Some people handle divorce fairly well: they agree to disagree and move on with their lives. Other people don't handle it well at all. If the mere suggestion that your spouse may have had a small part to play in the divorce looming ahead is enough to send him or her into a tirade, you may be dealing with a narcissist. Learn how to identify the narcissistic spouse, and what to expect during your divorce, especially if you have children.

What is a narcissistic personality disorder?

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a character disorder that can range from mild to severe. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), people with NPD typically are grandiose, need admiration, and lack empathy for others (although they may be great at pretending to empathize when it suits them). They exhibit a variety of specific traits:

  • a constant need for attention
  • an exaggerated sense of their own abilities or accomplishments
  • a belief in their own "special" status and a sense of entitlement
  • a willingness to exploit others (including their children) to achieve a goal
  • a belief that others envy them or a constant envious reaction to others
  • a fierce or exaggerated reaction to even the smallest slight or criticism
  • a lack of personal boundaries

How can this affect your child?

A child with a narcissistic parent learns early on that he or she exists solely to reflect on the parent. His or her achievements mean nothing unless the parent can take credit for them in some way. Is your child an "A" student? The narcissistic parent will credit that to his or her genes, the structure that he or she provides, or the harsh punishments that he or she imposes if the child fails.

When the narcissistic parent is purposefully abusive, he or she will deny that the abuse ever happened and accuse the victim - whether it is your or your child or both of you - of having made it up, often just for attention. You (or the child) are clearly the unstable one, as far as the narcissist is concerned.

Narcissists are often expert at appearing polished and cool in public because their sense of self-worth is derived from being told how wonderful they are. This can leave your child feeling like he or she has nowhere to turn for help because the parent is publicly perceived as a wonderful parent.

Your former spouse may also purposefully try to alienate you from your child. That furthers the narcissist's personal identity as the "good" parent (making you the "bad" parent by default). Your child may, unfortunately, go along with the narcissistic parent in an attempt to win his or her love and affection (which is only given when the child totally complies).

What can you do in court to combat the narcissist?

The good news is that the narcissist really can't handle criticism well, and there are bound to be moments in court where his or her facade will crack or his or her parenting is questioned. In order to win the long-term war, however, you need to be prepared for each and every battle:

  • Always maintain your composure in court. Keep focused on the eventual outcome and never let the narcissist goad you into a display of anger.
  • Assume that he or she will lie in court. Focus on trying to capture the narcissist in the biggest lies and don't obsess over little ones. Remember, the calmer you remain, the less effective his or her smear campaign is likely to be.
  • Limit your communication to emails, letters, and contact through your attorneys. Take witnesses with you if you have to meet with the other person for even a few moments. Arrange for pick-ups and drop-offs for your child to be done in public places or at the courthouse.
  • Document everything and keep a journal of daily occurrences, especially where the children are concerned.
  • Remain in constant contact with your children's educators and assume in advance that you will probably have been portrayed as an ogre of some sort. Don't ask about what's been said about you, however. Keep your focus entirely on your child and let the educator draw his or her own conclusions about you and your parenting.
  • Consider asking the court for a psychological evaluation, but only if you are also prepared to undergo one (because courts will often insist that both parents, not just one, have them) and you're reasonably certain that the narcissist won't hold together through an evaluation.

Above all, discuss the situation with an attorney such as Attorney Steven N. Long, P.C.. He or she has probably seen and dealt with a number of parents with NPD over the years and can better prepare you for what to expect and how to react in order to maximize your chances to get sole or primary custody of your children.