How Your Ex Ended Up That Way

An often-overlooked explanation.

Posted Apr 11, 2020

Ultimately there was no talking to them. Nothing you said made any difference. You told them over and over what you needed and they just kept doing the things you’d made absolutely clear didn’t work. Finally, you gave up and got out. 

What the hell happened? How does someone get like that way? 

You’ve got your theories. A rough childhood, bad role models, a trauma or maybe some clinical-sounding diagnosis like narcissism.

It could be narcissism though not necessarily, and what does that explain anyway? If you brought a rash to a doctor who diagnosed it as dermatitis, it may sound like a satisfying explanation but it isn’t. Dermatitis just means rash. 

To say that someone is a narcissist doesn’t explain much either. Used as a folk-diagnostic, it means someone who’s really into themselves. As with dermatitis, the symptoms and the diagnostic term are the same. They were narcissists because they were self-adoring. They’re self-adoring because they’re narcissists. 

Symptoms and diagnoses aren’t always the same. What you see isn’t necessarily what they’ve got. They may have seemed self-adoring but it’s a leap to assume that they were. Or even that they were compensating for self-loathing. 

There’s a difference between how they made you feel about them and what’s really going on internally in these people who shut down and flail without consideration for their effect on you. 

Their increasingly incorrigible behavior could have been a habit that they tipped, fell, or dove into for cover. 

Life is a lot. It’s one reason people reach out for someone to hold onto, a partner to shelter them through the storm of challenges and doubts that we call life. Sometimes the partnership becomes less sheltering than people expect – less the shelter than something to shelter from. 

It takes a lot of bravery to get as vulnerable as a partnership requires – all that intimacy with intimidating intimations that it’s going to last until death do you part. It can start to feel more claustrophobic than expected.

With how romance is popularly portrayed – pretty people running joyfully on the beach and cuddling over cocktails at the beachside bar after – people don’t always see partnership as tricky when they enter it. They expect partnered life to be easier, not harder than single life. 

It’s been a long day, they come home, eager for ease. They want to check out, not in. Though you’re both trying to maintain the appearance of romantic ease, maybe you’re both a little on edge. Don’t want to say the wrong thing and trigger trouble.

Unexpected turbulence can trigger someone to hunker down and plow through, using any habit of self-protection that’s close at hand. One partner’s habits of self-protection will often feel threatening to the other partner. 

Maybe their habits of self-protection compelled wariness in, which, in turn, made them lean even more into self-protection. Lacking the bravery that intimacy requires, their habits of self-protection might have taken the form of fake-bravery – bravado, barking or otherwise getting on their high horse. Or nagging, muttering, sighs of resignation, or silence – whatever defense mechanism came most easily to them.

Is that narcissism? It’s less like self-adoration than self-protection, seeking cover in a dicier situation than they expected when dreaming of the shelter of partnership.

Whatever flailing self-protection they came up with, whatever was close to hand – anything to back you off – it did. 

You tried your best. At least now you have the consolation of thoroughness. Ultimately there was no talking to them. 

Maybe they left thinking you were incorrigible too. It’s pretty common for both exes to diagnose each other as incorrigible narcissists. It’s common too for former partners to both think they’ll do better next time, find a good partner, not like the last. 

I say all this from personal experience, though nothing recent. I’ve been retired from partnership for three years. Or at least I’m very happily married to selectively-populated solitude. Still, I had plenty of experience on both sides of this dynamic, the narcissism-accused, the narcissism-accuser.* 

People enter the partnership tent intent on finding safe shelter in the storms of life often only to find the blizzard can be more intense inside than out. They shelter in place within the tent, looking for their own safe space within the safe space of partnership that turned out to be not as safe as they hope. It can look like narcissism, it can be narcissism but it isn’t always. 

Two tips then, for what they’re worth:

1. Know what you’re getting into by remembering what you got into, not just a bad-fit partnership but partnership itself which is, as couples will often say, a lot of hard work, more difficult than the mutual admiration society it’s touted to be. 

2. If you decide to enter a partnership, minimize the risks by acknowledging them together. It may not be your fault. It may not be their fault. Partnership is trickier than people acknowledge. It may have been simpler in simpler times. These days, it’s an elective, not a cultural or moral imperative. It’s one of an surfeit of options for what to do with one’s discretionary time. Understand what you’re getting into and be careful not to blame each other for the challenges inherent in committing like that to another person.

* I’m the kind who tends to get hyper-attentive at close range. I never mastered that man-hunk, hunkered-down silence that so many guys have. My formative years were the 1970’s psychobabble culture that shared all feelings and assumed all discomfort could be resolved by still more processing. When something felt off in partnership, I’d feel compelled to talk about it, work it out. That can be counter-productive and energy-depleting. The stable sustained partnerships I know, recognize the limit value of process talk. They’re better at letting things slide than I ever was, though I did get better with practice. I had a tendency to ask “Are you doing OK?” a lot. I wish I had thought to try saying at least with my inside voice, “My apologies. I was listening too closely. I’ll try to less attentive from now on.” These days, I’m glad my lack of appetite for partnership finally caught up with my lack of aptitude. Friendship is the right proximity for me, connecting where the connection is good. 

A video I just made about how this same tendency plays out beyond the home, with bosses, politicians, the spiritual and religious: It has nothing to do with what they claim to believe. It's all about how, seeking more security than life has to offer, people shell up for self-protection.