My client Tom had a sad story to tell me when we first met. He had been in a relationship with—he was firm on this point—the love of his life, when suddenly he was tossed aside. His devastation was complete and the trauma tapped into his primal abandonment wound. As we talked, over the next few weeks, more information emerged. Though Tom was determined to believe that Megan was The One, he admitted that the relationship had become an emotional roller-coaster shortly after they moved in together. Her original devotion to him played hide-and-seek with another version of Megan—the belittling, accusing, cold version. Still, he clung to Megan and the relationship because, after all, he was in love.
One day, she (very dramatically) stormed out of their apartment and relationship, saying that Tom was “the most selfish man” she’d ever met. (Can you say, classic projection?) Okay so what’s up with Megan? I explained to poor Tom that he had gotten himself tangled up with a narcissist, plain and simple.
Even if Megan had stuck around, she would have continued to scatter eggshells everywhere for Tom to tiptoe through for the rest of forever, never feeling he was on solid ground or that he could count on which version of his girlfriend would emerge at any given moment.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is only diagnosable by a mental health professional, but there are clear signs. The short version is that a narcissist
- thinks he/she is superior
- expects admiration and attention (while offering little or none)
- is arrogant and full of self-aggrandizing beliefs
- lacks true empathy but can fake it convincingly (for awhile)
As a result of a narcissist’s limitations and personal characteristics, there are some relationship red flags to look for as you get close to someone with NPD.
- Does he/she fast pace the relationship with promises of a future—most of which is later you realize is a lie?
- Is there constant texting, emailing, phone calls—excessive romancing/hard sell courtship? Even after you get involved the constant contact may continue as this is a form of control.
- On closer examination, do you notice he/she is actually not capable of true intimacy, love, emotional bonding, or a reciprocal and fulfilling relationship? (For example, you are always to blame; he/she is always the innocent victim.)
- Do you hear stories of how many people have been in love with him/her, and yet all the relationships ended the same way? It may take a while to figure out the truth, as his/her version will be highly fictionalized.
- Is there a high need for ego-stroking? Narcissists target intelligent, attractive, successful people to feed their insecure egos.
- Is this person prone to depression and anxiety? Or do you notice a developmentally stunted emotional level? Despite early signs to the contrary, a narcissist cannot maintain the pretense of being a real grown-up for long. (They say they are stuck at around 5 years old.)
Why do you need to get out of a relationship with a narcissist?
In order to survive emotionally you have to extract yourself from this relationship. Long-term partners of narcissists lose their sense of who they are. They give up on ever being cherished or valued or loved. They spend all their time navigating the mine-field that is their relationship, and no matter how good they are at it, things blow up on a regular basis.
But it isn’t easy. Here’s why ending a narcissistic relationship is more difficult than other break-ups:
It is an unhealthy relationship beginning to end. Why does that make it harder to get out, and stay out? The constant emotional roller coaster causes confusion and allows the narcissist to control you and lower your self-esteem. The result is you don’t feel worthy of more or better, and are so inured to the way things are you don’t know any different.
You bought into the fantasy and don’t want to let it go. The fantasy was so very good. You were sold a bill of goods, but because of the intuitive gifts of most narcissists, it was exactly the right bill of goods. The power of your initial belief that this person is your perfect match cannot be underestimated. So you still think… maybe….
You grieve what never was. Everyone grieves at a loss. When we love something or someone, we feel great sorrow when it’s gone. But the grief over the end of a narcissistic relationship is profound in another way. You are coming to grips with the fact that what you thought was a serious relationship with a future was nothing but smoke and mirrors. You are grieving for what you never had.
You feel betrayed. Not by lies and infidelity, though those are often a part of the package, but because who you thought you loved does not exist. The shock and disbelief can be so deep that you stay in denial for a long time.
You have lost yourself. In severe instances, the emotional abuse has left you feeling so devalued, so marginalized, so insignificant in the eyes of your lover that you no longer feel worthy. Someone who feels unworthy is much less likely to make demands such as, “I deserve better,” and get out or be relieved at finally being out.
You get no closure. Not only will a narcissist refuse to engage in dialogue around a break-up, let alone feel any empathy for the damage done to you, but he/she can’t. In the eyes of a narcissist, you are the only one who is to blame. Megan left Tom but still managed to blame him, saying, “You made me. I had no choice.” The result is that you’ll be left with unanswered questions. And that’s tough.
If you have already gotten yourself out of a relationship with a narcissist, good for you. Now, how do you move forward? How do you heal?
- Allow zero contact. Why is this so über-important? Because you are vulnerable to seeking validation from your narcissistic ex. You still want answers. You still want closure. Despite the fact that you know, intellectually, that none will be forthcoming, you are very susceptible to this person. Remember how you got involved in the first place? Do not crack the door open or the cycle will repeat itself… with more pain and abuse. Act as if this person never existed. In a way, he/she never did. The person you miss today was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Hold on to that and keep the door bolted shut. (If children are involved, get a third party mediator if you possibly can. If not, be oh-so careful and never “go in alone.”)
- Be aware. Not always easy, but the more you can enhance your awareness of the truth, the better off you’ll be. Remind yourself: it was a toxic relationship with someone suffering from a personality disorder. Narcissists are incapable of loving anyone, not even themselves. (Their inflated ego is not real: it’s full of emptiness and air.) Accept that you fell in love with an illusion.
- Forgive yourself. Do not blame yourself because you did not recognize the master manipulator. That’s why he/she is a master—it’s hard to pick up on it, often for years, because the illusion was, and sometimes continues to be, so convincing.
- Say goodbye. To what you never had. You have lost not so much a relationship as your version of reality—the relationship you wanted and hoped you had found. The horror of facing that it never existed is very real. I have great empathy for how hard that is. Say goodbye to that illusion, and let yourself grieve.
- Cut yourself all kinds of slack. A relationship with a narcissist is emotionally draining and there is a lot of recovery that has to happen. Realize that your energy—mental, physical, and spiritual—has been consistently sapped. Rest. Lie low. Give yourself a literal and figurative break.
- Take baby steps. The transition from crazy roller coaster to “normal life” does not happen in an instant. See #5 and go easy.
- Detox. You are emerging from a controlling environment that was toxic to your core self. Educate yourself about the dynamics of narcissism so you can see it for what it is. Then let it all go, just like in a good detoxing cleanse….
- Process. This takes time. The abuse you experienced can seem impossible to understand and easy to obsess about. To stop the obsessive thinking shift your thoughts. If you ever find yourself seeking explanations for your ex’s behavior in yourself—stop. Nothing you did made him/her treat you that way. But don’t focus on what’s wrong with him/her, either. That gets you nowhere. Practice thinking about what is right with you. Soon you will know, for sure, that you deserve much better.
Gradually, your self-esteem will return, you will remember who you are, and your spirit will return. Practice self-compassion. And realize, you will heal. It may seem impossible at first, but you will. You will move on to happy, healthy love relationships. I know. I did.