Divorce and co-parenting with narcissists: Lawyers share tips for dealing with high-conflict personalities in court (2023)

SSzahid Arabi

SSzahid Arabi

Fighting narcissists in the legal system takes strength. Divorce or negotiating custody of a narcissist is not easy. Howresearcherspecializing in narcissism and psychopathy, I hear from many victims who struggle not only with the effects of abuse and manipulation, but also with re-traumatization during divorce proceedings, custody hearings and co-parenting agreements. These cases often involve a narcissistic or otherwise intense ex-partner who sets others on fire and uses the legal system to further exploit the victim. If you are leaving a narcissist, it is important to createburglary protection planand explore options for a successful exit because narcissists will try to thwart your plans. If you are involved in a divorce or custody dispute, learning tips and empowerment tools can help you stay balanced and in control of what can be an overwhelming journey back to freedom.I asked attorneys and mediators for their best advice on how to deal with a narcissist or other high-conflict person in the court system. Here's what they advised:

Get ready with the best knowledge, tools and experts

"Three D's: non-involvement, face-to-face conversation and defined boundaries. Although the family court system is not usually based on these cornerstones, the hallmark of a narcissistic or toxic personality is that they demand commitment. They derive inner personal satisfaction from endless interactions, and these are usually fueled by various insecurities, misinterpretations or reality, or other maladaptive coping mechanisms. It is important, especially in a divorce involving children, that parents communicate about matters concerning their children. Other important divorce issues may also need to be communicated, such as the sale of the marital home, pet custody, or debt division.It is vital to respond in a matter-of-fact, non-emotional way.As much as possible, relate things without using "you", "I", "believe", "feel" or other gray areas.Use available resources.A key resource is a co-parenting app like Our Family Wizard or 2houses. These apps are designed to be a one-stop-shop for communication for divorced parents. They generally have calendars, messaging systems, claims and contracts, document sharing, etc. Using a location to manage calls instead of calendars, email, text messages, etc. helps keep things simple and organized. Many of these applications have date stamps for information sent, received and read/replied. This reduces the time spent searching for information by transferring it from one method of communication (SMS) to another (email)." –Sarah J. Jacobs, esq.Attorney and co-founder of Jacobs Berger and Family Law Mediator

“Bet on success by arming yourself with as much information as possible before starting a divorce. Learn as much as you can about local laws regarding property division, spousal support, and child custody/support. Many states have websites with general information about your state's laws. Consult with a divorce attorney early to understand your rights. You should also gather as much information as possible about your finances and assets. This includes making sure you know their accounts and passwords. This will empower you during the divorce process, as narcissists tend to abuse the discovery process to increase the costs of the divorce.” –Dorit L. Goikhman, Esq., legal advisor and founderOff the Record Services, LLC

"An attempt to bring the divorce process into a common law process. In this non-controversial process, lawyers engage other advisors such as psychologists, therapists and financial experts to help resolve any issues. Working with narcissists is extremely difficult because they have no boundaries and do not respect rules. The collaborative process sets up some solid protective barriers that can help this personality type. Litigation affects the narcissist's sense of victimhood, so keep the divorce out of court as much as possible. If you go to court on a variety of matters, you are looking for serious consequences if you violate a court order. At first, the courts will be hesitant. However, you want to create a history of bad behavior that a judge can't ignore at some point." –Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, lawyer and professional mediator with many years of experience in de-escalation

"When breaking up with a narcissist or someone with a high degree of personality conflict, you need to be careful and keep your actions private. Plan your steps carefully and make sure everyone follows behind them. Don't tell them you want a divorce until you have all your ducks in a row. Any information that reaches the narcissist will be used against you, so it is important to gather evidence of any wrongdoing. Make sure any experts you hire understand and specialize in NPD, as well as having a good understanding of hidden abuses, because hidden abuses are hidden and harder to detect. When it comes to co-parenting with a narcissist, it can be difficult. Set clear boundaries and only communicate about things that are directly related to your child. useBIFF method,gray rock methodinvented Skylar and the reverse DARVO technique. Narcissists love flattery and compliments. Use flattery as a de-escalation tool. Keep the interaction as short and to the point as possible, focusing on your child's needs. Seek support from trusted friends, family or support groups who can provide empathy and guidance.” dr. Avigail Lev, psychotherapist and facilitator at the Bay Area CBT Center

"When breaking up with a narcissistic, confrontational, or toxic person, you should decide early on how you want to resolve the issue. People with toxic or highly conflicted personalities tend to hesitate to offer their spouses a potential settlement because they believe their spouses don't deserve it or are more entitled to it. Therefore, a fair deal with narcissists is generally difficult to achieve. For some spouses of such people, minimizing conflict is more important than asserting and asserting their rights in an effort to reach an agreement. In such cases, the person divorcing a narcissist may not have the stomach, will, or financial resources to engage in protracted litigation to achieve the outcome required by law, either through settlement or trial, and prefers to quickly resolve the issue, get married, and move away from the interaction. with your spouse at the expense of their rights. For others, their rights and future are paramount and they choose to engage early in the battle to secure an outcome that is dictated by the law, in and out of court. In these cases, the person divorcing the narcissist fully expects and accepts that they will have to assert and fight for their rights until the narcissist gives up the white flag or, more likely, a judge decides the outcome after a trial.Rajeh A. Saadeh, a divorce attorney at the Law Firm of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C.

Stay calm and consistent in your boundaries and communication

“The way to help narcissistic ex-custody cases is to make sure that every Settlement is as detailed and accurate as possible. Follow your contract. Don't expect civility or common sense to prevail in attempting a "flexible" schedule. If that happens, it's a win. Otherwise, default to a specific Agreement or Order language to keep things clear and concise. Choosing the answer number is another matter. If we get 10 emails in a short period of time, one or two responses that group the issues together may be the best solution. Time to calm down is important – you need to react, not react. Giving answers focuses on the problem and allows you to make clear, concise statements with appropriate boundaries.' –Sarah J. Jacobs, esq.Co-founder of Jacob's Berger and family law mediator

“Custody hearings are very emotional and your ex knows what buttons to push to help you. Don't take the bait and don't respond to personal attacks. Remember that negative attention is still attention that only rewards toxic behavior and ensures it will repeat itself. Allow at least twenty minutes to pass if you feel your nerves rising. If possible, listen by default and ask yourself, "Does this communication really need a response?" Most of the time the answer is no (because it's just a vent or attack). And if not, use the power of silence." sestra Lucy Canter,Lawyer and Vice President of UN Women, San Francisco

"The best advice would be to withdraw emotionally as much as possible and as early as possible, and do your best to set up a visitation schedule that works for you. When communicating about children, stick to only the necessary facts and details. Don't let the other party pull your hand out. Never write bad news or talk bad about the other party in front of your children - no matter how tempting it may be. Be sure to consult with a lawyer early on about your children's rights." Dorit L. Goikhman, General Counsel and Founder;Off the Record Services, LLC

"Set clear and firm boundaries with a narcissistic or high-conflict person. Communicate through written channels such as email to minimize face-to-face conflicts and ensure a documented record of conversations".Michaela Callahana,Attorney at Callahan Law Firm

"It is imperative that the client allows their attorney to fully represent them, so the client trusts the attorney to negotiate on their behalf, even if the soon-to-be ex-spouse is a narcissist. Too often, the client allows the narcissistic personality to "fire" him and/or provoke him into making decisions based on feelings. Allow your attorney to work out the details of the agreement with opposing counsel and avoid unnecessary actions
and the expensive drama of personality disorder.' —David Reischer, right.Legal advisor and chairman of the Board of Directors forLegalAdvice.com

Documentation is important.

"Documentation is important in contested divorce or custody cases
All. Detailed documentation helps create an accurate record of the events, conversations, and incidents that occurred during the divorce process. It acts as a reliable source of information for reference when needed, especially if there are conflicting reports or attempts to distort the truth. By keeping accurate records, you can give the court a clear and consistent narrative that can strengthen your case".Anderson Franco, a lawyer in San Francisco

“The more you can document, the better. Not only will this help you sort through and expose some of their more blatant lies and avoid unnecessary arguments, it may also help you get more favorable divorce terms. Here are useful videos, screenshots and screenshots with text.I'm Michael, lawyer, criminal lawyers

"Keep a written record of everything and make sure you document and track any relevant information that could support your case. Audio and video recording is useful, but in some states you must notify the person you are recording, so be careful. You must keep the narcissist in the dark about his plans and actions. An individual therapist who specializes in NPD can help you anticipate his behavior and protect you. Couples therapy may not be the best option for a narcissist as it can make things worse. Most couples therapists cannot recognize NPD, especially covert narcissism, and some even fear them. You need to find a therapist who actually experiences covert abuse and NPD.” dr. Avigail Lev, psychotherapist and facilitator at the Bay Area CBT Center

“Keep detailed records of all interactions, communications and incidents related to the divorce. This evidence can be crucial in court proceedings to demonstrate patterns of behavior or establish credibility.” —Michaela Callahana,Attorney at Callahan Law Firm

When booking an interview, stick to the evidence and keep contact to a minimum

"When dealing with a narcissistic ex in custody situations, my advice is to prioritize your child's mental and emotional well-being. Courts always have the child's best interests in mind, so parents should focus on providing a stable and supportive environment. When narcissists are involved, detailed documentary evidence of parenting ability can be a tool to uncover any manipulative behavior and influence over custody decisions".Min Hwan Ahn, Esq,Attorney at law firm Ahn and Sinowitz

"In custody cases involving a narcissistic ex, it is important to gather evidence of the harmful behavior and its negative impact on the children. Document instances of manipulation, emotional abuse or neglect and collect witnesses or testimonies that can support your case. It is important to remain calm and collected during the court proceedings and present yourself as a stable and reliable parent. Focus on the children's best interests and give specific examples of how you can meet their needs and create a supportive environment. Use an experienced family law attorney who understands the complexities of dealing with an ex-anarch and can effectively defend your rights. Effective communication and setting clear boundaries are key to co-parenting. Focus discussions on children and their welfare and avoid personal attacks or power struggles with your fellow countrymen.Collena Clarka, attorney at Schmidt and Clark, LLP

"When dealing with a narcissistic ex, when it comes to child custody, minimizing interaction is paramount. The care schedule and terms should already be established by contract or court order, and that framework should generally be followed by both parents without the need for interaction. After all, they are no longer a couple. There should be very little reason for interaction between the two parents, and these interactions should be minimized in appearance and duration. The narcissist may try to increase and intensify these interactions. the other parent should not fall into the trap of feeding anything that flatters the narcissistic ego, including unnecessary conversations.”Rajeh A. Saadeh, a divorce attorney at the Law Firm of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C.

“In custody cases involving a narcissistic parent, it is important to put the best interests of the child first. The narcissist will use the child as a manipulation and control tactic and has no regard for their best interests. You must protect your child at all costs. Keep detailed records of any incidents or behaviors of the narcissistic parent that may affect the child's well-being. Document cases where they fail to fulfill their parental responsibilities or behave inappropriately." dr. Avigail Lev, psychotherapist and facilitator at the Bay Area CBT Center

Prioritize your children's needs when co-parenting.

“Create a detailed parenting plan that outlines each parent's responsibilities, visitation schedules, and decision-making processes. Stick to a set plan and remain consistent in your actions and expectations. Prioritize open and respectful communication, whether through dedicated parenting apps or regular meetings. Remember to be flexible and willing to compromise when necessary, but always put your children's best interests first. Seek support from a family therapist or mediator if conflicts become overwhelming, as they can help you have productive conversations and find solutions that work for everyone involved".Collena Clarka, attorney at Schmidt and Clark, LLP

"Co-parenting may not be possible. Although desirable and supported by the court system, co-parenting means that both parties have the opportunity to focus on the children rather than their own agendas and to have rational discussions about the issues. Narcissists, or toxic personalities, cannot act like that. That's why being a co-parent is better than trying to be a co-parent. However, information needs to be shared. Consider providing information instead of asking for feedback. There is a big difference between 'Johnny expressed an interest in football. The two leagues are X and Y, which cost A and B. X fits Johnny's school schedule better. Trainings are held every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:30 to 7:15. I plan to enroll Johnny by June 15th" and "Johnny has expressed an interest in soccer. I can check which programs are the best. Do you have any ideas? The first provides information, describes the plan and gives you an opportunity to respond. The latter asks open-ended questions, inviting circular discussion and room for disagreement. While the former may seem dictatorial, it is a more direct form of communication that is critical in this type of relationship with difficult personalities." –Sarah J. Jacobs, esq.Co-founder of Jacob's Berger and family law mediator

"Please note that court is a last resort. No matter how much you dislike your fellow countryman, there is often some common ground you can agree on to avoid escalating conflict. Keep in mind that you may have been dealing with this person for over 18 years. Try to pick your battles and see where you can find deals. If you are negotiating a parenting plan, don't shy away from issues you suspect will arise. Instead, you should work with your broker and work through these issues — so you can have a plan in writing. For example, if you know that transactions tend to lead to misunderstandings, make sure your plan includes all possible details of the transaction. This will greatly reduce the stress of co-parenting, adding predictability to your relationship." Dorit L. Goikhman, General Counsel and Founder;Off the Record Services, LLC

"Co-parenting is a challenge, especially in the case of high-conflict personalities. Clear and precise boundaries can help. Use written communication whenever possible to avoid misunderstandings and record all discussions. In addition, developing a consistent routine for children, with minimal deviations, can support stability in their lives during this turbulent time."Min Hwan Ahn, Esq,Attorney at law firm Ahn and Sinowitz

"A narcissist will use children to hurt you. It's sick, but it is
Bitter truth. Keep your boundaries tight and don't cross them. Narcissists only respond to severe consequences, so include them in your parenting plan and enforce them. Get your children to therapy so they can find tools to deal with the family breakdown and the rampant narcissistic behavior they will be exposed to.” –Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, lawyer and professional mediator with many years of experience in de-escalation

"Collaboration is perfect for everyone. Unfortunately, it takes two. If you can't get the other parent to cooperate, it's a lot easier to accept that and act on it than to keep trying to be flexible and work with someone who doesn't really like it."Rajeh A. Saadeh, a divorce attorney at the Law Firm of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C.


Do courts recognize narcissistic abuse? ›

Some of the key factors that a court may consider when determining the harmful effects of a narcissistic parent include: The parent's behavior and actions, such as manipulativeness, lack of empathy, or lack of remorse. The impact of the parent's behavior on the child, such as emotional distress, fear, or anxiety.

How do you outsmart a narcissist in court? ›

5 Tips for How to Deal with a Narcissist in a Divorce
  1. Don't Engage. Narcissists love to argue and get you to acknowledge that they are right. ...
  2. Shield Your Kids from the Conflict. ...
  3. Don't Expect Mediation to Work. ...
  4. Document Everything. ...
  5. Be Prepared to Explain Narcissism to the Judge.
Jun 11, 2021

How do you fight a narcissist in divorce court? ›

7 Effective Ways to Deal with a Narcissist
  1. Don't get engaged in an argument. ...
  2. Keep your child away from conflict. ...
  3. Don't hope for reconciliation. ...
  4. Keep records of everything. ...
  5. Get ready to elaborate on Narcissism to the Judge. ...
  6. Know that Narcissists Have Mental Illness. ...
  7. Get legal help.
Oct 20, 2022

Do judges see through narcissists? ›

Therefore, a narcissistic spouse will not want to be exposed in front of a judge. When confronted with facts, the person will likely allow their true nature to come out. A judge can see firsthand the combative, abusive, and controlling nature of the narcissistic parent.

How do you defend yourself in court with a narcissist? ›

Defending Yourself Against a Narcissist
  1. Expect the Unexpected. While this might sound a bit cliche, you never know what a narcissist might try during a divorce. ...
  2. Set Clear Boundaries. ...
  3. Don't Engage in Self-Defense. ...
  4. Document Everything. ...
  5. Consult With Your Attorney.
Oct 4, 2021

Will a narcissist settle out of court? ›

Their inability to compromise can make mediation and out-of-court settlement impossible. Because judges want to know that couples have tried to mediate their differences, the narcissist's rigidity can work against him. Making threats. Narcissists are bullies.

What will a narcissist do in a custody battle? ›

A major way how a narcissist affects custody is by pursuing parental rights as a form of enhancing or creating a power disparity between themselves and the other parent. It is believed that many narcissists primarily want child custody not for the welfare of the kid, but for their own gratification.

Can you sue a narcissist for mental abuse? ›

Yes, you can sue for emotional abuse. Attorneys across the United States recognize emotional abuse as a cause of action, allowing families of those victims of emotional abuse in nursing homes to sue in response to their loved ones' mistreatment.

How do you terrorize a narcissist? ›

17 Ways to Make a Narcissist Really Fear You
  1. Don't give them your attention.
  2. Starve them of empathy.
  3. Show strength and confidence.
  4. Ignore them.
  5. Set and enforce boundaries.
  6. Say no.
  7. Challenge them.
  8. Hold them accountable.
Jul 13, 2022

What words can destroy a narcissist? ›

Phrases and Words That Destroy Narcissists
  • 'I know the truth about you' or 'I see right through you' ...
  • 'I don't remember that' ...
  • 'I'm busy and don't have time for you right now' ...
  • 'You are a failure' or 'I am so disappointed in you' ...
  • 'It's your fault' ...
  • 'I Don't Believe You' ...
  • 'Goodbye'

What are narcissistic tactics in divorce? ›

A narcissist will expect to get special treatment and to be able to control everything in the divorce, even the judge. They also don't like to lose, so they will file motions and fight hard to win, even over trivial matters that aren't worth the attorney fees.

How does a narcissist react to divorce papers? ›

Narcissists tend to put up a strong fight and view divorce as a competition they must win. This adversarial attitude can result in bullying, exploitative behavior, and a refusal to negotiate rationally.

Will a narcissist drag out a divorce? ›

A narc will often drag out the divorce in an attempt to control and torture their former spouse. This is done out of a need to punish, inflict pain, and/or humiliate. It is also done in an effort to continue to receive the attention they crave. They may also simply enjoy watching their ex-partner suffer.

What happens when a narcissist is exposed in court? ›

Being exposed, especially in front of people they want to impress, will trigger the narcissist's rage. Family law professionals will witness a distinct personality change and have proof that the narcissist's words don't line up with their actions. The narcissist will be careful not to directly malign you in court.

Can a judge spot a narcissist in court? ›

Some judges may see through this behaviour, but others may not. A narcissist may try and manipulate the court process as they believe that rules and laws do not apply to them.

What is the best way to expose a narcissist? ›

Stand up for yourself when they cross a line to draw an overreaction. If the narcissist says or does something outwardly abusive, rude, or cruel, don't let them get away with it—especially in front of others. Calmly call them out and explain why they're not being fair. Don't mince your words, but stay cool.

How does a narcissist react in court? ›

Narcissists will often beat their opponent to court by falsely projecting their issues onto the opponent. This false accusation forces the opponent to be on the defensive and causes the court system to frown when the opponent makes a similar charge against the narcissist.


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