There is no doubt that this year has been a strain for everyone, but for those stuck in a toxic divorce or living with a high-conflict person (who may also suffer from borderline or narcissistic personality issues) this year has been especially difficult. The stress which everyone has experienced this year impacts on those with personality disorders in a more acute way.

What is a narcissist?

An individual in a toxic relationship or marriage may not necessarily realise that their partner is showing signs of narcissistic behaviour. Below are some of the top characteristics of a narcissist to look out for:

  • Narcissists need fuel. They need to be seen and they need to be heard. They need to be validated from external sources. They lack the resources to self-soothe and they thrive on the compliments of strangers, colleagues and clients. When this external validation is withdrawn, they are left empty and angry. This makes them more difficult to live with and prone to lashing out at those within their immediate reach.
  • Narcissists have a tendency to be unfaithful. This can be explained in part by the need to feel important and in part by a reluctance to accept that normal rules apply to them. No doubt they expect their spouse to adhere to the usual confines of monogamy but will seek flirtation and sexual encounters outside the marriage without guilt. Justification for these dalliances comes easily; the relationship was stale, their partner was not trying, it was just a bit of fun. Families spending more time together heaps pressure on the narcissist. The computer is no longer available, their phone is visible and they cannot escape the house for illicit meetings. The result is frustration and hostility to those they live with.
  • Narcissists love social media. It fuels their need for compliments and positive enforcement. It is a platform for bullying and control. They can create fantasy worlds for themselves. With less opportunity to have meaningful real-life experiences, social media has exploded during this year. The result is that a narcissist will feed back what they see to the family, potentially with criticism that family members cannot live up to the lives of those they see portrayed on the social media platforms. Given everything else happening this year, the uncertainties of home schooling, income flow and health, this additional pressure is demoralising for everyone.
  • Narcissists react with sulks and silent treatment. They cannot blame themselves for the things that happen to them and they are often emotionally incapable of understanding their own feelings of frustration and anxiety. Unable to handle their own emotions, they lash out at the people they live with. Through snarls and bad temper they blame everyone but themselves for the way they are feeling.
  • Narcissists really, really like control. Lacking control in so many areas of their life, they seek to assert themselves in the only place that is left – the home.
  • Narcissists do not think rules apply to them. This period has seen an imposition of control from external sources including the government. Rules for living have been created which curtail freedom and imply superiority from people. The narcissist is likely to have struggled to accept the rules, thinking exemptions apply to them because they are special, or know better. This can be incredibly difficult to live with and will heap further pressure on the family.

When you know enough is enough

The restrictions brought about by the pandemic have made it even harder to seek external support. The grip of the narcissist has fastened and seeing things clearly for those living with a narcissist is harder than ever. One of the biggest signs that a person has been subjected to a high-conflict personality is an inability to make a decision. They have been told they are wrong for so much of their lives that they are incapable of believing that they may be right.

The steps that you need to take to extract from the relationship are harder than ever before. Everyone is watching more than ever before. Calls are monitored and time spent away from the house is minimal. The ability to meet friends is virtually extinct in some areas.

How to prepare

Even if you cannot take the leap that is required to leave the relationship, start the preparatory work. Start to document your life and your relationship. Note the time you each spend with the children and keep track of important moments, events or decisions.

Warn your friends and family that your spouse may spread lies about you. That might help them warn you if things deteriorate faster than you had hoped.

Start to create a vision and an action plan. This is critical to extraction from the relationship. There should be a timeline associated with it, to ensure you do not allow matters to drift beyond a point you are comfortable with.

Practical tips

  • Set up a new email account from a safe device (e.g. a friend’s computer)
  • Change all passwords and log in to everything including social media and cloud devices
  • Start to stockpile your financial information and take photographs of anything valuable in the house
  • Get your support in place, whether that is therapeutic care or friends and family you are sure you can trust
  • Mentally prepare for gaslighting and warn friends and family
  • Learn to stay quiet and do not engage in front of your children

Once you have settled on your decision to divorce from your narcissistic partner, it is essential that you get in touch with a family solicitor who has experience dealing with high-conflict divorces. If you have any questions in relation to this article or you are looking for legal advice, please get in touch with Zoë Bloom using the below contact details.

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.