"Situational narcissism" is a term that describes self-centered behaviors often seen in a crisis like a divorce. Individuals become hyper-focused on their own needs and survival, putting their spouse's or children's interests on the back burner. They may begin exhibiting negative and self-serving behaviors that are not normal for them. In other words, they begin acting like a jerk. While extremely challenging, these self-centered emotions are a normal crisis-response for some people. They should not give anyone automatic license to label their ex as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Nor would I encourage the practice of nonchalantly announcing, "I'm divorcing a narcissist!". Let me explain why.
Narcissists and Divorce
It's important to distinguish between 'situational narcissism' and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which is a diagnosed personality disorder determined by mental health professionals. Approximately 0.5% of people suffer from NPD, so it is comparatively uncommon. Mental health practitioners use the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a guide, which contains clear, enduring, and stable criteria for diagnosis.
NPD is diagnostically defined in the DSM-5 (APA 2013; pages 669-672) as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, with interpersonal entitlement, exploitiveness, arrogance, and envy. Five out of nine of these criteria need to be present to meet the diagnosis of NPD.
The nine criteria are:
DSM 1: Grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievement and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements);
DSM 2: Fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
DSM 3: Belief in being “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should be associated with, other special or high-status people (or institutions);
DSM 4: Requires excessive admiration;
DSM 5: Sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations;
DSM 6: Interpersonally exploitive, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his/her own ends;
DSM 7: Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others;
DSM 8: Envious of others or believes that others are envious of him/her;
DSM 9: Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
True narcissists exhibit extremely negative traits and behaviour in comparison with people who may behave survivalistic and self-centred when going through a crisis.
My Story About Situational Narcissism
"I don't know what happened - it's like someone flipped the 'stupid switch.'" That's what I used to tell my confused friends and family when they were shocked to hear that my children's father had just up and left us. At the time, labelling people as narcissists wasn't in style, so I didn't have the language to explain it that way. And that's probably a good thing because I most certainly would've said he was a narcissist...
... and I would've been wrong.
Yes, he took all the money and hid it. Yes, he moved 2000 miles away and dropped out of my kid's lives. Yes, he hired the meanest lawyer he could and crucified me in court (I had no money to hire a lawyer because he took it all). Yes, he declared bankruptcy and left me to carry his debt. Sounds like a narcissist, right?
But here's the thing: he wasn't always that way. And from what I can tell, he's not like that now. NPD is an enduring personality trait over time. True narcissists exhibit the diagnostic traits of NPD for most of their adult lives.
As much as I hate how my children and I were treated, if I'm truly honest, my ex does not meet the criteria for NPD. So, what arose in him internally that flipped the 'stupid switch' and caused him to act like a jerk?
I hold a degree in Psychology and have extensively studied psychological disorders and personality types over the years. One of the most important things anyone will learn in psychology is that people are complex, and understanding them requires a comprehensive, holistic analysis of all the areas of their lives.
In my opinion, the issues I faced with my children's father were a result of various factors, including his personality type, a significant change in his employment (a triggering event), and a subsequent 'mid-life crisis' despite being only 37 years old at the time. Do these things excuse his behavior? No. But putting everything into a comprehensive context makes forgiveness a little easier.
Mid-life Crisis and Divorce
Midlife crisis is a term that describes a period of change in identity and confidence that can happen to people in their 40s-60s. It affects 20% or less of the population. This indicates that multiple factors likely influence this state, including personality, health, job status, family status, etc. There may or may not be a triggering event, such as a career change, unexpected unemployment or significant loss.
Individuals in a midlife crisis might feel down, disillusioned, anxious, angry, and sad. They may also experience a sense of not knowing where their life is heading, questioning the choices they've made up until now and feeling like they've missed out on something important. They may experience regrets over not doing things they had hoped would be part of their life's path.
In my situation, my ex had taken a retirement package from a major automotive manufacturer during the economic downturn of 2008-09. He intended to go to graduate school or enter a career path using his degree. As the months rolled by and he failed to move in any direction, ennui settled in, and a deep dissatisfaction began growing. I became the target for much of the misery. Things spiralled from there.
Certain family members that my ex had resisted in the past started influencing his perspectives. Eventually, crazy ideas that he'd never been given an ounce of consideration to previously won him over. This problematic situation forced me to begin standing up for myself and the children in ways I had never had to before...
...and the brown stuff hit the fan.
Finding Opportunity in Situational Narcissism
I'll be the first to say that the kids and I were hurt badly by what happened. I had to find a way forward in a situation that was trying to victimize us every which way it could. I had no money, and I ended up with all the debt due to the bankruptcy. I had no house. My father, whom I was a caregiver for, had become severely disabled in the middle of all of this by his second major stroke. I was finishing my psychology degree and still had a three-year-old at home. My ex's malicious lawyer convinced the judge to impute income to me and decrease my chart amount of child support even though I actually qualified for additional support because I was still in university and had a little one that wasn't school age yet!
Yup. Pretty dirty.
I felt targeted, manipulated and abused. I also realized that nobody would rescue me and that I'd have to find the opportunity in what I was going through. I'm not going to lie; the healing process was rough.
I finished my degree (with honours). I continued on to graduate studies in mediation while starting a landscaping business with the tools in my shed. I got through my education and decided that the best way to get back at the divorce demons was to help others NOT go through what I had. I set out to become the best mediator I could and provide people with the tools and resources I so badly needed in my situation but could not find (probably because they didn't exist).
If you're experiencing an ex who is displaying self-centred, survivalist, narcissistic behaviour, I challenge you to assess your situation honestly. Ask yourself:
Have they always been this way?
When did this start?
Am I in real danger?
Where is the opportunity in this difficult situation?
Who can support me as I walk through this?
Of course, if you are in danger or dealing with a genuinely nefarious ex, you should reach out for help and protection. For the rest of us, consider that you may be experiencing 'situational narcissism' or that your ex is just acting like a...um...jerk. This doesn't give your ex a free pass but will help you reframe your perspective.
It has been said that resentment is like drinking poison and hoping that the other person will die. While I hope that no one has to go through what I did, if you find yourself in a terrible divorce, I challenge you to surround yourself with uplifting, supportive people. Resist the temptation to live out of bitterness, hatred and vengeance. Choose friends, family, and therapists who will help you walk the high road and assist you in rebuilding your life positively. This is vital for your healing.
Also, remember that your children are witnessing you as you walk through this. Give them a model you would be proud to see them imitate.
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