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Broken Mirroe
03 July 2024

I think my partner is a narcissist – what can I do? 

A relationship breakdown is difficult at any time, but even worse when you suspect that your partner is suffering from a mental disorder. The term “narcissist, as short hand for someone suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, or “NPD” has been used more and more in recent years, and current estimates are that in the UK between 1% to 5% of the population, or 1 in 20 people, suffer from a NPDAs with many similar disorders, it is hard to identify and it can manifest in a number of different waysSadly, as might be expected, only a tiny percentage of those diagnosed with a NPD will recognise this and go on to have successful treatment.   

Looking at the condition in its broadest sense, narcissists fundamentally believe that they are more special than everybody else.  This often translates into a lack of empathy, and a need for power and control, a grandiose sense of self-importance, being envious of others and arrogant, and a need for attention.  Behind the façade put up to the world, a narcissist will have very low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness, which they keep at bay by presenting the false persona, which has to be fed through their relationships with other people.   

There are a number of sub-types of the condition, which only go to demonstrate how difficult this is to pinpoint. One narcissistic might be an exhibitionist, being loud and brash, another might be put people down to maintain their own ego.  Alternatively they might play the victim, often being married to somebody more successful than them, so that they can feel special by association, or they may appear more altruistic, and sit on committees etc., to show how special they are, but will be fiercely territorial and back-stab others.  

For the partner of someone with a NPD, this can be hugely draining.  Narcissism manifests both outward and inward, in physical or verbal abuse, gas-lighting or passive aggressive behaviour, often showing such anger in a manner entirely disproportionate to the perceived provocation, so it is virtually impossible to predict when it will erupt.   

Dealing with a partner with a NPD will therefore add an extra level of complexity to the whole divorce process, not least as once they have accepted that a relationship is over, which will take time, someone with a narcissistic personality disorder is likely to do want to do whatever it takes to “win”, whether it is financially or through arrangements for children.   

If you find yourself in this situation, you need to prepare yourself emotionally.  Getting your own therapy beforehand, outside of any couples’ therapy, is always a good idea.  Narcissists are going to seek to manipulate and control the situation to get what they see as an advantage.  It is important to recognise that this is coming, and have support from a qualified professional to be able to steer through what is to come, and recognise what tactics your spouse may use, such as love bombing, attempting to tarnish your reputation, restricting funds etc..   

Aside from therapy, in practical terms, the following are a good way to be prepared: – 

  1. Keep a diary – it can be important to have evidence of your spouse’s behaviour, particularly if they have been abusive in some way.  Keep a secret diary, save emails and text messages, and take photos or videos if necessary.  Evidence can sometimes be used in Court, but also will give your solicitor and/or barrister a better idea of what they are dealing with; 
  1. Embrace your network – make sure you have your own support network in place, so that you have people that you can turn to, to listen and give you emotional support, perhaps people who are not necessarily directly connected to you and your family; 
  1. Have clear boundaries – a narcissist will always want to be in control and push at any boundaries.  For example, if you do not want to discuss matters when the children are in the house, or only want to communicate in a certain way, such as through what WhatsApp or one of the parenting apps, then be clear and stick to it; 
  1. Find a good lawyer – it is important to find a lawyer who you trust and who has empathy for you, but also who will give you clear advice as to how to deal with this behaviour from a legal perspective, and as to how this is going to affect all aspects of the breakdown of your relationship, including arrangements for any children, financial arrangements etc..  Most good lawyers will have previously dealt with clients or opponents who have personality disorders, but you need to be able to build a relationship of trust with your lawyer; 
  1. Make time for you – it is very easy, particularly after having been in a relationship with a narcissist, to lose sight of yourself.  Throughout the process it is important to prioritise your own mental and emotional health, and have space to do the things that make you happy.  That is not always easy, particularly if you are having to stay in the same house as your partner, and you have children, but it is something that should not be forgotten.  The old metaphor as to fixing your own oxygen mask on an aeroplane before you help others definitely applies here.  If you are able to navigate the relationship breakdown calmly, then that will translate to those around you.  

In many ways getting a diagnosis of a narcissistic personality disorder does not matter, and what is more important is that you are prepared for it, prepared for the tactics that may be used when you make it clear that you consider your relationship has broken down, and that you arrange support for yourself, including legal and therapeutic advice, to be able to move on.   

Remember, it is not always about the “winning” despite what a narcissist will think, but about being able to move to a better time in your life, where you can move forward safely.  

For further information, please contact Charlotte Skea-Strachan, Legal Director in the Family department or, alternatively, telephone on 020 7465 4300.  

To access our dedicated webpage with free Essential Resources for Supporting and Protecting Vulnerable Clients click here. 

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Charlotte Skea-Strachan
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