Divorcing a Narcissist

This interview with Karyl McBride on the New York Times’ Well Blog might be of interest.

Divorcing a Narcissist

Is there a narcissist in your life?

divorcing narcissistMany people exhibit some narcissistic qualities, but full-blown narcissistic personality disorder afflicts about 8 percent of men and about 5 percent of women. While it’s tough to be married to a narcissist, it’s even tougher to divorce one.

And that’s where the family therapist Karyl McBride comes in. She has written a guide for people trying to extract themselves from narcissistic relationships. Her book, “Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family,” is featured in this month’s Well Book Club.

Keep reading to learn more about narcissistic personality disorder, why it’s tough to divorce a narcissist and why long, drawn-out legal battles are a playground for narcissists.

Q. Can we start by defining what a narcissist is?

A. I think the general understanding about narcissism is that it’s just a braggadocio boastful person who is full of themselves. If someone is full of themselves and boastful and talks a lot about themselves, that’s not hurting anybody. What I’m concerned about, if you’re dealing with a narcissistic personality disorder, you’re dealing with somebody who does not have the ability for empathy or to emotionally tune in to their partner or their children. They come into the relationship with this charming and very seductive beginning. But that turns into emotional warfare. Narcissists are people who lack empathy, who are not accountable for their behavior. They set up their world so it’s about themselves. They exploit others for their own gain. If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you eventually discover you are there to revolve around them and to serve them. You can only imagine the shock that happens for people when they get seduced into something they think is the best thing that ever happened to them and it turns into this kind of relationship.

Q. Why was it important to write a book for people who are divorcing a narcissist?

A. When people are in relationships with either a full-blown narcissistic personality or even people with a high number of narcissistic traits, it becomes a very traumatic experience for them and the children. When they file for divorce and decide to leave or even think about leaving, it becomes an even bigger nightmare. They have to deal with family law and custody evaluators and therapists and judges and the courts. If you divorce a narcissist, it’s not going to be a normal divorce because if you leave the narcissist, they never get over it. They seek revenge, and the court system is an incredibly great platform for a narcissist. That’s where they can just continue the battle with the partner and continue to seek revenge, and that’s what happens.

Q. Is there help for people who are narcissists?

A. You have to think of narcissism as a spectrum disorder. On one end is the full blown narcissistic personality disorder. The other end — all of us have some normal traits of narcissism where we may be self absorbed at times. The more traits someone has on that continuum, the more problems they have in relationships and parenting. If you have someone in the middle of the spectrum, they might be able to be helped if they are open to really looking at themselves and their behaviors. People with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder don’t seek help. They’re not introspective or in touch with their own feelings, and they blame everyone else. They are difficult to treat, and they don’t seek treatment. If they do, it’s only to tell you how often everyone else is wrong.

Q. Are there red flags to help someone avoid being involved with a narcissist?

A. It’s difficult. I always tell people to date for a long period of time anyway because these traits don’t come out until later. Some of the things to watch for are, does this person really want to know about you as a person? Do they really want to become involved in your life and your activities, your family and your friends? Or is it all about them and their world? I think you can begin to tell right away if someone has the ability to do empathy or talk to you in an authentic fashion about your own feelings and his or her feelings.

Q. In a divorce, everybody is hurt and angry. How is a divorce from a narcissist any different?

A. The narcissist doesn’t get over it. Other people are hurt and angry and go through their own divorce adjustment, but they tend to move on and get over it. The narcissist will continue to try to blame their partner and harm their partner. They do it by these long, extended, contentious divorce cases that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We need more education for professionals in the divorce field so that the custody evaluators and family law people and therapists know what they’re dealing with. They also can be seduced by the narcissist.

Q. Besides the cost of a protracted divorce, what are the other concerns about divorcing a narcissist?

A. My primary concern is that children are just terribly harmed by what happens. Kids have a hard time going through a normal divorce. In these high-conflict, contentious divorce cases, this becomes a child’s life. It’s evaluators and therapists and court cases. Children are caught in the middle of all that and deeply harmed by it.

Narcissists don’t make great parents, but they use the children as pawns because they know it’s the most important thing to their partner. It’s not that they necessarily want to have time with kids, but it looks good for them to do the Disneyland-parent kind of stuff. The children are the best tool they have to get back at their partner.

Q. Is it worse to divorce a narcissist than to keep being married to one?

A. What pushes people to get out of the relationship is that they see high conflict in the marriage is causing emotional damage to their children. Often they make a decision to leave because they see it’s harming the kids. But the partners in these relationships get physically sick, they become exhausted from having to revolve around the narcissist and they feel like they can’t do anything right. Eventually when they seek a divorce, they find the attorneys and therapists and people who can help them. I think finding the right professionals who work together as a team is really important.

Source: Divorcing a Narcissist (New York Times, August 24, 2015).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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