I am writing this blog from a place of gratitude. I never thought that my marriage to a narcissist, whom I suspect is also on the anti-social personality spectrum, would ever lead me to a place of deep gratitude and serenity, but it has. I’ve learned very valuable lessons, and these lessons have helped me understand my clients more. Helping hurt and often, very confused, clients deal with the narcissists in their lives has been a journey of enlightenment for me and for my own personal calling to help them in the legal arena.
I’ve learned many lessons post-narcissist divorce and my personal healing journey, as well as what I’ve learned through much personal education, and helping my clients along the way, all of which have helped me intimately understand the dynamics of these high-conflict relationships and many times, high-conflict divorces. These are the five lessons I’ve learned post-toxic marriage. This information is especially useful to those of you co-parenting with a narcissist or divorcing a narcissist.
Five Lessons I’ve Learned Divorcing a Narcissist
Lesson No. 1. Toxic Relationships Create Trauma Bonds
According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, exploitive relationships create strong bonds, called “trauma or betrayal bonds” to abusers. When we’ve been scared by our abusers, the resulting trauma creates lasting, biological changes in our brains, which may cause PTSD. For example, if someone repeatedly threatens abandonment, we may experience trauma and become addicted to the abandonment repetition. I realize that adults can’t be abandoned, but trauma rewires our brains into tricking us into believing that we are helpless, and abandonment becomes tantamount to annihilation.
So, if you or loved ones repeatedly ask why you didn’t leave sooner or why you put up with the awful behavior, recognize that you formed a traumatic bond to the abuser. Just like the bonds form with repeated or prolonged abusive experiences, to break the bond, you need to stay away from the abusive situation or abusive person. Develop the courage and self-worth to create a physical and mental boundary around your lovely self by refusing to be further abused by this toxic partner. Trauma bonds lessen with time and absence, and they can disappear entirely. The highs and lows, followed by brief reconciliation or honeymoon periods, can become very addictive, and functional, normal relationships, are not marked by these traumatic bonds and events. This is probably why you felt that you could not leave or that staying was a better solution, even though it was an abusive situation.
Lesson No. 2. Narcissists Can Present as the Perpetual Victim
You may have heard the term “vulnerable” or “covert narcissist.” These types can be just as damaging, and sometimes, even more so, than your “overt” or “grandiose narcissist.” No, they’re not going to be openly pompous or grandiose, but they are just as pompous and selfish. The problem is that their real-life achievements don’t typically measure up to their images of themselves. They can lie about their achievements, their accolades, their friends, etc. The “poor me” victim or martyr narcissist is just as selfish and ego-driven as his counterpart, the “look at me” narcissist.
A narcissist who soaks up the many seeming health problems or misfortunes that have occurred to her can be hard to spot, and she can often look like a shy, misunderstood soul – that damsel in distress with undiagnosed health concerns or fragile personalities, the poor guy who has been divorced multiple times because his wives were perpetual cheaters. Beware the proverbial “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”
Lesson No. 3. Look at Actions, Not Words
These relationships typically start off strong and are marked by very intense honeymoon periods. The love-bombing period in toxic, intimate relationships is a short-lived experience. The guy who calls and texts repeatedly in the beginning, the woman who cooks you homemade meals early on, the guy who fixes your car and offers home repairs, the gal who offers to babysit your children to help you have more “you-time” – these may be signs of love-bombing. It also sets you up for addiction and reliant upon intermittent reinforcement. See my 3-part blog series here.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Remember, narcissists and other emotional vampires are really good at mimicry, and they study us to become exactly what we need. Somehow, they can see our wounded inner selves even before we divulge much about ourselves, and they are wonderful at becoming what we need at that time. Study this carefully in your friendships and other relationships – someone who mirrors our body language and our gestures is using the best form of flattery (mirroring us) to capture our hearts.
A fake person cannot be fake for very long. In other words, a narcissist cannot maintain his fake image or persona for very long. So, take your time in the dating world. A narcissist’s true self, the one that lacks empathy, is quick to anger and is extremely dismissive, cannot remain hidden for longer than a few months, in my opinion. That suddenly callous man that appeared out of nowhere – that’s the person you’re going to see, over and over again, if this relationship continues. Feeding our wounded children with long-awaited words of flattery can seem like music to our ears in the beginning, but that’s all that it will be – just music, nothing more. Those constant praises and compliments will go away. Study that woman’s actions. Is she consistently worthy of your affection by carrying through on her promises, or has she stopped praising your true goodness after the honeymoon period ends and devaluation sets in?
Lesson No. 4. If You Did Nothing Wrong, and She Threatens to Leave or Divorce, Let Her
A man or woman who constantly threatens to abandon or divorce you for no legitimate reason is not worthy of your love and affection. Save all of this for your children and other loved ones. Narcissists feed on our human desires, and no one, not even your most securely attached people, can deal well with threats of abandonment. If someone threatens you with divorce because you questioned his lies, asked for reciprocation in your relationship, needed help with _ (fill in a legitimate need), this person has a problem with empathy and human compassion and is certainly not worthy of your time or resources.
Trust me, this person will repeatedly threaten you, and if you form good boundaries by letting him leave, you will save yourself from a cycle of repeated threats and abandonments/disappearing acts/silent treatments. Set a good boundary by not letting it happen a second time. The constant threat of abandonment by an intimate partner is scary, I know, but resist the temptation to cling tighter. If you have the urge to beg, plead, and do whatever you believe you need to do, in order to avoid the potential for abandonment, please, do nothing. Sit with your discomfort and anxiety, and seek help, if possible, from a trusted therapist, and know that some people will leave, some will stay, but whatever the outcome, you will grow from the experience, and you will know that on an existential level, some relationships are just not meant to last. In fact, you know that at some point, every relationship will change or end, and that’s just the cycle of life.
Look into your childhood. Did a primary caregiver abandon you? Even an emotional abandonment is a type of abandonment.
Lesson No. 5. Denying, Minimizing, and Deflecting are Signs of Stunted Emotional Intelligence in Adults
“You didn’t say that.” “You’re acting illogically/irrationally.” “Stop being so dramatic.” “You know I hate drama.” “You’re always scheming/thinking/overanalyzing.” These are all things that I’ve heard drama queens/kings/emotional predators say in response to a reasonable request, a boundary, a clarification, or plea for calm discussion. By the way, in my experience, they love drama, even though the drama unfolds behind the scenes.
Denying your reality is a form of manipulation called “gaslighting.” Stay in the moment and do not become susceptible to this kind of abuse because it is insidious and will be repeatedly used by an emotional predator to deny your reality. Did you ask her to please pick up dinner on the way home because you’re running late, but she denies you asking her to do this, instead, wondering why you’re late and there’s no dinner on the table? You, my friend, were gas-lit. You know you asked her. She knows you asked her. She just doesn’t like being called out and being held accountable for her callous and hurtful behavior. This is a widely-used tool of the covert or vulnerable narcissist and waif-type of borderline personality-disordered person because he really is this sensitive to perceived conflict (although he may bully you during arguments).
Deflecting or what Craig Malkin calls “emotional hot potato” is also a commonly used ploy by narcissistic spouses. It’s always someone else’s fault. With such a deeply insecure inner-self, which the narcissist keeps tucked deeply away, anything that triggers his shame is off-limits. A similar defense mechanism is minimization: If your spouse somehow manages to belittle or minimize your feelings and concerns, this is going to be a problem. Do not let it happen. Someone with real empathy will take your concerns seriously and will not repeatedly violate your boundaries.
Also, if you’re experiencing these things post-separation or divorce from a narcissist, you can find other tips on how to co-parent with a narcissist here.
Fairfax Family Law and Divorce Lawyer: If you’re looking for an experienced Virginia family and divorce law attorney, contact Keithley Law, PLLC, today by calling (703) 454-5147 and schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office. Our attorneys are experienced in high-conflict divorces and helping people navigate through the frustrations of divorcing a narcissist.
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