When I first met my ex, we were colleagues. Me, the sassy New York career girl, and he, the blue-eyed surfer boy fresh in from San Francisco. He was so handsome, well-groomed, and polite that the chattier girls around the office insisted he was gay...especially after he shacked up with our gay friend, although they both insisted it was purely a financial move, to get my ex out of his room at the YMCA, where he’d been living since he moved. I didn’t care if he was gay or straight. He was really nice and a good listener, always seeming genuinely interested in what was being said to him.
And that was why, after having known him as a colleague for a number of years, when we bumped into one another at a professional event and he asked me to coffee, I said I’d go, without hesitation. What started as coffee, turned into dinner, which (I am somewhat embarrassed to say) turned into breakfast. We were married less than six months later.
Having the benefit of hindsight, I know now that he is a narcissist. But, when we were together, all I knew is that he wasn’t the man I thought he was. I found out after we were married that our gay friend actually thought my ex was gay, and that my ex was happy to have him think that because it worked to his advantage. Our friend found out he was straight when we all went out to dinner one night! At first I thought it was a funny that our friend could have been so blind. Then I realized that my ex had taken enormous steps to make sure our friend didn’t find out that he was straight!
Narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder, is a complex diagnosis and it is estimated that only a small percent of the population actually suffers from it. But we see many of its defining characteristics in our former spouses. Divorce is not a picnic by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re dealing with a true narcissist, or someone who simply acts like one, divorce can be a real nightmare.
Narcissists have no empathy, they are extremely selfish, and they will say anything to get what they want. You try and try and try to be reasonable, only to hit a brick wall, and then have a laundry list of your inadequacies thrown at you. At one point in our relationship, my ex “forced” me to have all my telephone conversations in the bathroom where he couldn’t hear me be “saccharin sweet” to whomever it was that I was speaking. I put forced in quotes because he never actually physically put me into the bathroom, but I went there myself, at his suggestion, to avoid dealing with his criticism of what he called my overly friendly phone mannerism. This is the same person who once told me how much he respected my vast network of friends by telling me how much it says about me as a person that I still have more friends whom I’ve known since elementary school than I can count on my two hands.
Who Is This Guy, Narcissus?
The myth of Narcissus is an interesting one, Narcissus was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a lake and died, some say of sadness when he realized that he was in love with something that didn’t exist outside of himself, and some say that he could not leave his reflection and perished staring at himself.
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In some versions of this story a young nymph, Echo, falls in love with Narcissus. While following him through the woods one day, he called out, who’s there. Echo repeated his words, and when she revealed herself to him and advanced towards him to embrace him, he told her to leave him alone. Echo was so distraught that she spent her days in exile until all that was left of her was her echo. The god of revenge, upon learning of Echo’s fate, lead Narcissus to the pool where he was able to see his own reflection, and that is where he stayed, staring at himself, until he died.
It’s Really Not You - It’s Him
The first step to protecting yourself from getting drowned by a narcissist is recognizing that it’s not you. It is thought that narcissists, despite how convinced of their own supremacy they may seem, actually have very low self-esteem, so they often come across as arrogant, selfish, disruptive, and insensitive as a way of overcompensating. To them everything that happens is, in their eyes, a reflection of themselves, and so the narcissist rarely sees things for what they actually are.
It is so important, when dealing with a narcissist, to see him for what he really is and not the person you thought he was or wished he was. The more you try to change his behavior, the more you try to convince him to see things the way they are, the more he will push back. Remember your driver’s ed teacher taught you that, if your car starts to skid, the quickest way to lose control of the car is to turn your wheel in the direction opposite to the one your car is skidding? Here is the same thing. If you resist, he will fight back harder because he has to win.
A favorite tool in my ex’s arsenal when we were arguing was to tell me that if I walked out on the street and asked 10 strangers who was on the “right side” of the argument, they’d ally themselves with him. In reality, anyone I’d ever spoken to about anything he and I had ever argued over thought he was crazy as a loon, but that never mattered. If I had actually taken him up on his offer and those 10 strangers sided with me, he would, of course, dismiss them as crazy, saying that it was a coincidence that we happened upon THE 10 people in the world who didn’t know what was right. He would fight until I gave up, regardless of the issue. I joke sometimes that he’d engage in mortal combat to prove that the sky is green, but it’s really not that far from the truth. To a narcissist, being the winner is more important.
Don’t Bother Trying to Change Him
When you look at it from a different angle, it is easier to not get caught up in trying to calm the waters. You cannot change him. You can’t make him feel better. You cannot make things right. You cannot make him see it “your way.” You can only learn how to conduct your business without him getting in the way.
Because you cannot win by reasoning, clearly and concisely outlining what behavior you will allow and will not allow is crucial. A narcissist will use any gray areas to his advantage, so set your boundaries and keep them. Drawing the line is a way to keep your narcissist ex from walking all over you to further his plight. Put yourself in a position where there will be as little chance for conflict as possible. If that means that you have to do all your communication via carrier pigeon, then that is what you have to do.
When my ex and I were first broken up, he refused to tell any of our neighbors because he didn’t want the stigma of a failed marriage hanging over him -- even though, he claims I am the one who gave up on the relationship, but that is another story altogether for another article.
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When neighbors saw him moving out of our apartment, he told them that we were putting some stuff into storage and getting new furniture. Whenever he came back to our apartment, our neighbors invited us over, tried to make plans, and basically treated us as if we were still married, because that is what they thought. It was humiliating having to lie to people I knew well, and who I considered my friends. After having that happen three or four times, I refused to allow him to come to what was now my apartment. It was just too painful to have to pretend to be married, and too frightening to risk dealing with his wrath until I was able to move. I also didn’t want to go to his apartment. So we met in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket and then, if we had to talk, we went into the cafe in the lobby and conducted business there.
A few times he showed up to the apartment and I refused to buzz him through the lobby. At that point, he would have to make a choice between making a scene for the lobby security cameras and meeting me at the grocery store to get what he wanted. He always opted for the grocery store parking lot. Sure, he was always livid, but he’d never, ever, ever be the guy who was yelling at a woman in a parking lot.
How It Ends Up
In the beginning of the divorce process, which started in 2000, things were brutal. I tried and tried to get him to recognize that neither of us was happy. We fought all the time. Well, it was more like he criticized me and I stood up for myself, only to be battered into submission. I couldn’t imagine that he wanted to continue on the way we were going. When I finally told him I wanted to break up, he flew into a rage and went around our apartment taking down all of our pictures saying, “You won’t need THIS anymore...”
I thought that by getting him out of my daily life I would stop questioning my own sanity, but it didn’t help. Even though we had no real property, no kids, and had only been married for three years, we still had to have dealings with one another and, during those dealings, he took up the cause of getting us back together. It took a lot of resolve to resist his advances, but I knew that his reason for getting us back together was really because he couldn’t handle having a “failure” of this magnitude under his belt. If we had reconciled, I would be right back where I started, which was miserable.