Life won’t necessarily be easy, but it can be better.
There was a time when even Aristotle believed that Earth was the center of the solar system. According to this geocentric model, the bright planetary bodies all revolved around us earthlings. The narcissist has a similar take on his or her position in the universe. And anyone who is or has been married to one knows this firsthand. Those who couldn’t last “‘til death do us part” know that even life after divorce from a narcissist is no picnic.
Narcissists, quite frankly, are exhausting. You can never give enough, be enough, do enough, flatter enough to satisfy their inflated sense of self. They need the world to revolve around them, to see them as the biggest, brightest star, and to praise them accordingly.
It’s understandable, therefore, how narcissism can be problematic in a relationship dynamic that needs equality, collaboration, and empathy in order to thrive. If any one entity in a marriage has the right to be a narcissist, it’s the marriage itself, not the individuals.
If you are trying to navigate life after divorce from a narcissist, you already know how defeating marriage to one can be. If you are in the throes of separation or divorce, you may be getting a rude awakening to the manipulation skillset of your ex-to-be. You may even wonder if he or she will manage to prevent the divorce altogether.
Before jumping ahead to the realities of life after divorce from a narcissist, it’s worth summarizing the tell-tale traits of this self-absorbed personality.
- Narcissists expect attention and praise...all the time. They are, after all, entitled to it. And when they don’t get it, they can quickly become hostile or aggressive.
- Narcissists lack empathy. The only feelings that matter are their own. Don’t expect them to walk a mile in your shoes anytime soon.
- Narcissists lack accountability. They take all the credit for what goes right and dish out blame for what goes wrong. Every failure, mishap, or disagreement is always someone else’s fault.
- Narcissists demand perfection. They believe they are perfect, and they expect everyone else to be...but on their terms, of course.
- Narcissists are bullies. And we all know that, under that bully exterior is a molten inferiority complex. They belittle and intimidate as a defense mechanism -- anything to keep others away from the truth of who they are.
- Narcissists don’t listen and don’t care. There is one opinion and one way: theirs. They don’t have time to be bothered with others’ senseless drivel, so they will just cut them off and take the stage.
- Narcissists are incapable of emotional intimacy. Don’t expect vulnerability, empathy, compassion, compromise, or any other unifying, relationship-building qualities.
With a list like this, you may wonder how a person could be so gullible as to marry a narcissist. But narcissists can be extremely charming, painting a big, dreamy picture of all the possibilities for life with them. The danger comes when a significant other takes a stand...or expresses a different opinion or need...or stops the flow of flattery.
Life after divorce from a narcissist isn’t necessarily different than it is before divorce -- at least with regard to the narcissist. The what, where, and when may change, but the how is still the same. The narcissist isn’t going to see the error of his or her ways, let alone care about its consequences.
What does it mean to have the opportunity to change is your life if you are no longer married to someone who is supremely self-absorbed?
You may be surprised to discover that reclaiming your life after divorce from a narcissist is a hard-won achievement.
Here are some of the realities that may define your life after divorce from a narcissist.
- You may still be confused and paralyzed.
Narcissists are masters at using criticism, mood swings, gaslighting, and double standards to extort their energy needs. And they know how to hide behind a charming public image to make you look like the crazy one.
- You may still doubt yourself.
It’s only natural that you will continue to question your own reality, judgment, and ability to recognize the enemy again.
Narcissists work insidiously. They chip away at your confidence, convictions, and self-esteem one insult, denial, and lie at a time. Don’t be surprised if you don’t trust yourself to “do life” on your own yet.
- Your ex isn’t going to change.
Just because you are no longer married doesn’t mean that life after divorce from a narcissist is going to be total freedom.
Narcissists never stop hungering for power, control, and self-gratification. So don’t be surprised if your ex tries to keep you down by making threats, sending abusive emails, or spreading lies about you.
- Your ex isn’t going to disappear from your life.
Especially if you have children together, you and your narcissistic ex will still be in one another’s lives. It will be incumbent upon you to have very clear boundaries, document everything, and have a reliable support system in place.
A narcissist isn’t above tactics like ignoring court orders or filing false charges. Remember, he or she is an energy vampire, and your divorce has taken away an immediate blood supply. Creating chaos for your (and even your kids’) life is just another way of keeping the energy of self-absorption alive.
- It may take a while for you to stand up for yourself.
Until now, you couldn’t say ‘no’ or share your feelings without negative consequences. There’s nothing like being ignored, mocked, or yelled at to shut a person down.
You may be surprised by your internal response when you feel the need to stand up to someone or something. The difference is that now you at least have the opportunity to take the risk.
When you start experiencing the freedom of self-expression, you will step into your own advocacy without apology or fear.
- Unless others live it, they probably won’t understand it.
Psychological and emotional abuse can be challenging for people to understand. No one who has lived it would ever ask, “Why didn’t you just leave?” Those who have lived in a psychological war zone know just how convoluted and debilitating the experience is. They may not be able to put defining words to it, but they get it.
Unfortunately, those you most want and need to understand may not be able to. They may see only the slow accumulation of damage to your spirit and life. But they still may not understand it, empathize with it, or know how to talk about it with you.
This is why gifting yourself with a professional who can offer both clarity and support can accelerate your healing. (And that’s certainly something your narcissist ex would never do!)
The realities of life after divorce from a narcissist can be as draining as the realities of marriage to a narcissist. Divorce, after all, doesn’t catapult you into exuberant freedom and readiness for a healthy relationship.
But, despite the unlikelihood that your narcissist ex will ever change, you now have the green light to go forward with your life. You can examine your life and choices with the fearlessness unknown to a defensive, falsely perfect narcissist. And you can make new choices that will create new relationships...and a new life.
Finally, you can look back and embrace the person you once were with the empathy and safety you never had until now.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. If you’d like additional support in thriving in life after divorce from a narcissist, you can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice or you can schedule a 30-minute private consultation with me.