Divorcing a narcissist? Don’t stoop to their level: Townsend

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

Divorcing a narcissist comes with unique challenges that can be overcome with patience and preparation, says Toronto family lawyer and divorce recovery coach Leanne Townsend.

“The big drawback with a narcissist is that they like to win or feel that they have won and so their ego is very involved,” says Townsend, a partner with Brauti Thorning LLP. “They love the adversarial nature of the legal process, so they thrive in that type of environment.

“They have to feel like whatever the outcome or whatever’s going on that they somehow have to have the upper hand because they’re smarter, better, more talented and more deserving.”

A narcissist will be unlikely to look at the situation in an effort “to find a solution where both people can win,” she tells, adding they can also be quite cunning.

“They might be able to charm the court,” Townsend says. “They only show the negative side of themselves to people who really know them well, so it can be frustrating when you are in the court process, and the judge doesnt seem to be seeing him or her for what they actually are.”

She notes that narcissism is a “trendy topic these days, and many people are identifying their ex as a narcissist.”

“I think its a term that gets thrown around a little too loosely, especially in family law,” Townsend says.

However, if she has a client with a spouse with a narcissistic personality disorder, she emphasizes the need to maintain calm.

“It’s really important that they make decisions that are not based on reactionary or emotional criteria,” Townsend says. “Someone who is a narcissist knows what buttons to push, and they’ll do everything they can to trigger reactions that make the other person look bad.”

She says divorce can be emotional by nature, so it is vital to put your feelings about the relationship aside.

“I usually tell people to treat it as the dissolution of a business partnership because most of it is really just about money,” says Townsend. “Obviously, if there are children, you want to get a schedule for them that works for you, but the rest of it is about assets.

“It’s not about whether someone was a good spouse. It’s about applying the laws in terms of the financial aspects and trying to sort out a parenting schedule that’s in the best interests of the children.”

Getting your finances in order in a timely manner is also vital, she says, noting that in more than 20 years of experience in her law career, she has found narcissists to be more likely to hide and withhold assets.

Having a war chest to fund a divorce team consisting of a lawyer, financial adviser, and a therapist trained to deal with narcissism can also be essential, says Townsend.

Once divorce proceedings begin, she advises her client to maintain thorough records of conversations and keep communication to a minimum.

Townsend suggests doing as much as you can in writing “versus face to face or over the phone because it’s usually less abusive and gives the person a chance to read and pause before responding.”

Avoid getting drawn into confrontation or stooping to a narcissist’s level, she says.

“I tell people not to respond to the behaviour of their ex. Fighting fire with fire only elevates things, and it usually ends up in bad decisions for everybody,” Townsend says. “I always suggest taking a step back and making sure to put your kids first.

“Narcissistic people tend to bad-mouth you, trying to drag your children into the divorce. Don’t react by doing the same thing because it’s only going to hurt the children more. Do your best to keep them completely out of it.”

She advises keeping an eye on the future and thinking about your next move.

“The decisions you make based on emotion are rarely good ones,” Townsend says.

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