Divorcing a Narcissist: Building the Courage to Leave the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse by Overcoming the Powerful Defense Mechanism of Denial

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.”
― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Many times, we’ve had clients come to us convinced that they were ready to begin the divorce process, and reconciliation would definitely never again occur. These clients had enough of the narcissistic cycle of abuse: Rage incident caused by narcissistic injury, devaluation through blame-shifting, name calling, ignoring, and then, discarding by withdrawal, silent treatment, or leaving and disappearing, reappearing, reconciliation, honeymoon period, lather, rinse, repeat.

However, about 10-percent of our clients ask that we close-out their files, and if they need anything in the future, they will contact us. As attorneys experienced in high-conflict divorces and narcissistic relationships, we know that this means, “I’ve decided to give my marriage another chance.” We also know that of this percentage, some may never become our clients again because they feel too ashamed to come back to us. However, we are not in the business of questioning the choices they’ve made. We understand that these relationships are highly addictive and dramatic, and we are not in the marriage counseling business. We are also not in the business of encouraging divorce. We are in the business of helping people leave toxic and abusive marriages.

How Can I Stop Returning to an Abusive Partner?

Our clients often ask why they keep returning to abusive situations, finding other abusive partners, and what they can do to prevent this from happening. We work closely with mental health experts who may help them, but I believe in addition to healing from toxic shame, [LINK TO SHAME BLOG HERE] people attracted to narcissistic partners need to heal from the powerful self-defense mechanism of denial.

Adults who were physically, mentally, or psychologically abused as children grow up developing extremely intricate defense mechanisms or ways to minimize the abuse they suffered as children. As children, we were too little and too vulnerable to face the brutal reality of those childhood traumas. One of the psychological defense mechanisms we learned to cope and seek comfort from the adults who abused us was denial. Denying the childhood traumas most likely served a critical purpose when we were little: if we deny that the adults responsible for keeping us safe actually hurt us, we can keep believing they will protect us. As children, our denial kept a shelter over our heads, food on our tables, and helped us keep forgiving our caregivers. As adults, denial can sometimes still be helpful at times, but when it comes to narcissistic relationships, denial mostly hurts us (and our own children).

As adults, we can learn to protect ourselves in ways that we couldn’t do as children. We are no longer little people and are strong enough to help ourselves. Denial keeps us locked in abusive relationships and tethered to narcissists. Learning to overcome denial can help us heal the inner child within us, the child that tells us, “You’re not strong enough for this. You don’t deserve better. This isn’t so bad, after all, doesn’t such and such have it worse than us?” There will always be someone who has it worse than you, and this belief shouldn’t be the measuring stick that you use to genuinely assess the gravity of your toxic relationship. Instead, one day, you can learn to keep denial at bay by learning to truly recognize the following: Yes, there will always be someone who has it worse. However, my narcissistic partner is not good for my own well-being and health. I deserve to have a normal relationship filled with love and gratitude. I don’t deserve to be ignored or treated like I am not worthy of good treatment.”

The trauma of childhood abuse can be so overwhelming and intense that as children, we simply made excuses for the adults around us. Denial shape-shifts as we become adults, and denial keeps us believing that abusive behavior should be overlooked. We learn mental tricks to help us conveniently forget or excuse poor behavior. We may hold grudges but act like things are great. We can learn to ignore the narcissistic temper tantrums and rage. We may feel victorious when we insult our narcissistic partners and feel that we’ve won that specific rage incident and feel as though we’ve “won” when we spark a narcissistic injury in the narcissist. However, we also tend to feel really badly about ourselves when the narcissistic person punishes us for “causing” his/her narcissistic injury by ignoring us, criticizing us, or disappearing from us. Then, our own denial allows us to forgive that person’s bad behavior by inducing guilt within us for being “too critical,” “too defensive, or “too vindictive.”

Unfortunately, the self-defense mechanism of denial doesn’t work too well in our adult lives for many reasons. One major reason is that it keeps us from engaging in the necessary inner work to heal our childhood traumas. Denial can make us jump from one relationship to another. We trade one narcissistic partner for another narcissistic partner. We believe that no marriage is perfect, and while that’s true, a good marriage is not abusive. Believing that others have it worse only reinforces the suppressed childhood feeling of, “I deserve this because what I want is not important.”

As I’ve blogged before about how narcissist’s can be almost perfect mirror images of our core beliefs and traumas, but flipped around, your narcissistic partner learned to deal with childhood trauma by denying the childhood traumas by blaming others. Who else to be a perfect match for a narcissistic spouse? In a very sick way, we collude with our narcissistic partner’s abusive of us by reinforcing and tolerating his/her narcissistic abuse of you. Your spouse denies he/she may be the problem by quickly displacing his/her shame onto you, and your own childhood traumas serve as a perfect bucket for the displacement. You have learned to deny and excuse other people’s poor treatment of you by believing you somehow deserve bad treatment. After all, if those responsible for treating you well as children (parents) didn’t treat you well, aren’t you unlovable?


I often say, “You can’t erase what you can’t face.” You can’t truly move on from abusive situations and avoid abusive partners without facing the reality of how childhood trauma affected you. You are in an adult body now and can face the pain of any childhood trauma you experienced. Facing denial requires courage, and it requires sitting with discomfort and having the grace to forgive yourself from picking toxic partners. It means facing the reality that your denial is no longer serving any useful purpose, and you cannot truly heal from the narcissistic abuse until you can face your own denial. I promise you that you will survive and become healthier by learning to vanquish denial. Facing denial means that you no longer have to punish yourself by believing you deserved the abuse, and instead, you can learn to value yourself by admitting someone else’s selfishness is not your fault. You can stop relying on self-destructive behaviors and people and end the narcissistic cycle of abuse.

Healing from using denial to excuse other’s poor treatment of you requires that it is not your responsibility or even, your business, to try and help someone understand why his/her behavior is unacceptable or abusive. With a narcissistic partner, this never works, and typically, it escalates the abusive behaviors. As an adult, you are no longer too little or too weak to simply walk away from unhealthy relationships.

Facing your denial means repeating the following phrases whenever you feel tempted to make excuses for another adult’s bad behavior: I am worthy of being treated with respect. I am sorry that the little me couldn’t make my parents treat me better. This is abuse, and I am worthy of a healthy relationship. No relationship is better than an abusive relationship, and one day, I will see a different option – a healthy relationship is out there if I want to be in a relationship.

As you become emotionally healthier, you will begin doing the healing work necessary to leave toxic situations and abusive partners. In my case, it didn’t take much time after I realized that trying to make a narcissist care for you and love you by denying and excusing a narcissist’s poor behavior was nothing less than self-abuse. How was I teaching others to treat me if I was constantly making excuses for them?

Fairfax Family Law and Divorce Lawyer: An attorney with experience in divorcing a narcissist will not help you make excuses by denying a narcissistic person’s bad behaviors by discrediting you or constantly questioning why you stayed in such a toxic situation. If you’re looking for an experienced Virginia family and divorce law attorney, contact Keithley Law, PLLC, PLLC today by calling (703) 865-7710 and schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office. We have decades of legal experience in high-conflict divorces.

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