I've written previously about how to deal with narcissists in separation and divorce. In general, a narcissist is excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, and is mentally unable to see the destructive damage they are causing to themselves and others. It has been suggested that narcissistic personality disorder may be related to defenses against shame. Commonly considered traits include a sense of grandiosity or self-importance and a lack of empathy.
Less well recognized are narcissists who view many in their lives as unjust abusers. This type of narcissist is perhaps more insidious because they are initially much less recognizable and may view those in their lives whom they consider "on their side" as initially strongly positive but turn vehemently against them if adverse circumstances arise.
Sometimes, however, a STBX (soon to be ex) who feels a great deal of shame about themselves and/or the divorce, may behave in ways that appear very similar to a narcissist but does not meet all of the criteria we have read so much about these days. Shame is generally a painful emotion caused by feelings of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.
Even if your STBX doesn't know they are experiencing these emotions, their response to the divorce may be an unconscious outlet for shame. It's possible, if you've discussed this emotion at all during your marriage, that you know their childhood was full of instances in which their own parents used shame to motivate better behavior. If you're not sure, but suspect their responses are in line with someone who is feeling shame, pay attention to what they say and how they behave to decide if this is relevant to you. It isn't necessary to have an official diagnosis, as it's not likely to help you much in the long run anyway, but knowing what "triggers" their negative response to you and/or the children may help you manage how to communicate and negotiate with them.
Whether your ex, narcissist or not, may simply be carrying around too much shame to acknowledge any role in the divorce is, perhaps, a real possibility. Sure, they may also be a narcissist but what if it's their perfectionist tendencies, which probably came up in your marriage too, that keep them from effectively co-parenting because they can't ever admit they are wrong or need your help? It's likely clear to you that trying to persuade them now about anything, let alone what their issues may be, when they no longer consider themselves your ally or in any kind of partnership with you, is even more difficult. But, although you can never have a role in changing them, the focus can be changing your behavior towards them and doing everything you can to keep your kids from the potential conflict too.
So, what can you do to manage the shame of someone for whom it may be deeply entrenched, indeed, part of their formative personality?
- First, create good boundaries. That part applies to narcissists too and often there is overlap. Frankly, good boundaries should be a part of every divorce, full of conflict or none at all. In this case, however, it important that you communicate clearly and succinctly about whatever matters you must discuss. Email is preferred as a form of communication as text can become volatile and too "in the moment" very quickly. In addition, do not add extraneous details about your life. If they want to know, they will ask and you can decide what to share. If you share without asking, you give them ammunition to fire back at you. It's an unnecessary escalation which may make it more difficult for you to focus on what's important: your communication about the children.
In sum, diagnosing your ex is likely not the most productive use of your time. What matters is understanding how to negotiate for what you and your children need now and in the future. You should focus on: creating good boundaries; limiting communications to necessary ones excluding too much personal information; and keeping expectations for your relationship realistic. In the event your ex decides to behave better, it will be a pleasant and welcome surprise. But, take heart in knowing that there are many others dealing with difficulties similar to yours and find solace in a community that will support your goals moving forward. You and your children will appreciate the time you have together if it is not spent engaging in difficult communications with their other parent. Show the kids how you can behave and they will learn from, and appreciate, the example.
If you need support in your separation and divorce, Cherie Morris and Vicki Vollweiler are prepared to help. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org and check out all of their resources at www.deardivorcecoach.com.