The Truth About Dating, Marrying and Divorcing a Narcissist
The end of any relationship is painful but what happens when your ex is a narcissist?
Personality disorders like narcissism are more common than you might think. It is surprisingly easy to find yourself in a relationship with someone who has one.
Approximately 1 in 200 people meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Interestingly, about three-quarters of these are men.
One HER reader has bravely agreed to share her story and tell us what it’s like dating, marrying and divorcing a narcissist. While family law experts Trethowans have given us their advice on navigating the separation process.
Warning signs you’re dating a narcissist
What exactly is narcissism? And how can you spot the signs?
The smartphone selfie era has surely brought out a touch of narcissism in all of us. We can all be guilty of being a little self-involved or even a bit vain. So, how do you know when it’s more serious?
Research has shown that narcissism exists on a spectrum, from a few tendencies to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.
Here are the traits to look out for:
Inflated sense of self-importance
The constant need for admiration, praise and special attention – often fuelled by fragile self-esteem
Obsession with and fantasies about success, power, beauty or love
Sense of entitlement – they expect to be perceived as superior even without the necessary achievements
Arrogance, tendency to talk about themselves and their achievements – often exaggerated
Lack of empathy – with a failure to take others feelings into consideration
Extreme sensitivity to criticism
Easily bored or dissatisfied
Manipulative behaviour such as gaslighting -a form of emotional abuse which can lead you to question your own reality, memory or perception (often making it seem like you are the problem)
I noticed the confidence and persona he displayed in public, wasn’t quite so apparent at home. He was insecure and quite jealous.
Unfortunately, these red flags won’t usually present themselves until quite a way into the relationship. More often than not, you won’t know you’ve met a narcissist until it’s too late. This was the case for HER reader Alison, who was initially smitten with her ex:
………..“There was something very different about my first meeting with my ex, compared with that of previous boyfriends. The chemistry was electric, and he ticked every box I was looking for. Tall and handsome aside, it was his charisma, confidence and sense of humour that blew me over.
……….He was intelligent, logical and great in a crisis. But also his communication skills – he was so open and warm, and it felt like he listened with his eyes.”
Love bombing, breaking up & beyond
Narcissists often practise love bombing at the beginning of a relationship. This more than the excitement and romance often experienced in a new relationship.
Love bombing involves an overwhelming number of romantic gestures, compliments or gifts. These are intended to gain trust or manipulate you. Alison explained what it was like for her:
……..“He was unbelievably romantic and would regularly send me links to music videos that surmised his love for me. He’d send me flowers, leave cards on my pillow and write all the things he loved about me on post-it notes around the house. I now know it as love-bombing, but the early days felt like we were living in a rom-com. It was truly blissful. I’d never known love like it.”
He started hiding unpaid utility bills and when I’d confront him on it, he’d find a way to shift the blame on to the bank, payroll at work, or more often his past.
How do you go from loved up to the realisation that your partner might have a personality disorder? Having had friends who’ve escaped relationships with manipulative partners, I want to understand how I can best support anyone who might be in a similar situation. Alison told me more:
………“I’d say around one year into the relationship, the mask started to slip, but it was infrequent and very subtle. I noticed the confidence and persona he displayed in public, wasn’t quite so apparent at home. He was insecure and quite jealous.”
……….“He would get bored really quickly, and very snappy over odd things; make a joke about his choice of T-shirt or haircut and he wouldn’t take it well. I thought it was cute and boyish at the time.”
Getting through to a narcissist
Unlike a mental health condition such as anxiety, people with personality disorders do not usually know they have anything wrong. They, therefore, don’t seek treatment or see a problem with their behaviour.
This makes communication incredibly difficult. You may find you just can’t get through to them or make them see your side. This is particularly true of narcissists. Alison explained the difficulties she faced:
……….“He began to be dishonest about the silliest of things – from conversations he’d relay word-for-word that we hadn’t actually had, to more serious issues like money. He started hiding unpaid utility bills and when I’d confront him on it, he’d find a way to shift the blame on to the bank, payroll at work, or more often his past.
……..He always had a way of deflecting responsibility for anything he was accountable for elsewhere. The lies would soon cause disagreements, but after every attempt at resolving the issues, I’d come away feeling very confused and unsure over what had just happened.”
Empty on empathy
Narcissists tend to have a diminished capacity for empathy. They struggle to take other people’s feelings into consideration. When it comes to splitting up, this is particularly problematic, especially if you’re married or have children together.
Narcissists will completely ignore any memories and history you have together, all they can see is how they feel right now.
When you combine this with a charming persona and ability to manipulate others, it is disastrous for divorce proceedings. Narcissists frequently see themselves as the victim and can leave you looking like the bad guy. Alison told me how she experienced this first hand:
………..“He told me he was leaving me because I was making him mentally unstable. That I was causing him to behave in a way that wasn’t really him – the lies, the lack of empathy. That takes its toll on your mental health and you question your own sanity.
………….I was desperately trying to understand what happened and what I did wrong to cause him to change. I would play it over and over in my mind, questioning every mistake, every disagreement, every nuance of my personality.”
Dealing with someone so manipulative and lacking in empathy can be devastating as Alison confided:
……….“Communication felt impossible and there were many times when a text or email would appear from him which led to crippling anxiety attacks. At one point, there was a time when I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. I believed him when he said I made him this way and it felt like it was all my fault.”
Negotiating with a narcissist
When it comes to divorce and separation, it’s essential to find an experienced legal team. Emma Wilders-Pratt, family law partner at Trethowans offered us her professional expertise:
……….“It’s important to approach resolving conflict in a conciliatory way. Understanding the psychology of the person you are negotiating with is a crucial consideration for any legal team. Knowledge and experience of dealing with the narcissistic mindset is a must in order to get the right results.
If a client is faced with a partner who presents symptoms of narcissistic behaviour they may think that going to court is the only way forward.
………The aim is always to find the best possible exit for the client and this often isn’t achieved by demonising the other party, which ultimately can inflame and prolong the conflict. Demonising and labelling a person moves the negotiator further away from understanding them.”
If children are involved, the parents need to continue to communicate and work together, sometimes for many years after the separation. Emma Wilders-Pratt explained how a cautious, flexible approach is needed:
………..“As a team, we have dealt with people whose behaviour can be challenging. We’d always advise taking a tailored approach, every case is different and a good legal team will listen and adapt their methods to suit the individual circumstances of each family.”
Experienced legal teams like those at Trethowans know only too well how a narcissist may seek to undermine you in court. Emma continued:
………..“If a client is faced with a partner who presents symptoms of narcissistic behaviour they may think that going to court is the only way forward. Should this be the case, it can be a daunting prospect, but a strong legal team will have the expertise to guide and support you through the process.
…………Your legal team should leave you feeling reassured that they’ll do everything they can for you and your family.
……….In some cases, litigation may not be the only way and there are many alternative options to consider. It is well worth ensuring your legal team has expertise in these alternative methods such as mediation and the no court approach, known as collaborative law.
…………You want to be able to clearly explore all of the options so that whatever route you take, you can be confident of getting the best possible outcome.”
Seeking support & starting again
With support from friends, family and her legal team, Alison got divorced and successfully broke away from her ex. She’s now in a better place.
………“I never thought something like this would happen to me, I’d previously considered myself a good judge of character. I now know that someone with a personality disorder will go to great lengths to manipulate you into seeing things their way. It’s easy to completely lose yourself whilst you’re with them.
……….Remember, trust your instincts and find someone to confide in – having a friend to sense check what you’re experiencing can be validating and give you strength when you need it. If you’re separating and there are legal matters to deal with, find a legal team that understands and has experience in dealing with personality disorders, like Trethowans.”
If you are at the stage of requiring legal support, talk to Trethowans. The family law team works closely with a number of experts to ensure that each client receives the full package of support. They’ll help you navigate the complexities of divorce as painlessly as possible.
Emma Wilders-Pratt Partner
email@example.com 01962 670 677
Laura Bell Associate
firstname.lastname@example.org 01962 673 873
Emilie Holland Solicitor
email@example.com 01962 673878
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