Fighting with a narcissist can be a mind-bending, disorienting, and terrible experience, especially if the conflict marks the end of an intimate relationship. Yes, all conflicts are hard but these are in a category of their own.
What went on was unreal. He made things up out of whole cloth, and told the world, the minute I announced I couldn’t stay in the marriage. He made me out to be a crazy monster, an insatiable greedy hag who made him work his fingers to the bone and was never happy. I couldn’t believe how thorough he was in spreading his poison, co-opting long-time friends, neighbors and, ultimately, forcing me to hire a lawyer. He knew I didn’t have the money to fight him but he could have cared less. He had to win.
I didn’t even cut my mother out of my life at first; on the advice of my therapist, I set boundaries which I expected her to follow. Well, you have no idea. It was world war, as far as she was concerned. She called everyone in the family and then took to Facebook. Yes, she’s 60 and on Facebook and she told everyone lies about me. She called, texted, emailed me to tell me how rotten and sick and ungrateful I was and when I didn’t respond, she got even angrier. Now, unhappily enough, I am estranged from my entire family. She won.
Note what ties these two different recollections together: The verb “to win.” Yes, with narcissists, this need transcends all else, as the research and observations of experts make clear.
Some of you may only realize that you’re dealing with a narcissist when the conflict begins, as I did. It is often only in conflict that the narcissist reveals himself or herself fully. In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo has a category called the “Vindictive Narcissist” and he recommends you not engage. But, of course, that’s not always possible. If current theory is to believed, the narcissist is a wounded- in- childhood person but always watchful that his inner wound stays hidden and not be exposed; the wound is denied and walled-off. The stories the narcissist tells of childhood tend to be largely idyllic, though there may be a rare disclosure of a deeper truth. That was certainly true of the narcissist I knew whose stories of an unfettered, happy childhood—sailing, hot dog and lemonade stands, walking barefoot on the beach—coexisted with the occasional mention of a binge-drinking, angry father and a mother who did nothing to protect her children.
There is a disconnect between the inner wounded self and the self in the public world, and the narcissist is highly protective of the wall between the two. You should pay close attention and be prepared when any of your actions threaten that wall. If you are married and seeking divorce, you must be super-cautious, keep meticulous records, and make sure that your attorney understands your spouse’s motivations.
Throughout, I will be using male pronouns since there are more men at the end of spectrum than females and this blog is aimed at women but feel free to switch up genders. Women are narcissists too.
- They don’t care about long-term consequences; it’s the win that counts
How they win is of no concern to them and that’s perhaps the most shocking thing about conflict with a narcissist. Most of us like to think of ourselves as behaving reasonably and, hopefully, decently most of the time; that’s really not something a narcissist thinks about. I used the term “scorched earth”—a military term—to describe my own divorce and it turns out that I wasn’t alone. The idea of salvaging a relationship, even with his own child or children, much less his spouse, is foreign to the narcissist; his eyes skim over the details of confidences betrayed and promises broken. Not important: It’s about the win and his “truth.” More on that anon.
- They are highly focused, and good at creating distractions
Many readers of mine have written me about how, when the conflict with the narcissist in their lives started, their intimate—about to be former intimate—moved to deflect attention and re-assert control by either mollifying them (“I promise you that I’ll do better to meet your needs”) or, alternatively, by blame-shifting (“Our relationship would be fine if you weren’t so focused on every little thing. The same old tattoo all the time!”). The point of the distraction is to evade responsibility for everything and anything. In the middle of my protracted divorce, my would-be ex sent me an expensive birthday present with a note that said something like “We shouldn’t let a little [sic] dispute about money get in the way of celebrating your birthday.”
As Dr. Craig Malkin points out in his book Rethinking Narcissism, the narcissist uses projection constantly, including projecting his feelings onto you. Dr. Malkin calls this playing hot potato and it doesn’t appear that this is limited to emotions alone. The narcissist works hard at looking like a good guy so that you look like a crazy person or a brat. (He sent me a birthday gift, didn’t he?) This is another version of hot potato and not owning his actions.
- They are energized by power and game-playing
That is precisely what one study found. This is definitely true during the course of the relationship—the narcissist likes feeling he has power over you and so he seduces you and pushes you off by turns to keep the drama going—but that can equally be true during a breakup, conflict, or divorce. None of his actions is sincere; it’s about the game.
- They will use smear campaigns to promote their truth
Oh yes indeed. As Dr.Joseph Burgo explains, the vindictive narcissist has a warped and defensive relationship to reality, and “he often believes the lies he tells, both to himself and to other people. He doesn’t see himself as a liar but rather an embattled defender of the ‘truth’ as he has come to see it.” That, you might note, distinguishes him from the rest of us who are aware of the Pinocchio moment when we lie. In conflict, especially in a divorce, the narcissist’s stance can be bewildering not just to you but to attorneys since he’s apt to lie about things that can be easily shown to be false. It doesn’t matter to him and, sometimes, it can become a tactic, as lies make negotiation impossible, fuel legal motions and can slow down or protract the process of discovery. He cannot be shamed into acting appropriately; he’s too busy defending the wound that already shames him.
- They’re not interested in a middle ground
The divorces that play out in court get lots of press, especially when the parties are rich and famous, but the reality is that most divorces are settled quietly, if not amicably, according to the attorneys I’ve spoken to; research shows that roughly 95% of all divorces are figured out by the parties one way or another without a judge present. That’s just not true if there’s a narcissist (or two) in the mix. All the usual tactics attorneys employ—negotiation, mediation, creating a middle ground so that each party feels as though he/she has been treated fairly—go out the window because a narcissist simply will not cooperate. Be prepared for a flurry of motions, tactics that eat up legal time (and therefore run up bills), and anything else that will prolong both the agony and the expense because the narcissist needs to win at all costs.
- It’s not over until he says it’s over
That, alas, is what many people experience both during a divorce and, if there are children involved, long-after. (For more on this, see the work of Tina Swithin and the organization, One Mom’s Battle, she has established.) With luck, though, he’ll focus his sights elsewhere and life will finally move on.
Being in conflict with a narcissist is awful but being prepared for what could be coming helps. Get support for yourself if you need it too.
Photograph by hahanriji. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Malkin, Craig, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing,“ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.