Being in an intimate relationship with a narcissist can be dreadful but leaving and establishing your own life is often a daunting task. It’s important to think logically and to map out your moves rather than letting your emotions guide you.
There are certain circumstances where it’s unwise to stay in an intimate relationship with a narcissist. For the most part, people leave a narcissistic partner or divorce him because they feel unsafe or abused in the relationship. In other words, the person with narcissism threatened them and/or their children’s safety, security, or well-being. Coming out from the shadow of this type of toxic dynamic can take time and survivors can use strategies to draw from.
By definition, a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) feels entitled to certain privileges and their sense of entitlement may make them prone to punishing partners and/or children who don’t show them respect, admiration or attention. So one of the main aspects of recovering from a partnership with a narcissist is setting firm boundaries and protecting yourself and your children. Keep in mind, that a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) lacks empathy or concern for others so you can’t expect them to negotiate fairly or to keep your children’s best interests in mind.
In most cases, trying to co-parent cooperatively or have an amicable relationship with an ex who has NPD is problematic and not a realistic expectation because they’re so focused on themselves and their needs. According to family therapist Virginia Gilbert, MFT, attempts to co-parent with a narcissist will keep you engaged in a battle. She writes: “Targets of high-conflict personalities need to accept that it isn’t wise to be “authentic” with their ex. Strategic, limited disclosures and iron-clad boundaries are essential in managing a high-conflict divorce.”
Before you learn specific steps to recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to assess the degree of their narcissism and whether it is what author Wendy Behary LCSW refers to as “perilous narcissism.” In her acclaimed book Disarming the Narcissist Behary describes this type of narcissist as unremorseful and devoid of a moral compass – as having a complete disregard and contempt for others. She writes, “There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn’t worth fighting for, even if you have the leverage. The narcissist may even be a threat to your (and your children’s) security, safety, and stability.”
Further, perilous or abusive narcissists may offer excuses for their behavior, but they’ll never show remorse so don’t let yourself be won over by apologies. Another distinguishing characteristic of people with NPD is that they have an inflated sense of entitlement and self-esteem unrelated to real talent or accomplishments. This may cause them to feel jealous or easily threatened by you or their children showing attention or affection to others.
According to Behary, safety should be your first and foremost priority when dealing with a “perilous narcissist” – especially if their threats are increasing and they are violent or explosive. It’s best not to be alone with them. If your ex is perpetually verbally or emotionally abusive and becomes more callous or menacing, you have to decide to put the safety of yourself and your children first and come up with an exit strategy if they become explosive.
When in recovery from being in a relationship with someone with NPD, you are wise to put the focus on yourself and healing. It’s important not blame yourself. According to author Tracy Schorn, when you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, you’ve been used to focusing externally – on the alert for what they are going to do next. She writes, “You have to learn again to focus only on what you have the power to control – namely, your own behavior.” Once you leave the toxic relationship, you need to regain your confidence and take charge of your life! This process won’t be easy but is possible with a willingness to work on changing your approach and using the strategies outlined below:
5 Steps to help you recover from a relationship with a narcissist:
1. Focus on the only thing you can control – your behavior! You alone are responsible for your own happiness. Don’t be persuaded by your ex to do something that you’re uncomfortable with just to keep the peace. Adopt a business-like “Just the facts, ma’am” style of communicating with him/her.
2. Set boundaries and minimize contact with your ex. High-conflict personalities thrive on the possibility of combat. So be prepared and write a script to use when talking to them and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. For instance, if they try to persuade you to reunite, say something like: “I tried to make this relationship work. Nothing has changed and it’s not healthy for us to stay together. I wish you well.”
3. Don’t express genuine emotion to your ex or apologize for wrongdoing in the relationship. If your ex is a perilous or abusive narcissist, they might interpret your apology as proof of your incompetence and use it against you, according to Virginia Gilbert, MFT.
4. Don’t tolerate denigrating or abusive behavior from your ex and be sure that you and your children feel safe. This might mean having a close friend or family member on hand when you talk to your former partner. If you plan for the worst (and don’t expect that your ex will have moved on or be caring) you’ll be less likely to be blindsided by his/her attempts to control or get back at you. Be sure to save all abusive emails and text messages.
5. Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist. Therapists who utilize cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) are usually the most successful dealing with survivors of a relationship with a person with NPD. Be sure to ask a therapist if they have experience with this treatment method and NPD.
It’s essential to let go of feeling overly responsible and to stop putting your needs last at the expense of your own happiness. It’s not uncommon for people with codependent traits to be attracted to narcissists. According to codependency expert Ross Rosenberg and the author of The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, “Codependents – who are giving and consumed with the needs and desires of others – do not know how to emotionally disconnect from romantic relationships with individuals who are narcissistic—individuals who are self-centered, controlling, and harmful to them.”
If that’s the case, discussing ways to set boundaries with your ex in your counseling sessions will prevent you from engaging in a toxic, self-defeating pattern of relating to you ex in the future (or a new partner) and prevent you from giving up your personal power.
In closing, it’s crucial that you take an honest look at the impact your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship are having on you and possibly your children. Once you accept that you can only control your own behavior – not a person with NPD – your life will greatly improve. After all, you deserve to have a life filled with love and happiness! Go for it!