After years of marriage to a narcissistic spouse, and having endured endless narcissistic abuse, you have finally decided that you can no longer withstand the chaos and trauma. Yet, despite how poorly your spouse has treated you, and how their words and actions suggest that they despise you, they seem unwilling to move forward with ending your marriage.
You would have expected that they would be happy to divorce you and no longer be forced to deal with all of the shortcomings that they have tortured you about for years. Yet, they seem to be fighting to stay together and save the relationship, and you have seemingly once again become the most beloved person in their life.
How do you explain this curious change in behavior? Why are they now acting like they love you dearly and can’t live without you? Let’s explore the life cycle of a relationship with a narcissist to better understand why this is happening as well as how to best respond to it.
The Life Cycle of a Relationship with a Narcissist
The Dating Whirlwind
When the two of you first met, you were probably completely overwhelmed with their charm, charisma, and self-confidence. They were the life of the party, and you were thrilled and flattered that they were even paying attention to you.
The beginning of your relationship was marked by intense love-bombing which was completely intoxicating. You were showered with elaborate gifts, taken to expensive restaurants, and made to feel like the most special person in the world, their world. Your friends and family thought you had found your soul mate, as did you. You were hooked and madly in love.
The Narcissistic Shift
Once you were ensnared by this charm offensive, their behavior started to change as quickly as it started. Their personality disorder started to show itself in many ways, some subtle and others more overt.
Their flattery and compliments were replaced by criticism and judgement. You became the target of their intimidation through constant demeaning comments and bullying behavior.
When you tried to express how upsetting this was for you, you were accused of being the crazy one who was distorting the reality of what was happening. Despite your expressing how painful this was for you, they seemed to have zero care or concern for your feelings. This complete lack of empathy was shocking to you and contrary to your perception of who you thought they were.
You kept holding onto hope that this was a phase and that they were going to return to the charming, loving person that you had fallen in love with a short time ago. In addition, you started to question whether it was you that was causing all the problems in the relationship which by now they had successfully convinced you of.
This is often the point in the relationship with a narcissist that some partners have had enough and walk away. However, it is also the time when their intense fear of abandonment gets triggered, and they double their love-bombing efforts to get you to stay. The false promises become even more enticing and the hopes of them changing become more powerful.
You start to feel comfortable again in the relationship and commit to a future based upon their grandiose depiction of how life will be if you marry them. Now you are hooked.
The narcissistic spouse’s mental health issues inevitably result in the return of their abusive behavior. You double your efforts to make the marriage work since they have convinced you that you are the source of all the problems. Ultimately, it is more than you can endure, and you beg for them to go to marriage counseling or to seek the help of a divorce therapist.
If they agree to go it will be short lived since they will inevitably hear things from the therapist that are intolerable for them to hear. Given that the narcissist thrives on their feelings of superiority and sense of entitlement, they are unwilling to accept blame or acknowledge any role in their marriage failing and are unwilling to do the hard work necessary to fix themselves or the relationship. This is often the point that the healthy spouse has had enough and initiates the divorce process.
While you start to go through the emotional stages of grieving for the loss of your marriage, a very different process gets triggered for the narcissist. As their ultimate fear of abandonment becomes a reality, they begin to unravel emotionally. Any coping skills or communication skills that they did have seem to completely fall apart. Your attempts to set boundaries with them become more and more challenging as they desperately try to prevent the loss of control that terrifies them. While it didn’t seem possible, their behavior becomes more abusive, and their emotions become more explosive.
You again try to convince them to seek divorce counseling (either pre-divorce counseling or post-divorce counseling) in a desperate attempt to save yourself, and possibly your children, from further emotional abuse. Predictably, they refuse any professional help and continue to blame you for everything that is happening in your family.
The Divorcing Narcissist
As you go through the stages of divorce, your narcissistic spouse will react in several predictable ways. Publicly, they will attempt to portray themselves as the calm, rational, and abused partner who is trying to go through the process in a responsible, respectful manner. They will work hard to convince the attorneys, judge, and attorney for the child (also called law guardian or attorney ad litem) that you are the abusive partner and the one with the mental health issues. You will struggle as you attempt to convince them that this public persona is not a true reflection of who your spouse truly is and how they are behaving when no one other than you is around to witness it.
What you experience privately is a completely different picture. As they struggle with your rejection and abandonment, they are driven by the need to cause you more pain than they believe you have caused them. Their abusive behavior will become more frequent and intense, and they will endlessly berate you about your flaws and inadequacies. As they feel increasingly out of control as the divorce process unfolds, this can escalate their need to exert control over you which can result in potentially life-threatening violence.
Strategies for Surviving the Divorce Process
Being married to a narcissist is one of life’s most difficult challenges. Divorcing one can be even harder. Here are a few ways that you can protect yourself as you navigate your way through this painful process.
- Have realistic expectations: It is essential that you understand that the divorce process itself is going to result in an escalation of the narcissist’s emotional reactivity and behavioral acting out. Holding onto false hope that they will give up on their attempts to control you now that the marriage is over will only set you up for disappointment and upset. A personality disorder is not something that will go away, and you need to embrace that reality to have realistic expectations of what lies ahead.
- Retain an attorney with expertise in divorce with a narcissistic spouse: This divorce process is going to pose very specific challenges and require a specialized set of legal skills. You need an attorney who is not only compassionate and supportive but is also an expert in managing negotiations in high conflict situations who can strongly advocate for your needs through every step of the divorce process.
- Establish and utilize a support system: This is going to be a very stressful time and you need to allow yourself to lean on the trusted people in your life. Family and friends need to be prepared for your narcissist spouse’s attempts to engage them as allies against you. Don’t be too proud to seek out the help of a therapist. It should be considered a crucial part of your self-care during this difficult time.
- Set and Maintain Boundaries: It will be essential to limit your contact with your spouse during this volatile time. Set one form of communication, preferably not in person, and be clear for what reasons and how often you will communicate with them. Do your best to stay non-emotional and task-oriented in your interactions and do not get sucked into their attempts to engage in the old patterns of abusive behavior.
- Keep detailed records: As your attorney will advise, it is critical to document all interactions and communications with your spouse. This will serve as your best defense against the false narrative that your narcissist spouse will undoubtedly spin and attempt to utilize against you in the legal process. Utilizing a divorce-specific app such as Our Family Wizard, can be an incredibly useful tool for having all your communications in one accessible place.
You have taken the first big step of initiating a divorce and starting the process of re-building your life away from your toxic spouse. It is not going to be an easy journey and is not one that you should go through alone. Two Healthy Homes is here to help support you every step of the way.