Breta Collins of Dilworth Counseling is back to discuss the unpleasant task of divorcing a narcissist.
The Mayo Clinic defines narcissistic personality disorder as
a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.
The insights and views presented in “Welcome to Splitsville” are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning in to this podcast constitute an attorney-client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey through divorce, contact Leigh Sellers and her team (NC & SC) at http://www.TouchstoneFamilyLaw.com
Announcer: [00:01] Hello there. Going through a divorce? Considering one? Sorry to hear that. But here you are. Welcome to Splitsville. You’ll find Splitsville to be a pretty unique place. A new world really, with its own rules, its own expectations, and in many ways, its own language. But don’t worry. You have a knowledgeable guide along the way, a family law attorney with three decades of experience under her belt. Now, here she is, your host and guide Lee Sellers.
Lee Sellers: [00:37] Hi everyone and thanks for tuning in to another episode of Welcome to Splitsville. I’m your host and guide Lee Sellers, founder of Touchstone Family Law. In this episode, I’ll be answering another question that many newcomers to Splitsville have, how to divorce a narcissist? So, let’s dive in. So, we’re back with [Bretta [00:01:05] Collins. I am often, Bretta asked the question when they come in and want to meet with me for a consultation, I will have perspective clients say, “How familiar are you with narcissists and are you good at divorcing narcissists because my spouse is a narcissist and I need somebody who can deal with them.” It is becoming a pretty prevalent question in today’s society. So, I would guess that you are dealing with couples who come in who accuse each other of being narcissist. Are you seeing that?
Bretta Collins: [01:43] I see it a lot. It’s interesting because we all have traits of narcissism. Narcissistic personality disorder is something that’s diagnosable, but without meeting the criteria of that, we wouldn’t say that this person is a narcissist. We can say they have narcissistic tendencies. Again, we all do, but there are people that really push on the bell curve close to being diagnosable, maybe not quite there but the trauma of divorce and the challenge of divorce can really spark those narcissistic tendencies and traits to show themselves more fully.
Lee Sellers: [02:27] So, despite all of the self diagnosis and the spouse diagnosis that I’m seeing out there, explain to our listeners what we mean when we use that term. Because I think laymen use it differently than clinicians.
Bretta Collins: [02:42] Sure. So, we know narcissistic tendencies, the hallmark of narcissism is a lack of empathy. Empathy is when you’re able to see and experience from the eyes of someone else. I like to tell my couples in counseling sympathy is seeing somebody fall down a hole and standing at the top of the hole and saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry you fell down the hole.” Empathy is jumping down in the hole to help them out. To put yourself in their experience. So, a narcissist, a true narcissist is unable to experience the emotion of empathy which makes it very, very difficult to be married to, to co-parent with and ultimately to separate and divorce from because with the lack of empathy and regard for their partner, they are capable of making choices and decisions that can be quite shocking.
Bretta Collins: [03:36] Self importance. Narcissism, another hallmark trait of a narcissist would be the self importance, the feeling of being more important than the people around him or her. True belief and being more important, narcissists tend to cling on, are charming, a lot of times extraordinarily intelligent, very good at what they do. So, from the outside, they have the kind of perfect package, but on the inside they tend to be critical, say hurtful things, demean, feel better than. So, you can see how that can be a very difficult personality to work with, live with, be married to and ultimately divorce. The other thing that narcissists tend to have is a history of trauma. So, it is a disorder that is created through trauma in childhood.
Bretta Collins: [04:35] There is some research that says that there’s some genetic component to it, but underneath all their self importance and their lack of empathy and lack of regard for others in their belief in being better, they’re extraordinarily insecure. So, if we start to step on boundaries, create boundaries or stand up for ourselves around a narcissist, it’s going to create a lot of volatility in them. Narcissists also have something called narcissistic rage. It’s where they blow up, say horrible things, are almost out of control and they can then kind of put a top on it and no one around them would ever know they were capable of that other than maybe their coworkers or their spouse or their children.
Lee Sellers: [05:21] You were mentioning that they were very charming because you would almost wonder how that sort of personality would ever end up in a marriage to begin with.
Bretta Collins: [05:29] Extraordinary charming. In a dating relationship we see this personality really come on fast. The partners that are attracted to narcissists typically feel like they found this perfect person, their soulmate. Then once they’ve kind of got the person hooked for lack of a better word, their true colors start to come out. But a lot of times that’s when the person is so far into the relationship they’ve got children or whatever that is. They’re unable to see how to get away from it.
Lee Sellers: [06:02] So, you’ve talked about that they can be difficult to live with. Which I think with your work in therapy would be something you would be working on, but you’ve also gone ahead and mentioned that they could be difficult to divorce. Tell me what your observations are there.
Bretta Collins: [06:18] So, we know if a true narcissist is in couples counseling, they are only there for the appearance of showing that they are trying to save their marriage. Even if the intent is not there. Narcissists do not come to therapy. So, they also don’t take advice from others. Because of that belief in being better than, they think they’re smarter than their attorney. They think they’re smarter than any therapist, smarter than their spouse. So, you can see that this is somebody who is going to have a very, very hard time being negotiated with. You know what I see, once couples decide to divorce with one of them being a narcissist I never see that person again. A lot of times, the spouse will continue to come and see me because they’ve been kind of a victim of narcissistic abuse.
Bretta Collins: [07:07] We know that the process of divorcing this person is going to be so tumultuous and terrible. Which is unfortunate. I’m sure as an attorney you’ve seen this. We know that the person who’s divorcing the narcissist is the one who’s going to need and be the recipient of support.
Lee Sellers: [07:24] I was going to ask you. Do you see any trends? Are the narcissists tending to be the more successful economically of a pair or is that too broad of a generalization?
Bretta Collins: [07:35] Well, it’s interesting. The clientele that I work with that does tend to be the case. We know that there is incredible drive in a lot of narcissists to be better than. They already feel better than and they want to prove that they’re better than. So, they typically in my office are high wage earners and a lot of times the spouse is dependent financially which makes the divorce extraordinarily tricky. This is a situation where we can see the children often used as bargaining tools because of that lack of empathy. It’s not how can we make this the healthiest and best for everyone. It’s how can I win? So, it can become a really ugly process for everyone involved.
Lee Sellers: [08:25] You mentioned the kind of a drive that kind of makes them successful. Is there any component of it that is related to making the people around them less successful? Is that also part of being successful? Do you find that there’s any gas lighting or-
Bretta Collins: [08:42] Absolutely.
Lee Sellers: [08:43] Yeah. So, tell me a little bit about that.
Bretta Collins: [08:45] So, the gas lighting component is extraordinarily damaging to the recipients. This is where people are made to question their own reality. So, if someone with strong narcissistic tendencies may say something and then 15 minutes later deny ever saying it. When you are the recipient of that type of behavior day in and day out, the person who is the partner to the narcissist begins to question their own reality. It gets extraordinarily tricky and can create a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression and then when the narcissist is doing this with the children, they’re young. Their reality begins to become skewed. So, it can become a really mentally health damaging experience for everyone.
Lee Sellers: [09:35] So, you’ve mentioned that some of the research seems to suggest that it’s some sort of childhood trauma that is a catalyst for a budding narcissist. So, does that mean that there’s anything that can be done to educate or is there a detox or a therapeutic fix for a narcissist? Is there hope?
Bretta Collins: [09:58] Well, there is hope. Part of the hope is that a lot of people with extraordinarily strong narcissistic tendencies tend to level out in middle age or a little beyond. So, 45 to 55 we see a lot of the mellowing of a lot of the symptoms. They’re not going to gain empathy. We’re not going to see that, but we’ll see the mellowing of the gas lighting and of the raging and of the put downs and the criticisms and those types of things. There are people who are committed to changing. For whatever reason has caused them to come to that. It takes a lot of therapy and a lot of time. Sometimes that lack of empathy, they can be taught social skills to display empathy but they may not ever truly feel empathy.
Bretta Collins: [10:56] It’s rare that we see someone who’s been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder to reach out for therapy on their own, but people with very, very strong narcissistic traits can be helped and a lot of times we see that happen when they get what we call a narcissistic fracture to their ego. They’ve gotten laid off. Somebody else got the promotion. The economy tanked in 2008 and it really unsettled a lot of people, but some people took that as an ego injury rather than just an economic crisis. So, when those types of things happen, sometimes it can be pushed into therapy, but it’s a long process.
Lee Sellers: [11:38] So, it sounds like that if you’re in one of these relationships or in one of these marriages, you might be trying to get your spouse in to therapy to save your marriage, but it sounds like that it’s not the most successful recipe for saving a marriage if you really have someone with very strong narcissistic tendencies or who is truly diagnosable with that disorder.
Bretta Collins: [12:02] That is very hard for the partner of the narcissist to get to a position and feeling confident and working towards separation and divorce because of this narcissistic abuse. A lot of times this is someone who lacks confidence, has been alienated or isolated, has spent so much time protecting children that they’ve lost a lot of their support network. So, it’s a difficult, difficult process for the partner who decides that they can no longer stay in the marriage. A lot of times the stronger narcissistic tendencies tend to have multiple infidelities. Sometimes that can be the catalyst for the person to finally decide I can’t do this anymore. It could be a narcissistic rage that goes a little too far and crosses the boundary that the person has made in their own mind, but it typically is a long process for someone to decide because they also know it’s not going to be easy and to gear up for that type of fight for lack of a better word when they’re already lacking energy is very difficult.
Lee Sellers: [13:13] So, what sort of tools do you suggest that if someone has made the decision that they’re not going to stay in this marriage, what sort of tools do you suggest that they gather to help them get through this process?
Bretta Collins: [13:27] Well, I think a good therapist is key. Because again that questioning of their own reality. So, I recommend that these people keep a journal because when they write down what has been said or what has occurred or where the money has gone or whatever the issue is, they can look back and remember yes this was true. Even though my partner is saying this didn’t happen, I wrote it down and it did happen. So, I think journaling is extraordinarily important for the partner, the narcissist. I think a good therapist is very, very important. If financial resources don’t allow for a therapist, again I look at churches as a wonderful, wonderful resource for people. They have [inaudible [00:14:15] ministers and on staff counseling sometimes. There’s free and reduced rate mental health centers in Charlotte that people can reach out to and use as well as in other areas.
Bretta Collins: [14:26] But I do think a therapist is very important to help the person process through kind of the trauma that they’ve lived under.
Lee Sellers: [14:34] What can you do if you have been traumatized by this relationship? What are some of the steps that you can take to develop the strength that you’re going to need to stand up for what you need during this process when this person on the other side is going to be so difficult?
Bretta Collins: [14:52] Yeah. This is where a strong support network can come in very handy and valuable. One good friend. One person that you can talk to openly and honestly which again for a lot of people is not something that they have. Especially for the partners of narcissists, they’ve not been honest with their parents, with their friends, with their neighbors about what’s going on in their marriages. So, to be honest with somebody who isn’t your therapist is incredibly freeing. Then this person also can become part of the support network. I recommend for any of my clients meditation. There’s lots of apps on their phone that they can download for free that can help them center because their anxiety is going to be high during this period. So, we know if we can calm our minds for just five minutes a day, give our nervous system a break, that we can help some of that anxiety decrease. Exercise is extraordinarily important.
Bretta Collins: [15:59] Taking care, getting rest, eating properly, all the things that we’ve heard all of our lives. Very, very important in that process.
Lee Sellers: [16:08] So, this may just be a layman’s observation, but I’ve often felt like I’ve seen a correlation with the victims of these narcissistic relationships unfortunately fall into coping mechanisms which are very unhealthy for them. So, I seem to see a lot of abuse of alcohol or other substances for the person who has been the victimized narcissist. Is that just because I have such a weird skewed sub section of narcissist or is this-
Bretta Collins: [16:41] It’s very common. Narcissists are very deliberate in who they chose as their partners. So, the partner of the narcissist is typically very giving, is someone who is accustomed to putting their needs second or last. So, this personality is kind of predisposed to attracting a narcissist. But this is a personality who may not have the best coping mechanisms going into the relationship. So, to develop new ones in this process would be key. Increase in drinking is so common. So common for anyone going through a divorce that I see, but especially for people who have been kind of the victim of this narcissistic abuse. Increase in spending money, increase in shopping. Lots of kind of unhealthy coping mechanisms. I just caution people to be really careful. We know that increase in substance abuse quickly turns into dependent drinking during really difficult times.
Bretta Collins: [17:44] So, the temptation is to increase the drinking to kind of drown out some of the anxiety and fear, but what we see is this is where people turn into dependent drinkers so I would caution against that.
Lee Sellers: [17:55] So, it sounds like one of the first steps if the marriage is really over and they’re not going to continue to live in this relationship that before they get started they really need to go ahead and almost train. It sounds like they need to get in shape.
Bretta Collins: [18:11] Right. Because they are really going to face an uphill battle for a while. That’s just unfortunately the reality. Thankfully, there’s people like you who can help represent them and their legal interests and people like me who can help bolster their emotional strength, but it is a really, really difficult process for them. This comes in also too if there’s children involved and the contentiousness of the divorce proceedings affecting the kids. It kind of reverberates and takes on a life of its own sometimes.
Lee Sellers: [18:45] So, what would be some of the goals that you would want to help if you’re divorcing a narcissist?
Bretta Collins: [18:51] Boundaries.
Lee Sellers: [18:51] Yes.
Bretta Collins: [18:51] Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Lee Sellers: [18:55] So, talk about some of those.
Bretta Collins: [18:56] What we know is a lot of times, the partner of the narcissist has lost sense of self. So, the boundaries that they try to put in place have been disregarded for so long and that they’ve quit trying. So, if the decision is made to separate and divorce, the boundaries have to be firm and tight. A lot of times, these are people who do have to move to electronic communication. I tell my clients the BIF. Brief, informative, friendly and actionable. That is all we need to communicate. There’s any opening to infringe upon the boundary, the narcissist is going to take. So, the first thing that we work on is how can we establish boundaries and be strong enough to enforce the boundaries even when the narcissistic partner is angry. How can we deal with that anger? Because for so long, the partner of the narcissist has taken that anger on as his or her own. So, we really want to fortify against that type of behavior.
Lee Sellers: [20:02] So, Bretta, would you think that one of the tools that these victims of narcissistic personalities, and this can be men or women because I certainly see the narcissist being both sexes.
Bretta Collins: [20:16] Absolutely. With the greatest increase right now being women. So, we used to think of this as a male issue. We know that the incidents of narcissism is growing and that the demographic that’s growing is women.
Lee Sellers: [20:33] To me, it seems like it might be helpful for the victim of abusive, in any situation, but in particularly one of these emotionally narcissist relationships is perhaps to find a skillset to return to a workforce or return to some activity with which they have proficiency and they can take pride in.
Bretta Collins: [20:53] Absolutely. Again, because then many times the identity has been lost. So, if they’re thinking divorce which is a loss of an identity and then no sense of self or little sense of self and an activity, a new challenge is absolutely something that would be beneficial to that person. With the financial situation that a lot of these people find themselves in, it’s a necessity. So, we work to develop confidence in the person embarking on a new adventure, a new job, a new skill. Whatever that may be and create an action plan to make that happen.
Lee Sellers: [21:35] What about volunteering? Would that be helpful?
Bretta Collins: [21:38] Absolutely. Volunteering is one of our most valuable things that we can do for ourselves. It combats depression. So, somebody who has been in a relationship that has caused anxiety and depression and lack of sense of self, volunteering can be something that really brings them back to life, back in to something that they’re passionate about and gives new meaning.
Lee Sellers: [22:05] When you’re dealing with children of this dynamic who have watched this kind of parenting and this marriage in their household, what would be some good tools for that parent who’s separating from the narcissist to really have to make sure that they can continue to parent their children separately? When you talk about the narcissist using the children as a pawn, what should they be prepared to do to recognize it or work with it? What sort of skillset are they going to use and what should they be careful about?
Bretta Collins: [22:41] This is a person who is going to, again, need a lot of support. Because this person is going to need to offer safety and security and predictability. So, if children get that from one parent in one household, that’s enough. But we can’t have children going from household to household where neither are offering that. So, we’re asking the person who is the most exhausted, who’s been a victim of this narcissistic abuse to kind of step up to the plate and give more of themselves, but for their children. A lot of times they’re able to do that, but again, they need a lot of support while doing it. I think it’s important for this person to remember the safety and security that they offer their children is going to be where the children’s resiliency and coping mechanisms come from and that is enough.
Lee Sellers: [23:34] Because you’re going through a divorce, what would be some things that you recommend that they be seeking? I know you’re not a lawyer, so I’m not asking you to do my job, but when they’re trying to think about what their goal should be, their lawyer is going to try to help them meet their goals. So, we’re dependent on this person who may be a little beaten down, but what is it do you think that they need to be successful and to recover from this? What should they be focused on?
Bretta Collins: [24:04] This is a person who does need good legal representation as the narcissist is probably not going to be immutable to any kind of collaborative divorce experience. Their attorney is probably also going to be worn out in the process because they will work with several attorneys in the process most likely. So, the first thing that this person needs is really good sound legal representation. I recommend that people seek that out first before they get into the talk with their partner about separation. I think it’s good for them to have a base knowledge of what they can expect on that side of things. I think it’s important for them to understand and honor the trauma that they’ve been through in this relationship and not get baited into that winning mentality, but to figure out what is important to me in this process?
Bretta Collins: [25:01] Are the children the most important part of this for me? How do I need to work around this process so that I ultimately get what I really want and hope from this? There’s this theory of post-traumatic growth. We see this a lot with victims of narcissistic abuse. These are people that turn a really, really rotten situation into enormous life change and real growth for themselves personally. What we would hope is through the divorce process that they don’t get continually brought down into the narcissistic turmoil. That they’re able to study themselves, go through the process understanding what’s important to them, what is most important to them and grow through that process to be proud of the person that they came out of the relationship as.
Lee Sellers: [25:56] That’s what I was thinking. It seems like part of the success of leaving a narcissist isn’t going to be any ruling or any court piece of paper. It’s going to be the fact that you successfully left this relationship so that you could grow and survive.
Bretta Collins: [26:12] Right. To remember what you have control of and control that in a way that you can be proud. That ultimately would be the successful divorcing of a narcissist.
Lee Sellers: [26:25] Well, thank you Bretta. We learned a lot. Again, I hope you’ll be back because there’s so many other topics that I know people would love to hear about that are so relevant to them at this time. We really appreciate your time.
Bretta Collins: [26:38] Absolutely. I’d love to come back.
Lee Sellers: [26:40] So, Bretta, people that want more information or want to seek you out and come see you or speak to you yourself, where would they best find you?
Bretta Collins: [26:47] The best way to find me would be at my website which is www.dilworthcounseling.com. They connect with me through email or through calling me. Both of those are available on the website.
Lee Sellers: [27:01] Oh. Well, thank you very much.
Bretta Collins: [27:03] Thank you.
Lee Sellers: [27:05] So there you have it. Another neighborhood of Splitsville explored. There’s still so much to learn here, so I hope you’ll tune in to the next episode. While Splitsville is not a fun place to be, thankfully it is full of helpful people, valuable resources and sound advice if you know where to look. See you next time.
Announcer: [27:28] The insights and views presented in Welcome To Splitsville are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning in to this podcast constitute an attorney client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey, contact Lee Sellers and her team at touchstonefamilylaw.com.