A woman I'll call Bethany got in touch with me asking for help. She was 47 years old, had two children, and had been married for 23 years to a man with significant narcissistic tendencies. Although their marriage had never been great, the last decade was brutal.
The more time we spent together, the more I learned about their dynamic. He would manipulate her to suit his own desires, withholding love and attention until she finally gave in. He lied pathologically and made no apologies for having multiple affairs or drinking and gambling too much.
She had felt so alone for most of her marriage that she referred to herself as a "single married woman." The more strongly she connected with her voice in that relationship, the further away he pushed her, until he had finally pushed her right out the door – feeling frightened and desperately wanting to excavate the strong, confident woman she once was.
Though he hurt her repeatedly, she still loved him. When they parted ways, she was depressed and stuck.
I don’t know whether our culture has bred an entire generation of narcissists, if we have more information available to us today about narcissism, or if placing a label on someone who broke our heart helps us rationalize our pain and move on. Maybe it’s a combination of those things.
I coach a lot of women who are healing from breakups and attempting to move forward in their lives. When a client is attempting to heal from a breakup with a narcissist, their journey is a little longer and has to go much deeper. That’s because there’s no peace inside of a relationship with someone who is narcissistic. You’re never quite enough. You’re always to blame. You’re consistently on the receiving end of painful manipulation that crushes your self-esteem and makes you think you’re going crazy.
When a relationship with a narcissist ends, it typically ends badly. More often than not, the narcissist is the one who steps away and leaves us in tears. Occasionally, they’ll get caught in one lie too many and we'll somehow find the strength to leave. However, finding the strength to move on from a narcissist is incredibly difficult.
Here are the three main sticking points in recovery from a relationship with a narcissist.
1. Perhaps your narcissist told you that all the problems in the relationship were your fault — and you believed him. Since you believe that you are the source of all the problems, you believe that you can and should fix them. You can change. You can become the person he needs you to be so that you can get him back.
None of that is true. And, since what a narcissist wants is a moving target, no matter what you turn yourself into, it still won’t be enough. You need to focus on getting your strength back so that your next relationship feels like love to you.
2. If you’re a romantic person, you may tend to see people for who they could be rather than who they actually are. You may see greater potential in your partner than in yourself. If you've dated a narcissist, you might place them on an unearned pedestal that has blinded them to the truth of who they are.
Instead, become genuinely curious about how your partner interacts with others. When you become the observer, you can detach, gain a broader perspective, and see the truth more clearly.
3. You might be looking for closure, and it won't come. When a relationship with a narcissist ends, you will be tempted to try to understand what went wrong and to explain the pain you’re feeling. A narcissist isn’t capable of understanding, acknowledging, or validating your pain. You don’t need to say it more clearly, find the right words, or raise the volume, because your narcissist can’t hear you.
When a relationship with a narcissist ends, healing must take place in order to move past the pain and avoid attracting a similar partner in the future, thereby extending the cycle and, inevitably, the struggle. Because the charming personality and beguiling allure of a narcissist are appealing on deep levels, guidance from a trained professional can be immensely helpful.