Divorcing a narcissist

marriage

At what point is a marriage truly over? In law a divorce can occur only when the marriage has irretrievably broken down. What happens, though, if you’ve reached that stage but your husband or wife refuses to let go? Do you just keep going, continuing a relationship you know is doomed, hoping against hope that this time your spouse will change?

Many people who do decide to seek legal advice tell me their partner displays what they believe are narcissistic traits: they are self-absorbed, cold and unemotional, yet controlling and above all utterly charming whenever necessary.

Frequently the spouse does turn out to be a bully – sometimes ruthlessly so. Other people’s suffering leaves them cold. Largely devoid of emotions except self-praise and self-gratification, this character skilfully uses the people around them. And it’s hard to get away because a true narcissist won’t let that happen.  The narcissist is never wrong. Other people are wrong, never the narcissist. So if the narcissist does eventually and even unexpectedly apologise – it is usually a hollow apology and only intended to ensure the spouse, stretched beyond limits, doesn’t go. And it often works.

Of course not all clients have spouses with serious personality disorders, but I’ve heard enough over the years to be able to say that many marriages do appear to break down because distinctly narcissistic traits have surfaced in one spouse.

But leaving such a controlling personality is far from easy. You may never be quite sure it isn’t their fault. You may be used to falling in behind the narcissist in your life. You may be used to letting them take the lead and have things done their way, working around their routines and allowing them to live first for themselves: all in a fast and hard-working, high stress modern world. It can seem much easier to just let a desperately unhappy marriage continue.

Sometimes that’s because it’s easier to give in, again, than leap into what can seem like a potentially lonely future following divorce.  But also because there is that constant hope that at some point all the reasons you were attracted to your spouse in the first place will re-emerge and the person you fell in love with will reappear. The narcissist will see the error of their ways and all will be well.

The superficial charm and misleading magnetism of the self-absorbed spouse can be strangely hard to let go of. Treat’em mean, keep’em keen. So many become absorbed by a constant unspoken battle to beat and conquer the narcissist in their lives. But the reality is that it will never happen.

People don’t change. None of us can become someone else. Not really. We have our good points and our bad ones too, and sometimes the latter turn a marriage toxic and I find myself sitting before a  husband or wife in one of our offices telling me the same things I’ve heard from so many others. At such times I often find myself thinking ‘isn’t it time you left?’

Of course, that’s an easy thought for me to have so I rarely say it out loud – unless of course the client appears to be severely emotionally damaged. I’m sorry to say that too happens and not infrequently. A client can be a tearful wreck thinking it’s all their fault that nothing ever pleased their spouse. They can run themselves ragged and by the time they turn up at my office they need immediate medical help because things have become so bad. And it’s all compounded by the thought that if they go and see a doctor it might affect their case. They could be deemed unfit whilst their spouse presents as confident and perfect. I tell them to stop worrying. Recognising the cumulative impact of their husband or wife’s negative behaviour, getting treatment, leaving a toxic marriage – all that shows commendable insight. It won’t affect their case.

But in other instances, I remind myself that it’s their marriage,  not mine. The decision must be theirs alone. And yes, in some cases it has been known for me to advise a client to go home and fight to save the relationship they entered with such high hopes however long ago.

But when there is a nasty, toxic narcissist on the scene, there may be no real marriage to save, no equal partnership in any meaningful sense of the term no matter what the client enmeshed in at all may think.

It takes a great deal of self-knowledge, self-awareness and self-confidence to end any marriage – even more so if it is one you have been grimly clinging onto. It can be so much easier to just keep going and not change a thing, no matter how unhappy you really are.

The narcissist, meanwhile, will want to maintain the status and easy lifestyle that goes with marriage – because, as they see it, it’s all about them at the end of the day. They cannot and will not invest any emotion. And if you do leave its all your fault, never theirs.

And the result is another spouse sitting talking to me about how he or she is caught up in an endless cycle of hope, expectation, loss and recrimination.

Marriage doesn’t have to be lived like that. Our lives should mostly be full of love and laughter.

Image by elizaIO via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Marilyn Stowe

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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14 comments

Elena - July 27, 2016 at 7:08pm

Being married to a Narcissist is very difficult but divorcing one is simply awful as Narcissists play downright dirty tricks with regards to children and assets so it’s really important to have a good lawyer who fully understands (and who is not one himself/herself) and to do your research.

Kelly - July 27, 2016 at 10:02pm

Unfortunately, it is not against the law to be a narcissist — as far as I know. Not that it makes much difference — how can you ever prove it, when almost all the interaction is done in your own home? However, I know how truly unpleasant it can be, since I unwisely married one (not that I could have realised it in the months before we married). It was indeed, horrible — she was never wrong, would never apologise for anything — and anything that happened was always a direct result of something that I had done!

If you are not careful, you do start to believe some of the clever, manipulative, BS. Especially when, trying to be fair, you start to think that obviously you can’t be right all the time, anyway — so maybe she’s right. But the knife being twisted in your back tells you that something is very, very wrong with the marriage. And if you try to discuss it, to bring the bad stuff out into the open — she will agree — and calmly attribute it all to you. There is no real negotiation with a narcissist. The only choice you have is to get out — fast. The longer you leave it, the worse it becomes.

Most important of all: Trust YOUR emotions — not what your spouse tries to dictate to you, or some well-meaning friend who is necessarily is not in possession of the full facts, suggests may be the case. It is YOU and your opinion that counts. Don’t hang around to have your feelings and judgements undermined. If you don’t get out pretty soon after you start to become aware of what is really going on, perhaps you will never get out. It takes a lot of emotional energy, and emotional intelligence, to leave such a marriage. Don’t leave it till you are “running on empty.”

You may never make it.

Good luck!

JamesB - July 28, 2016 at 12:16pm

A lawyer trying to save a marriage, really?

I don’t think you really understand the dynamics Marilyn, having not been divorced yourself. I am not sure I do and I went through a particularly acrimonious one.

I have had a couple of relationships fail where the woman was abusive and very demanding and when they failed I was told it was my fault and they went to all that would listen and told them that. I think the point is that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors.

I think either a relationship is functional or dysfunctional and it either works or not, I am not sure the name calling helps.

Was it my fault I was dumped, Judges abandoned the concept of fault in (financial) divorce years ago as it was like looking for truth at the bottom of a very deep well and the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze on that one and I agree with them.

I have also left someone and it is a very hard thing to do. If you keep trying and it doesn’t work I suppose that had to happen.

JamesB - July 28, 2016 at 12:22pm

One last point. I do also think oftentimes people give up on their marriages and relationships too easily, oftentimes calling their exes unfounded names in the process.

Many times I have seen couples split and both end up with others or situations less suited than the relationship they had. I don’t think a lawyer would say that to people and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to say it here.

JamesB - July 28, 2016 at 12:35pm

Also in the absence of fault based settlements pre nups need to be legal. Otherwise the person bending over backwards to be good gets stuffed in favour of the person calling them unjustified names who broke the marriage vows, at least if people write their own marriage vows in the form of pre nups the ‘fairness’ version is what is already known in advance. Rather than quite often what happens when nice people of both sexes get stuffed in these divorce courts. Either that or avoid the institution. I am married and I have a prenup.

Andy - August 7, 2016 at 8:51am

A Narcissist, I was married to one they are like the silent assassin. Make you or turn you into some one or thing as manipulated for their own gain…
When Going through divorce the lies that were told and fingers pointed was unbelievable so much so that all my so called friends turned against me…
Very good ways of putting spin on this situation just to get themselves off the hook so no blame on them..
Yes the trouble is that the twat knack boots hitler type was just the same as the idiot I married..but you don’t see it at the time…
This has caused me loss of belongings and vast amounts of money..suppress supplies..yet she goes round without a care in the world knowing it had all the matrimonial assets inc the house..
How equal the law is..NOT.

Lina - December 14, 2016 at 9:41am

I left a comment about my narcissistic ex. It’s now submitted for moderation. I think I will retract this until after the 3rd court hearing please! Still scared!

I wish I’d found this website earlier than 3 years into my divorce. Such great information. Thank you.

BB - March 13, 2017 at 8:14am

Where does someone stand who has no financial resources to withstand a prolonged collaborative divorce process?

Cameron Paterson - March 13, 2017 at 10:35am

Stowe Family Law Senior Partner Julian Hawkhead replies: “Thank you for your enquiry. If the case is being dealt with in the collaborative process I am surprised that one of the matters raised by your lawyer in the four way meetings is how your fees are going to be paid, especially if your husband is the one who has control of the financial resources. I note that you sent your email under the topic of divorcing a narcissist and I am conscious that such personalities are probably not best suited to a collaborative process which involves considering what is in the best interests of the other party as well as their own. If you would like to talk about your case in some more detail please let me know and I can either discuss your case with you directly or put you in touch with one my colleagues who is located more conveniently for you to visit.”

Sandra - August 21, 2017 at 1:43pm

Had to get a Rule 43 to wring money out of my narc. He didn’t pay my lawyer for 5 months hoping he would drop me as a client. Also formalised the interim maintenance amount so he couldn’t just stop paying if he felt like it!

Tatiana - July 14, 2017 at 5:14pm

I was married to a narcissist for 14 years. On the 30th March was the Final hearing. I didn’t have a solicitor or a barister, as I couldn’t afford it. He lied on the Final hearing under oath. Within 7 days after final hearing I provided the prove that the Respondent lied and showed that he didn’t disclosed at least 2 accounts. I applied for Setting aside consent orders of a district judge in proceedings for a financial remedy. Today I received reply from the court saying that my application was strok out because I have no case to appeal. I know that my husband has a very large hidden asset, but I have no solicitor don’t know what to do. Should I apply for decree absolute, get some money from my husband, get a lawyer and then apeal to the high court or what should I do?

Albert - July 14, 2017 at 9:26pm

I had the misfortune to be married for a while to a national of a country famous for scams and scammers. She is also a narcissist. So I got hit with a double whammy.

She claimed in her divorce petition that I tried to ”control” her. But rather than ME controlling HER, the truth is that SHE tried to control ME. She would almost never admit she was wrong — in fact, if she did admit to doing anything wrong, it was ALWAYS because of something that I had done FIRST. MY actions were always the antecedent. I recall I complained to family and friends about this many times, as I tried to figure out what was really going on. It was only later from reading (things like this blog) that I came to see that there is a name for this kind of behaviour — and realised that she was not JUST a scammer (if it wasn’t clear before, it became very obvious once she demanded a huge settlement in her divorce petition after our short marriage) — she was also a narcissist.

The problem is, although this SHOULD be very germane to the case, “conduct” is largely disregarded in British divorce law. In that way they can effectively control you, and make your life a misery — and THEN go on to grab a whole slab of your assets…. This adds insult to injury, and financial cost to the already significant costs of being married as, selfish to the end, despite earning as much as you, they will almost NEVER pay for anything. They think the world revolves around them — that, whatever they do, they should be adored — and everyone else (certainly their spouse) should bear the cost of THEIR living. Even while they are having affair after affair (which they steadfastly deny, of course, as lying is second nature to them).

But, as always, almost all of this happens “in the ‘comfort’ of your own home” — ie. there are never any witnesses. And so you go on living your “life of quiet desperation”, with everyone (certainly her friends) believing it is all YOUR fault — as she seems “such a sweet girl”. She conned you to begin with, she then convinced her friends — and even perhaps some of yours. She then goes on to con the judge. And so YOU end up having to PAY. Not just to defend your case against her, but likely as not, also for a large chunk of HER legal costs too. It becomes, to you at least, a massive miscarriage of justice.

And there is nothing you can do about it — other than FIGHT on, on your own.

And never, ever, give up.

Yet faced with the often insuperable odds, many people are prepared to just give up — and hand over the money.

But often there is more at stake than just one’s personal assets. There are important principles of law. And they will never get changed unless and until we are prepared to FIGHT FOR JUSTICE.

Narcissists must be opposed — and SCAMMERS particularly must not be allowed to win.

Otherwise the “legalised extortion” that scammers practice will never be wiped out. And the narcissists among them will be laughing even louder, all the way to the bank.

Cameron Paterson - July 17, 2017 at 10:47am

Hello – you might be interested in this recent post

Narc survivor - August 21, 2017 at 11:01pm

I feel compelled to answer these posts with 15. years of dealing with a Narc.
They will never change. They never think about anybody else but themselves. The gas lighting and what you have gone through will never be recognised by the court in financial matters, and child proceedings. Nobody gets it unless they have had first hand experience. The strongest people just struggle to get their heads around the motives of Narc, let alone anybody that has even fallen in love with somebody to realise that they lived with somebody leading different lives . Different morals, different mind sets, and looking at people as supply. No empathy, no normal way of thinking. The only thing that has kept me going is that fact that you have to learn to not give up, like them, as you will be beaten down mentally and controlled like they did to you for so many years. The lady that appealed then had it struck out, go to the next level. If he didn’t disclose it is fraud. It is perjury. The bar standards don’t allow a barrister to represent if they have seen evidence of fraud and they continue to represent. However they do nothing about it if you report it. Do not give up. Keep going, as they will hang themselves in lies in the end. Give them enough rope, no matter how long it takes and HANG MAN. Remember, they don’t think and feel like normal human beings. Self service at it’s best with a life of lies that they are so ill , they actually believe them. Be strong or you will feel beaten down like all those years of lies and mental gas lighting, controlling, pretence, lies, cheating and twisted values that you won’t ever understand. Thank your lucky stars as they move on to their next victim.

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