Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Narcissistic Ex, Part I

It was always about you, wasn't it?

Key points

  • A narcissistic personality has classically been thought of as a chronic condition that begins in childhood.
  • Most researchers believe that nurture rather than nature is the strongest determining factor in the life of a narcissist.
  • After divorcing a narcissist, the stress of the split usually makes the narcissist more difficult to deal with.

This week, we will discuss narcissism and divorce as a part of our series on the narcissistic ex.

I bet you've met more than a few narcissists along the way. This is the first of an ongoing series on narcissism, in which we will discuss narcissism in its many forms, most especially in the midst of a malignant divorce.

The narcissists among us

While the upcoming DSM V will no longer recognize narcissism as a personality disorder, clearly extreme narcissistic characters still exist. You'll find these people throughout history. We can't psychoanalyze pharaohs and kings who required their likeness on grand tombs and monuments and thought themselves to be godlike. Since many ancient cultures fostered a belief in the divinity of their leaders, being a king or the pharaoh must have been a heady experience; an institutionalized narcissism of sorts.

In modern times, we don't have to search too hard to find contemporary cults of personality in the likes of Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong II. No, we can find instances of narcissism over the course of human history. In short, even though it may not be considered an official personality disorder any longer, The Narcissist is not going away.

So, where do we find narcissists in everyday life? While the eccentricities of dictators could be written off as a result of too much power or too much fame, distorted personalities of this nature do exist amongst regular human beings. Sometimes, this personality distortion can surface during times of stress, a phenomenon I refer to as a Character Trap. And the heavy stress of many divorces can bend otherwise normal — albeit, perhaps selfish — people into dangerously manipulative individuals.

Were you married to a narcissist? If so, you know how truly painful divorce can be. It's one thing to lose the family that was so dear to you, worry about your children or money. That's a lot right there. But, it's quite another to feel as if all those good years count for naught when your narcissistic ex will say or do anything that works for him. It's as if there's no loyalty for all the good years that you had together. Now that you are divorcing, what's in her best interest is all that counts. It's sad. It can also be scary.

Roots of a narcissistic personality

A narcissistic personality has classically been thought of as a chronic condition that begins in childhood. There is, however, a world of difference between narcissism as a trait and narcissism as a disorder. Narcissism as a personality trait constitutes what we do to make ourselves feel more confident about ourselves. Everyday narcissism is present and normal for everyone. In fact, a robust sense of self is good for you.

Healthy narcissism: In the field of psychology, we often speak of this concept of healthy narcissism. It's important that we all develop ways to feel confident and capable. And we should all be able to take pleasure in our capacities — whether it is how we look, think, play, relate or work. This is indeed healthy, and as parents and educators, it's a good thing to encourage this sense of wholesome pride in our children.

So how does something so inherently wholesome go so badly wrong?

The road to narcissism: The underlying causes of a narcissistic personality are not entirely understood. Many are born with inherent talents. They are unusually good-looking, charismatic, brilliant, or athletic. Some are born into wealth or privilege. This is one way in. As children and young adults, they bank on their obvious sway over others and never learn the regular give and take of relationships. They remain forever beautiful or talented children, who've grown accustomed to others letting them off the hook whenever they act selfishly. Pain is part of growing up and we all need to grow out of the intense narcissism of being a small child. It is not good for kids to always have their way because they habituate to it.

Some people are born unusually self-centered and are driven to be so. Perhaps they were neglected as a child and urgently need to rise to the top of the heap. Perhaps some are just developmentally self-preoccupied — it's hard-wired. Social relatedness comes naturally to some and not so naturally to others. And the altruistic sensibility, while noble and adaptive in adults, is something most of us learn as we mature.

However, most researchers believe that nurture rather than nature is the strongest determining factor in the life of a narcissist. Parents with narcissistic tendencies often don't have the tools to truly empathize with their kids, and can produce children with a hole in their sense of self-worth. These kids can respond in many ways. Some may feel like failures and become depressed. Others may identify with their parents, however weak this may be as an identity. A narcissistically oriented parent will tend to treat their children (particularly the talented ones) as trophies, viewing them as an extension of their own accomplishments. These children tend to respond by becoming either incredibly competitive, the classic "overachiever," or by acting rebelliously and deciding not to put energy into anything that would please their parents. Both roads can lead to powerfully self-centered individuals.

Traits of narcissism

So what do true narcissists have in common?

The brittle sense of self: Whatever the path has been, the sad truth is that a narcissist's sense of self, although grandiose, is really brittle. People who are narcissistic to a pathological degree are more fragile than they look and in order to compensate they vigorously assure themselves and others that they're extremely confident, talented, good-looking, smart, or accomplished. They can exploit others easily when it helps their cause. Someone with a true personality problem does this compulsively in order to maintain homeostasis.

Such people often have grandiose fantastical and idealized versions of themselves inside their own heads.

Herein lies the key difference between narcissism as a trait and narcissism as a personality problem: In the pathological state, an idealized and often unrealistic fantasy replaces one's sense of self. Narcissism as a trait is merely a way to enhance one's sense of self. A pathological narcissist must be special and often comes across as arrogant, overly gregarious, impulsive, selfish, disruptive, and insensitive (to people they are close to). As a consequence, they possess a shallow sense of empathy and have trouble maintaining close relationships.

Art, charisma, money and fame — an example: True pathological narcissism is uncommon, but when found, it's often with successful people. While we cannot diagnose from the distance of time and culture, it would not surprise me if, for instance, Pablo Picasso had been a narcissist. I recently read a historical treatment of the twentieth century's signature artist and was struck by how genius and self promotion worked for Picasso. He was well known to be powerfully charismatic and talented. He apparently used many women and men, with little regard for their feelings. Yet he was quite sensitive to criticism and reportedly had attorneys regularly available to defend his reputation.

The historian, Paul Johnson, tells us that Picasso actively undermined other rising artists — and did so often. Someone with healthy narcissism would take pleasure in his accomplishments but at the same time have the confidence to enjoy the success of others. According to Johnson, Picasso was driven to success, to create and be known — and indeed Pablo Picasso became the most famous artist of the twentieth century. But was he also trying to prove something?

Falling in love with a narcissist

So how and why does anyone fall in love with a narcissist? Well for starters, narcissists are very charming — and often are quite attractive or charismatic. They can demand to be the center of attention, and tend to be successful in whatever they choose to do. When a narcissist first falls for someone they shower their lover with affection, approbations, and compliments. A narcissist may have really loved you once — because falling in love feels so good. They thrive in being enchanted by someone who sees them as the fantasy they have imagined themselves to be. In short, they adore you for adoring them. For the majority of the population, falling in love is only to first step to a more complex relationship. For the narcissist, things can get dicey when the biology of romance begins to fade.

As the high of love wears off, the narcissist realizes that being in a serious relationship will involve plain and sometimes ugly times, and that they cannot hide their own imperfections forever. Nor can they tolerate your flaws, because it is a reflection on them. With a brittle self-concept, narcissists classically take great exception to criticism but can dish it out without regret. A marriage like this will work only if you allow yourself to shrink and make his or her needs the focus of the whole project.

It can all backfire when you or your ex simply have had enough. The regression caused by the stress of the split usually makes the narcissist more difficult to deal with and you will have to come to terms with the feeling that you were never loved in the first place. It's hard.

In the near future, we will continue this topic by turning our focus on what it can like going through a divorce with a narcissist.