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My Narcissistic Ex-Husband

Reflections on loving and living with a Narcissist.  Let our experts guide you toward the healing power of moving on and allowing yourself some time in the spotlight.  Get advice on healing from his behavior and finding yourself again.

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What are boundaries anyway?

If you’ve been in any kind of relationship - friendly, romantic, employment, sitting down next to a stranger - you understand the concept of boundaries.  And if you’ve been involved with a narcissist, or just someone who acts like one, you know what it’s like to have someone ignore, step on, and mock the boundaries you’ve set, all the while maintaining a set of their own boundaries that are as difficult to understand as they are to follow.  Setting clear, concise boundaries that you are willing and able to enforce is one of the most important weapons in your arsenal when it comes to protecting yourself and getting things done without getting caught up in their narcissistic web.

The concept of boundaries freaks most people out.  They hear the word and think of barbed wire and property wars.   But, there are boundaries in every aspect of our lives.  A child learns the limits of what is safe to touch and what is not.  If you touch the hot stove, your hand will get burned.   We have boundaries in the workplace.  If you don’t show up, you will get fired.   And so on.  Knowing where the boundaries are and what will happen if we cross them is the most basic way we understand how to function in our world.  

Despite what many people think, and what your narcissistic partner will tell you, setting a boundary is not an attempt to control the other person.   Setting a boundary is merely communicating clearly what the results will be of certain behaviors.  That is all.  The other person then makes the decision about whether or not to bring about the consequences by engaging in the behavior.  A child may then choose to touch the hot stove.  An employee may decide to not show up for work.   

My ex was habitually late to everything.  I mean, everything.  Whatever it was that he was doing, he felt, was so important that he couldn’t stop in order to make it someplace on time.  I, on the other hand, am habitually early.  I hate being late.  It makes me anxious.  I hate walking into a room with the assumption that everyone is annoyed with me.  After almost a year of being involved with my ex, after having him show up late to everything, including our City Hall wedding, I decided to set my first boundary.  It was the first of many and it was small, as many first steps are.  I told him that if he wouldn’t make an effort to show up on time to events, then I would no longer accept invitations for us.  

It Isn’t Your Fault

If you’re involved with a narcissist, you come up against all sorts of boundaries and you find yourself walking on eggshells, as their boundaries often shift and new ones pop up all over the place as the situation warrants.  As a result, you may find yourself constantly overstepping those boundaries and causing friction even when you do your best to be careful and respectful.  You cannot respect a boundary if you don’t know what it is, or if it changes based on your ex’s mood.  Don’t even try to convince yourself you can do it.  You can’t.

Narcissists will also frequently have double standards, seeing one type of behavior as acceptable for themselves, but completely unacceptable for you.  

My ex demanded to know my email and web passwords and he often used my laptop.  If I refused to share these things with him, he accused me of infidelity.  He, on the other hand, restricted access to everything of his.  He would even close his laptop when I walked by him.  When I brought this to his attention, he accused me of trying to change the subject, which, of course, indicated my guilt.  It is nearly impossible to live that way, which is why it is so important for you to set your own boundaries.  

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How to Set a Boundary

There are basically three parts to a boundary.  The first two consist of identifying the behavior and stating the consequence.  These are what I call the “if you,”  and the “then I,” statements.   If you can’t respect my boundary, then I will leave this room/relationship.   The third step is what I like to call the “execution.”  The execution is merely carrying out your part of the bargain. 

The first step in developing the “if you” statement is defining yourself and what is acceptable to you.  It is the most important step in taking what control of how you allow others to treat you and it is a vital step in taking responsibility for yourself and your life.  If you don’t definitively know what you want, then you cannot convey that to someone else, and you will likely waiver in your resolve should it come to carrying out the execution.  

Remember, a boundary is not about controlling the other person’s behavior because, as we all know, we can only control our own actions and not the actions of others.  Setting your boundaries communicates to the narcissist that you will no longer allow yourself to be controlled by their behavior.  You are taking the responsibility into your hands and no longer allowing your partner to dictate how you act in the relationship.

By no longer accepting invitations on our behalf as a couple, I took myself out of the equation of arriving late.  If my ex wanted to show up late, that was his prerogative.  He could go without me.  

The Execution

The execution can be the most difficult aspect of setting a boundary.   Don’t set a boundary you aren’t willing or able to enforce.  Be prepared for a fight.  Narcissists chafe against boundaries and will often perceive a boundary as a threat or a challenge.  The narcissist thinks that his needs are more important than anyone else’s and if you have any doubt about the reasonableness of the boundary or your will to enforce it, the narcissist will exploit that weakness. 

I knew that my ex wouldn’t all of a sudden start showing up on time, and I had to be comfortable with no longer accepting invitations for us.  That didn’t mean that I couldn’t meet a friend for lunch by myself, nor did it mean I wouldn’t accept an invitation for a party to which we could show up whenever we waltzed in.  It meant that if someone invited us for a dinner party that started at 7:30, I would politely decline, as opposed to accepting and then showing up at 8:30, when everyone was either in the middle of the meal or just being served dessert.   I had to be comfortable with no longer being invited places.  And, frankly, I was.  I had developed anxiety over social events, particularly with my parents, and so parties were no longer parties to me, but events that promised to be filled with worry and anger.  I was happy to give that up.

He argued and accused me of trying to hobble our social life.  It never occurred to him that he was hobbling our social life by showing up late to everything.  He told me that I was acting like a frightened child, “cowering in the shadows of social convention.”  And that is how he thought of it.  If he wanted to think about it that way, that was fine with me.  I was taking myself out of a situation that I found to be very difficult and over which I had no control.  If I wanted to arrive someplace with him, I had to wait for him to be ready to go.  I wasn’t going to put myself in a position where we both arrived separately, and so I chose to just opt out altogether.

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Stand Your Ground

Don't get into a head-on conflict with a narcissistic partner.  Chances are, you are intentionally being drawn into conflict in an attempt to make you lose control of yourself as well as the situation.  A narcissist will often try to use your words against you and try to make you feel guilty for setting a boundary.  Don’t get sucked into this!  Remove yourself from the situation if you must.  Hang up the phone.  Walk out of the cafe.  

When it comes to executing the consequences, do not give up or give in.  If you give in, you are doing nothing except reinforcing the narcissist’s delusion of self-importance, essentially granting permission for the mistreatment to continue.  Surround yourself with people who support you.  Put yourself in a position of power.  Don’t apologize for asserting yourself.   Don’t succumb to the guilt trip your partner will try to lay on you.  Your partner will fight, but he’s only trying to break your resolve.  Don’t let him.  Do whatever you have to in order to not give in or lose control.   Remember, this is about you and how you want to be treated and not about you trying to keep him happy.

Setting boundaries is all about how we allow ourselves to be treated, and if we don’t maintain our own boundaries, there is no way anyone else will.

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  • Comment Link Gayle Saturday, 30 December 2017 12:19 posted by Gayle

    Hello everyone,
    Thank you for this article. I am so amazed because every example you have presented to me, my ex husband (Dec 31, 2017) has done. Some times it felt like I was going crazy when he accused me of being a controller and I am thinking all I am asking for is appropriate boundaries. We went to get a court order for parenting and he told the mediator AND the judge that he should see our son whenever he wants and they were trying to tell him that he has to provide a schedule and a time to respect my time and our son's time and he said well he doesn't live on a schedule and he is the father and should do as he feels. Needless to say, the court order went from a 2 page document to a five page document because it was clear he doesn't respect boundaries or me, which proved the point in court. I have learned, sooner or later, the true colors of a narcissist come out, so protect your kids but don't worry so much because it's a matter of time before the narcissist puts their own foot in their mouth.

  • Comment Link Michelle Friday, 10 November 2017 06:17 posted by Michelle

    I am in the process of divorcing a (non-diagnosed) narcissist. The "walking on eggshells" still continues, thankfully to a lesser degree. I think many women unhappily married to a narcissist put off getting divorced as we know we will have one almighty battle ahead. I did. It has been 18 months of constant accusations, insults and demands. Thankfully I have a good team of lawyers, although I do worry what will happen after when they are not necessary. He lies constantly, hides information, and does the good guy/bad guy routine. I have cut communication to via email and limit contact as much as possible. His behaviour definitely escalated after we separated, and does not seem to be abating. After 24 years together and with two kids, I have apparently contributed "nothing", should get less than half, and stop being "difficult".

  • Comment Link Trish Friday, 09 October 2015 20:58 posted by Trish

    Suggestions for resources or counselors who help people get out of these relationships??? I am ready to seek divorce. I need more support through the process. Have been setting limits for years. Which works but I am not happy in this crazy. Ideas?

  • Comment Link Agrey Monday, 20 October 2014 10:19 posted by Agrey

    We are now even divorced yet my soon ex to be moved out a year ago he wants everything eve the house that he didn't built... Everytime he would accuse me of being selfish while I am staying with the kids he wants us out of the house.

  • Comment Link C G Thursday, 24 October 2013 23:59 posted by C G

    I am glad to finally hear someone openly state that the word "narcissist" is thrown around WAY too lightly. An individual with NPD or BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) is not a laughing matter. Individuals with NPD/BPD destroy the lives of the unsuspecting individuals that are sucked into their worlds.

  • Comment Link Jotylo Friday, 11 October 2013 03:52 posted by Jotylo

    Everyone that disrespects my boundaries gets them spelled out for them. If Qwerty is right and true N's react violently, then all of mine are true N's. The stronger the N the more violent.

    What I have a problem with is the ensuing smear do you deal with that?

  • Comment Link Bronze Thursday, 08 August 2013 11:56 posted by Bronze

    I also stopped accepting invitations due to his made up temper tantrums before we ever went anywhere and me usually ending up showing up in tears or close to it. Our last xmas together he threw a fit because I couldn't tell him exactly when lunch would be finished and drove off for over an hour while my family were ringing, as they had lunch ready to serve. Needless to say he came back just as I gave up and packed all the kids in to the car. He did this with regular monotony. One of the last times we were together I asked him 'are you sure you don't hate me?". and he pulled the inside of his car apart, cracked the windscreen, broke the indicator off and tried to break the steering wheel and ripped of other internal bits. He usually had a violent or temper tantrum reaction to any question or laying down of boundaries for him. He ran away a lot. Being on time was one thing he was NOT going to do. He is however on time to work everyday. It still affects my children, who wait for him with regular monotony, but it no longer affects me.

  • Comment Link lib Wednesday, 17 July 2013 04:31 posted by lib

    Most NPD people don't get diagnosed. To get diagnosed they would have to be seen by a professional, seeking counseling for their issues. NPDs don't think they have issues, so they do tend to get diagnosed second hand.

  • Comment Link twelvetoes Tuesday, 16 July 2013 21:36 posted by twelvetoes

    @qwerty - True, there are many individuals out there who wouldn't receive a diagnosis of NPD from a licensed professional - and, for some inexplicable reason, NPD has been removed as a diagnosis from this edition of the DSM, so going forward there will be even fewer who receive this diagnosis. Your point is well taken, though. Narcissism is a word that is thrown around.

    That aside, whether a person is simply an immature, selfish, and rude individual or a true narcissist, the fact remains the same that boundaries have to be set and you must stand your ground against the abuse. If one's partner is going to react violently to boundaries, all the more reason to have a clear understanding of your own boundaries so you do not put yourself into a position where you could be harmed.

    A boundary is not about controlling the other person's behavior. It is about controlling your behavior. If you've been involved with a narcissist, you know what it's like to be manipulated into changing your behavior to keep peace. Setting boundaries is changing your behavior to keep the inner peace, positive self-manipulation of your behavior that comes from a place of strength and resolve.

    If you are in a relationship and you are being abused, whether it is by a person who truly suffers with NPD or just someone who is a garden-variety jerk, the concept remains the same that you cannot control the other person's behavior, you can only control your own behavior and so you must only find yourself in situations where there is a clear understanding on both ends of what sort of behavior will produce which results. If A happens, then B will happen. If A doesn't happen, then X will happen.

    Oftentimes, it takes more than a mere proclamation to make things happen, so planning ahead can be immensely helpful. Having a strong support network is crucial because, if you're involved with a true narcissist, they will retaliate. Be prepared for a fight. If that means enlisting the help of law enforcement, then so be it.

    Diagnosed narcissist or just plain jerk, being abused is not an option.

  • Comment Link Qwerty Tuesday, 09 July 2013 20:43 posted by Qwerty

    I am always concerned when I hear of someone referring to another as a narcissist. Having been in a relationship with a true Narcissist with diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder you come to realize that the word is thrown around lightly.

    A selfish, immature, or even rude individual does not a narcissist make. A true narcissist who has been diagnosed with NPD would react very negatively to the above rules... if not violently.

    I perceive that this article is actually written about the selfish, immature and rude spouse... not a narcissist.