Divorcing and Co-Parenting With Narcissists: Lawyers Share Tips For Handling High-Conflict Personalities in Court

Battling a narcissist in the legal system takes strength. Divorcing or negotiating custody with a narcissist is not easy. As a researcher who specializes in narcissism and psychopathy, I hear from many survivors who are struggling with not only with the effects of abuse and manipulation but also with re-traumatization during divorce proceedings, custody hearings, and co-parenting arrangements. These cases often include a narcissistic or otherwise high-conflict personality ex-partner gaslighting others and using the legal system to further abuse the victim. If you are leaving a narcissist, it’s important to create a safety plan for the break-up and explore your options on how to exit effectively as narcissists will attempt to impede your plans. If you are involved in divorce proceedings or custody hearings, learning empowering tips and tools can guide you to stay grounded and in control in what can be an overwhelming journey back to freedom. I asked lawyers and mediators their best tips on how to deal with a narcissist or otherwise high-conflict personality in the court system. Here’s what they advised:

Prepare Yourself As Much As Possible With Knowledge, Tools, and Experts

“The Three Ds: Disengagement, Direct Conversation, and Definitive Boundaries. While the family court system is not typically built for these cornerstones, the hallmark of a narcissist or toxic personality is that they require engagement. They derive intrinsic personal satisfaction from endless interactions, and typically these are fueled by their various insecurities, misguided interpretations or reality, or other maladaptive coping mechanisms. It is necessary, especially with divorces involving children, for parents to communicate about issues involving their children. It may also be necessary to communicate about other important divorce issues, like the sale of a marital residence, the care of a pet, or the distribution of debt. Responding in a factual, non-emotional way is critical. To the best of one’s ability, one should refer to things without the use of “you,” “I,” “believe,” “feel,” or other grey areas. Use the resources available to you. A key resource is a co-parenting app, such as Our Family Wizard, or 2houses. These applications are designed to act as “one-stop shops” for communication for divorced parents. They generally have calendars, messaging systems, reimbursement requests and reconciliation, document sharing, etc. Utilizing one location to manage conversations, instead of calendars, emails, text messages, etc. helps to keep things streamlined and organized. Many of these applications have date stamps, for information sent, received, and read/responded to. This cuts down on the time spent finding information, transferring it from one conversation method (text) to another (email).” –Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq. Lawyer and Co-founder of Jacobs Berger and Family Law Mediator

“Position yourself for success by arming yourself with as much information as possible before starting your divorce. Learn as much as you can about local laws relating to property division, spousal support, and child custody/support as you can. Many states have websites with general information about the laws in your state. Consult with a divorce attorney early on to understand your rights. You should also gather as much information as you can about your own finances and property. This includes ensuring that you have knowledge of and passwords to accounts. This will empower you during the divorce process, as narcissists tend to abuse the discovery process to increase expenses in a divorce.” – Dorit L. Goikhman, Esq., Attorney at Law and Founder of Off the Record Services, LLC

“Try to get the divorce proceeding into a collaborative law process. In this non-adversarial process, the lawyers bring in other consultants such as psychologists, therapists, and financial experts to help sort out all of the issues. Narcissists are extremely difficult to work with because they have no boundaries and little respect for rules. The collaborative process puts up some solid guard rails that can help with this type of personality. Litigation plays into the narcissist’s sense of victimhood so keep the divorce out of the courts as much as possible. If you do go to court on various matters, ask for extreme consequences in the event violations of a court order. Courts will be reluctant to this in the beginning. However, you want to build a track record of misbehavior that a judge will, at some point, not be able to ignore.” –Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, Lawyer and Professional Mediator with decades of experience in de-escalation

When divorcing a narcissist or someone with a high-conflict personality, you must be cautious and keep your actions a secret. Plan your steps carefully and ensure everything is done behind their back. Don’t let them know 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’s important to gather evidence of any wrongdoing. Make sure that all the professionals you hire understand and specialize in NPD and also deeply understand covert abuse because covert abuse is hidden and more difficult to identify. When it comes to co-parenting with a narcissist, it can be challenging. Establish clear boundaries and communicate only about matters directly related to the child. Use the BIFF method, the gray rock method coined by Skylar, and reverse DARVO technique. Narcissists love flattery and compliments. Use flattery as a de-escalation tool. Keep interactions as brief and to-the-point as possible, focusing on the child’s needs. Seek support from trusted friends, family, or support groups who can provide empathy and guidance.” Dr. Avigail Lev, Psychotherapist and Mediator at Bay Area CBT Center

“When divorcing a narcissist, high conflict person, or toxic personality, you should decide early in the process how you would like to proceed with resolving the matter. People with toxic or high conflict personalities are usually loathe to agree to provide their spouses with a settlement based on how a matter is likely to resolve because they believe their spouses don’t deserve it or they are more entitled to it. So, a fair settlement with narcissists is generally difficult to come by. For some spouses of such people, minimizing the conflict is prioritized over asserting and insisting upon their rights in trying to reach an agreement. In such circumstances, the person divorcing a narcissist may not have the stomach, will, or finances to get into a protracted litigation to realize the outcome the law provides whether by settlement or trial, and they prefer to resolve the matter quickly to end the marriage and move on from interactions with their spouse at the expense of their rights. For others, their rights and future is of utmost importance, and they decide early on to commit to doing battle to ensure they obtain the outcome provided by law whether in or out of court. In such situations, the person divorcing a narcissist is fully anticipating and accepting that they will have to assert and fight for their rights until the narcissist waives the white flag or, more likely, a judge decides a outcome after trial.” Rajeh A. Saadeh, Divorce Lawyer at The Law Office of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C. 

Stay Calm and Consistent In Your Boundaries and Communication

“A way to help in custody cases in dealing with a narcissistic ex is to ensure that any Settlement Agreement is as detailed and precise as possible. Follow the Agreement as written. Do not expect courtesy or logic to prevail in attempting to be “flexible” with the schedule. If it occurs, this is a win. Otherwise, default to the specific language of your Agreement or Order, which helps keep things clear and concise. Choosing how many times to respond is another. If 10 emails are received within a short period of time, one to two responses grouping issues together may be the best recourse. Allowing for time to settle is important – you must respond, not react. Responding focuses on the issue and allows for clear, concise statements with appropriate boundary setting.” –Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq. Co-founder of Jacob’s Berger and Family Law Mediator

“Custody hearings are highly emotional and your ex knows which buttons to push to trigger you. Don’t take the bait in the heat of the moment and do not respond to personal attacks. Remember that negative attention is still attention that just rewards the toxic behavior and ensures it will repeat. Allow at least twenty minutes to pass if you feel your temper rising. When possible, default to listening, and ask yourself, “Does this communication truly require a response?” More often than not, the answer is “no” (because it’s just venting or an attack). And if not, use the power of silence.” S. Lucia Kanter, Attorney and Vice President of UN Women, San Francisco  

The best advice would be to disengage emotionally to the greatest extent possible and as early as possible, and to make every attempt to establish a visitation schedule that will work for you. When communicating regarding the children, stick only to the necessary facts and details. Don’t allow the other party to get a rise out of you. Never put angry messages into writing, and don’t badmouth the other party to the children – no matter how tempting that may be. Be sure to consult with a lawyer early on as to your rights regarding the children.” Dorit L. Goikhman, Esq., Attorney at Law and Founder of Off the Record Services, LLC

Set clear and firm boundaries with the narcissistic or high-conflict individual. Communicate through written channels, such as email, to minimize direct confrontations and ensure a documented record of conversations.” Michael Callahan, Lawyer at The Callahan Law Firm

It is imperative that a client allow their attorney to fully represent them and therefore for the client to trust that the attorney will negotiate on their behalf even if the soon to be ex-spouse is a narcissist. Too frequently a client allows themselves to be “gas lit” and/or goaded by a narcissistic personality into making decisions based on emotions. Let your attorney hammer out the details of an agreement with opposing counsel and avoid all the senseless
and costly drama of a personality disorder.” — David Reischer, EsqFamily Law Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com 

Documentation is important.

In contentious divorce or custody cases, it’s important to document
everything. Detailed documentation helps create an accurate record of events, conversations, and incidents that occur during the divorce process. It serves as a reliable source of information to refer back to when needed, especially if there are conflicting accounts or attempts to distort the truth. By maintaining accurate records, you can provide a clear and consistent narrative to the court, which can strengthen your case.” Anderson Franco, Lawyer in San Francisco

“The more you can document, the better. This will not only help you to defuse and deflect some of their more egregious lies and avoid unnecessary arguments, but it can also help you get more favorable divorce terms. Video, audio recordings, and text screenshots are all useful here.” Ben Michael, Attorney, M & A Criminal Defense Attorneys

Keep a written record of everything and make sure to document and track any relevant information that can support your case. Having audio and video recording is helpful, but you must notify the person you are recording in some states so be careful. You must keep the narcissist in the dark about your plans and actions. An individual therapist who specializes in NPD can help you predict their behavior and keep yourself safe. Couples therapy may not be the best option when dealing with a narcissist, as it can potentially worsen the situation. Most couples therapists can’t identify NPD, especially covert narcissism, and some are even afraid of them. You must find a therapist that really gets covert abuse and NPD.” Dr. Avigail Lev, Psychotherapist and Mediator at Bay Area CBT Center 

“Maintain a detailed record 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.” —Michael Callahan, Lawyer at The Callahan Law Firm

In Custody Hearings, Stick To The Evidence and Minimize Contact

Dealing with a narcissistic ex in custody situations, my advice is to prioritize the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Courts always look out for the child’s best interest, so parents should focus on providing a stable, supportive environment. When narcissists are involved, detailed, fact-based evidence of parental competence can be the tool to reveal any manipulative behavior and influence custody rulings.” Min Hwan Ahn, Esq, Attorney at Law Office of Ahn and Sinowitz

In custody cases involving a narcissistic ex, it is crucial to gather evidence of their harmful behaviors and their negative impact on the children. Document instances of manipulation, emotional abuse, or neglect, and gather any witnesses or testimonies that can support your case. It’s important to remain calm and composed during court proceedings, presenting yourself as a stable and reliable parent. Focus on the best interests of the children and provide concrete examples of how you can meet their needs and create a nurturing environment. Engage the services of an experienced family law attorney who understands the complexities of dealing with a narcissistic ex and can advocate for your rights effectively. For co-parenting, effective communication and establishing clear boundaries are the key. Keep discussions centered on the children and their well-being, and avoid engaging in personal attacks or power struggles with your co-parent. Collen Clark, Attorney of Schmidt and Clark, LLP

When dealing with a narcissistic ex when it comes to custody, minimizing interactions is of utmost importance. Your custody schedule and terms should already be set in an agreement or court order, and that framework should be followed generally by both parents without having to interact. After all, they are no longer a couple. There should be very few reasons why the two parents have to interact, and those interactions should be minimized in terms of occurrences and duration. The narcissist may try to increase and intensify those interactions; the other parent should not fall for the trap and feed into anything that will stroke the narcissist’s ego, including having unnecessary discussions.”Rajeh A. Saadeh, Divorce Lawyer at The Law Office of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C. 

“In custody cases involving a narcissistic parent, it’s important to prioritize the best interests of the child. The narcissist will use the child as manipulation and control tactic and does not care about their best interest. You must protect your child at all costs. Maintain a detailed record of any incidents or concerning behavior by the narcissistic parent that may impact the child’s well-being. Document instances where they fail to fulfill their parental responsibilities or act inappropriately.” Dr. Avigail Lev, Psychotherapist and Mediator at Bay Area CBT Center

Prioritize the needs of the children when co-parenting.

“Create a detailed parenting plan that outlines each parent’s responsibilities, visitation schedules, and decision-making processes. Stick to the agreed-upon plan and be consistent with your actions and expectations. Prioritize open and respectful communication, whether it be through dedicated co-parenting apps or regular meetings. Remember to be flexible and willing to compromise when necessary, but always prioritize the best interests of your children. Seek support from a family therapist or mediator if conflicts become overwhelming, as they can help facilitate productive conversations and find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”  Collen Clark, Attorney of Schmidt and Clark, LLP

Co-parenting may not be possible. While it is desirable, and encouraged by the court system, co-parenting implies that both parties have the ability to focus on the children, and not on their own agenda, and to have logical discussions about the issues. Narcissists, or toxic personalities, are not able to act in this manner. Therefore, it may be best to parallel parent, rather than attempt to co-parent. However, it is necessary to share information. Consider delivering information instead of soliciting feedback. There is a big difference between “Johnny has expressed an interest in soccer. The two leagues are X and Y, which costs A and B. X is best for Johnny’s school schedule. Practices are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30-7:15. I plan to sign Johnny up by June 15th” and “Johnny has expressed an interest in soccer. I can research which programs are best. Do you have thoughts?” The former provides information, outlines a plan, and delivers an opportunity for a response. The latter asks open-ended questions, inviting circular discussion and space for discord. While the former may seem dictatorial, it is more a form of direct communication, which is critical in these types of relationships with difficult personalities.” –Sarah J. Jacobs, Esq. Co-founder of Jacob’s Berger and Family Law Mediator

Remember that court is a matter of last resort. As much as you may dislike your co-parent, there is often some common ground where you can agree in order to avoid escalating your dispute. Remember that you may need to deal with this person for 18+ years. Try to pick your battles and see where you can find agreements. If you are negotiating a parenting plan, don’t run away from issues that you suspect will arise. Instead, you should work with a mediator and lean into those issues – so that you can have a plan in writing. For example, if you know that exchanges tend to lead to disagreements, make sure your plan contains every possible detail about exchanges. This will reduce the stress of co-parenting enormously by lending predictability to your relationship.” Dorit L. Goikhman, Esq., Attorney at Law and Founder of Off the Record Services, LLC

“Co-parenting is challenging, more so with a high-conflict personality. Having clear and precise boundaries can help. Use written communication as much as possible to avoid any confusion and provide a record of all discussions. Furthermore, developing a consistent routine for the children, with minimal deviations, can support stability in their lives during this tumultuous period.” Min Hwan Ahn, Esq, Attorney at Law Office of Ahn and Sinowitz

The narcissist will use the children to hurt you. It’s sick, but it’s the
sad truth. Keep the boundaries tight and do not cross them. Narcissists only respond to severe consequences so build those into your parenting plan and enforce them. Get your kids into therapy so they can gain some tools to deal with the family break-up and the ungoverned narcissistic behavior they will be exposed to.” –Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, Lawyer and Professional Mediator with decades of experience in de-escalation

Cooperation is ideal for all. Unfortunately, that takes two. If you can’t get the other parent to become cooperative, then it’s a lot easier to accept that and proceed accordingly than continue trying to be flexible and coparent with someone who has no real interest in doing so.” Rajeh A. Saadeh, Divorce Lawyer at The Law Office of Rajeh A. Saadeh, L.L.C. 

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.