An inflated sense of self-importance, a need for attention from others, and a lack of empathy are some of the hallmark behaviors of narcissism and sound like what not to look for in a spouse or dating partner. In this episode, Michelle Chiaramonte, LCSW and owner of Lumina Counseling Associates shares her expertise about navigating the divorce process when a narcissist is involved.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode 2 of Season 5 of “A Year and a Day.” I’m your host, Jamie Davis. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Michelle Chiaramonte. You may recall that Michelle joined us last season to talk about why you should consider individual therapy if you are going through a divorce. And we are happy to have Michelle back with us today to discuss navigating the divorce process if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of divorcing a narcissist. Michelle is the owner of Lumina Counseling Associates located in downtown Raleigh. She attended the University of Chicago for graduate school and is a licensed clinical social worker in both North Carolina and Georgia. Michelle has been in private practice for 14 years in both Cary and Raleigh.
Hi Michelle. Thank you for joining me today.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Thank you for having me.
Jaime Davis: So tell our listeners a little bit about your practice.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Uh, I see families, individuals, couples, uh, typically folks that are dealing with either life transitions or some mood disturbance, anxiety, depression, um, work challenges, things that just aren’t going real well in life. And they’re looking for some support and guidance to, to move into a better space.
Jaime Davis: So you are going to be a great guest today to talk about the topic that we have at hand. Um, I hear a lot of comments from clients that they believe that their spouse might be a narcissist. What is narcissism?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Narcissism is typically associated with folks that have an inflated ego, sometimes in arrogance is, is how it’s kind of described. They have a deep need for a lot of attention and admiration. They tend to be very, uh, sometimes troubled in relationships, lacking empathy. So it’s that person that you feel like the entire world revolves around them and, and everyone around them is there to kind of serve their needs.
Jaime Davis: So what would you say are the hallmark behaviors of a narcissist?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Narcissist tend to have a lot of contradictory behavior and a lot of extreme behavior. So they tend to be grandiose in nature when they’re good. They’re very charming. They’re usually the life of the party or the life of the room. When things, uh, offend them, or they take offense to maybe a slight that you or I might not even perceive as a slight, it can be an extreme rage reaction. They tend to be charismatic and then ultimately cold, a lot of unrealistic expectations, pursuit of perfection and expecting perfection in those around them. So this kind of omnipotent, I’m always right, kind of space. They, they have all the answers and, and none of, none of the negatives in life apply to them.
Jaime Davis: I see. So is narcissism like an all or nothing like either you have it or you don’t or is it more of a continuum?
Michelle Chiaramonte: It is definitely a continuum. Uh, all of us have have different types of narcissism. There is a healthy narcissism, that’s our space of confidence and mastery. That is something that we often see, you know, in the toddler years and that thread pulls through, uh, into our adult lives. So at the, at the most basic like innocuous, and it is that healthy kind of self-esteem and confidence. And at the other extreme are your folks that would maybe be more diagnosable, um, which is typically the statistic is about 1% of the population right now, but isn’t that more roller coaster, um, intense, extreme behaviors.
Jaime Davis: Is there any particular type of person or group of people that is more likely to be diagnosed with narcissism?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Typically it’s men, um, the diagnosis rates much higher in men, and it is kind of, um, therapeutically associated with men. It tends to be folks that were probably the golden child in their family, that there’s been a lot of enabling and idolizing in their younger years. Um, families that don’t have real good boundaries, you know, often that there’s not a clear boundary between parent and child and that child is really more powerful or more in control of the family situation than, than the parent has been.
Jaime Davis: If you are in a dating relationship with someone and you suspect they may have narcissistic tendencies, are there any red flags that you should be on the lookout for?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes, definitely. I would be on the lookout for how do they treat others? You know, how do they interact with, with all different kinds of, of people in life, from their friends, their coworkers, how they describe family, even down to how they interact with, you know servers and wait staff and in store employees, because, uh, in with a lot of narcissism, you know, you can see a lot of blaming behavior, a lot of lack of personal responsibility, just not being nice, maybe always being somewhat inflated and above those that they’re around.
But typically they, they tend to really like attention as well. So their slights will be, if somebody’s not paying them enough attention or not being how they want them to be it, you’re looking for that, that space that they seem to have this need for people to admire and idolize them, without taking any responsibility for any of their own actions.
Jaime Davis: If you are in a relationship with someone and you start to notice some of these red flags and you suspect the person made be a narcissist, and you’re just ready to end this relationship, you’ve decided it’s not for you. Do you have any tips for how to best handle the breakup?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes. The, the most effective approach is to A: set boundaries. So narcissists are not really big fans of boundaries and limits since they tend to, uh, like the control in the situation. So if you can set boundaries and have minimal engagement, your boundaries need to be clear and they need to be simple. Um, narcissists thrive off the back and forth. They thrive off the interaction and the attention. So if you can set the boundary where you’re minimizing that engagement, you’re effectively trying to minimize some of the conflict. Another space is to really know yourself and know your vulnerabilities.
So if you’ve been in relationship with a narcissist that is often extremely, uh, challenging to one sense of, uh, self in one sense of self, it can really take a toll on people. You may not trust yourself. You may not trust that, you know exactly what’s going on. A lot of people say it feels kind of crazy. They don’t, they don’t believe what they’re thinking. So if you especially, you know, can get some support and maybe some individual therapy and know what your vulnerabilities are, know what that first has, has used against you in the past so that you can, you can have the adequate support and kind of shore up those spaces to understand that this is the narcissist trying to control you, versus this is actually one of your flaws or shortcomings.
Jaime Davis: Got it. I can see where that might become a gray area for someone, if they’ve been in a relationship like that for an extended period of time. When you talk about setting boundaries, can you give our listeners an example of what you mean by that?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yeah. So if, if say that a conflict arises with the narcissist partner and you are receiving like pages and pages of texts or emails or phone calls, either just filled with a lot of rage or a lot of pity, or a lot of emotion, rather than respond to that, setting the limit would be, please do not contact me. If you need support, here is a better option. So it’s redirecting without necessarily coming back at or addressing the emotion because that’s what they want. They want the attention and they want to know that they’re evoking an emotion in you. So if you can be as clear and as calm and redirected as possible, that would be one way to set the boundary. If you have someone who is again, like the phone calls, then the voicemails, you know, if they’re threatening to harm themselves or someone else it’s, it’s, it’s more effective to just respond with, if you need support, please call 911. If you continue to contact me for your safety and that of others, I’m going to call 911. It’s better just to, to be clear, concise and simple, rather than try to reason with the, the person in that emotional state.
Jaime Davis: Right because it seems like then you’re feeding into exactly what they want from you that you’re, you’re giving them that engagement that they’re seeking. Is that right?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes. The thing that that narcissists want is they want control. They want power and they want to dominate often. And so, as long as you’re engaging with them, then they know, right, that they’re achieving those goals. It’s not like you’re going to, to reason with someone in that state, it’s almost like children, when they’re in a meltdown, you know, often you’re waiting for them to calm down. You’re not trying to reason them out of that space. And with narcissists, it’s very similar. When there’s a lot of emotion that they’re out for anything that you give, they will take and use against you to continue the interaction.
Jaime Davis: So back to our dating relationship that we were discussing a little bit earlier, how is the narcissist in that situation likely to react to a breakup?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Usually very poorly, um, especially if, you know, they’re, if they’re in control and then all of a sudden, you know, they’re not able to control that partner and keep that partner, uh, use that partner for what they need, then they tend to have, you know, extreme reactions. They tend to be very roller-coaster, so very vacillating between being extremely charming and extremely rageful. Uh, they tend to be threatening. They will often, you know, threaten people’s safety or their own safety or their job or their children or their social life to get them to get back in line and to keep the relationship. They, they are going to be the one that decides when the really is over, not the partner.
Jaime Davis: Often, would you say these threats are idle, or does the narcissist typically follow through on what they’re threatening to do if they find themselves in this position of their partner breaking up with them?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I typically advise people to plan for the worst and or the best. So if we think about it as the continuum, um, if you are able to, you know, look at the relationship as a whole and kind of honestly be able to see, okay, where do I think this person has fallen on the continuum of narcissism? If they’ve shown you intense patterns of behavior in the past, then I would treat that more seriously that yes, they can be a safety concern and can be quite extreme. If they would fall on that less intense end of the spectrum, where you really haven’t seen a full lot of, of real highs or lows, but yet you’ve got some of this manipulative behavior that has happened, then I would approach it with that little bit more moderate eye. But yes, they, they can be unpredictable at times.
Jaime Davis: So that’s probably one of the more difficult parts of dealing with a narcissist I would think is that you just don’t know how they’re going to react. You know, they’re going to, but you’re not always quite sure what to expect. Would you agree with that?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I would completely agree with that, yes. It, it makes it very difficult and it makes it often a fear-based space, which is a very powerful emotion. And so part of dealing with the narcissist is having that adequate support to really gauge where am I at on that fear scale? And if I look at a worst case scenario, am I willing to accept that? Or is there anything I can do with that? So that tends to be like part of the therapeutic approaches, disarming some of the fear yet being realistic about, should someone be unpredictable and pull this thread through, what would the plan be?
Jaime Davis: Got it. That makes sense. If you get past the dating relationship and find yourself married to a narcissist, are there certain behaviors you can expect them to exhibit?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes. I would say everything that we’ve discussed thus far, you know, you would anticipate seeing. They’re, they’re fairly consistent in their approach. So even though their behaviors can be somewhat unpredictable, you can pull a pattern of behavior through. But I think once you’re married, uh, once they’re in marriage with someone, I think you tend to see more of the competitiveness arise. So they might be competing with a partner that, you know, socially or professionally, they may be trying to diminish or shrink, you know, a partner in, in an effort to, to be the one that is more liked or the one that is more successful. You can also notice that people may develop a fixation on material items that, you know, outward appearance of success or image. They want the perfect home. They have to have the right car. They need to have the perfect family.
And then I think you see it in the parenting. Their children either have to be perfect to fit the image and to support that narcissist, you know, view of himself for herself in the community, or you have that narcissist that can sometimes just retreat from parenting. This is not what I signed up for. They’re just here to make me look good. They don’t listen to me. And so this is the partner’s issue. So I think you see this on the one hand competitiveness with the partner and minimizing the partner. But then I think you also can notice this, the fixation with the, the material picture and their children, really just being there to make them look good.
Jaime Davis: Do these behaviors change at all if the couple is entering the divorce space?
Michelle Chiaramonte: No. If anything, you often see an intensificaiton of the patterns, because again, once divorce comes into play that, um, insecure, dominating, powerful part of the personality, you know, becomes more prominent, which then usually, uh, plays itself out in child custody and the financial settlements, right? There’s a lot of punishing and control behaviors that are clearly wrapped up in divorce.
Jaime Davis: In your experience, have you noticed differences in the divorce process when one of the spouses is a narcissist?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes. Divorces typically take a lot longer. They can be a lot more costly. There can be lot of conflict and a lot of drama, a lot of renegotiation. You might feel like you’re getting to a place where you’re in agreement and then the next week that’s as if it didn’t even happen and we throw that agreement out and we start over. And so it’s a, a very involved, engaging, um, process. I think you see a lot more of alienation of affection, um, cases. They, they want to punish partners. They want to diminish, they want to minimize, they wanna assert their dominance. And so that is, is a form of threat. Um, they can be very threatening and very manipulative about children and finances and family and their social standing as well.
Jaime Davis: I think that’s really interesting. From the divorce lawyer standpoint, I will say that it seems the cases where one side or the other is a narcissist tend to be the cases that are much more highly litigated and for a longer period of time.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Absolutely. They, they like the engagement, they thrive off the interaction and the negative emotion. And so the more that feeds them, the more they’re going to keep that going.
Jaime Davis: I’m sure you have been on both sides of the issue and have worked both with patients with narcissism, as well as the spouse or the dating partner. Without disclosing anything confidential, can you give our listeners some examples of how narcissism can play out in a romantic relationship?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Absolutely. Uh, one that comes to mind was a father who was a little bit later in life. It was his, um, final child, kind of a late child in life, and he became absolutely obsessed at the point of the partner relationship breakup with this child, that he had to have equal time. He had to be flown across the country at his whim. He needed to, he needed all these things with this child, although he had no relationship with the child in the first several years of the child’s life. And often the child would be flown across the country to then sit in a home with a housekeeper and a nanny and never see the father, right? But it was constant litigation. It had to be called into a parent coordinator space. The attorneys finally said, we, we have to, we have to stop all of the drama and, and pass it off to a parent coordinator.
But then, uh, he was, he had a younger girlfriend at one point who, who thought that he needed to be a father. So all of a sudden he was coming to the area and he was gonna buy a house and he’s staying at the Umstead and, and the child’s eating, you know, a hundred dollars steak dinners and yet no engagement, right? No, no follow through. It was really just this show of him being the right father and this big man and, and really just using the child, you know, throughout, um, young childhood and adolescence. So that was like one example that comes to mind. Um, we’ve had other clients, you know, where again, maybe, maybe the narcissist doesn’t portray himself as real rageful. So he is almost more submissive in the family setting. And he kind of goes along and goes along. But at the same time, you know, there’s an image to keep up and there’s a lifestyle to provide.
And so he starts to cut corners and he starts to lie and he starts to manipulate his business and, and maybe tax evade. And then when, when the reality comes, it’s a very extreme, emotional reaction. So at times he was extremely suicidal. He tried to throw himself underneath a parked car in the driveway, resulting in the police coming. Um, so he was kind of a, a fly under the radar, not so much as like a dominant personality, but yet when reality came, there was no way that he could manage it, and then that became his family’s burden to manage. Um, one divorce that we, that we are familiar with, uh, the husband, once he saw what the financial settlement was going to be decided to attempt a reconciliation, to give himself time, to, uh, have his house foreclosed, to rack up credit card debt, to, uh, claim bankruptcy, which then allowed him to basically, uh, walk out of the situation, you know, with no financial ramifications, very, very minimal child support, no alimony, leaving his wife with no home. She had not been employed, not really concerned with his children and just kind of walking away with, without owing anybody, anything. And, and in the midst of that as well, there was a lot of threat of alienation of affection, um, case being brought in the meantime too.
Jaime Davis: So is that the self absorption that we’re seeing that the person is getting divorced and they’re basically like, I’d rather burn it down than let you have any of it. Is that what that is?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Yes, absolutely. It is all about them and anybody around them is there for their use and their fulfillment. And when you are of no use to me than you are nothing to me.
Jaime Davis: What tips do you have for folks who find themselves in the position of divorcing a narcissist?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I think number one, individual therapy is, is a huge plus because it’s that space of knowing yourself and the fear and the vulnerability, and just really having that support. Um, having a healthy support system in general, cultivating the relationships, the people that have known you for a very long time that do love you, that you do trust as kind of a balancing board, you know, to, to what the narcissist is, is coming at you with. And then I think it’s independence. Um, when you have your own income, when you have your village set up to help care for your children, when you have your own place to, to live, that often can bring down then right, that power and control that the narcissist can can use against you.
Jaime Davis: And I would think too, that then their threats don’t mean as much to you because you have your own set of resources that you can rely on.
Michelle Chiaramonte: Exactly. The more self-reliant and the healthier you feel, the more confident and self-esteem that you have is going to be the thing that’s going to help you find freedom from that narcissist control and dominance.
Jaime Davis: That makes a lot of sense. Are there any resources out there that you would recommend?
Michelle Chiaramonte: The book I like the is called “Why is it always about you?” It’s about the seven deadly sins of narcissism, and it is very nice because it’s a, it’s a very readable book. It’s a, it’s a self-help book and it really lays out concrete strategies that you can use in different situations to manage the relationship with a narcissist and the, the author on that is Sandy Hotchkiss. But the book’s name is “Why is it always about you?”
Jaime Davis: I’ll have to check that out. That sounds like a great resource. So now it’s time for the final four. Um, at the end of the episodes, we typically ask four questions so that we can get to know a little bit more about our guest. Um, since Michelle was with us last season, we’re gonna mix her questions up a little bit and ask a few different ones, and I’m sure everyone is getting tired of hearing about the pandemic. So here are your final four, Michelle. What’s one thing you wish you had known when you began your career?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I think that I didn’t realize how much I was going to enjoy it. I really have fallen in love with what I do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And that was definitely not clear to me when I, when I began all this.
Jaime Davis: That’s great. It’s so important to love what you do. What is the one common myth about your profession that you would like to debunk today?
Michelle Chiaramonte: That therapy is always for other people, that, you know, as somebody else can benefit it from it, but I don’t know that it would really help me, or I don’t know that I really need that, uh, that kind of minimizing space. It’s okay for other folks, but, you know, I can, I can manage, I can handle, uh, whatever’s coming at me. I think the beauty of therapy is, is that it can be whatever anyone needs at a given moment. It really is a journey. Ideally it’s a collaborative endeavor and it, it truly can be helpful in, in a range of situations for any, any person.
Jaime Davis: Who are the three people who have been the most influential to you?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I feel very fortunate that I had great supervisors, great women, um, in my life during college. And like my early jobs that really helped steer me, uh, into what I should be doing with my life. I think I also owe a lot of credit to my dad and my tennis coach. They were both like wonderful men in my life that saw things in me that I think I didn’t see as a younger self that now being a little bit older, um, I truly appreciate.
Jaime Davis: And the last one. Have you read anything recently that you found to be particularly interesting or inspiring?
Michelle Chiaramonte: I like to read a lot of historical fiction and I like to read about powerful women in history or kind of what some people would call the women behind the men, um, of history. So some of the best books I’ve read lately, uh, are about Nancy Wake, who was a really prominent English woman that was heading up the French resistance in World War II and, and another one that was called “The Nightingale”, who she helped pilots on foot through the Pyrenees escape into Spain during the World Wars. So I just love really exciting, adventurous, like passionate women stories.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, those sound great. Well, Michelle, thank you for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Michelle Chiaramonte: Anyone can visit my website. It is luminacounseling.com. Or if you Google Michelle Chiaramonte, uh, you will definitely get to my website and email or phone.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all found the, this episode of A Year in a Day to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice. The purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general informational purposes only should not be used as legal advice and as specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who’s licensed in your state.