Someone with narcissistic traits, as explained in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, the DSM-5, 2013, indicates a person with a sense of entitlement, a belief that they are special and deserve favorable treatment. They have a grandiose sense of importance, need for admiration and lack empathy. Believing themselves to be special, they feel they can only be understood or appreciated by other special or high-status people. They can be interpersonally exploitive, often envious of others and show arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes.    

My Clients. In my practice as a collaborative divorce coach and vocational expert, I’ve noticed a marked increase in clients citing narcissistic traits in the spouse they’re divorcing. Since a little before Covid-19, whether they initiated the divorce or not, their complaints had a familiar tone. What follows is my reflection on their experience of sorting things out and confronting the ways they have been undermined, their determination to learn to trust themselves again and make positive life affirming decisions for themselves and their family as they moved through the divorce process.

Confusion was common in the beginning of our work, as my clients put words to thoughts they had never shared.

  • What really brought on the demise of my marriage?
  •  Why was everything always my fault?
  • Why did he/she get angry with me for doing things that they were also doing? Spending money on myself, picking up the kids late. Not paying enough attention to them, while they never noticed what was happening with me.
  • Why do others always think he/she has it so together; is so charming, while I see their self-centeredness destroying those close to them?
  •  Why can’t I trust myself and my ability to make decisions anymore?
  • Why do I doubt that I could have a successful career when I used to be great at what I did?

A New Perspective. Analyzing the dynamics of the relationship was a constant theme. Painfully, my clients shared their stories and the questions continued. It was hard to wonder out loud about the abuse they hadn’t always seen as abuse and then to ask, “Why didn’t I leave sooner?”

It’s difficult to feel sure of your perspective when you’ve been discounted for such a long time. But the need to clearly understand what happened in something as important as your marriage, is strong, no matter how hard the truth can be. My clients frequently used words like manipulated, deceived, gaslighted, blamed and shamed to describe the way interactions with their partner made them feel. It was difficult for them grasp or accept that this was the way their partner actually treated them, their spouse. Perhaps the hardest thing to realize was that their partner’s behavior didn’t make sense. They didn’t deserve the way they had been treated.

Finding Support. Being listened to and validated for their perceptions made a big difference, especially around sensitive topics they might not have shared with friends and family. Topics like challenges with a special needs child, their take on a financial issue or ideas for a new career. Encouraged to share these questions and concerns related to the divorce process and being heard by their attorney, mediator, financial or other collaborative professional further solidified their point of view. Becoming more engaged and fully participating in the divorce process ensured a better outcome, as their spoken concerns helped shape the agenda.

New Chapter, Same Dynamic. A particularly tough topic continued to be co-parenting and making sure the kids understood what was happening, given their ages. The familiar lack of respect showed my clients during their marriage, now played out in a lack of communication, too much control or fights around changes to pre-arranged parenting plans, for example. If my client was still being put down, their efforts and time still taken for granted, maintaining a positive view of their partner in the eyes of the children was challenging. Our work here supported their interest in taking the “high road,” and not criticizing their spouse, especially when they felt vulnerable and afraid of seeing the quality of their own relationships with the children suffer, due to these dynamics.       

A Clearer View. Gradually my clients saw patterns, made connections, and began to feel better about themselves. Maybe things weren’t all their fault. Maybe their partner’s inability to take responsibility for their issues played a role. They were encouraged to continue to seek out as much social support as possible. Fortunately, some of the people I was talking with had friends who were able to see things from their perspective too, which strengthened their newfound realizations.

Setting Boundaries. As clients questioned themselves less and had support to think through what they actually needed day to day and in their divorce process, it became clear they needed to set boundaries with their partners. Saying “No” can be hard but vital when your self-care and mental health are on the line. Not to mention finances or childcare arrangements. Or that this isn’t the weekend for their partner to get their stuff out of the garage. Respectfully, clarifying their views one issue at a time, my clients practiced speaking up. Sometimes repeating themselves made a difference and partners listened with the support of the divorce team. What a reward. Clients’ sense of control over their lives grew; they could decide how they spent their time, within the context of agreements made about their separation. They could share their perspectives, make decisions and take action in a way that made sense to them, suited them and their style and way of approaching life.     

Looking Forward. It was now easier to entertain thoughts of the future. Perhaps if they took the time to think about what they wanted (maybe had always wanted) and moved in that direction, things might turn out differently this time. Though it was still scary to think about going back to work, once concerns about children, housing or health issues were addressed at least initially, progress was possible.   

A Gradual Process. Taking the smallest of steps, talking with people in industries of interest and being taken seriously for their ideas was pivotal. Again, it was life changing to have an experience that countered years of feeling discounted, in this case for creative thoughts about work and business. In most cases it didn’t happen overnight, but gradually as my clients built their networks, perhaps enrolled in community college, graduate school, a specific training program, chins lifted. Resumes were updated and particular jobs and companies targeted for their alignment with client interests, values and transferrable skills. Things began to happen. They continued to build momentum in response to the positive feedback and encouragement they received from established and newly formed networks, as unimaginable as this might have seemed a few months ago.

Knowledge and Resources. Practitioners in the mediating and collaborative family law community in Oregon cite the difference that support and education makes for couples that are separating. In the case of divorcing a difficult person, it can make a huge difference. Both parties are eligible for advocacy, coaching, education and care that bring stability and relief to the divorce process, and hope for the future.