How does a relationship with a narcissist end? How does the once Disney fairy tale romance that’s gone Grimm conclude? How does a relationship with a person who’s chronically emotionally immature and unstable, self-absorbed, entitled and integrity-challenged play out?
Generally, not good.
These relationships start with a love bomb and end with a bang. As in, you bang your head against the wall of their pathology. You bang your head against the wall of your denial and cognitive dissonance. The narcissist or borderline bangs the door shut in your face. They cheat or have serial affairs. Or, a blood vessel bursts in your brain and bang you drop dead of a stroke. Sometimes they end with a disappearing act. The narcissist or borderline disappears. Your money disappears. Your dog disappears. Even children you share with the narcissist may disappear.
Like I said, not good.
Once you understand how narcissists work, their seemingly unpredictable behaviors become predictable. Ending a relationship with a narcissist or other toxic personality also follows some predictable patterns. As painful and crazy-making as the relationship was during the beginning and middle stages, the break-up often mirrors and intensifies their behaviors, emotions and attitudes.
And remember, they supposedly loved you during the marriage. Once you file for divorce or separate, you officially become the enemy. In reality, the narcissist has been your enemy throughout the relationship. It’s just more obvious once everything implodes as you’re vilified and smeared. After a Wagnerian soap opera of low notes, it’s extremely rare for these relationships to end on a high note. If you’re very lucky, it may end quickly if the narcissist or borderline has locked and loaded on their next victim and wants to legally secure the new relationship through marriage. Otherwise, a long, drawn out high-conflict battle that hemorrhages legal fees typically ensues.
Again, it’s rare, as in unicorn rare, to end a relationship with a narcissist or other disordered predator in an emotionally mature and mutually compassionate way, in which both parties give each other closure. They simply lack the personality characteristics that would allow them to do so. Amicable divorce and custody resolution? That all depends upon how one defines amicable. For a narcissist, amicable divorce means that their victim purchases their own Vaseline.
For the non-disordered and often codependent and trauma bonded partner, it’s usually a series of painful WTF moments in which the narcissist blame shifts, projects and smears you by accusing you of their misdeeds and abuses, or DARVO (deny, attack and reverse victim and offender). Your narcissist or borderline claims they want to stay friends? That all depends upon how one defines friendship. When a narcissist claims they want to “stay friends,” what she or he usually means is that they reserve the right to continue to exploit and abuse you at their discretion in perpetuity.
There are several reasons for this. It’s the usual character deficits of the Cluster B personality disorder group that are at the core of all their toxic and crazy-making behaviors:
Lack of self-reflection and accountability. If a person can’t or won’t admit when they’re wrong, it indicates an inability for self-reflection and accountability. Or, they’re under investigation for criminal activities or civil damages or both. In other words, if they’re always right, then someone else must be wrong. That would be you. Therefore, when the relationship inevitably breaks down and falls apart, that’s on you. It’s never because they’re immature, pathologically self-absorbed, selfish and abusive. No, no, no. You’re having a mid-life crisis, or any excuse that deflects responsibility from the narcissist.
Their refusal to take responsibility for their choices and behavior is also a kind of magical thinking. It reminds me of the Yul Brynner line in The Ten Commandments, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” It’s as if the narcissist’s verbal act of abdicating personal responsibility and blame shifting onto another person, usually the actual victim, makes it so. As has been discussed in other articles, ultimately, it’s irrelevant if the narcissist or borderline consciously knows they’re lying. Typically, the high-functioning ones know they’re lying and why. The mid-functioning ones know they’re lying and sometimes understand why. The low-functioning ones may or may not know they’re lying and often have no idea why. Again, their level of consciousness doesn’t matter. What matters is the damage caused by their lies.
Entitlement and lack of empathy. Through a system of psychological defense mechanisms and a breathtaking sense of entitlement, narcissists are able to convince themselves and others that they’re the victim of just about any toxic situation they create or instigate. Especially situations in which, to an objective third party observer, they’re the aggressor. Given enough time (like a nanosecond), a narcissist, borderline or psychopath will distort and reorder reality. They genuinely believe their victims deserve to be harmed and punished. It doesn’t matter that you’ve supported the narcissist or borderline financially and emotionally for years. Or, that you’ve been court ordered to support them via spousal and child support. You owe them everything and deserve every nasty thing they dish out.
You deserve to be lied to, betrayed or humiliated because you couldn’t meet their litany of unrealistic expectations. Not only do narcissists have no empathy for the people they callously and maliciously hurt, they have contempt for them. With borderlines it’s slightly different. They may be able to acknowledge they’ve hurt someone, but because they believe their suffering is greater in all things that makes them the victim regardless of how horribly they’ve treated the actual victim (i.e., not the borderline).
Defense mechanisms and lack of psychological maturity. Everyone employs psychological defense mechanisms to some degree. Defense mechanisms are activated when we perceive an “anxiety signal,” which may lead to feelings of guilt, inferiority, shame or embarrassment. Reasonably healthy, emotionally mature people are more likely to eventually recognize what we’re doing and then deal with the uncomfortable painful thoughts and feelings. Not so with narcissists and other psychologically immature and unstable individuals.
The fragmented, immature egos of narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths, paranoiacs and histrionics are, in my opinion, a construction of psychotic, immature and neurotic defense mechanisms (George Vaillant, 1977, Adaptation to Life), otherwise known as the false self. The false self protects the narcissist from dealing with the core wound of feeling inferior and unloved, and the borderline from the fear of abandonment and feeling unloved. Some of the more common mechanisms employed by narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths include projection, denial, acting out, distortion, passive-aggression, somatization/hypochondriasis, conversion, splitting, projective identification, idealization, wishful thinking, dissociation, withdrawal, isolation and depersonalization.
You become the man or woman who knows too much. About the narcissist, that is. Once you’ve seen behind the mask and know how the sausage is made, you become a threat. You’re a mortal threat to the narcissist’s false self and public image. This is what’s at the root of most smear campaigns. You must be vilified and discredited to family, friends and associates before you begin telling the truth of what happened in the relationship. It’s also a vengeful act meant to punish and isolate you, to enlist negative advocates (i.e., flying monkeys) to attack you on behalf of the narcissist, and make you a weakened and, therefore, easier target.
Even if you and the narcissist agree on what you’ll tell friends, family and the kids about the separation, odds are slim to none that the narcissist will uphold their end of the deal. “Everything I’ve ever told you’s a lie; including that” (Peter Cook as the Devil, 1967, Bedazzled). Many of my clients have promised not to tell their children (including adult children), friends and family about the narcissist’s affair(s). In every single case, the narcissists have told everyone that my clients were the cheaters. Each time a client tells me what they promised, I groan and ask, “Let me guess. She/he told everyone you’re the adulterer and now no one believes you?” Making a deal with the proverbial devil is almost always sure to come back and bite you on the ass later. Don’t do it. We end abuse by shining sunlight on it, not by continuing to hide it.
So how do relationships with narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths and other emotional terrorists typically end? Here are your options:
1. Betrayal. All abuse is betrayal. Narcissists are cheaters. Relationships with abusers result in a laundry list of broken promises. If there’s something they can cheat you on or out of, they’ll do it and you deserve it. Why? Because they’re entitled and, if we’re being honest, we allow them to do it to us. To quote Patrick Carnes, PhD, “Loyalty to that which does not work, or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitive or destructive to you, is a form of insanity” (The Betrayal Bond, 1997). The biggest betrayal in narcissistic and borderline relationships is the betrayal to yourself. It’s every person’s responsibility to take care of and respect ourselves. When someone has consistently proven themselves untrustworthy, dishonest and malicious, it’s our responsibility to look for the nearest exit and end the relationship.
2. Suicide. Don’t underestimate how toxic these people and relationships with them are. Abuse decimates a person’s sense of worth, identity and purpose. A common consequence of narcissistic abuse is that you, the victim, believe you can’t survive without the narcissist or borderline, or that life and relationships won’t be as exciting or intense. First, the host doesn’t need the parasite to survive; the parasite needs a host. If it’s not your intestine, another intestine will do. Second, no, a healthy relationship with a healthy partner won’t have the extreme highs and lows. Relationships with the personality disordered can turn you into an emotional adrenaline junkie. Healing usually requires that a person do what I refer to as resetting your emotional thermostat. In other words, getting a kick from a shot of espresso instead of a mountain of cocaine.
3. Stress-related illness or death. Again, don’t underestimate how toxic these people and relationships with them are. Stress can kill. It raises cortisol levels, weakens the immune system, raises blood pressure and keeps the body in a sustained state of sympathetic nervous system arousal. Being in a near constant state of fight, flight or freeze response is incredibly damaging to the body and the brain. Cancer, heart attacks, strokes, digestive disorders, depression and anxiety are all very likely possibilities.
Let’s not forget the effects of self-medicating and the associated risks of using alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, gaming, shopping and myriad other self-soothing, compulsive behaviors to cope. Personally, I conquered Skyrim. Twice. It would’ve been three times if I’d stayed in the relationship longer. Post-relationship, there hasn’t been the need to escape to alternate realities where I can bash away at snow trolls and draugr overlords.
4. Shell of your former self, living a life of resignation and voluntary martyrdom. Common casualties include careers that wither and die due to lack of interest and productivity. Careers that die due to lies told to bosses and business partners. Careers that die because you can no longer get a security clearance, carry a firearm or practice medicine or therapy due to false allegations of abuse. A once social person who becomes reclusive. Losing interest in physical sports, hobbies and other healthy pursuits and passions. The love and respect of your children is perverted into fear, hate and contempt via parental alienation. All of these things can happen.
Or, you lie to yourself and pretend that sticking it out because you once upon a time made a promise to a person who pretended to be someone they’re not (i.e., a loving, decent human being) somehow makes you noble. Please go back and reread the Patrick Carnes quote five paragraphs up. Martyring yourself and your life on the altar of a narcissist’s or borderline’s pathology is, frankly, not smart. It’s self-destructive and pointless sacrifice. If you die before them, they’ll be onto their next supply source with little thought of you and your years of wasted devotion. There are no extra credit points for this kind of martyrdom.
5. False allegations of abuse, arrest and imprisonment. This is a very real risk, especially for male victims of female narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths. It’s the ultimate abuse by proxy. It’s more likely to happen at the end of the relationship and is a way for the narcissist or borderline to flex their muscles and show you they can hurt you. And, if there are assets and children to argue over, it can give the abuser/accuser a significant legal advantage.
6. Discarded on the rubble heap with your predecessors. Once you allow these emotional vampires to suck you dry and there’s nothing left to take from you, you’ll be summarily discarded with about as much emotion as a fast food wrapper they toss from the car (you paid for) window. To a narcissist or other predator, every victim is replaceable. We’re all just another port (or orifice) in the turbulent chaos of their lives. That’s one of the big lies that’s painful to accept. During the love bombing stage, the narcissist or borderline tells you that you’re unlike all the others and makes you feel so very special and unique. You’re not. I wasn’t. None of us are/were. We were just one more willing victim to jump into the volcano of their characterological pathology.
Even if you still have resources like money, loyalty and manual labor, you may be discarded if you’ve emotionally detached and disengaged (as a self-protective measure) or they find someone new who’s gullible and susceptible to love bombing or another predator on the make. The thrill of the hunt and fresh narcissistic supply is far more tantalizing than someone they’ve broken in and broken down.
7. You take your life back. This is likely to be one of the most difficult and painful choices you’ll make as an adult. It requires you to confront your fears, vulnerabilities and wounds going back to childhood. It requires a commitment to finally make yourself and your well-being a priority. It requires that you ignore the name-calling, vilification, sympathy ploys and anything else the narcissist has in her or his bag of tricks. It requires that you allow your rational mind to override the urgent feelings of loss, emptiness, loneliness, separateness, guilt and shame activated by your emotional mind. Emotions are just fleeting blips. They won’t kill you. Torment you? Sure. Kill you? No. On the other hand, remaining in a relationship with a narcissist or borderline could very well be the cause of death or the wish for death.
I recommend option number 7.
Counseling with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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Dr. T, thanks for mentioning Patrick Carnes’ work. I found his books to be extremely helpful some years ago in the aftermath of a failed relationship with an addict. In fact I think the insight I most remember came from Carnes: “The only thing an addict is capable of having a relationship with is the high.” The codependent is just the means to an end.
The lessons for codependents are applicable across all abusive relationships.
There are some important points here that are somewhat subtle. The lack of self-reflection and accountability
doesn’t come with a flashing neon sign. It can be something like… claiming they don’t initiate dates because
you’re “always” busy on the weekends, or you “wouldn’t be interested” in what she had in mind. When you present
counter-examples, you’ll probably get some kind of mini-melt-down designed to make you sympathize, deflect, and
change the subject. They really really don’t understand that their behavior is obvious.
Likewise, when you become the person who knows too much…. you won’t be informed by a black & white billboard.
More likely, you’ll get an email shitstorm of all the ways you suck. It’s designed to test you. If you double down then
you’re a sucker who can be screwed even more. If you just walk away, with no response…. you’re probably better off.
I can’t say her self absorption was completely obvious. But, over time, her inability to communicate
via anything other than text or email created problems… clearly. It was something I asked her to change.
That request was met with much rationalization, stubbornness, and deflection. I also asked her to
demonstrate that she welcomed me into her home and friendships. More rationalization and projection.
Take the initiative to make plans together? Nope… preoccupied by her sport. (That should have been
a warning sign from the starting gun…) Yet she could plan trips for her sport.
So… we were at the end of the rope. She claimed she worked really really hard over 4-5 months to make
it work. I asked her how? Cuz.. maybe she thought she did, and maybe we just looked at things differently.
I didn’t get an immediate response. Certainly none of the things I asked for came to her mind.
But apparently the question was a burr under the saddle of her ego…..
“The false self protects the narcissist from dealing with the core wound of feeling inferior and unloved….”
“Defense mechanisms are activated when we perceive an “anxiety signal,” which may lead to feelings of guilt, inferiority, shame or embarrassment…..”
I got an email after a day or two. Maybe I should consider myself lucky that she felt a need to present
some plausible response. Among the things she listed as “hard work to make it work” were…..
-Actually inviting me to meet her family
-Inviting me to a movie (once)
-Inviting me to meet one of her friends (once)
-Asking about my pets
-Inviting me to attend her sport, when she’s participating (sort of)
-Asking me to help her move (Yup… that was something she did for us….)
To be fair, there were other things on the list- that most of us would consider normal
generosity of relationship, not attending to the specific requests I had made.
This relationship “stuff” was clearly new territory for her. On a certain level… she
did seem to be trying but the lack of basic empathy was pretty hard to deal with.
This guy got out at in the knick if time