What it's like to divorce a narcissist: One woman's battle with post-separation abuse

·8 min read

On the outside, Tina Swithin lived a picture-perfect life. She had an affectionate and charming husband, Seth, who won her over with extravagant gifts, flattering compliments and the promise of a fairytale romance.

But in reality, Swithin was trapped in a toxic marriage with a narcissist who left her feeling empty.

Behind the public facade of being "the golden couple," their relationship was fraught with lies, gaslighting and emotional abuse. In private, he controlled with whom she spent time or where she went. As quickly as he put her up on a pedestal, he brought her down with degrading remarks about her post-pregnancy body or broken childhood.

And after nine years, she did what all survivors of domestic violence are encouraged to do: She left.

However, Swithin learned the only thing harder than being married to a narcissist was divorcing one. Past research has supported that intimate partner violence can become dangerous, and even deadly, following a divorce, with numerous studies finding that up to 90% of women reported continued harassment, stalking and abuse after leaving the relationship. The reality is that when the marriage ends, the abuse may not, and instead transitions into a new form of domestic violence known as post-separation abuse.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Tina Swithin reflects on the lessons learned from her high-conflict, traumatizing divorce with a toxic narcissist and how she prevailed from the emotional, financial and legal abuse.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Tina Swithin reflects on the lessons learned from her high-conflict, traumatizing divorce with a toxic narcissist and how she prevailed from the emotional, financial and legal abuse.

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"I did not even recognize the person I saw in the mirror," Swithin, who is now a divorce coach and consultant, tells USA TODAY. "The person staring back at me was no longer a free spirit, she was in a deep state of pain and confusion."

In the newly released final chapters of her book, "Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom's Battle," Swithin reflects on her decadeslong experiences with financial, psychological and legal abuse after her divorce. It took her nine years to walk away from Seth, but another decade to be legally freed from the abuse.

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At first, Swithin says the positives of the relationship outweighed the negatives: She was too caught up in the euphoria of her seemingly stable boyfriend that she ignored the red flags of his love-bombing, a common sign of an unhealthy relationship that involves grand gestures of affection early on in dating. Or gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation that causes someone to question their thoughts and sanity.

But the problem with narcissistic and psychological abuse is that it's slow yet painful. Only a few months into the relationship, Swithin says Seth urged her to move in with him, away from her family and friends – a seemingly spontaneous and romantic opportunity that she later realized was a strategy to isolate her. He also convinced her to quit her job and attend college instead, which eventually made her financially dependent on him.

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When he wasn't idealizing her, he was criticizing and devaluing her. In her book, she reflects on the times he implanted the idea that without him, she was nothing and "no one would ever want (her) as a partner" due to her multiple sclerosis diagnosis or her family history with mental health.

"An abuser does not show up during the courtship and verbally degrade you or psychologically abuse you. If they do, it is so subtle that you would not consider it to be abuse," Swithin says.

"Many victims find themselves dependent on this person and unable to see a way out. There is typically a high level of emotional and psychological abuse that permeates through one’s mind to the point where they are left confused, unable to articulate what is happening and second-guessing themselves."

While Swithin searched for ways to "fix" their relationship with therapy or medication, she was "devastated" to learn that her marriage was likely beyond repair.

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Post-separation abuse 'was more painful than the abuse I suffered during the relationship'

Swithin and Seth initially agreed on an amicable separation. But it soon spiraled into a contentious 10-year court battle.

According to Swithin, the divorce and custody proceedings were just another "game to inflict pain and suffering" and continue the abuse. He would use his charm to manipulate the courts, renting and staging a home perfectly for parenting evaluations despite being millions of dollars into debt. He would withhold medical and therapeutic care for their two daughters, while pretending he wanted to be a part of their lives in front of the judge.

As Seth painted himself as the victim in the court room, behind closed doors he terrorized Swithin with verbally abusive texts, emails and phone calls, calling her "white trash" and even stalking her outside her home.

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"The post-separation abuse that I experienced during the divorce process was more painful than the abuse I suffered during the relationship," Swithin says.

However, Swithin warns the post-separation abuse didn't just affect her: It had immediate and long-lasting effects on her young daughters.

"The narcissist knows that the number one way to hurt the healthy parent is to target the children even though they never had a relationship with the children to begin with," she says. "They often use the children as pawns and weapons. Because they thrive in the spotlight, the family court system becomes their stage."

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After 10 years in court, Swithin eventually won in 2019, receiving full custody and with no visitation or telephone communication for Seth. But for most of the trial, the courts fell for the facade of a narcissist.

"This was not the way I ever wanted to be validated," Swithin says. "It wasn't about winning. It was about protecting my children and when the family court system gets it wrong, you don't get an apology letter. You are left unpacking a lifetime of trauma."

Like many survivors, Swithin entered the justice system with a false sense of security: She assumed that after leaving her abuser, the courts would protect her children and finally provide peace. But often times, "victims of domestic abuse … are blindsided by their new reality, which is post-separation abuse and institutional betrayal."

Even though she gathered proof of her ex-husband's abusive and neglectful behavior, Swithin says the justice system initially favored Seth and his charm. Despite his DUI charge, the judge waived his parenting class and therapy requirements and instead granted him more visitation time, and she was forced to undergo two full child custody evaluations, appointment of minor's counsel, more than 40 court dates and numerous Child Protective Service investigations.

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While physical abuse and threats may be easier to prove in the legal system, Swithin says the courts are less equipped to understand the complexity of emotional abuse. Her reports of his stalking, his drunken behavior around the kids and his harassing texts and emails were dismissed as  "a domestic dispute."

"It is a very uneven playing field and power dynamic… and I discovered that there is no such thing as justice or fairness within the family court system," Swithin says. "Human lives are reduced to case numbers and business transactions, and children are divided like property or retirement accounts."

Overcoming the battle

At the time, Swithin never thought she would escape the narcissistic abuse even after divorce.

But she attributes her perseverance to the protection of her daughters from the abuse she endured.

"I worked very hard to provide stability for my children and the final straw for me involved the fear that he would speak to the girls the way he spoke to me, or that they would learn that this is what marriage was," she says.

For much of the battle, she felt as if she was suffering alone. She served as her own attorney due to financial constraints, while simultaneously providing stability for her daughters as a single mom. Through her independent research on narcissism, she mastered communication methods like "yellow rocking" – or being as unresponsive as possible to bore the narcissist, while infusing some emotions for the sake of the kids and the courts.

Earlier this month, Tina Swithin released the final chapters of her book, "Divorcing a Narcissist," which detail the conclusion to her divorce.
Earlier this month, Tina Swithin released the final chapters of her book, "Divorcing a Narcissist," which detail the conclusion to her divorce.

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Although Swithin overcame the majority of her battle alone and confused, she decided to share her story publicly to educate other survivors of emotional and narcissistic abuse. Her online blog "One Mom's Battle" – initially created as a personal outlet for relief and empowerment – now provides comfort and resources to over 100,000 victims.

"When I first started speaking out about the abuse I had endured during the relationship and post-separation, I truly believed I was an isolated case," she says. "No one else was publicly speaking out on this topic (at the time), and as I started to receive emails and messages from people around the world, I understood the importance of using my voice because so many others were silenced."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Divorcing a narcissist: Tina Swithin on the trauma of separation abuse