by Kim Johnson
Going through a divorce is complicated and impacts your life in so many ways. Anxiety, worry, insomnia, weight loss or gain, depression and loneliness are just some of the things you may experience. Many counselors may automatically blame your suffering on your break-up. However, these problems can also develop if you are a victim of narcissistic abuse.
What is Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is a hypernym for the psychological, financial, sexual, and physical abuse by someone with narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Whether or not the divorce was your choice, recognizing the effects of living with a narcissistic spouse isn’t easy. Their behavior can begin subtly, with a slow and deliberate march of manipulation and calculated control.
Unfortunately, narcissists are not branded with a big “NPD” on their forehead. They hide in plain sight masquerading as some of the most charismatic and charming people. You may be looking back wondering how you could have missed the signs. But the blame is not yours. The abuse executed by a narcissist is not your fault.
I was drawn to my narcissistic ex-spouse by his charisma. Extremely intelligent, his control and manipulation came off as confidence. He made sure I knew he “chose” to ask me out instead of another gal. Of course, now I know that was a HUGE red flag. But at the time, the stars in my eyes blinded me to the truth. He sucked me into his victim mentality, and I genuinely believed it was within my power to make him happy. I even thought it was my responsibility.
Narcissists Seem So Perfect at First
This is a common pattern for the narcissistic abuser. At first, they seem so perfect. Artificially charming, they can morph into whatever personality is needed to be perceived as super likable. They sweep you off your feet and make sure you know how completely wonderful they are in every way. Unfortunately, it is a smokescreen.
Once they have you hooked and emotionally invested in the relationship, there’s a flip. Selfish behavior becomes the norm, and you find yourself working harder and harder to meet their needs. Then the devaluing and criticizing begins, making the relationship officially toxic.
The spiral continues and becomes an endless struggle. The problem is, you’ve lost the war even before the first battle. But you don’t know that. I didn’t. For years I assumed the anger, criticism and failures were my fault. I read every book I could find about relationships and tried it all to make things better. Nothing worked but I continued to try. Unfortunately, it’s like filling a hole in a dam at one end while the water has already rushed out at the other. All your efforts will never make a difference.
Common Traits of a Narcissist
Most people who suffer from NPD share many of the same personality traits. These include having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and the need for excessive approval. Most people with NPD embellish both their talents and their achievements.
Fantasies of success, power, and brilliance (i.e., they’re smarter, more attractive and successful than anyone) create a belief they exist on a higher level than others. Thus, only those considered worthy are invited to be in the narcissist’s presence. To get what they want, they’ll take advantage of others and expect unquestioning compliance with their expectations.
The problem? While a narcissist’s self-esteem seems off the charts, they actually have no self-worth. With such fragile self-confidence, they require constant encouragement. The feelings of inadequacy, imperfection, and insecurity are only relieved when their ego is boosted. But it’s not just a one-time deal. You must constantly reinforce, reassure, and relentlessly remind them they are wonderful.
This hunger for appreciation and admiration drives the abuser to do anything to have their ego stroked. Physical, psychological, and emotional abuse are tools of the trade to meet this unquenchable demand. Ultimately, to feel good about themselves, they must make you feel small, weak, and powerless. Often described as having a lack of empathy, this is not the same as being unable to empathize. In effect, the narcissist is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings of others. Thus, while they may express deep affection for your pet, your needs will never be acknowledged.
Narcissistic abuse is one of the most insidious forms of domestic abuse. If you were married to a narcissist, you may find it nearly impossible to understand and describe what you experienced. You probably felt like you were going insane and you were the problem in the relationship.
Crazy making is a subtle dynamic utilized by someone with NPD. A form of emotional abuse, the abuser will use mind games, lying, projection, and verbal harassment as some of the tools to maintain control. Being a victim of this behavior erodes self-confidence. Have you experienced self-doubt, apologizing for things even when you knew you weren’t at fault?
Crazy makers have two sets of rules. One set is for you, and the other is for him. Unfortunately, these rules are not set in stone. Either set of rules can change on a whim and you won’t know when that happens. You no doubt experienced this rule change in your relationship. There were most likely times you felt you followed instructions to the letter, only to have him erupt with anger. What you did was not what he wanted after all.
This played out in my previous marriage all the time. He wanted iced tea with dinner. But then he would get angry because I didn’t have water on the table. Constantly complaining about spending money, he gave me limited cash for groceries. Then he would get angry and grumble about what I cooked for dinner. One night I came home from work to find a cooked chicken hanging from the garage door. He decided he wanted to go out for dinner, and this was the way he let me know.
This is a narcissist’s greatest advantage. Their behavior is often contradictory, inconsistent, and inexplicable (crazy making). The mixed messages keep victims stuck in a never evolving circle of toxicity. And now you most likely understand why. Whether or not you wanted the divorce, getting out of a dysfunctional relationship like this may end up being the best thing that ever happened.
How to Move Forward
Going through a divorce causes plenty of pain and turmoil. When your ex-spouse was narcissistic, it unfortunately doubles the heartache. Deep down inside you may still blame yourself. You play the “I should have, I could have, or I would have” game. But there will be no winner.
First and foremost, you will need to come to terms with the fact the abuse you experienced was deeply traumatizing. This kind of toxic relationship often leaves victims drained physically, emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even financially. The divorce is painful, but so is being the victim of narcissistic abuse. As you look back, you may be trying to make sense of what happened. Unfortunately, you cannot apply logic to illogical actions.
To facilitate your healing process, begin by researching and understanding what you can about this disorder. You no doubt have questions and finding information will give you some answers. Just don’t force it. You may never completely understand why you were treated in such a terrible way.
Protect yourself by limiting contact with your abuser as much as you can in the divorce process. Mediation might be difficult since someone with NPD may not exhibit normal, healthy thought or behavior patterns. In fact, don’t be surprised if they lie about you and do whatever possible to destroy your life. Remember, they lack empathy and compassion. They only care about themselves and will do whatever necessary to preserve their facade of a flawless image.
And know you are more than what your abuser made you feel. Despite what the narcissist in your life told you or how they treated you, you are worthy of love, happiness and success in life. Know that recovery is possible and that you can have a different and better life. Allow yourself the time and space it will take to heal and recover.
Healing from Narcissistic Abuse
Escaping a narcissistic relationship is not the end of your journey to healing, it is just the beginning. While you may have some idea how to deal with your divorce, recovering from an NPD relationship can be anything but clear. Peeling back the layers from that onion is going to require patience. So, it is crucial you take an honest look at the impact of your ex’s behaviors and the dynamics in your relationship.
There is a variety of information available when you research narcissism. And it will be helpful to begin reading what is presented. Each website tackles the subject a little differently and you will get lots of data. However, counseling is often the best form of treatment when dealing with this type of recovery. But it must be the right kind of therapy.
You may find it challenging to find a specialist who has a deep understanding of narcissistic abuse and is properly trained to help survivors. Unfortunately, most therapists are not specialized in this area. And sometimes a well-meaning but misinformed therapist can cause secondary trauma by inadvertently invalidating the abuse.
Here are some resources that will help in your search for the right kind of therapy:
- The Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Alliance (NAAA). This organization uses an Instagram account to match victims seeking treatment with well-trained therapists. Joinnus.firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Seek trusted recommendations from other survivors of NPD. If you know someone who experienced narcissistic abuse, ask them for a therapist recommendation. Or, check with another therapist and request a recommendation for a specialized provider. Remember, seeing a counselor is an individual experience. If you don’t feel comfortable after a couple of sessions, look for someone else.
- Research specialists in PTSD, Abuse and Anxiety. Narcissistic abuse is not an isolated event and often comes with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Look for literature on related topics and find a therapist who specializes in those areas.
Healing from narcissistic abuse will not be a straight-line experience. Getting from point A to point B may take you on a ride with lots of twists and turns, and even some setbacks. But don’t give up. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally and who will support you on this journey. You can rediscover who you are and have future healthy relationships that will bring you joy.
God sometimes removes a person from your life for your protection.
Don’t run after them.
June 1 is World Narcissistic Abuse Day (WNAAD). Established in 2016, WNAAD is a growing global movement dedicated to raising the profile of narcissistic abuse, providing public pathology education and resources for survivors, and effecting change.
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