Building resilience and keeping perspective when divorcing a narcissist

17 May 2017

Three years ago, I wrote the blog about the challenges in divorcing a narcissist.  My interest was in part a reaction to my clients, who over the years often characterised their spouses as suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and in part to help me work better with the divorce cases that I consider “the difficult ones”.  Increasingly, I have since found myself representing families where the complexity is not always the resources (i.e. the wealth) or the international dimension but the people who are involved (although it is very often all three at once). 

These cases have two distinct characteristics that I have begun to distinguish for myself - a marriage dominated by a spouse with a personality disorder on a scale matched with a wounded and often, co-dependent and “mute” spouse following years of living in a toxic relationship.  Some catastrophic event or sheer desperation usually leads wives (it is mostly but not exclusively them) to my firm and a ritual will typically play itself out.  Over a period of months, occasionally years, we work up the courage together to take a step forward, which means confronting the need to do more than acknowledge that a marriage is over and to say it publicly.

I have learned that from the initial decision to act to the conclusion of the divorce requires daily acts of courage by my client.  Most of the people that I have represented arrive emotionally beaten and unable to “stand in their own shoes”.  Very often, my suggestions and advice have been dismissed with an explanation that their spouse will never agree, will fight and win, as they always have done.  The background music has effectively been my client as an advocate for their spouse, presenting their opponent in the forthcoming divorce to everybody, including the Judge, as super successful, dominant and charismatic . 

Frequently, I encourage my clients to engage in therapeutic support to build their confidence to engage fully with me and to see the divorce through – and crucially to have the strength to act in their own and their children’s long-term best interests. In most situations, the real task is one of confidence building so that they can stay in the game long enough to achieve an outcome that they can live with.

With decent legal support, the outcome or result of their divorce case is broadly predictable.  Family wealth is divided (shared) along a well-trodden path with an equal division of all capital generated during the marriage and pre-/post-acquired wealth is only shared to meet the needs of one of the spouses and/or children.  Income is only divided so as to meet needs, which can be generously interpreted. 

All family lawyers should know these rules and solutions. Nevertheless, family litigation is still a contest – it’s a poker game where the chips are family wealth and children and where brinkmanship can play a strong role.  This is typically an arena where the narcissist feels confident as well as  vulnerable; confident of their power over their spouse and vulnerable to the unusual phenomenon of criticism, judgement and the risk of “losing”. 

So far as the Courts are concerned, personalities are usually irrelevant to outcome.  The decision of the Court to divide family wealth will be based on some fairly straightforward principles and an evaluation of the facts and children’s futures will be based on their best interests.  Inevitably, as the narcissist begins to understand that the conclusion of the divorce is actually out of their hands - attentions, hostility and threats are magnified, often referring to the wife’s lawyer as useless and the Judge as having no understanding of the real commercial world. 

All clients want their lawyers to predict the future but the words that the narcissist will hate to hear is that, if they continue with their approach, they will “lose” and “lose publicly”.  The first lawyer who tells them this will usually be fired and the second one will be chosen because of their reputation for pursuing a client’s objectives without asking or giving difficult advice or challenging the narcissist’s view of themselves or their world. 

Despite all of the chaos and slowly but surely, if my clients have the emotional strength and resilience to stay the course, they will see their spouse drawn in by a process (controlled by the lawyers), which will result in a Judge looking beyond the personalities and to a schedule of the family’s wealth and deciding how it will be shared and divided between two equals.

Getting my clients from their knees to their feet is why I come to work.  The team that I work with has had a long education and experience in supporting “the difficult ones”. We have established some simple but effective tools, which when coupled with strong emotional intelligence and therapeutic support have proven to be successful and life changing for our clients time and time again.

Further information

If you have any questions, please contact a member of our team of family and divorce lawyers.

See also our pages on divorce involving personality disorders and addiction; and domestic abuse and harassment for further information.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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