By definition, break-ups aren’t easy since they involve loss even when you’ve initiated them and humans are famously loss-averse. It goes without saying that they’re even harder when it’s the other person who’s doing the walking and you’re left alone. Luckily, humans also come equipped with what Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have called a psychological immune system which kickstarts our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over all again. Our unconscious thought processes form a handy line of defense against emotional pain, using both rationalization and selective memory.
The psychology of the “normal” break-up
When a break-up first happens, it’s the good stuff that floats to the top and fills us with anguish: the special warmth of his smile, the moments you felt truly loved, and more. But, bit by bit, the mind begins to edit and insinuate memories that provide a bit of balance, ever so subtly. Now, you remember his most annoying habits—how he insisted that there was a right way to load a dishwasher, his refusal to admit he was lost on the road, the way he chewed on a piece of bread. Each of these tidbits remind you that he and the relationship itself were far from perfect and, one day, you wake up and voila! You’re ready to move on. That’s the psychological immune system at work.
The playing field isn’t level when it comes to recovering and getting over someone; some people are more resilient than others for a number of reasons. A strong sense of self is one factor but so is a more complex view of self, as research by Patricia Linville suggests. Women who define themselves more narrowly are more likely to have trouble weathering and recovering from a break-up or divorce than those who define themselves in more varied ways. The loss of self-definition is much more narrowly confined for a woman whose relationship status only occupies a small part of her self-definition; she’s not just Brian’s lover or wife, but a worker ,a colleague, a friend, a mother, a sister, a cousin, a gardener, a yoga enthusiast etc. Other research suggests that the ability to set abstract goals after a break-up or divorce also helps recovery. Rather than look for a new guy to fill the hole in your heart, you focus in on what you miss having. Let’s say it’s a sense of emotional connection or belonging. There are many more ways of feeling a sense of connection than just a romantic relationship—friendships, a shared interest such as sports, exercise or a reading group, or community involvement spring to mind—and that kind of abstract thinking will put you on the road to feeling good much faster.
But many parts of this recovery script don’t work when the person you’ve been involved with is a narcissist. That makes getting over him and on with your life that much more difficult.
Why recovering from a narcissist is so hard
There’s so little directness and so much subterfuge when you’re involved with a narcissist that recovery involves a rude awakening to the reality of where you’ve been and the real person you were with. That doesn’t happen at the end of other relationships. Because people high in narcissistic traits are consummate game players, the chances are good that you didn’t even know the myriad ways you were being played until the relationship was on its last legs. If you were unlucky enough to have been married to him, getting out will be impossibly difficult.
Perhaps the hardest thing to accept and absorb is that your connection was never a true dyad in the real sense but instead a planet—the narcissist—drawing a moon—you—into its orbit. The emotional killer is that it’s often only on the way out that the pattern becomes clear because the narcissist is a skilled deceiver and very persuasive; he’s persuasive because he needs you to feel good about himself, though not in the way you once thought. He’ll continue to manipulate you even as things wind down because he needs the rush of power manipulation gives him.
It’s often only at the end that you may fully appreciate how much of you has been chipped away over the course of the relationship.
Following are four of the major reasons getting over a relationship with a narcissist is so difficult.
1.The web of deception
When you realize nothing about the relationship was what it seemed, you suffer not just a crisis of self-confidence but an enormous blow to your sense of self, as I can personally attest. The more I thought about the relationship, the more I felt that I’d been had and played. As one woman wrote me:
The recognition that I threw ten years of my life into the rubbish was devastating to me. I felt shame when I realized that other people saw him for who he was—a braggart without substance, a manipulator and bully. The worse part? Had anyone pulled me aside and told me, I would not have believed them.
Seeing that you were just a bit player in a script written by someone else strips you of dignity and makes you wonder about your own judgment. Getting past that and recognizing that trusting someone—even if it’s the wrong someone—isn’t a character flaw is part of the process of recovery.
2.The (awful) clarity of hindsight
Because a narcissist reveals himself in fullness during periods of conflict, there is usually a moment of blinding revelation—and with it comes full understanding which is, to say the least, highly dismaying. While the end of other relationships usually leaves you with a mixed bag of memories—some good, some less so, and some bad—that’s unlikely to happen with a narcissist who will continue to do battle until the last moment. This is especially true if you are going through a divorce or have possessions to split up. Like coming to terms with all the lies and subterfuges, the clarity achieved is terrifically painful and embarrassing at a deep level. Re-playing the tape in my head cost me many nights of sleep.
3. The difficulty of getting free
Until he’s replaced you, the narcissist still needs you to feel good about himself (and to keep that power rush going) so the quick and easy exit is unlikely unless he has a lady-in-waiting and even then, the games might well continue He also needs to win at all costs so if there are legal proceedings involved, anticipate a lengthy battle with a take-no-prisoners style of dealing and no negotiation. His inner bully will be on view.
All of these traits make recovery longer and harder, and part of the task at hand is not to become bitter or generalize from the experience. He’s one guy with highly specific traits and not all men. You’re not likely to be one of those exes who can remember the relationship with fondness or pulls out old photos with a smile.
4.There’s no silver lining
And no positive lessons to be learned other than the obvious one: Steer clear of people like this going forward! When relationships end, we usually learn something important about ourselves, emotional connection, and life and, no matter the ending, we come away with something of value. Alas, that’s not true when you’re recovering from a run-in with a narcissist and that too is a tough lesson that makes putting the pieces together that much harder.
Recovering from a narcissist is hard but not impossible. Be kind to yourself in the process.
Photograph by Mantas Hesthaven. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
Linville, Patricia, “Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity: Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket,”” Social Cognition. 1, no.1. (1985): 94-120.
FOR MORE ON NARCISSISM, READ:
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know. New York: Touchstone, 2016
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.