Letting Go of a Narcissist

Hara Estroff Marano offers advice on how to leave a narcissist and dating post-divorce.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published July 5, 2016 - last reviewed on September 5, 2016

I am married to a narcissist. He didn't even acknowledge our recent five-year anniversary, but on that day I discovered that he secretly opened a bank account several months before and socked some money in it. He is emotionally, verbally, financially, and sometimes physically abusive, and we have talked about divorce on and off. We have no kids. I need to leave and he wants me out, but I don't feel strong enough, I'm scared, and I feel I'll be losing everything. I do have more savings than he does, but his 401(k) and pension are bigger. I started my own business two years ago and, at his urging, quit my job to work on it full time, but it will take a while to produce income. I cannot yet afford to live without the support and benefits provided by his job. How do I know what I am entitled to so I can get a divorce that is fair to me? 

The demise of a marriage is never a happy event, but sacrificing your sanity to a narcissist is not a healthy option. Your husband isn't looking out for you or your relationship, and such active disregard can go a long way to making you vulnerable to depression and despair. It is especially important now to pay attention to your own needs and take action on your own behalf. Yes, plan on separating, but prepare for it. Unless you are in physical danger, do not move out without first consulting a lawyer. That doesn't necessarily mean hiring a lawyer long-term, just seeing one for some advice. This will save you money in the long run. Alternatively, it may be possible for you to get help through the civil or family law clinic of a nearby law school. You may very well be entitled to alimony, at least until you are self-supporting. Also, make note of your husband's private accounts; all assets acquired during the marriage must usually be divided equally. And do make a record of all instances of abuse. It is the despair that makes you feel you are losing everything. Remind yourself what you are walking away with: your life, your health, your business. You're losing a bad marriage, a steady stream of fear and disappointment, and one channel of dreams for the future, soon to be replaced by others. For a time, you will feel unsettled in the routines of everyday life. By your own telling, the price for that comfort is too high. It's time to take care of yourself.

Dating After Divorce, Redux

How does a man or woman manage a 40- to 50-hour workweek, raise children with varied interests, and date after a divorce in which fidelity itself was a major issue? You recently advised a woman, "You may have to do some juggling to arrange going out at times that do not conflict with your [children's] needs," but I doubt the simplicity of your answer. My kids are angry with both parents about an impending breakup, and it's difficult to find sufficient time to just chill, much less assure them that it's OK that "Mom is out and about getting her groove on" or "Dad is kickin' it with some woman." We are both 50, have been married 26 years, and have four kids. Isn't dating just an excuse to check out of the family? 

Swallowing a divorce you don't want can definitely affect the taste of anything that comes after. Once the dust of divorce has settled, selective dating is a responsible way to move forward. Clearly the dust is still very much blowing about your household. If you don't believe it's wise to jettison a marriage of 26 years, then why are you moving ahead with divorce? Couples can survive infidelity; often it takes some professional help. One partner may have strayed, but in most cases both were not paying sufficient attention to each other or they ignored fundamental problems in the marriage. Anger at and blame of a partner for transgressing can often obscure one's own contribution to vulnerabilities in the marriage. Have you and your wife aired all your grievances? It is a necessary step for either salvaging the marriage or coming to terms with its demise. Can she summon tenderness for the pain she has caused you? If so, and you both are willing to allow some time for the wounds of betrayal to heal, then it may be worth getting help from an experienced counselor to renegotiate a new and improved relationship. Coping with marital infidelity holds more than enough emotional traps for both partners; the crisis is exponentially complicated by having to deal with four children angry over the implosion of their family and perhaps baffled by its suddenness. It's one thing, and a difficult thing at that, to know that your parents, after all these years, are on the verge of divorce; but I hope that you and your wife have kept from them knowledge of the infidelity that cratered the marriage. If even adult children ask why you're getting a divorce, all they need to know is that there are irreconcilable problems. If divorce turns out to be the only path forward, then at some point you must find a way to overcome your own anger and disappointment and help your children surmount theirs. When that happens, you will see dating for what it is—not a dodge of duty for sexual self-indulgence but a healthy step toward finding the kind of companionship that makes life satisfying.