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Narcissism and divorce

by | Aug 11, 2021 | Divorce

By Alexandra K. Rigden Esq. & Dr. Michael Plumeri

When someone refers to their ex as a Narcissist, usually I assume the “Narcissist” title is a catch-all term to describe someone who is difficult or self-centered. But it is certainly possible that the “Narcissist” in question has a personality disorder in the clinical sense.

So where does bad behavior end and pathology begin? Where is the line between someone simply at his or her worst because of a family breakup and a true Narcissist with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”)? Dr. Michael Plumeri, clinical psychologist located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, has kindly agreed to assist me with this blog to help answer that question.

NPD is a “Cluster B” personality disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the “DSM”. Other “Cluster B” personality disorders include Antisocial, Borderline, and Histrionic.

We all exhibit narcissistic traits at times, and in fact, they’re essential to our survival; we need a certain amount of self-focus to make it in the world. However, narcissistic traits—a feeling of entitlement, need for attention, an inflated sense of self-importance, and lack of empathy, to name a few—should be exercised in moderation. What sets narcissistic traits apart from actual NPD is the degree to which those traits affect the sufferer and those around him or her.

NPD is characterized by fundamental and consistent issues in the sufferer’s world view and interaction with others; the disorder is pervasive and insidious in the lives of the Narcissist and those around him or her. Someone does not simply become a Narcissist during or after a divorce or family breakup. If you are dealing with a Narcissist post-breakup, then you were dealing with one when you were together, although it may have been hidden better. There is some good news, though. It’s statistically unlikely that the Ex actually suffers from NPD in the clinical sense.

According to the DSM, the prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the US is about 0.5%-1% of the general population, or roughly 3 million people. While that number is not insignificant, in comparison to the US population of 330 million people, the chances you are dealing with someone who actually has NPD are relatively small.

So, while I cannot rule out that everyone who has told me “my ex is a Narcissist” may have actually been right—that his or her ex has NPD—statistics show that the “Narcissist” is more likely someone exhibiting certain traits due to a stressful divorce/family breakup.

My hope for clients in such situations is that once the fog of the family breakup clears, those narcissistic traits begin to subside, and the clients and their families can move toward a happier, more peaceful future. Personality disorder or not, the stress of dealing with narcissistic traits is significant for clients and can, simply put, make life a lot more difficult.

If you think you are dealing with a Narcissist (or just someone showing narcissistic traits), or believe you may suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you should seek the guidance of a qualified therapist.