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Narcissistic Personality Disorder in High-Conflict Divorces

There are some personality disorders that seem to be the root cause for our firm’s high-conflict litigation cases, especially divorce litigation because a person’s high-conflict nature can make the opportunities for meaningful settlement negotiations very difficult and expensive.

I use “he” and “she” interchangeably because, in my experience, there is no gender difference with this personality disorder, contrary to what older research indicates.

Moreover, litigants with high-conflict personalities are resistant to change, act extremely impulsively, and they distort “facts” with their “feelings,” which are likely to change repeatedly, depending on how they feel momentarily.

This blog covers how someone with narcissistic personality disorder traits can behave during the divorce and sometimes, during the post-divorce decree process and can make the divorce process more likely to become a high-conflict divorce. We’re talking about divorcing people who may qualify for a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or have high traits of NPD.

After many years of providing legal representation to those who are commonly involved in extricating themselves from toxic relationships, and from going through my own harrowing personal experiences, I have learned so much about personality disorders.

As I explain to clients and members of my support group, not all people with personality disorders necessarily have high-conflict personalities. Conversely, not all people with high-conflict personalities necessarily suffer from personality disorders.

Remember, personality disorders exist on a spectrum or continuum. In my experience, people who have serious high-conflict personality traits are more likely to be on the far-end of the spectrum. Additionally, not all people who suffer from some type of personality disorder are so outwardly difficult and cause relational harm to others, and sometimes, they prefer harming themselves (self-harm) instead of raging at others (some types of borderlines). Again, those suffering from personality disorder(s) or are on the spectrum of a personality disorder are more likely to be high-conflict litigants.

Behavioral Differences and Defenses are Prominent in Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Lead to High-Conflict Behavior

In my experience, there are several behavioral defense mechanisms common to those suffering from NPD that make the divorce process very difficult. Sometimes my client may be the one who most likely suffers from a personality disorder, but since I am not a mental health clinician, it is not my diagnosis to make. It may be true that the soon-to-be ex-spouse also exhibits traits of a personality disorder, but sometimes (not very often), the other person’s bad behavior may pale in comparison to my client’s bad behaviors.

I also use the term “suffer” for people with NPD because I really do believe that with NPD and other personality disorders, childhood trauma is at the root of the personality disorder. Most people that I have met with narcissistic traits are suffering from long-term childhood trauma and abuse. Many truly do not intend to cause harm to their family and significant others, but because of their deeply engrained thoughts and beliefs about others and themselves, their ego defense mechanisms may cause them to become very psychologically and physically abusive.

These are some of the reasons that people suffering from NPD may make divorce difficult and engage in high-conflict behaviors.

Narcissists are Prone to the Ego Defense Mechanism of Splitting and Quickly Devaluing or Idealizing Others (Idealization and Devaluation)

Even completely mentally healthy people are prone to some level of splitting. Splitting refers to seeing people as “all good” or “all bad.” The person with NPD absolutely loves you or loathes you. He hates you or respects you. Their idealization and devaluation cycles inherent in every relationship leads to him respecting you and seeing you as perfect during the initial attraction phase, and over time, his paranoia and distrust of others leads him to devalue you. He will read bad intent into almost every interaction, and this makes living with narcissists extremely difficult.

In the beginning of your relationship, he saw you as worthy of his affections and wanted all your attention, so he calls repeatedly and quickly injects himself into your life. Over time, when he believes that you weren’t so special or worthy after all, he quickly devalues you and fears engulfment or being “controlled” by you. If you were the super intelligent husband in the beginning, she will see you as “dumb,” and this is a great example of devaluation.

If you are asking your NPD husband to help you take out the trash, his personality disorder prevents him from seeing that the request may have been reasonable, and that you had no other intent other than asking him to help you take out the trash. He feels superior and “put-upon,” so he lashes out and the devaluation kicks in so you are seen as the villain, the nag, the person who fails to recognize just how lucky you are to have such a good person in your life. Refusing contact with you, defaming you, and becoming resistant to simple and reasonable requests are examples of their extreme behaviors and splitting defense mechanisms.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Involves Pathological Envy and Jealousy, Leading to Isolation

Those suffering from NPD can become intensely envious of others. We often see clients who are barraged by insults and other baiting behavior when the spouse starts distancing and spending their time or resources on others. For example, your narcissistic spouse can become extremely envious of others because you are not devoting that time to him. He believes that you should be spending all your time with him, and that others are to blame for taking that time from you. He starts to devalue your friends, which then leads to you becoming isolated from others. He views you as his property, and you should not be giving your attention to anyone else because it takes away from the attention that he “deserves” or expects. His grandiosity sets in, and he believes that you are defective because you don’t see how special he really is. This is pathological envy.

Narcissists Use Control, Insults, and Intimidation When Threatened

A narcissist is extremely sensitive to internal feelings of shame and defectiveness, even though it looks like she lacks these things from the outside. She cannot be challenged or triggered to feel this shame, so she lashes out and attempts to intimidate her spouse to deflect this internal emptiness and shame. She may control your financial affairs, control your social circle, your time, and your other resources. She uses control to feed her ego because she doesn’t know how to sustain her own ego or self-worth.

A narcissist may do this to keep you from leaving or to keep you from really believing you are nothing without him. If he controls your finances, he feels powerful because you will have to ask him for money. If you challenge his controlling behavior, he believes that you are not worthy of his affections and will seek to punish you by withholding behaviors or by bullying you through intimidation and other abusive behaviors, so you will “learn” from your mistakes.

Narcissists truly don’t understand that respect is “earned,” not “owed,” so she expects you to respect her existence, and she will not reciprocate your respect. She will expect you to do whatever she asks without having to explain anything to you, and if you ask for any reciprocation, you’ll often be met with hostility and intimidation. If you ask her to stop spending as much on unnecessary things because you are trying to budget, she will take that as a personal attack because she believes she deserves special treatment and things, so she will spend more or attack you for not making more money.

A person on the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum is also very easily slighted, so the smallest requests or criticisms will lead to a narcissistic injury, and that leads to narcissistic rage. In the divorce context, narcissistic rage is often what leads to high-conflict situations. Once a narcissist is enraged, it is almost impossible to calm him down. If you ask for anything he believes is contrary to his inflated view of himself, he retaliates with hostility through more litigation.

Narcissists Blame Others for Life’s Failures

Narcissists believe they are entitled to special treatment and that if others don’t consistently validate this flawed view of themselves, there is something wrong with the other person (devaluation). They may believe that others deserve to be treated poorly, justifying their toxic and abusive behaviors. Divorcing a narcissist can be difficult because of this flawed perception. You become the reason they are unhappy. You are the reason for this divorce. You will be blamed for putting them through this process. You should just accept that they shouldn’t have to be responsible for anything (bills, support, children) because it was all your fault, according to them. Narcissists, like most other Cluster B psycho-pathologically-disordered people, really do believe that others are to blame and will chronically blame others, and they will be extremely emotionally aggressive, do not trust your motives, and can become very controlling. They seem themselves as perpetual victims and have distorted views of themselves and their role in the demise of any relationship.

Narcissists Have Very Intense Outbursts and Repeated Narcissistic Rages Because of Problems with Emotion Regulation and Paranoid Ideations

A narcissist most likely didn’t grow up with a protective and attuned primary caregiver. The primary caregiver was not attuned to the growing child’s needs and didn’t know how to soothe her child, instead, she become easily frustrated with her child for showing neediness. Unable to learn self-soothing skills, the child learns to immediately react to any feelings of discomfort.

A primary reason so many of our clients divorcing narcissistic spouses come to our office with thousands of hate-laden emails from them is that narcissists are unable to react appropriately. They believe that people are scheming to destroy them. Narcissists often threaten repeated and scorched-earth litigation. Unable to see the consequences of their actions (lack of insight), they immediately send hate-filled emails to teach others “a lesson for messing with them.” Many attorneys unwittingly seem to feed the contention by blaming their targets and refusing to understand the dynamics. Narcissists will rage uncontrollably if they feel threatened or challenged, and their inability to regulate their emotions drive high-conflict litigation.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a Disorder that Involves Lack of Insight

People along the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum often lack serious insight as to how their behaviors cause other people to abandon or reject them, the things they fear the most but cannot be easily explained. A narcissist believes that everyone is out to hurt him or will eventually leave him, so he spends his life believing he needs nobody, even though he cannot sustain being single for very long. Because of his fragile ego and lack of self-worth, he needs others to validate his superiority and uniqueness. He believes that people can be replaced very easily, and that if you do not comply with his overwhelming demands, you must be defective.

He lacks the emotional insight necessary to understand that his disorder and defense mechanisms cause other people to avoid him, so many are extreme loners and may lack a support system. He cannot understand that no reasonable person can withstand the barrage of insults they can slew or the constant allegations they make without suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder-related traumas. They seem to lack the emotional insight necessary to understand how their own impulsive and reactionary behaviors are inappropriate for the situation. They don’t understand that people will leave them if they abuse them or feel depleted because all energy is focused upon them. For example, a spouse along the narcissistic personality disorder spectrum may repeatedly dismiss his spouse’s reasonable requests for affection by stonewalling, bullying her, or making fun of her. The spouse may start to believe that leaving is the only way out because living in this unpredictable situation is not good for her. She then leaves. The narcissistic spouse doesn’t see why his behaviors contributed to her leaving and that drama seems to follow every relationship.

Narcissists Have a Limited Capacity for Empathy

A narcissist’s limited capacity (sometimes seemingly non-existent) to emotionally empathize with another’s situation seems to correlate with his core belief of superiority. A narcissist’s deficient ability to empathize with your pain or distress means that your needs are not important. It may also lead him to disregard your children’s needs as well. She may not be able to understand how the high-conflict litigation is affecting your children because money is being spent on litigation, instead of their needs. A narcissist does truly have an impaired ability to identify with other’s needs.


Trying to understand and rationalize a narcissist’s discard phase is a lost cause. The important thing is to stop blaming yourself for outcomes that were not your fault and start down the path of healing—the first step of which is distance. With time and therapy, you can start to understand that marriage with a narcissist does not represent normal, healthy interpersonal relationships.

For Legal Advice, Call Keithley Law, PLLC, PLLC

If you are divorcing a narcissist, you should seek the advice of an attorney with experience in handling high-conflict divorces. There is a decent chance that they have dealt with divorce cases involving a narcissist. At Keithley Law, PLLC, we have decades of legal experience in high-conflict divorces.

Contact ustoday by calling (703) 865-7710 and schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office.

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