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Who's Not Honoring Me Now? How Your Narcissistic Ex Really Feels About Child Support

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So, you realized just a smidge too late that you married a narcissist. You tried to stay the course, but eventually you realized that if you didn't get out, it might cost you your sanity. You mustered the courage to leave him. Now all you have to do is soldier through a brutal divorce (and it's going to be brutal because narcissists aren't capable of having civil divorces), and make it out alive. Then, at long last, you'll get to the point where the clouds part and you and your kids live happily ever after, right? Not quite.

If you have kids with a narcissist, there's one important thing you need to know about the post-divorce phase: Contributing economically to raising your children is going to chafe against his narcissistic tendencies, which means getting your ex to meet his obligations can be tricky business.

According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is defined as

a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

A narcissist's craving for admiration compels him to work overtime at creating the appearance of success and this often drives him to live beyond his means. For example, he probably doesn't just own more house than he needs, he owns more house than he can afford; and he gets a new car as often as most people get a new carton of milk. The strain of trying to keep up appearances coupled with his sense of superiority ends up affecting how he meets (or fails to meet) his financial obligations.

To keep his house of cards from falling, a narcissist often prioritizes his bills in predictable ways. He's slow to make payments either for things he doesn't value, or to people who have less power than him. He also drags his feet on paying bills if slow-paying them won't negatively impact his reputation. In other words, a narcissist will make his house or car payment, but string along the yard guy. He'll pay his credit card bill because that affects his credit score, but he'll stiff his brother-in-law for his portion of the rent for the vacation house everyone agreed to go in on last summer. He'll pay the country club dues on time, but not get around to sending in the check for the balance of his kid's summer camp tuition until after the deadline. Most people would have a hard time sleeping knowing that they owed their housekeeper money and she and her family were doing without as a result. But a narcissist's disregard for other people's feelings conveniently insulates him from such pesky pangs of guilt.

Narcissists are wired for admiration rather than love, and that means they often have a difficult time with interpersonal relationships. They tend to surround themselves with people whom they judge to be needy, inferior or "broken" because being with them makes them feel better about themselves by comparison. Not surprisingly, narcissists typically love being around their kids when they're young. Little kids rely on grownups for so much that it's easy to look and feel powerful by comparison -- and that feeling of power is what narcissists feed on. Plus, narcissists view their children as extensions of themselves, and that makes small children every narcissist's dream accessory: adorable little "Minnie Me's." But as your kids get older, expect their relationship with their dad to become more challenging. If your kids struggle, chose a path that your ex doesn't approve of or fail to otherwise puff up your ex's ego, he is likely to cut them off both financially and emotionally.

With that profile in mind, how will your ex handle his financial obligations related to his children? It depends on what obligation you're talking about. When it comes to court-ordered child support, he will (eventually) pay it because he really has no choice. But nothing gets a narcissist's goat like being ordered to do something. He believes he is superior, and that means he's the only one qualified to give out orders.

In order to reconcile himself to making these payments, your ex will tell himself that the payment isn't an obligation, but rather an act of sheer generosity. By the time he finally strokes that check for not a penny more than the court-ordered statutory guidelines, he has convinced himself that he's not paying child support because he's legally obligated; he's lavishing money on his children because he's Mr. Generous Moneybags. Since he views his payments as acts of generosity, the concept of paying on time doesn't really come into play. In his mind it's a gift so you'll get it when he gets around to giving it.

When it comes to any additional obligations to his children that are not specifically covered in the divorce decree, getting him to pitch in is hit or miss. But if you think of each obligation in terms of how a narcissist sees it, you will be able to gauge with remarkable accuracy whether he's likely to ever come through with his portion. The bottom line is this: If the obligation in question affects his reputation in circles he cares about, he's more likely to pay.

This knowledge can help you figure out how to structure the payment of your children's expenses. For example, if you and your ex jointly decide to send your kid to a posh private school and the tuition isn't covered in your decree, don't pay the school all of the tuition then expect your ex to reimburse you for his half. Your ex is likely to come through only if he has to pay the school directly. That way he gets the big fish points if he pays, and looks like a deadbeat if he doesn't. Sadly, it's the promise of the former and the threat of the latter that will motivate him more than any desire to do the right thing by you and your kid.

Because narcissists crave admiration, it's actually quite easy to get them to pitch in for their share of expenses if you are willing to appeal to their gigantic ego. By telling your ex that he is the most amazing and generous dad ever, and that paying a particular expense would constitute "going above and beyond," rather than presenting it as simply a bill that is due and payable, he is likely to whip out his credit card faster than he's willing to take credit for other people's accomplishments -- and you already know how fast he does that.

But manipulating a narcissist is a dirty game, and most decent people don't have the stomach for it. It requires both degrading yourself and feeding his illness. In a word, it's unhealthy for both of you. Resorting to these measures to get your way feels a lot like plying an alcoholic with liquor: Just because it works doesn't make it right.

The best approach is to make sure your decree is as specific as possible. In addition to garden-variety child support, make sure your decree addresses private school tuition, tutoring costs, private lesson fees, activities fees, extra curricular expenses, summer camp costs and anything else you can reasonably foresee. The younger your kids are when you divorce, the more generic this list needs to be since it's difficult to predict what your kids will be interested in when they get older.

On top of all that, it doesn't hurt to keep your research file current on good family lawyers even after your divorce is final. Reasonable divorced parents are typically able to work out disagreements without resorting to lawyers. But you weren't married to a reasonable person. You were married to a narcissist.