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5 Tactics Narcissists Use In Divorce Court

Written by: Liz Merrill, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


As a divorce mediator and divorce coach with a specialization in high conflict cases, I work with many clients who are married to someone who has a diagnosed (or more frequently, undiagnosed) personality disorder – chief among them, the notorious Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Narcissism is a buzzword – everyone’s ex is a narcissist, kids these days are narcissists, and many divorce professionals will cringe when they hear someone is “married to a narcissist”. To some, that word is interchangeable with entitled jerk. Unfortunately, this confusion can taint a divorce professional’s ability to hear and understand the difficulties of people who really are married to a narcissist.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is real, and it’s on the rise. NPD is characterized by a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). It is recognized by traits such as aggression, reduced tolerance to distress, dysfunctional affect regulation, and grandiosity. According to DSM-5, the prevalence in the general population for narcissistic personality disorder is around 6% percent, but some studies suggest that rates could be as high as 15%. NPD may also coexist with other mental disorders, which makes its diagnosis challenging. Substance use disorders are among the most comorbid conditions. To further complicate issues, other personality disorders (such as antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder) are also common in people with NPD.

People who have NPD are unlikely to present themselves to a professional for diagnosis, as they generally tend to believe that they are superior to others and that there’s nothing wrong with them. As a result, NPD and narcissistic abuse is an under-recognized, understudied public health issue and statistics are hard to come by. In one recent study, Sandra L. Brown, founder of Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education, suggests that narcissistic abuse negatively impacts more people around the world than depression. Which is a pretty staggering statement.

Every day I interact with clients (usually women) looking for support and advice, fearful for themselves and their children. Often, they themselves don’t understand what NPD is or even fully recognize that they’re married to someone who is emotionally abusing them. Or, more frequently, they are ashamed to admit it, for “not seeing it sooner”, or for not being able to break out of the trauma bond that often accompanies emotional abuse. By the time they come to me, they have generally concluded that divorce is the best, or only, way forward for themselves and their children. Very often it has taken months, years, or even decades for them to gather the courage and conviction to leave, in large part because of the fear of backlash from their spouse.

That fear is not without merit. High conflict divorces are far more challenging than “normal” divorces for a variety of reasons, and not every divorce coach, attorney, judge or therapist has the background to deal with the specific challenges that divorcing a narcissist can bring. As a divorce coach, it’s my job to help educate them about high conflict divorces, support them as they navigate the treacherous waters of divorce court, identify other sources of professional support, and start working on communication and disengagement strategies.

Despite the challenges, however, narcissists and other “high conflict” personalities often engage predictable tactics and patterns of behavior in divorce court. Being able to predict, recognize, and deal with them allows us to start disrupting those patterns.

Some of the more common tactics include:

1. Projection: Blamers can really project their own deficiencies onto the other party. They may try to convince friends, family, the court, divorce professionals, that their partner:

  • Child abuser or molester or alienator

  • A batterer

  • An alcoholic or addict

  • A liar who makes false allegations

  • A deadbeat dad or unfit mother

  • Any other type of “all bad” person

2. Emotional persuasion: A big problem here is that they can also be extremely skilled at convincing others and are often so emotionally persuasive that they will win in court, because emotions can add credibility and power to a person’s statements. If this happens early on in the process, the “target” will have a hard time defending themselves against this initial negative stereotyping and proving their innocence.

3. Negative stereotyping: this is a phenomenon that is been studied quite a lot and research has found that even without solid facts, people (in and out of court) are very susceptible to initial accusations and that tends to color subsequent impressions and understanding of the situation and of the parties.

4. Emotional reasoning/emotional facts: comes from cognitive distortion of people with HCP – they feel something so strongly that it becomes a fact in their minds they become “emotional facts”: emotionally generated false information that usually becomes accepted as truth and often requires emergency action.

5. Recruitment of negative advocates: also called “flying monkeys” – blamers will recruit people who completely agree with their beliefs or “emotional facts” – including lawyers or therapists. Or judges. In this case, attorneys, because it’s their role to fight for their clients, can be extremely effective in defending and enabling the “bad actor”.

Early education and intervention are key in avoiding the pitfalls, expense, and devastating impacts that high conflict divorce can bring: there are ways to plan and strategize around these predictable tactics and patterns of behavior. Helping clients navigate that landscape is something I love to do. My experience, both personal and professional, has put me in a unique position and allows me to help clients get clarity and actionable steps to leave their narcissistic marriage, create a solid success plan for divorce and for the new life that follows.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and visit my website for more info!


Liz Merrill, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Liz Merrill is a Mediator and a Divorce Coach with a specialization in High Conflict and Narcissistic relationships. She lectures regularly on high conflict divorce strategies and is a sought-after speaker and podcast guest. She also engages in regular pro bono work for families who are experiencing financial hardship and offers pro bono services through various nonprofits and the Colorado Court system. Her understanding of psychological and physiological reactions to trauma, conflict, and anxiety brings a holistic approach to her work with families caught in the High Conflict cycle. After her own litigious high-conflict divorce, she saw the need for a holistic approach to divorce mediation, which included non-violent communication skills, managing trauma, and an understanding of how personality traits and personality disorders create high conflict in a divorce. When she started working as a mediator for the courts, she discovered how badly equipped most divorce professionals are to manage the specific needs of people in high conflict relationships and how damaging it can be to the individuals and, most importantly, the children and family systems. Now she helps hundreds of people in crisis find workable solutions so they can reduce anxiety, save money, and move on with their lives.



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