Maya Angelou famously said, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time," and while we rarely disagree with the feminist hero and poetic icon, we beg to differ on this particular point. Here's the thing: While some people do a good job of revealing their character, others have a talent for hiding who they really are to gain others' trust and affection. Who are these people, you may ask? Narcissists.
What Is a Narcissist?
A narcissist suffers from a personality disorder known as narcissism. Narcissists may come across as self-important, entitled, and desperate for positive attention, but they're also usually incredibly insecure, emotionally empty, and bored.
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT, explains, "Narcissists can be charming, charismatic, seductive, exciting, and engaging." Think about it: If you've ever seen American Psycho, you know that even the worst people can expertly disguise themselves as well-to-do charmers. Because narcissists can be so charming, they make for excellent partners in the beginning of a new relationship.
Meet the Expert
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a former practicing lawyer and current licensed marriage and family therapist. She's a relationship and codependency expert, having treated individuals and couples for 30 years.
If you've been in a long-term relationship with a narcissist, don't blame yourself and ask questions like, "How did I not see this coming?" The truth is that there is no way you could have because narcissists can be as loving as they are emotionally abusive. Divorcing a narcissistic partner is not easy, but we have a few expert-approved tips that can help get you through it. Keep reading to learn what you expect when you're divorcing a narcissist.
Hope for the Best, But Expect the Worst
Even in the messiest divorces, both parties tend to force themselves to remember the good times to lessen their emotional distress. Divorces can be really tough, so reminding yourself why you used to love the person you're legally separating from can help. Narcissists do not do this. In fact, the moment you even so much as mention cutting ties, they'll completely shut down and may even act like your whole marriage meant nothing.
"Displays of vulnerable feelings, such as fear, shame, or sadness, are intolerable signs of weakness both in themselves and others. Their defense system... protects them, but hurts other people," former lawyer and current licensed marriage and family therapist Lancer notes. Think about it: Divorce leaves both parties completely vulnerable and emotionally raw, which is a narcissist's worst fear. They get to avoid feeling emotionally exposed if they block out both the marriage and you.
Don't Let Him See You Cry
Here's one thing to remember: The stronger your own emotional health, the few opportunities your soon-to-be-ex has to manipulate you. If a narcissist is amazing at one thing, it's causing confusion, and when you start to question whether the problem is with you or the narcissist, you've already lost.
You may not be able to change their behavior, but you can change the way you respond to their behavior. So if you find yourself bending to their will at every turn, try to refocus and stay the course. Try to remember that the things they do or say are not about you; they are about themselves. They're simply trying to tear you down to make themselves feel better.
Realize Your Own Self-Worth
One of a narcissist's defense mechanisms is retreating to a fantasy world in which nothing bad can happen to them. When backed into an emotional corner, nearly everything they do and say is an expression of their need to be someone they are not.
Regardless of how good you want the narcissist to be, the more you work at bringing goodness out, the more they may try to exploit your goodness. The best defense during divorce is to appreciate your own self-worth.
Set Some Serious Boundaries
A traditional narcissist firmly believes that their needs are more important than yours. Also, they're smarter, hotter, and more successful than you are and therefore find it totally unacceptable that anyone—especially their partner—would disagree with them. One important thing to remember is that narcissists generally won't answer to anyone, so try not to make the mistake of attempting to control them. The best way to handle them is to set boundaries.
It may feel a little immature to do this, but the best way to set boundaries with a narcissist is to refuse to communicate with them unless it's free of conflict, manipulation, and disrespect. You may even need to put your foot down and insist that all communication takes place via email.
Expect some push back, but if you want to stop the cycle of abuse, stand your ground.
Surround Yourself With Support
Turning to friends and family when navigating a divorce is always a good idea. Just talking through your emotions may even help alleviate some of your stress. However, try to remember that you're dealing with a unique situation, and your usual support system may not be able to understand what you're going through.
If you feel like you need to talk to someone who can empathize more than your friends and family are able to, maybe consider talking to a therapist who understands narcissism. In addition to being an excellent sounding board, she may also be able to give you guidance on how to navigate the tricky terrain of a divorce.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Diagnostic and Clinical Challenges. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2015
Fear and decision-making in narcissistic personality disorder—a link between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 2013
Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Cleveland Clinic. 2020