Being in a relationship with a narcissist or borderline can feel absolutely amazing at first. Like magic. The love bombing or seduction is over the top, intoxicating and fast — especially if you have codependency issues stemming from childhood.
At long last, you finally feel loved, adored and accepted. It’s the ephemeral twilight time, a delicious pink bubble in which you fall in love with the woman or man of your dreams, or so you think. Once the honeymoon phase is over and the inevitable devaluation stage begins, she or he becomes your worst nightmare.
If you want your life back you will have to take it.
The narcissist or borderline typically won’t let you do so without a fight. Even when the break up or divorce is her or his idea, they will want to control how the separation occurs, the break up narrative (e.g., the narcissist is all good, you’re all bad) and may even keep you twisting in the wind should the new narcissistic supply not work out.
These individuals are relationship parasites. They feed from you emotionally, psychologically, physically and/or financially. At some point in your relationship, probably just as the love bombing/honeymoon stage was coming to an end, there was most likely a seminal moment. Sometimes this is referred to as a shit test.
It’s when your narcissist or borderline really tested your limits and boundaries to gauge just how far she or he could take things. It was also the first big power grab. For example, right after moving in together, Tim wanted Roberta to accompany him to see his former roommate’s band at a local pub. He hadn’t seen his friends for a couple of months in the whirlwind of their new relationship and wanted to go for a set to support his friend. Roberta didn’t want to go. She told Tim his friends were “gross” and accusatorily asked what was wrong with Tim that he liked “those people.”
Nevertheless, Roberta begrudgingly accompanied Tim, complaining and pouting en route. At the venue, she barely spoke to anyone and made it clear that she didn’t want to be there. On the drive home, all hell broke loose. Roberta verbally savaged Tim and told him she was moving out the following day. Tim was crushed. He didn’t understand how wanting to see his friend’s band play for 30 minutes had mushroomed and spiraled out of control into Roberta breaking up with him. Roberta continued to coldly rage the next morning before work.
Tim was a wreck all day. After Roberta arrived home, he apologized and let her know how much he loved her and wanted to make it work. Roberta smiled that smile (i.e., the Sociopathic Smirk), accepted Tim’s apology and reinforced (more like rubbed his nose in it) that Tim must learn to be more sensitive to her wants, needs, sensitivities, blah, blah, blah. Tim felt immediate relief and continued to apologize. He also never made the “mistake” of asking or even expecting Roberta to do anything she didn’t want to do ever again.
Okay, so what happened in this example?
Tim made a reasonable request. Roberta didn’t want to go because she didn’t like or feel comfortable around Tim’s friends. Why? Roberta couldn’t control Tim’s friends and felt ashamed around them because they knew she had cheated on her former boyfriend when she got together with Tim. Roberta was also beginning to isolate Tim and test his limits. Ultimately, Tim let go of his friendships and Roberta consolidated her control of the relationship. As this was happening, Tim didn’t see it. His goal was to make Roberta happy and preserve the relationship at all costs — even at the price of his self-respect and other relationships.
Once that seminal moment occurs and you give your power away to the NPD/BPD, like a frog in a pot coming to a slow boil, she or he will incrementally break you down, train you to comply, to do for them, to not expect much, if anything, in return and foster a dependence upon her or his approval (i.e., the carrot on the stick that dangles forever out of reach). The narcissist or borderline usually doesn’t give up this kind of power and control without a fight.
As mentioned earlier, even if she or he initiates the break up, they rarely allow you to go easily. Heaven help you, regardless of who makes the decision to end it, if you take your power back and leave on your terms. Ditching a narcissist or borderline requires a specific mind set. It means putting yourself first and letting go of the fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) that many abusive personalities use to manipulate their targets. It also means taking care of business when you’re most likely wading through the stages of grief. None of this is easy.
How do you reclaim your life from a narcissist or borderline?
Accept reality. You must let go of any fantasies or wishful thinking regarding the possibility of change for the better. You can’t change or fix these individuals. Even when she or he claims to want help, all they really want is to be enabled, to continue to do as they’ve always done. The reality is that a narcissist or borderline has a limited emotional landscape, a lack of personal accountability and empathy and a self-serving morality and conscience. They are often hypocrites and liars.
Don’t indulge in any delusions about maintaining a friendship, an equitable division of assets or the like. You’ve seen behind the narcissist’s mask and for that she or he will want you to suffer. They probably also feel a tremendous amount of contempt for you because you allowed yourself to be turned into a doormat. They’re used to bullying and bulldozing you and will expect to be able to continue to do so. Once you break it off and say, “No more,” the NPD/BPD will view you as their mortal enemy. Behave accordingly and protect yourself
Make an exit plan. You can’t heal while in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline, sociopath or whatever you want to call these individuals. You need time and distance for that to happen. Don’t tell the narcissist you’re leaving (or that she or he will be leaving) and that the relationship is over until you’re ready to pull the rip cord. Of course, if there are children involved or the home is marital property you will most likely need an attorney. Preferably one who has a good deal of experience with high-conflict cases.
Exiting an abusive relationship can be an extremely difficult and painful thing to do. You’re letting go of all the hopes and dreams you had at the beginning of the relationship. Keeping your plans secret until you’re ready to execute might just spare you any confusing Hoovers, suicide threats and false allegations of abuse to the police or children’s safety authorities not to mention property damage, preemptive smear campaigns (although your narc has probably already engaged in that all along) and any other nasty tricks she or he can concoct.
Go on self-preservation autopilot. Depending upon how much time you’ve spent with your narcissist, she or he has probably gotten into your head to some degree. Their insults, invalidating commentary, projections and gaslighting have undoubtedly caused you to question your self-worth and ability to survive without her or him. This is bullshit, of course. Not only will you survive without your narcissist or borderline, you will thrive. Think about it, who needs who? Does the human being with blood and a pulse need the vampire or does the vampire need the fresh blood supply? Does the host need the parasite, or does the parasite need the host?
The narcissist can’t survive without a mirror. That’s why they so frequently begin an affair before they end their present relationship. They don’t have the capacity to grieve, and by having your replacement in the wings before you’re out the door they bypass the grieving process or having to look at themselves and their behavior in any meaningful way. However, they also don’t derive the wisdom and healing that comes from going through it. You don’t need your narcissist.
Document the abuse. Talk to trusted friends and family members. Let them know what’s been going on. Please be certain you can trust any potential confidante. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough! If shared children are involved, talk with an attorney or therapist who specializes in these issues. They can help you devise an exit strategy and explain the kind of documentation that will be helpful (e.g., audio recordings of abuse that occur in front of the children, threats to file false police reports, parenting logs, etc.) Never underestimate the narcissist’s or borderline’s capacity to lie convincingly if only for a short while and the extreme measures and treacheries they’ll commit to even the score and preserve their false public persona.
Harden your heart — quit protecting your narcissist from themselves and protect yourself instead. She can’t pay the bills on her own. She can’t find a rental willing to take her and her 26 rescue cats and 15 rescue horses. Whatever. None of her or his issues and bad choices need to be your problem anymore. They were never yours in the first place. She or he dumped them onto you and made them your responsibility and you allowed it to happen. Her irresponsibility is not your responsibility. Her pathology is not yours to bear. Shrug it all off. Be single-minded in carrying out your decision to free yourself. If you show weakness (e.g., feeling sorry for her or feeling guilty for kicking her out) she will smell it like a shark detecting chum in the water and exploit it.
Deliver appropriate consequences for boundary violations and any criminal acts your narcissist or borderline perpetrates before, during and after the break-up. Don’t allow yourself to squirm out of taking proportional and lawful self-protective measures out of pity or “not wanting the mother of [your] children” to have a record if she assaults you or destroys your property. Adult abusers are basically overgrown schoolyard bullies. They don’t stop messing with their targets until they experience real punishment for doing so or are made to stop by an authority greater than themselves like law enforcement.
Set the record straight with people who matter to you. Narcissists and borderlines do love a good smear campaign. If you care about the opinion of any mutual friends or in-laws, you may want to consider setting the record straight with them immediately after you leave — ideally before the narcissist realizes what’s happening. The narcissist will lie, distort and exaggerate. She or he will claim that you are guilty of abuses and perfidies she or he actually committed. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You will have told others the truth and your narcissist will lie. If people are paying attention, the narcissist’s lies will become more fantastical and contradictory over time.
NO CONTACT, NO CONTACT, NO CONTACT. You need peace in order to heal and that means putting as much physical and emotional distance between you and your NPD/BPD as possible. In other words, go No Contact. This is easy for some and very difficult for others. Don’t respond to emails, texts or voicemails. Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Avoid places your ex is likely to be. Don’t visit their social media. Tell any remaining shared friends or acquaintances that you’d rather not hear any updates — unless it’s six ‘o’ clock newsworthy embarrassing material and then maybe. If there aren’t any shared children, there is really no reason to have any communication once it’s over. Property disputes can be handled through attorneys. Any continued contact is just an opportunity for the narcissist or borderline to continue to manipulate you or cause mischief. Don’t do it.
Be prepared to let go of other relationships — power wash your life. This can be tough especially if you gave up friendships and your own family during the relationship with the narcissist or borderline. Unfortunately, mutual friends and acquaintances often become weak links in your effort to take back your life. It’s a form of collateral loss, but it can also be an opportunity to clear out the rot, till the soil and grow new, healthier friendships. Narcissists and borderlines usually don’t attract healthy people to their inner circle. Unless they’re the hermit variety they often have an odd assortment of sycophants, lackeys, stooges, enablers, fly by night exploitative manipulators, ne’er do wells and the occasional genuinely nice person who buys into her or his false self/mask of normalcy. Hose it all off.
Deafen your ears. Lots of narcissists and borderlines like to make baseless, litigious threats at the end of the relationship. I once worked with a woman whose extremely narcissistic ex tried to bully her into signing a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) for both him and the woman with whom he cheated on her! He threatened her with lawsuits including suing her for two years worth of his income and his mistress’ income if she told anyone about his infidelity and his eventual physical assault upon her. He even threatened her with the FBI! Totally crazyballs. In the end, it’s usually just a lot of sound and fury. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the equivalent of an angry toddler calling you a poopyhead. Did I mention No Contact?
Embrace the grieving process. Don’t confuse the pain of grief as an indication that you’ve made a mistake. Loss hurts. Oftentimes the healthiest choices are also the most difficult and painful. Your grief process will be compounded if you have unresolved childhood and family of origin issues. Don’t run from the pain, walk into it. It will eventually pass. Focus on you and what attracted you to the narcissist or borderline, not why the narcissist is a narcissist or the borderline is a borderline. What made you vulnerable? Why did you tolerate the abuse? Why did you give away your power, dignity and self-respect in exchange for “love?” Real love doesn’t demand these sacrifices and degradations. If you do have family of origin issues, be patient. You didn’t develop these vulnerabilities overnight and you won’t rid yourself of them as quickly as you’d like.
Take care of your physical and emotional health. Taking care of ourselves often falls by the wayside when in a relationship with a narcissist or borderline. They resent any acts of self-care in which you engage especially if it takes attention away from them and if it makes you stronger. Abusers like their targets weak because it makes it easier for them to control you. Work toward eating healthfully, getting regular exercise, improving your sleep habits and limit your alcohol and recreational drug use. Drugs and drink will mask the feelings you need to feel or make you feel even worse, so take it easy and don’t try to numb yourself or escape the grief.
Get outdoors. Seek solace in nature. Fresh air, sunshine, trees, lakes and mountains are a tonic. Long walks can help bring things into perspective and clear the head. If you allowed friendships to fall by the wayside because your ex sucked up all the oxygen in your life, rebuild your social circle. Reach out to old friends. Reconnect with family members. Re-engage in activities or pursuits that your ex resented and made it impossible for you to enjoy. If they acted out at Christmastime, get yourself the biggest tree you can fit into your home. If they had issues with food and weight, eat a hot fudge sundae in bed.
Reclaiming your life from one of these predators can seem impossible at first, but that’s just another lie your narcissist or borderline sold you. It is possible. If you want your life back, don’t expect her or him to meekly release you. The price of freedom is potentially incurring their narcissistic rage. If you want to get to the other side you will most likely have to pay the troll under the bridge before you can walk across it and blow it up. It can seem like a daunting and overwhelming task, but what’s the alternative? What is your joy and well-being worth? What is your life worth? I’ll tell you one thing, it’s worth more than wasting it on someone who will never be able to truly love.
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Shrink4Men Counseling, Consulting and Coaching
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides one-on-one services that help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men who are trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Dr. Palmatier also works with women in similar situations. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Services page for professional inquiries.