“I just saw on Facebook that my ex-husband is living with someone, and has been for two years. I ended up moving away so didn’t know but he has been living with this woman for at least two years! We have been divorced for four. How did he supposedly fall in love and make a commitment so quickly while it has taken me years to try to regain my equilibrium and sense of trust? We were married for ten years, no kids. He behaved horribly during the divorce. Is this guy made of rubber? How did he bounce back so quickly?”
The term “bounce back” is a bit misleading, although this woman isn’t the first person to mislabel what makes someone high in narcissistic traits able to remake his or her life quickly; that ability should not be confused with resilience because it’s actually based on lack of emotional connection. (I will be using the male pronoun throughout to avoid a pronoun pile-up and because there are more men at the end of the narcissism spectrum than women, but feel free to switch up. Women too can be high in narcissistic traits and “move on” just as quickly as their male counterparts.) The speedy “recovery” is based on the shallowness of the narcissist’s emotional connection to you in the first place; while you feel as though you are recovering from a category 5 Hurricane, he’s gotten caught in a small rainstorm which, especially if there was a divorce, just slowed him down for a bit.
Mind you, that won’t be his public stance because people high in narcissistic traits not only always portray themselves as victims but are astonishingly good at playing the role of one. In fact, game playing and role playing are two things they are unusually skilled at. Instead, he will go on the offensive, maligning you at every turn and aggrandizing himself. This is what I heard from Celia, a 43-year-old engineer:
“He actually told our next-door-neighbors that he’d done his best but that my ‘instability’ and ‘crazy demands’ had doomed the marriage. My demands were that he communicate, instead of stonewalling, and that he stop threatening to leave me if I disagreed with him. He lasted for one-half of a therapy session—25 minutes—before he stormed out, saying that the only person who needed therapy was me. It took him six months to find a new wife, who has bought into all of his stuff. Since we co-parent our son and will for the next years, my divorce attorney remains a line item in my budget as do therapists for me and my son. I am so blessed I can afford it.”
Your recovery versus his: the crazy-making part
He doesn’t need to recover because, in a real sense, nothing happened to him other than the fact that a relationship he thought would work for him stopped working for him. Think about that for a moment because it reflects the investment someone high in narcissistic traits has In close connection; in many ways, it’s very bare bones and kind of utilitarian. The person high in narcissistic traits needs validation and, preferably, someone he or she can control and have in his or her orbit. You are thinking give-and-take, real intimacy and the risks and benefits it conveys, but the visual of a moon orbiting a sun is more appropriate. Silly you.
The narcissist and the lack of self-reflection
We usually focus on the narcissist’s lack of empathy—and, yes, that contributes significantly to the pain of a break-up since he is completely unconcerned about how his actions and words impact you and others—but his lack of introspection makes it really easy for him to hit the ground running and start over again. He’s not likely either to be able or to be concerned about what happened in the relationship, although that certainly won’t stop him from curating how he tells the story. As Dr. Craig Malkin writes in his book Rethinking Narcissism, “The people you love can’t change if they’re unwilling to acknowledge their problems, whether they’re alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, or extreme narcissists [italics in original].”
Whatever happened, it wasn’t his doing
If your break-up was contentious, he will most certainly play the victim, as I mentioned before, and will elicit much sympathy from his new love interest. I will admit with more than a bit of chagrin that I totally bought into this myself—oh, the stories of the valiant efforts he made to make his former wife happy and the very sad story of how lonely and frustrated he became—until 20/20 hindsight kicked in when I finally understood. I am willing to bet serious money that the story of our marriage is told with the same plot lines in operation.
All of these habits of mind make it very easy for the narcissist to start all over again.
Okay, enough about him; let’s see what we can do about getting you moving.
Five fast life hacks to get you refocused and moving on
Reclaiming your life isn’t always easy because emotional pain is hard to process, especially if the person is someone you loved and believed in. Most of this is common sense but it sometimes helps to see it in black-and-white.
- Remember who he is—not who you thought he was
This is very important because while it’s true that remembering the good moments can help us assuage loss, that’s just not going to be true of a relationship with a narcissist that was basically rigged from the beginning. It’s with hindsight that we see the love bombing and the rapid pace of seduction, all calculated to thrill you and make you feel wanted. The likelihood is that as you’re licking your wounds, those moments float into your head.
But those moments weren’t real; they were calculations on his part. Focus on the red flags you missed at the time.
- Spend some quality time figuring how you got to this place
And don’t beat yourself up while you’re doing it; it’s no help at all if you’re just going to fall into a deep pit of self-criticism. Instead, look at the relationship as if you were hearing a story about someone else and think about what vulnerabilities you displayed that make you so open to his seduction. Which of your strengths did the relationship require you to sublimate and why did you agree in the moment? One woman reflected on how she reacted to his stonewalling which undercut her terribly:
“Every time, I tried talking things through, he would act as though I’d said nothing. He’d cross his arms over his chest and mutter. Of course, I would end up yelling out of frustration and then he’d attack me for being a harpy, always complaining, bitching, and all. Then he’d say something like, ‘Well, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave?’ and he’d stomp off and then I would end up begging him and crying. He knew just how to push my buttons.”
So the question becomes: What buttons did you allow to be pushed? How was he able to manipulate you? You need to know the answers so you can move into the future with a feeling of emotional authority. Women with an insecure style of attachment are more likely to end up in these relationships; for more on that, see my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Shift gears and focus on you
Use the time to think about what you want for yourself in concrete terms; let this experience with someone high in narcissistic traits be a teaching moment for yourself. Clara came to see that her own neediness had made her vulnerable:
“I realized, in retrospect, that I was too eager to have things work out and that had I paid closer attention, I would have understood what motivated him with far greater clarity. Instead, I was content with just looking at the positives without recognizing that his habits of mind would ultimately get in the way. It wasn’t just that he was play-acting; it was also that I put on rose-colored glasses because I wanted to be in a relationship. I didn’t realize that about myself and if you’d asked me, I probably would have denied it. But it was true.”
- Don’t generalize
Despite the ubiquity of articles about narcissists, not everyone is high in narcissistic traits and there are many people out there, including you, who are looking for an emotional connection which is based on give-and-take and the needs of both people, not just one. Keep in mind that this was one person, not all people, and while the experience was lousy, it doesn’t mean that your next one will be. One untrustworthy person doesn’t render all people untrustworthy.
- Do something that symbolizes your letting go
You are out of the relationship but haven’t let go yet so it’s time to get your head and heart in gear. Changing up something about you and your life will help, especially if you are still living in the same space you once occupied as a couple; something as simple as painting the walls or re-arranging the furniture can help. One woman had her house smudged, and another cut her hair short because her ex always insisted she keep it long. Decluttering your physical life can certainly help declutter your emotional life and making plans for your future can keep you looking forward.
Again, the important part is letting go and the symbol less important than the act itself.
Recovering from a relationship with one of these folks is tough and the experience disheartening. But it can be done and this run-in can be relegated to a part of your personal history, not your future.
Photograph by AlexHoo9. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.