to possess the characteristics of a narcissist. This means they have a constant and unrealistic need for affirmation and lack empathy for others, even those closest to them.
It can be difficult to identify someone’s personality as narcissistic. It’s important to understand that narcissism is a scientifically defined mental condition. While it might be easy or convenient to anecdotally classify someone as being a narcissist, for this article, we advise our clients to refrain from using that term unless there has been a clinical diagnosis.
Signs you are in a narcissistic relationship
While it is important to have someone diagnosed as a narcissist to best understand the situation, there are some signs you can look for if you believe you are in a narcissistic relationship. Here are some of the most common.
- Your partner or ex has to dominate the conversation. This is because the narcissist wants all of the focus and attention to be on them, with little regard for how others feel.
- Your partner or ex continually interrupts without consideration for your feelings. Remember, a narcissist lacks empathy and understanding of other’s feelings so they will barge in on the conversation without care.
- Your partner or ex feels that boundaries or rules don’t apply to them. A narcissist believes they live outside of the rules of appropriate behavior. This means that they will go beyond the boundaries of what is appropriate and feel that they are justified in breaking any rules that govern basic human-to-human relationships.
- The projection of a false, exaggerated appearance. The narcissist so badly wants to impress those around them that they will often exaggerate many things about their lives. What’s happening here is that they want to convey the message that they are better than everyone else.
- The narcissist is manipulative. They will use situations and other people to their advantage and strengthen their belief that they are better than those around them. Even under pretense, someone with narcissistic tendencies will “use” people and environments to elevate their position and draw out the attention and admiration of others.
- Your partner or ex is grandiose. The narcissist has a false sense of self-importance and will portray themselves in kind. Their behaviors will be exaggerated. They will imply that they are heroic and others simply could not survive without them.
- Your partner or ex isolates you from your friends and is highly controlling. Remember, to the narcissist, it is all about them, and they do not want you to share your attention or affection with others.
- Your partner or ex likes to spread negative emotions. One of the most potent ways to get attention is to spread negative emotions. These negative emotions could be caused by the smallest of circumstances, real or perceived. This behavior will often throw-off people around them and direct attention to the narcissist.
Can a narcissist change?
There is much debate between psychologists about whether a narcissist can change. The root of the argument is that narcissism is a personality disorder and typically these types of disorders have more permanence. They are increasingly resistant to change over time.
One position is that if a person is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and desires to change strongly enough, they can change.
However, we are dealing with the complexities and variances of the human mind, and each person and situation is different. The short answer is that it is not clear if a narcissist can change.
How to deal with a narcissistic husband, wife, or ex.
Dealing with a narcissist is another complicated question. There are many experts who believe that, especially in the case of an ex, you should completely avoid dealing with a narcissist at all. Especially if you feel that you can change their behavior. The experts suggest keeping the narcissist at arms-length and deal with them as little as possible or as is necessary, in the case of co-parenting.
The key to dealing with a narcissistic husband, wife or ex is to understand what you are dealing with. Your partner or ex lives in a world that is all about them, and your feelings or existence have little meaning unless you are paying attention to them, giving them accolades, or giving them affection. If you are comfortable living in that condition, you can then deal with it accordingly.
How to handle a narcissist in court during a divorce
Dealing with a person with narcissistic issues or traits during the divorce process or in an adversarial setting is difficult but doable. The following suggestions are helpful methods as the divorce process alone is daunting, and adding the narcissist as an opposing party escalates the level of difficulty to extremely high.
- Be prepared to receive several motions and pleadings that will be inaccurate, inflammatory in nature, and in abundance. The first reaction is to respond in anger and try to counter the accusations with your own flurry of emotional responses; however, this type of response may be counterproductive to your goal for the divorce. The best method is to maintain a calm, cool, and collective stance. Meet with your attorney and formulate a game plan to tackle the motions and filings in a manner that places you in a better position when you do need to be in front of a judge.
- Make certain to choose an attorney with a good skill level to deal with a narcissist. Your lawyer that is drafting your responses, motions and pleadings must be knowledgeable on how to deal with an opposing party that has narcissistic traits. The narcissistic party believes they know more than a lawyer and will attempt to manipulate your attorney. Your lawyer should have the ability to identify the narcissist’s tactics and respond accordingly that will benefit you and get you closer to your desired outcome in the case.
- Keep your attorney INFORMED. This cannot be stressed enough. Do not doubt your knowledge of your partner or spouse.
- Because of the increased problems and high emotional stress involved in a divorce with the added issue of divorcing a narcissist, it is suggested that you participate in therapy with a licensed mental health professional that has advanced working knowledge on addressing the ramifications of dealing with a narcissistic partner or spouse. Really try to use the methods and strategies recommended by the therapist to help get through the process.
- Only use documented or written forms of communication. This is advised for all contentious divorces, but more so in a divorce with a narcissist. You will receive hostile, inaccurate, and harassing communications from the narcissistic party. Don’t respond while you are reeling in anger. WAIT! Consult your lawyer and keep that calm and collective stance that was previously suggested. Remember, every communication has a possibility of being used in court. Communicate in a manner where you think a judge or third-party decision maker is watching and listening.
- Gather your support together! Your support is your legal team, your mental/emotional support team, and your friends, family and other reliable and trustworthy sources or groups.
- Meet with your attorney before any hearings or trial. Review methods with your attorney on how to address any triggers that the narcissist may attempt to use to rattle you and impact your ability to get your testimony heard.
Co-parenting with a narcissist
Unfortunately, co-parenting with a narcissist will require ongoing diligence on your part to ensure the children are insulated as much as possible from the self-serving goals of the narcissist. You will need support. It is strongly suggested to have a mental health professional involved. The therapist or counselor also should be skilled in dealing with narcissistic tendencies or traits from the other parent.
Make certain to keep the therapist informed of the issues regarding the narcissistic parent. Ask for help on how to address the problems associated with the narcissistic parent.
You will receive information from the children on what the other parent is discussing with them or saying about you. The narcissist will most likely engage in a smear campaign against you and inappropriately share litigation information or adult topics or issues with the children. It is critically important not to respond in a “correction” mode or tell your children the real facts. I know it is hard, but do not involve your children in the parenting aspect of your case.
Document what the children are saying to you and discuss it with your therapist and your attorney. Remember, keep your lawyer informed. Encourage your children to be open, honest, and to share. Also, let them know that those conversations are adult problems and the children should not be involved at all. The therapist will have insight on how to address the parenting side of the problems the narcissist will create, and your lawyer will guide you on what to do legally. Use the resources of your support teams.
Moving on from a marriage with a narcissist
Moving on from a relationship with a narcissist can be difficult, even more so if you’ve spent years in the narcissistic environment. You might have feelings of low self-worth, you might doubt your ability to make others happy, you might unfairly judge yourself.
First, realize that it’s not your fault. You were in a situation that actively contributed to making you feel this way about yourself. You’ve gotten out. Now it’s time to move on.
You should take time for yourself. It’s time to reconnect with yourself and find the value that you bring to your own life and that of others. Engage in activities that help you regain balance in your life and help build your self-esteem. Sign up for a class that you’ve always wanted, increase physical activity, spend time with family and friends. Reintroduce yourself to the beautiful things life has to offer.
In some cases, you might want to consider getting help through therapy. Sometimes just having someone to speak with about the situation can help ease the process of moving on. A professional who can specifically address the situation can be a valuable resource.
No matter what, you must move on. You will find “yourself” again and realize that you are the beautiful, miraculous person you were meant to be.