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Why Recovering From the Narcissist in Your Life Is So Hard

Plus: Four strategies to help you recover.

Key points

  • Recovery from a narcissist can be more difficult than other relationships partly due to self-criticism in the aftermath.
  • Trashing a narcissistic ex may feel better momentarily, but it also re-engages the narcissist, which is what they want.
  • Developing self-compassion is one of the keys to recovery from a relationship with a narcissist.

“Get over this? How do you get over this? He courted me, wooed me, told my widowed mother that she’d never have to worry about me again. We said our vows at a wedding he paid for. I didn’t notice that he had to control every detail including my dress and my weight. It was clear in no time. I tried and tried but the control was awful. Six years in, no kids, and I wanted out and he went insane. He sent the Elders of my church ‘proof’ that I was a whore. But he was the one cheating. It took two wasted years and tons of money I didn’t have to get rid of him. How does anyone trust after this?" — Jocelyn, 36

“My lawyer and I kept waiting for her to be reasonable and, of course, it never happened. I’m angry at the time wasted, the pain inflicted, the money squandered. I know it’s not good for me to hold on to this experience but I just can’t let it go, you know?” — Lee, 42

With a few exceptions, women and men who have had a relationship with a narcissist voice similar thoughts and feelings about their former partners. I understand this from a personal point of view because I also found recovery difficult. Even though I was no longer emotionally invested in my marriage, the 18-month divorce inflicted a lot of damage. This question got me thinking about how we recover from losses—especially breakups of intimate and important relationships, and especially those which are long-term and involve marriage and, in their dissolution, divorce.

Some of the recovery, clearly, has to do with initiation—whether you were left or the person who left—and all that entails. Why you were left or decided to leave matters too. It’s one thing when you grow in one direction and your partner in another, and something else entirely if some kind of betrayal, such as infidelity, is involved, or you discover that your spouse is a closeted addict. The course of the divorce matters, too: Does it confirm the person’s essential decency and your knowledge of him or her, or does it reveal a person who is utterly foreign to you, a figure swinging a machete, someone you thought you knew but didn’t?

I asked Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism and a blogger on this site, to weigh in on why it's difficult to recover from a relationship with a narcissist.

"People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are often trapped in a constant battle between wanting you and pushing you away. Post break- up that means they’ll insinuate themselves back into your life—even if it’s just to fire off an insulting text message (“You need your head examined!”) or ask an infuriating question (“What did I do that was so bad?”). It takes two people to end a relationship and many narcissists refuse to leave without a fight. Translation? Continued re-traumatization. It’s no wonder so many of my clients panic when they see an email from their ex."

That’s why recovering from a narcissist is something else entirely. In a previous blog post, I wrote about what you need to know when you divorce a narcissist—not a pretty picture, by the way—but didn’t focus on emotional recovery. When you divorce a narcissist with whom you have minor children, emotional recovery may not be immediately possible because the legal jousting post-divorce is ongoing. Here's what one woman—the mother of two now-adolescent children—wrote me:

"I was married for 5 years and I have been divorced almost 12 years. The divorce has been ongoing in the sense that after finalization he has tormented me and the children for the past 12 years. I have been through 2 custody battles and endless amounts of money. I could go on and on. Yes, I do blame myself for being so stupid. I realized almost immediately after the wedding. Yes, I am angry. He has made my life a living hell. I've been working on dealing with him for years. I have a great therapist. No, I haven't been able to move on because, as long as the kids are under 18, I have to deal with evil. There is no truth to the statement that the abuse will stop after the divorce. The only difference is that he is not living in my house."

Source: altanaka/Shutterstock

What makes a recovery from a narcissist different?

Everything good you’ve ever believed about human beings is contradicted. Every thought you’ve had about loyalty, experience, and truthfulness is denied. Every trope you’ve heard about marriage, love, and partnership is hammered into silence. Every idea you’ve had about human connection is trashed by the narcissist’s behavior.

Breakups and divorce are always painful, but leaving and divorcing a narcissist is something else entirely and belies how recovery normally works. For example, research shows a correlation between an increased sense of self and growth after a relationship that was perceived as low in quality and which limited the self. This means that recovery from a relationship with a narcissist ought to be a walk in the park. Why isn’t it? Because it’s missing the Casablanca effect.

Yes. I have given it a thoroughly unscientific name; you could also call it the “We’ll always have Paris” moment. Remember the scene in Casablanca when you (the audience) and Ingrid Bergman believe that she’ll be staying with Humphrey Bogart, but he tells her she has to get on the plane with her husband? She looks at him and asks, “What about us?” and he answers, “We’ll always have Paris." While their experience in Paris had been lost—when he could only feel the pain of having been abandoned—by understanding why she left him, that experience and the love felt had been regained.

In many concluded relationships, after the shouting has ended and what Daniel Gilbert has called our psychological immune system has kicked in (permitting us to remember all the not-so-wonderful things about our ex instead of crying our eyes out) there comes a moment of calm and detachment when we’re ready to start over. And with that comes the “We’ll always have Paris” moment when you actually remember some of the good times—and you’re okay with the memory. You can pick up a photograph of the two of you without wincing and maybe even smile.

That doesn’t happen with a narcissist.

There is no “We’ll always have Paris" moment because Paris—every promise he or she made to you, every moment you spent together, everything you ever believed about your relationship and connection—has been strafed or burned to the ground.

You’re not recovering from love lost or even the failure of a marriage, but from warfare.

“Shell-shocked” is a word many survivors of narcissistic relationships use, and it fits, as does the military term “scorched earth,” which I used in conversation with my attorney to describe my ex-husband’s legal maneuvers.

Here are four reasons someone is likely to have trouble recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, as well as four things you can do to enable recovery:

1. Nothing was what it seemed.

This is a biggie because what appeared to be about two people was really only about one—the narcissist. Once you have absorbed this truism, you will find yourself revisiting what you thought was going on between the two of you and what really was. This is wounding enough, and it segues right into the next point...

2. The misery of 20/20 hindsight.

The red flags that people always talk about—those signs that no intelligent person would ever miss but you did—spring up like poppies in Flanders during the breakup, when everything you missed before or was hidden from view is suddenly in plain sight.

As Malkin notes:

"One of the most dizzyingly disorienting experiences about uncovering layers of lies is that you end up questioning your judgment about everything, especially if you had a partner who covered his or her tracks by trying to convince you that you were ‘crazy’ or ‘paranoid.’”

Personally, I found this more devastating and painful than anything else—recognizing that I extended my hand and was led right down the garden path. Connecting the dots and seeing how you managed to collude with the narcissist's efforts to control and ultimately bilk you make you relive the emotional moments again and again, which doesn’t help you move on one bit.

3. You feel like a fool.

Those of us who are insecurely attached—alas, the very people least likely to recognize the narcissist to begin with—are also inclined to fall into the damaging trap of self-criticism, ascribing something bad in your life to immutable and permanent deficiencies in your character, instead of seeing them as a series of mistakes or missteps that anyone could have made. It's easy to fall into self-criticism in the aftermath of a run-in with a narcissist. You may think, “Only someone as dumb and naïve as I am could have been taken in by him,” or “There’s something really wrong or missing in me that I didn’t see who she was."

This kind of thinking is a serious impediment to your emotional recovery.

It’s one thing to take responsibility for mistakes you made—deciding to mollify your partner, being hesitant to leave when you knew you needed to, handing out second, third, and fiftieth chances—and another to beat yourself up for connecting with him or her in the first place. Women who self-criticize are more likely to ruminate and get caught in a cycle of repetitive thoughts, which also get in the way of recovery.

As Malkin notes:

“Self-blame is shockingly common in people who’ve left a pathological narcissist. If you tell yourself you’re the problem, all you have to do is change and you’re finally free of the pain. This is a handy bit of self-deception when your partner has no intention of changing, but one that completely erodes your self-esteem.”

4. You feel utterly powerless.

A narcissist self-regulates by feeling powerful and in control. To be able to do that, he or she needs someone to push around, which is why it’s impossible to stop the narcissistic train. When you’re robbed of a sense of agency in one important arena—when you're in a defensive crouch and unable to be proactive—it’s very hard to stay emotionally balanced and in control in other parts of your life, except in superficial ways. Yes, you’re getting out of bed, doing your work, and paying your bills, but much of the time you're on auto-pilot. That gets in the way of recovery—as do financial anxiety, fear, and a host of other unpleasant emotions.

4 Things You Can Do to Speed Up the Healing

Recognizing how traumatic and profoundly distressing your experience has been is an important first step. One woman wrote me:

"You must take care of yourself like you are recovering from a really bad illness. Surround yourself with positive things. Try very hard to not let your anger, resentment, and hurt destroy you. It will eat away at your insides and turn you into one big ball of rage. When you experience this depth of betrayal from someone you thought you could trust with your life it cuts you to your very soul. I made a conscious choice to get through it by sheer willpower. I decided I was going to rise above the ashes and come out on the other end, stronger, and with my dignity."

You can use specific strategies to try to get off the emotional rollercoaster and to make sure that the experience doesn’t shape you in ways that set you back, without putting on rose-color glasses or denying the pain. I’m not a believer in the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

1. Use cool processing.

As you think about the events and experiences of the relationship, ask yourself why you felt the way you did, not what you were feeling. Research shows that understanding your feelings will permit you to label them more precisely and allow you to manage your emotions more effectively. Try to see the events from a distance or imagine that they happened to someone else. All of these distancing techniques—and making sure that you are asking why—can help you stop reliving the moments and prevent emotional flooding.

Journaling and writing about experiences have been shown by many studies to help an individual develop a greater understanding and a more coherent narrative of life’s events, but be aware that writing about divorce or breakups appears to be an exception because it may shift you into a "hot" processing mode.

2. Personalize, don’t generalize.

People become embittered and armored because they wrongly extract the lessons learned from the behavior of one individual and apply them to all individuals—or all men or women. If you hear yourself saying things like “All men are control freaks,” or “Women will do anything to get their way,” stop and remind yourself that you are talking about one bad apple, not an orchard.

3. Practice self-compassion.

It’s easy to either find yourself hosting the pity party of the century or submerging yourself in an ocean of self-criticism. Instead, work on developing self-compassion, which Kristin Neff describes as a three-step process:

  • First, instead of judging yourself, be kind and understanding. Rather than berating yourself for being stupid enough to get involved with a narcissist in the first place, be gentle and understand how it was that you mistakenly thought the person was someone else.
  • Second, see your experiences not as unique but as part of the larger human experience—meaning that anyone could find themselves in these circumstances. As my grandfather used to say, you are neither the first nor the last to live life imperfectly.
  • Third, be aware of your painful feelings without over-identifying with them. She uses the buzzword “mindfulness." I find it more useful to keep the idea of cool processing first and foremost in your consciousness—permitting yourself to be fully aware of your feelings while maintaining enough distance that you don't relive them.

4. Take the high road.

If you are unlucky enough to be involved in an ongoing conflict with your narcissist, fight the urge to engage and strike back, especially if you are in a custody battle. Don’t answer badmouthing, keep a record of it. Trashing him or her publicly will make you momentarily feel better, but it also re-engages you—and that’s exactly what the narcissist wants. If you don’t react, the puppeteer can’t pull the strings

Think tortoise, not hare, as you work at recovery. The pace may be slow but you’ll get there, keeping the goal in sight.

See my blog post on what you must know if you're divorcing a narcissist.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep


Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.

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