Surviving a Narcissistic Breakup: The Fear and the Reality
How to manage the fear that someone else will get a "better version" of your ex.
Posted Nov 03, 2018
“But someone else is going to get the good version of him….”
It is this mantra that keeps so many people in the nightmare of a narcissistic relationship.
My point of view on a relationship with a narcissist is pretty clear. If you STAY, it is typically going to be a rather anemic, unsatisfying, and frustrating journey. “Going” is typically the healthier option — but an option which is not always available to everyone.
That said, it’s one thing if you stay in a narcissistic relationship for issues such as children, financial dependency, culture, religion — AND are prepared for the fact that the landscape will never change. It will always be invalidating, dehumanizing, and deeply frustrating. If you can adjust your expectations, it may not be as shocking or destabilizing — but it will never feel particularly satisfying or healthy. Relationships with narcissists are Faustian bargains.
However, if your reason for staying is based on the faulty premise “someone is going to get the better version of him” — then it’s time for a wakeup call. The “better version of him” does not really exist. The only “reassuring” aspect of narcissistic relationships is their consistency. You can be pretty confident that the way you are being treated today will be the same next week, next month, and next year. Personality is our psychological fingerprint, and narcissism is a personality pattern. It tends to be stable.
Narcissistic relationships are kept in place by hope and fear. The hope is that your partner will change, or that the relationship will improve. In contrast, there are also many fears that keep people in dysfunctional relationships — these are more common than the practical fears (e.g. money, kids). These include fear of being alone, fear of dying alone, fear of never finding anyone else, fear of not being loved. And these are the wind in the sails of the fear that “someone else is going to get the better version of him.”
Many people believe that they “trained” their narcissistic partner to be a “better person," and that if they let their narcissistic partner go, that their partner will quickly move on and turn into an empathic, compassionate, loving, patient, supportive version of themselves for the next person. Here’s the deal. There is some truth to half of this fear. They WILL move on quickly because narcissists tend to view other people (including their partners) as conveniences — and once you are no longer useful, they will move on. Their superficial approach to relationships means that it is very easy for them to replace people (including their partners) and find someone new rather quickly.
However, the second half of the fear is completely unfounded. They WILL NOT change into something new. The empathic, compassionate, loving, patient, supportive version of themselves will not emerge — because it does not exist. It’s a bit like saying “Even though I don’t like it here, I don’t want to move out of Chicago because next winter it will be really warm and I want to be here for that.” You will not be sunbathing on Lake Michigan in February anytime soon.
Narcissistic relationships are kept in place by both fear and hope. It can be devastating to have given the best of yourself to a narcissist only to have them find a new partner within weeks of a breakup. Social media accelerates this devastation, because you get to see their new “loved-up” relationship unfold on Instagram. You stayed as long as you did because you had HOPED they would change. You may not be letting go because of your fear their empathy will somehow emerge and the thing you HOPED for will finally happen. It won’t.
There are no do-overs in life — there are just life lessons. Do not spend 20 years in kindergarten. Get the lessons and move on. If anything, you may wonder whether you should be writing a condolence card to their new partners, because the compassionate part of you will recognize the desolation and invalidation which awaits them. If you ever were to compare notes with the new partner, it would be the same story with the same ending.
I am so happy to be part of the Psychology Today blogging community and look forward to bringing you cautionary tales from the trenches of narcissistic relationships.