Divorcing a Narcissist & Getting Child Custody
Narcissists see divorce as a threat to their control, causing them to lash out at and manipulate their soon-to-be-ex-spouse, even if they initiated the split.
This typically leads to a high-conflict, lengthy divorce and child custody process, in which you may discover that divorcing a narcissist is even harder than being married to a narcissist.
However, equipped with the right mindset, strategies and tools, you can successfully navigate your divorce while protecting yourself and your child.
After you divorce, learn how to co-parent with a narcissist.
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.
Your narcissist spouse probably has some (or even all) of these hallmark traits:
- Inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement
- Unreasonable expectations of preferable treatment
- Belief that they're better than everyone and should only associate with high-status people and institutions
- Need for constant attention, validation and admiration
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success and power
- Extreme jealousy or a belief that everyone is jealous of them
- Lack of empathy
- Tendency to manipulate others through lying, gaslighting and emotional abuse
- Volatility and rage
Unfortunately, you can expect these traits to only get worse during your divorce.
Note that there's a difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and someone who simply has a narcissistic personality. NPD is a mental illness diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. An individual may have traits associated with NPD but not meet the diagnostic criteria or be officially diagnosed. This distinction is particularly important in child custody disputes.
Narcissism is a spectrum; at one end is someone with a few narcissistic traits, and at the other is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Where your ex is on that spectrum, their specific behaviors and the nature of your relationship all factor into the strategies you need to get the best outcome for you and your child.
Divorcing a narcissist
It's impossible to have a "normal" divorce with a narcissist. Expect your ex to take advantage of any chance to make your life harder, from lying to the judge to using your child as a pawn.
A narcissist will often refuse to compromise because they don't want you to "win," so it's unlikely that you'll be able to settle your case out of court. Expect a high-conflict case that will last a year or more.
To start preparing for your divorce from a narcissist, you need to understand the family court process, hire an experienced lawyer, set firm communication boundaries with your ex, and document all of your interactions with them.
Understand the family court process
If you have a lawyer, they'll negotiate with the other parent (or their lawyer) to try to reach an out-of-court settlement. Experts advise against negotiating with a narcissist on your own.
If these negotiations aren't successful, most courts require parents to attend mediation, where a neutral professional helps parents discuss disputes. Since a narcissist may use mediation to further manipulate you, enter with a clear idea of where you're willing to compromise.
When parents can't agree on a settlement, the court holds a trial (sometimes called a final hearing) so a judge can decide the disputed issues. The judge's decisions become court orders that both parents must follow.
When you have a child under 18, you typically resolve divorce and custody in one process. However, some courts handle the two aspects separately. Be sure to research the family court process in your state.
Hire an experienced lawyer
If possible, hire a lawyer experienced in high-conflict divorce cases. As an expert in your state's custody laws and your local family court, a good family lawyer can make all the difference.
In addition to completing paperwork and representing you in court, your lawyer will develop a legal strategy to get the divorce outcome you want and the custody arrangement that's best for your child. They'll also advise you on the evidence you need and how to protect yourself financially.
When consulting with lawyers, ask about their experience litigating divorce and custody against a narcissist.
If you can't afford a lawyer, look into legal aid, modest means legal programs, and law clinics in your area.
Set firm communication boundaries
Establishing and sticking to firm boundaries can protect you from unwanted and unhealthy communication from your narcissist ex. Lay out — in writing — how you will communicate with them and what topics you're willing to discuss. For example, set rules that phone calls must be scheduled in advance and that you'll only discuss co-parenting or logistical issues related to your case.
When communicating with your narcissist ex, take care to react strategically rather than emotionally. Remember that they may document anything you say. Plan out what you'll say before responding to voicemails, emails and texts. Don't engage in arguments, and don't take the bait when they try to antagonize you.
Document all interactions with your ex
Narcissists are notorious liars, and because they often feel they're above the law, they have no problem lying to the court. They may lie about something you said or deny that a conversation took place altogether.
Try to communicate with your ex via text or email only, so you have a word-for-word record of every conversation. Consider using a messaging service designed for high-conflict cases. With Custody X Change messaging, you can organize conversations by topic. You can also print out any conversation for the court — with hostile language flagged.
When you can't avoid in-person or phone conversations, note the details in a parenting journal.
How to get child custody from a narcissist
Consider sole and joint custody
Maybe you want to seek sole physical custody and sole legal custody. Keep in mind that state custody laws assert that it's in children's best interests for parents to share custody. Exceptions include cases with domestic violence and child abuse.
Family court judges typically only award sole physical custody if evidence proves the other parent is a safety risk to the child. (Parents may still share legal custody in these situations.) Even when sole custody is ordered, family courts won't cut off a parent from their child — some parenting time for the noncustodial parent, often supervised, is typical.
It's likely then that you'll end up sharing joint legal custody and joint physical custody in some form. For legal custody, you might make major parenting decisions together, or they might be divided between the two of you. For physical custody, one of you may be named the residential parent and have the majority of parenting time (e.g., a 70/30 split) or you might have a nearly 50/50 division of time.
To be successful in a child custody dispute, you need to prove that you're better than the other parent at supporting your child's needs and interests. You need evidence showing how you care for your child, along with evidence showing how your ex doesn't.
Family courts don't simply take what parents say at face-value — they require proof (evidence) of every claim made in court paperwork and proceedings. Remember that you not only have to prove the claims you make but also need to disprove claims made by your ex.
Common custody evidence includes photos, emails, text messages, social media posts, family calendars and official records (medical, school, criminal, etc.). Your parenting journal helps you keep an electronic record of all these. You can also use the journal to document the other parent's behavior to share with your lawyer and the court.
Witness testimony is also common evidence in a custody trial. Lay witnesses are people who know the family and testify to what they have personally observed. Parents can also give their own testimony as witnesses. Carefully consider who you want to testify on your behalf and if you want to testify yourself, keeping in mind that the other parent (or their lawyer) can question you and your witnesses.
Create a detailed parenting plan and schedule
A parenting time schedule details when the child lives and spends time with each parent.
When parents agree on a plan and schedule, they create them together and submit them to the court for approval. Since an agreement with a narcissist is unlikely, you'll need to submit your own to the court to show the exact custody arrangements you want.
The more specific and organized your plan, the more effectively it demonstrates to the court your capability as a parent. Your plan should be tailored to your child's needs, with customized provisions for all aspects of co-parenting. Your detailed parenting time schedule should have start and end times for each visit for years to come.
Your lawyer or a mediator can create your plan and schedule, or you can make your own with Custody X Change. Even if a professional is making your final plan, it's a good idea to make your own preliminary version to show what you want.
If your parenting plan and schedule are turned into court orders by the judge, they're your rules for co-parenting with your narcissist ex. (You can also create plans for parallel parenting as an alternative to co-parenting.)
Request a custody evaluation
In a child custody evaluation (sometimes called a custody investigation), a court-appointed custody expert interviews the parents and child individually. To get a bigger picture of the situation, they also review the family's personal records and often interview people who know the family (relatives, child care providers, etc.). They may also conduct scheduled or surprise home visits.
If mental health issues are a concern — including Narcissistic Personality Disorder — the court may order a psychological evaluation, in which a psychologist interviews the parents and child to assess their mental health. Sometimes a psychological evaluation is part of a custody evaluation.
In both types of evaluations, the evaluator writes a report for the judge that summarizes what they've learned about the family and recommends custody arrangements. Judges don't always order what the evaluator recommends, but they give the reports great weight.
Either parent can request an evaluation, or the judge might order one of their own accord (common in high-conflict cases). Additionally, either parent can hire a private custody evaluator to testify as an expert witness.
Keep in mind that these psychological evaluations only provide insights — they don't result in diagnoses. While the evaluator may note how your ex's narcissism prevents healthy parenting, you should also provide the court with proof of a diagnosis if you claim that your ex has NPD.
Request a guardian ad litem
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a court-appointed custody expert who looks out for the interests of the child in custody cases. A trained child advocate (often a lawyer), a GAL conducts a custody investigation and makes recommendations to the judge. They also participate in court proceedings on behalf of the child's best interests — independent of what the parents want.
Either parent can ask the court to appoint a guardian ad litem. In high-conflict cases, judges often appoint them of their own accord when it seems like parents are losing sight of the child's interests. In some family courts, a GAL is automatically appointed when child abuse is alleged or suspected.
Consider your child's involvement in the case
It's a common misconception that a child over a certain age can choose which parent they want to live with after divorce. In fact, while most states allow children to share their preference with the court, only Georgia allows a child (14 or older) to choose which parent has custody.
In all other states, a child's preference is just one of many factors that judges can consider when deciding disputed custody. The older a child is, the more weight a judge is likely to give their preference. Judges also evaluate whether the child's opinion has been unduly influenced (e.g., a parent bribing a teenager with a car). They also make sure the child isn't simply stating a preference for the more lenient parent.
Children rarely testify to their custody preference in open court in front of their parents. Instead, the judge interviews the child privately with a court reporter present. Depending on the court's rules, parents' lawyers may be able to observe or ask questions.
Alternatively, if your child is interviewed by a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem, their preference (if they share one) is included in the report for the judge.
Keep in mind that judges and family courts vary in how they view a child's preference in custody disputes. Some believe it's important that children have a say, while others think it's best to avoid putting children in a position where they have to "choose" between parents. Consider your court's views on this and what's best for your child.
The tools you need when divorcing a narcissist
To successfully navigate your divorce from a narcissist, you need to create a comprehensive parenting plan and visitation schedule, set communication boundaries and document everything.
Fortunately, Custody X Change empowers you to do all of this and more.
The many co-parenting features — the messaging center, expense tracker, parenting journal and parenting time tracker — equip you to effectively go to court against and eventually co-parent with a narcissist.
Use technology to take the guesswork out of the equation and protect your child's future.
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.