Divorcing A Narcissist: How To Protect Yourself From Narcissistic Abuse
In my Manhattan psychotherapy practice working with individuals and couples, many come to the realization that they are involved with or married to a narcissist. As the veil lifts, and they begin to see things more clearly, the clean-up begins. Many of these individuals seem to have charmed lives; idyllic from the outside, but once inside, it looks quite different. What's important to understand is that we are drawn to another for many, often over-determined reasons. The relationship is somehow familiar terrain for us. It's what we know best. Often, it's rooted in an early family dynamic that gets played out again and again. Here is a case example:
A young married woman suspected fairly early into her marriage that her husband was having an affair. There were the usual clumsy clues: the bad-smelling perfume, the hungry-looking marketing girl who anticipated his every need, and the new office rule: no wives at the office holiday party. When confronted, the husband consistently denied his wife's suspicions. The woman knew on some level that she had begun to disappoint her husband. After all, she was a few pounds more than her pre-pregnancy weight and had begun to lose her sparkle. A thin wife was more important than just about anything to him. Narcissists tend to idealize then devalue as a pattern, so it was a fait accompli that the fall would be hard. However, even though she was no longer 25, she was still a beautiful, accomplished and smart woman which made her particularly vulnerable to attracting narcissistic men. The young woman was pregnant when she learned of her husband's affair with his in-house marketing girl. At work events, the other woman was unable to hide that she was the dirty little secret in their now triangulated lives. Perhaps she enjoyed or needed this role -- by wooing this man from his beautiful wife and family, she was mastering early trauma or unmet needs. She felt loved and chosen. Special. it's hard to know for sure, but she was a female "mate poacher," as they say. As is often the case, the betrayed spouse is not the only damaged party; the collateral fallout can be tragic. Children's lives can be destroyed.
While the pregnant wife spent her weekends in the park with her son (and in partial denial!), her husband stepped-up his golf game. Apparently, the relationship was anything but a secret around the office. The boss and his employee were sloppy. In fact, several things happened. At a media event, the wife caught her husband and his office girl in an embrace that they awkwardly tried to cover with an absurdly silly excuse. Later, an insider hinted that her husband had possibly gotten the girl pregnant and that she had had an abortion. Could this explain an enduring loyalty on the part of the man that would last for decades? The marketing girl, with less than mediocre talent, continued to be an important part of the man's life for years, even after the wife issued an ultimatum to dismiss the woman The wife would eventually learn that her husband frequented VIP massage parlors in Manhattan. Obviously, these risky behaviors put the wife's health and well-being at risk. Narcissists and antisocial personalities can be reckless and also lack empathy, concern and regard for the other. A pathological gambler, the husband would eventually amass huge debts that involved bail-outs from his wealthy family. (poly-addictions are common with individuals who have certain character disorders).
The wife made the choice to remain in the marriage and carried on with life and the task raising her two young children. The couple eventually entered therapy with very different agendas. He, to restore her to her earlier "thinner" self, she, to uncover the truth about the affair and to receive closure. After months in couples counseling, her husband refused to take responsibility for his betrayal in the marriage. In fact, he tenaciously clung to his story and continued his crusade of denying and even gaslighting the wife. Gaslighting is a common tactic that narcissists and psychopaths use in domestic emotional abuse. His "story" was that his wife had a "delusion" about the affair with the office girl, calling her "crazy," negating his wife's reality again and again. The wife, an emotionally stable woman, would remain in therapy with the man hoping that he would take responsibility for his actions and heal the family. Much of the therapy was focused on other issues -- her five pound weight gain, not having his diet coke at the ready, and always carefully dancing around the betrayal. The home-wrecker rode it to the top -- she, likely a co-narcissist, would in fact earn the title of "office wife." In the language of narcissistic disorders, she became his "self-object." The competitive homewrecker delivered a never-ending supply of diet coke and other "narcissistic goodies" to help this man maintain his equilibrium. It appeared that she "mirrored" him as needed, and to borrow from Kohut's theory of narcissistic disorders, they entered a "twinship" narcissistic merger that involved a grandiose, delusional dance of shared "awesomeness." Their work together was special and unique -- they were special, or so they imagined..
Following the trajectory, the wife became increasingly more depressed and anxious. She had a friend who was a psychologist and suggested that, based on the behaviors that the woman described, her husband may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD with antisocial features. The wife made the choice to remain in the marriage and finish her degrees. She had hoped to spare her children the trauma of divorce. Sadly, the husband's behavioral problems continued in the form of high salaries and promotions for the office wife and more indiscretions, lying, cheating, stealing and eventually, legal investigations. As the story goes, the man's only solution to the mess he made was to flee his marriage. They divorced, and as divorce wars go, there was no shortage of ugly. Consistent with his personality disorder (narcissists and antisocial personalities rarely seek psychological treatment), reckless behaviors continued. He may have ended his adventures at the blackjack table, but his gambling would take on other forms, negatively impacting his former wife and their two children for years to come. During the divorce proceedings, the wife's sister confronted the man about the affair, at which point he lamely downgraded the affair to a "one night stand."
A smart divorce attorney would said "hurt the mother, hurt the children." A sophisticated manipulator, he would find many high-level ways to inflict pain and abuse on his ex-wife long after the divorce. The man and his mistress made out well in the end. No apparent guilt or remorse, the years of shared delusion and grandiosity, and who knows what else, led to industry success and tremendous financial gain for both. The ultimate act of arrogance, sadism and cruelty is that his children were manipulated to work in the family business and have daily exposure to the woman who broke their lives. The husband remarried and the "mate poacher" also has her very own husband and an intact family. Sadly, people like this always, always leave a path of carnage and destruction in their wake. However, not all narcissists and antisocial personalities profit in such spectacular ways. In fact, many will eventually self-destruct: secrets and reckless behaviors will be their undoing. As they spiral down, shame and humiliation can lead to severe depression and even suicide.
If you are a victim of narcissistic abuse and caught in the crossfire, life can be hell. Children can be broken, and not easily put back together. Do sons bear the sins of the father? Yes they do. Who knows how this story will end for the CEO and his now chief marketing officer. Had the wife been stronger and had a more fully-formed sense of self, she could have made different choices, protecting both herself and her children from the insanity and pain that narcissists deliver. Should this woman have scooped up her children and moved to a different state, hell yes! But, she would have needed a smart and sane exit strategy, a good attorney, a prayer for fair, not dishonest judge and a strong social network. This is an upscale story for sure, not all victims of narcissistic abuse come from wealth and privilege. Narcissists and psychopaths come from all walks of life. This is just one woman's story. I am not an attorney, I'm a therapist, but I can certainly offer help based on what I've learned along the way. I hope that some part of this can help your find the strength to protect yourself and eventually free yourself from toxic people.
You may be in the process of ending a marriage, that sadly, you now realize was never healthy or even a real relationship. A review of the past may reveal that your role was to be an "extension of the other," an "accessory," a "shiny object" -- which left you feeling lonely, "unseen" and empty. The sad reality is that your time has come to an end with this person, who you may have loved. The good news is that you can begin a new life, alone or with someone healthier, but as you develop a plan, you may need some real concrete strategies for a smart exit, as well as help understanding how and why you chose this person in the first place -- and how not to fall into the same sticky trap.
So what happened? Perhaps you learned that your spouse was addicted to substances or behaviors -- they gambled, had affairs, snorted coke and betrayed you in many ways. They put your health and safety at risk. You experienced shame and pain as a result of one or many spousal betrayals -- the office romance with the marketing girl was real, even though you were made to feel "silly." Narcissists have lots of needs (usually a result of wounds in childhood) and therefore have become adept at making sure these needs get met now, at any cost. Their deficits have given them skills that you (the non-narcissist) don't have. The narcissist may have needed you to be a size invisible at all times. Your role (either implicit or explicitly agreed upon) was to run the home. You were expected to maintain a certain lifestyle for them or earn a high wage, and if you didn't, you were berated and devalued, or neglected, ignored and replaced. You were expected to admire them, remain loyal, and if you failed at this, they found someone else all too willing to merge into the role that sustains them. The office girl may keep her role as a "self-object" for the narcissist, if she's able to provide the necessary "narcissistic supplies." It is likely at some point that she too will fail him. Staying is risky. Depending on the level of pathology or desperation, the narcissist may engage in illegal activities if they have the opportunity, demanding collusion, putting you, or your children at risk. The decision to leave a narcissist can mean a bumpy ride ahead. Don't gut it out alone.
I'm in therapy getting help, so why do I feel so alone you ask? Narcissists tend to refuse help because, well, they are fine, but they may want to change you (that's one of many challenging defense mechanisms used by the narcissist). See traits at the bottom of this post. Sometimes if things really spin out of control, and their life is in complete shambles, they may seek help from a therapist or what they consider to be a non-pathologizing source like a pastor or rabbi. Don't expect them to make amends to you directly, take responsibility or help you heal. You will likely need to do this work on your own. Sadly, narcissists often leave a path of destruction.
So what was your role in ending the relationship? You may have re-written the script for yourself (either on a conscious, unconscious or somewhere in-between level), you then ended (either slowly or abruptly) his or her narcissistic supply of goodies (the things you provided in the beginning that helped them maintain their them-ness). He or she (the narcissist) began to devalue you and had little need for you, or replaced you with another who was more available and all too happy to bolster his or her fragile sense of self. In essence, you abdicated your role of helping the narcissist continue the facade of feeling shiny and whole. You've seen behind the mask of illusion. The emperor, is in fact, naked -- and you can no longer maintain your loyal stance.
Now what -- you've heard that leaving a narcissist can be tricky. It's very easy to be taken in by narcissists and psychopaths, and some individuals have early family dynamics that make them more vulnerable to this relationship pairing. Truth is, as easy as it was to get in, it can be even more treacherous to get out. You were hoodwinked once or many times -- how do you now exit sanely, regain your dignity and protect yourself and your children from crazy, reckless behaviors that might occur during the separation and divorce and even more likely to continue into the future.
If they have some form of power, money or family fortune, things can get really messy fast. Family members are quick to protect the empire. Narcissists and psychopaths are entitled and they bully hard. They are known to say "sign this tomorrow or the deal goes away" and you may find yourself signing under duress. If you don't know how to protect yourself, you may give up sentimental and valuable assets that you've acquired together such as collectables, memorabilia, art as well as your house, business, pension plans, retirement, stock options, brokerage accounts, professional licenses and so on -- things that may have greater value in the future. Don't gamble, be smart. Read more about this from Forbes. Ask for help especially since you may not be operating at full capacity; you may also be traumatized and terrified. If it's all too much and you just want out, that's okay too. It may be worth it for you to cut your losses and get out of town. Just work to become clear about what you want for yourself. Freedom, healing, safety and justice are just a few words that come to mind. If you don't have the chops to fight without going soft, be prepared for the fact that you may lose. Because for the narcissist, winning is everything. The point is to make conscious, smart decisions and if you are unable to assert or advocate for yourself, ask a trusted friend or relative to weigh in. So here is what you can expect from these divas of disaster and captains of the universe when you're no longer on their team:
- They don't fight fair
- They don't play by the rules, because rules don't apply to them
- They don't take responsibility for their destructive behavior
- They manipulate
- They have tunnel vision
- They blame and rationalize
- They keep secrets, lie, cheat and steal
- Their illegal behavior may leave you and your children exposed to becoming an accessory to crime(s)
- They may resort to blackmail, extortion and other tactics
- They lack empathy, guilt and a moral compass
- They don't care about you because you are of no use to them now
- They may not have the capacity to invest in their own children
- They may invest in their children until they feel disappointed by them
- They will hurt you and aren't concerned about what your children see or know
- They reward their loyal following and will destroy those who go against them
- They find ruthless, possibly psychopathic attorneys to represent them
- They gamble and take risks that can hurt you or your children
- They may attempt to bribe your legal counsel, and sadly, Judges are not immune to these unethical practices and can be corrupt, inept, insane or just don't seem to know the law.
Because he or she is the smartest person in the room, a bully and knows everything, you will be underestimated in terms of your smarts, skills and ability to take care of your needs. So, what should you do if you decide to leave?
- Begin a plan of self care and make yourself and your children your priority
- Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases if they have been unfaithful or hired prostitutes
- Stay strong and develop a good social and emotional network for support
- Plan a smart, clear exit strategy
- Hire a good forensic accountant if you have acquired assets together
- Depose his affair partner if that applies, he or she may be in collusion, hiding assets or have other material knowledge of wrongdoing
- Hire a good attorney (if you aren't sure, include someone you trust who can help you evaluate this along the way because you may not be clear) and make sure they don't collude or won't be corrupted by his or her counsel
- Understand what might be a personal or image concern for him or her during this process, such as fear of exposure i.e. fraud, gambling problem, addictions, affairs or has engaged in illegal activities
- Whatever he or she offers, ask for more, because you never know what they have up their sleeve, have hidden or the future potential of any jointly acquired assets such as stock or stock options
- Do not beg for mercy, apologize, appeal or explain how unfair it all is because this is too gratifying for them
- Get clear about what you want. You may just want to get out of dodge, with minimal wear and tear. Moving on is fine too.
One very important thing to remember is that narcissists are very concerned about appearances and want to be perceived as being a "good" person, so playing to that aspect of their personality may help protect you and your children. Saying things like "I know that you care about your children, so..." or " I know that you want me to have a comfortable home so the kids can thrive and feel good" may be a smart, helpful tactic. Can't stomach any of this? At the end of the day, you have to do what works best for you, but be clear about your plan. If it is to make a clean break and get out of town, then do so. Should you decide to play the game and fight for what you feel you deserve then be in the game. You must be clear and sharp when divorcing someone with a character disorder. Finally, if things get ugly, they (the narcissist or psychopath) will need to understand that the cost of messing with you is simply too high. Otherwise, the behaviors will go on forever and ever.
Sounds harsh and ugly? It's the brutal truth for too many, and some endings are uglier than others. Decent, non-character disordered guys and gals don't leave a path of destruction and wreckage. They do not inflict pain, damage their ex or negatively impact the healthy development of their children. For the most part, they want their children to see the other parent treated with kindness, respect, honesty and fairness, even when it's hard, during and after the process of divorce. Divorcing a narcissist or psychopath is not for sissies. Don't be hoodwinked over and over again. Healing is hard, and you will likely be doing this alone because the narcissist doesn't make amends. So don't spend years waiting for them to help you heal emotionally -- they don't care and are on to the next conquest or deal. You also don't want to end up hating yourself for not making better decisions in the first place, or have to seek justice later or spend years trying to revive yourself from your experiences with the "reckless" and "toxic." Finally, find a good therapist to help you understand what past patterns led you to choose such a damaging and unfulfilling relationship.
My patients have found the book Splitting by Bill Eddy and Randi Kreger incredibly helpful as well as Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People and Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men
Narcissistic Personality Disorder - Diagnostic Criteria, American Psychiatric Association - An individual diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder needs to show at least 5 of the following criteria:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Next up: Protecting your children when co-parenting with a narcissist.