It’s tax season, and my ex just handed down one of his rare decrees. After informing me that he was claiming our daughter as a deduction, he went on casually to say that he was expecting to list himself as head of household and hoped I was “okay” with that.
It doesn’t matter how I feel. I have primary physical custody of our daughter, so he cannot claim head of household; even if I wanted to grant him that right, I couldn’t. Because of the disproportionately large income he earns, I had given him the right to claim her as a deduction, but even there he had things wrong. He can’t just do it. It’s not spelled out in the divorce papers, so he needs my permission. And a form with my signature on it.
Since he left almost three years ago, my ex’s narcissism has caused any number of problems, large and small. Narcissists are functionally delusional, and on top of that, they lie a lot. Their lies are a bit hard to pin down because they stem not only from a sense of entitlement but also from the shame they feel at ever being wrong. One never knows if the lie is malicious or simply an attempt to cover their ass.
For instance, when my ex says he wants to list himself as head of household, I have to wonder: Is this just about trying to save some cash, or is it evidence of something darker — say, an attempt to establish a paper trail to obtain shared custody at some later date? Does he even know the law, or did he just pick up a few catch phrases to try and appear erudite?
Knowing that the person you married has no moral compass except the desire to look good in the eyes of other people produces this kind of paranoid thinking. You worry about what they might do, because you know that, under the wrong influence, they could do just about anything.
Remaining ever vigilant like this is bad for your mental health, though. It will make you crazy. It will make you seem crazy when you talk about it.
So take a deep breath, and embrace this essential fact: You can’t win for losing once you divorce a narcissist. Basically, you are screwed. But things could be worse — you could still be married to him — and there are ways to minimize the damage.
Understand the Narcissistic Mindset
Yes, there is a list of diagnostic criteria. All you really need to know about a narcissist, though, is that they live in a grandiose fantasy, like a film or a play, in which they are the central figure. This fantasy is hardcore. It’s not something they dream about while they should be working, the way we dream about losing weight on a diet of Indian food or being loved for who we really are. To them, it is reality, and if you tamper with that reality, they become focused on revenge.
If you tell a narcissist his perception is false, he will want to make you pay. If you make a narcissist look bad, he will want to make you pay. If you out a narcissist, he would rather deprive the kids economically than tolerate a scenario in which you have enough money to live on. He’s not thinking about the kids. He’s thinking about making you pay.
Thus, if you think that just because you are divorced, you can finally stand up to your narcissistic ex, guess again. As long as he has leverage — and to him, the kids are powerful leverage — and an audience that supports his agenda, he will continue to mess with you.
That’s why you need to react as little as possible to the things he does that drive you crazy. You are going to want to fire off an angry email when the kids show up with a suitcase full of dirty clothes. You are going to want to say, “It’s not cool that our daughter met your new girlfriend when she walked in on the two of you in bed.”
You finally have evidence that he is the one thing you didn’t even dream to uttering during the marriage — incompetent, callous, you name it — and you want to shout it from the rooftops.
Here’s what you have to understand, though. In his mind, mistakes are something other people make. Everything he does is justified. He was too busy to wash the clothes because he has an important job. Sex is a natural thing, and it’s no big deal when a kid is exposed to it.
You can’t argue with this logic. Don’t even try. Just realize instead that he didn’t do these things to inconvience you or hurt your child. He did them out of complete indifference to other people because his focus was elsewhere at the time. These things were not part of his script.
Be as Boring as Possible
There are only two ways to get a narcissist’s attention. You either validate the fantasy, or you violate it.
It’s too much to ask, however, that you actively endorse his incompetent or awful behavior, especially if you were a victim of abuse. You need to be angry to heal. You need to embrace the authenticity of your experience.
On the other hand, if you let him know how you really feel, there’s a good chance he will try to make you pay.
The solution is to be as unemotional in your interactions with the narcissist as possible. This really works. However, the advice is extremely difficult to process, let alone put into practice.
For years, you thought you were dealing with a man who was just wounded, or uncommunicative, or had a bad temper. You yelled and pleaded and bargained and capitulated. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes he seemed to respond. But he wasn’t responding to you. He was responding to you because, as his wife, you played a central role in his fantasy.
Now that he is gone, you are a bit player. What you thought was engagement was just self-interest. What you thought was love was enmeshment. Outside of a court order — which could lead to an escalation of legal battles that destroys you economically and ruins your kids’ lives — you cannot get him to pay alimony on time or be a better parent. Nor can you get him to “co-parent.” He will not take his responsibilities seriously unless he wants to impress someone else.
In most cases, you simply have to let it go. Resist the impulse to say “I told you so” when your son breaks his arm because your ex let him hold the dog’s leash while riding his bike. Say, “What time would you like me to pick him up from the hospital?”
And be there for your kids. However good their relationship with the narcissist seems right now, they are going through the same cycle you did. They are actors in a play they didn’t write. They need someone to cheer them on.