Updated: Jan 9, 2021
Divorcing a narcissist can be especially challenging because they threaten your integrity, perceptions of reality, focus on your flaws in the relationship, and threaten your reputation, as well as your self-esteem. A narcissist is very good at minimizing you. However, if you see that this is what is happening, you can walk away from the relationship armed with ways to handle it and know that you will likely feel less lonely when you are no longer in the relationship. I hope that you also feel ok about “moving on” because narcissists don’t change; if they’ve moved on and started dating someone new already, they will eventually do the same things they did to you to their new partner. And, you will ultimately be a lot better off being completely away from them.
Narcissists are often charming and romantic. The narcissistic behaviors come on gradually, so it can be difficult to recognize what is happening. Yet, over time, it gets worse. They love to talk about themselves and you may never have felt like they were genuinely listening to you or that you could talk without being interrupted. Yet, you may have ignored it because they were mesmerizing or appealing in other areas. Over time, narcissists often lie, lack follow-through, gaslight you, and completely wear you down physically and emotionally. Their friends may not see it because they are not in a romantic relationship with this person. You are the one that knows them better than most people. All of these behaviors are so frustrating and can make YOU feel crazy.
Understand that you are NOT crazy. They have manipulated to make you feel this way. Research shows that narcissists are really good at initiating relationships, yet there is a correlation with narcissism and long-term quality, committed relationships, such that narcissists generally have a variety of issues in longer-term relationships (for examples, see Brunell & Campbell, 2011; Campbell & Foster, 2002). Thus, it is not on you as the narcissist may say...and, you are not alone.
When hearing the word "narcissism," one often thinks of grandiose narcissists who often exaggerate their importance or accomplishments (or are the first to tell you about all they've accomplished). Grandiose narcissists often appear arrogant or might be the type to brag about all the people or whom with which they've dated or cheated. Vulnerable narcissists, however, are often more subtle (for example, they will cheat if they feel they are threatened but do it covertly and not tell anyone); they are more likely to be introverts and say they don't like attention although they need it. They generally have a very low self-esteem. Living with grandiose or vulnerable narcissists are equally dangerous.
Dating someone who is a narcissist and being able to walk away when you identify it and when you are ready is one thing. If that is you, remember that on average, it takes victims of physical or emotional abuse seven times before leaving for good; there are many reasons for staying with someone who is physically or emotionally abusive (for example, love, money, they make it feel like it is you with all the problems). It can be challenging (and even dangerous) to leave an abusive partner regardless of the situation. But, being married to, divorcing, or separating from a narcissist will add an entirely new and more difficult level of challenges.
When you have children with the narcissist, these behaviors can impact you for years following the divorce or separation. You are expected to cooperatively coparent and communicate with this person as they continue to try to manipulate you. For example, they may:
-Cut you down for the day to day decisions you are making as a parent even if they
are rarely present. This helps them to justify their absence or involvement. For many narcissists, children make them feel good about themselves. They may rarely see them, but post pictures of them on social media when they do in effort to appear more involved than they are or to gain attention from their audience in general.
-Lie about something (or many things), turn it around on you, or avoid
the truth. You know this has happened and have a gut feeling something is wrong, yet
the narcissist will laugh and dismiss your intuition when confronted, making you feel
crazy or stupid. It’s worse for you if they have proof of a mistake you have made. They
will never admit their own lies or infidelity, and they will use small and large things you
have done to gain sympathy from everyone; they will likely have to repeat to everyone
how they took pride in being faithful and that’s why were so hurt by you.
-Try to monopolize your time (constantly calling you at work to want to discuss an
issue with your children).
-Continue to reference your mistakes in the marriage or insist that you do joint
coparenting counseling. This way, they can tell everyone that they really tried. They may also falsely believe that the therapist will take their side and you'll "finally" be able to see how they are great and you are wrong.
-Tell everyone they know that you are a terrible person; they may even call YOU a
-Twist a story around or exaggerate your flaws while never talking about their own
(just like they did when you were together)
-Threaten to take you back to court for valid or invalid reasons
-Insist on more time or responsibility with the kids, so they do not have to pay child support, yet lack follow-through (e.g., frequently ask you to change your plans because a
weekend with kids doesn’t work with their schedule or insist you are not doing your job so "they" are going to make an appointment for the kids but never do it)
These are just a few examples. Narcissists need to “win.” They will argue and continue to talk about you and do whatever they can to feel that they have won. It’s important for you to disarm them and avoid getting sucked into their faulty perceptions. Then, YOU “win," and, hopefully the narcissist will move on to someone else or at least you can limit your interactions enough to effectively coparent.
A few things to consider:
-Stop engaging with the narcissist. Lisa Romano provided one of my favorite YouTube tutorials on disarming the narcissist. In the video, she provides concrete responses that you can utilize when the narcissist is at work (e.g., “you’re entitled to your realty,” might be my personal favorite because it applies to so much of what the narcissist will say to manipulate you). I highly recommend watching this to avoid getting into the cycle. It’s easy to get sucked into the negative cycles when the narcissist plays the victim role or attempts to make you feel terrible about yourself. It’s now in your control to stop it though you can’t control his/her perceptions. You can skim texts or emails enough to know what they are asking without taking his/her every word to heart, responding to only what you need to for your children.
-Think about how you ended up in a relationship with the narcissist? The fact that you were in a relationship with a narcissist is NOT your fault. Yet, if you are at a point where you will date again, it might be useful to think about your personal qualities that attracted the narcissist. How can you work to improve these traits and learn to love yourself, have healthy boundaries, and arm yourself with knowledge to not fall for another narcissist or go back to the relationship?
-Do not dwell. The only reason why it matters to think about why you ended up in a relationship with a narcissist is so that you can avoid doing this in the future for your own mental health. Because you lived with a narcissist, you’ve become accustomed to focusing on YOUR issues and flaws. Now you have the opportunity to stop having to do that. I believe it’s always good to look at our own role in relationship problems or daily challenges. Yet, when individuals have experienced abuse in any form, they might have a tendency to be too hard on themselves based on the narcissist’s faulty perceptions of reality.
-Replace negative self-talk with affirmations. You’ve been in a toxic relationship for awhile now. You’ve been conditioned to believe it’s all your fault. It was not. Your flaws have been highlighted for years. Some of them don’t even exist. So, now it’s time to eliminate the poison someone else fed you and re-program your mind. When you catch yourself talking negatively to yourself, stop it (e.g., I am stupid, no one would ever want to date me). Replace it with a positive affirmation (e.g., I believe and have confidence in myself, I have learned from my mistakes, I deserve to be healthy, I deserve to be with someone that builds me up).
-Take care of yourself. Engage in daily activities that are healthy for your soul, including meditation, walking/physical activity, and surrounding yourself with people who love you. A healthy diet is also important (e.g., eliminating sugars or processed foods); I know these are the answers every life coach, etc... gives for every problem and it gets old to hear it, but I 100% guarantee you they work. Just do what works best for you so that you feel healthy.
Brunell, A. B. & Campbell, K. (2011). Narcissism and romantic relationships: Understanding the paradox. In the Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (Eds. K. Campbell & J. Miller).
Campbell, K. & Foster, C. (2002). Narcissism and commitment in romantic relationships: An investment model analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.