Hit The Road, Jack, or How To Leave Your Narcissistic Partner
Brian Bustard, M.D. and Susan Craig, M.A.
All humans are a little narcissistic. We need to be to survive. It is only when the narcissism becomes pathological that there is a problem. (We are using the term, narcissism, as a description of a pattern, not a diagnosis.) Whether you are dating a narcissist or have been living with one for some time, initiating the break-up is extremely difficult. It is more difficult than breaking up with someone who is emotionally secure. Helping a client through this process is also challenging.
One of our clients, Sally (pseudonym) had begun dating a very controlling person who displayed extreme jealousy and blaming behaviour. Sally knew from previous therapeutic sessions that she was vulnerable to narcissists. Her father had been a narcissist and she was just learning to manage the effects of that relationship. She knew she had to get out of this new relationship. To help her, these are some of the things we told her. Sometimes we repeated ourselves because many of the concepts are hard for a co-narcissist to grasp.
You will feel Guilty
There is no way of breaking up without guilt. Experiencing guilt means that you are not submitting to the narcissist. Because you are not submitting, which you were trained to do long ago in childhood, you feel guilty. When you are breaking up with a narcissist, the more guilt you feel, the better. Guilt is an indication that you are doing something right. You need to know rationally that the guilt will end even though it seems as though it won’t. You may feel that the only way out of the guilty feeling is to go back or to get the other person’s permission and agreement for your departure. You may think you can negotiate it and do it without guilt. You may think you can get the other person to understand and accept, but your effort to negotiate or get understanding just gives the narcissist leverage to control the process and makes you more vulnerable to him.
As you are trying to get out of the relationship, the narcissist heats up and gets more destructive. The notion that you are going to leave can terrify him and may make him angry, increasingly bullying. Another strategy the narcissist might use is to tell you that he can’t live without you or needs you to stay until he becomes more stable/healthy/financially independent. Your compassion may lead you to think you have to stay. Consider whether this is a tactic being used to manipulate you and play on your sympathy.
You don’t have an obligation to explain
The continuing need to be understood by someone who tactically refuses to comprehend you leads to disappointment and hurt. Repeating behaviour that leads to hurt is masochistic. Part of the overall tactic of the narcissist is to keep you off balance. Devaluation of you is to be expected from someone who thinks he is an obviously superior being. Feeling that you have to explain is partly your masochism and partly the natural human need to be understood.
If the Narcissist lives at a distance, you may think that you owe it to the Narcissist to do the breakup in person. That would be a respectful thing to do in a more normal relationship. However, with a narcissist, this situation provides great opportunity for you to suffer and get badly hurt. The main problem is that seeing them in person makes you vulnerable to staying in the relationship because you are vulnerable to the cues and emotional seduction of a narcissist. Even if you don’t want him to come and see you, he may insist on it. This is a narcissistic ploy to force you into direct contact with him. He acts as if you have an obligation to explain yourself in person. Because you are vulnerable, this makes it almost impossible for you to break up. This is a good reason not to do it in person.
You want to be understood:
Part of the urge to explain is the powerful human desire to be understood. Narcissists cleverly use this natural need to make you feel responsible for getting them to understand. If they never ‘understand’, you will feel responsible for making them understand, which puts them in control. Part of getting out is to not feel obligated to explain the separation, and definitely not to feel obligated to get them to understand it.
If you feel you have an obligation to explain it, then explain it the best you can. After that, stop and say, “That is the best I can do. I’m sorry if you don’t understand. I’m done trying to explain it. That’s the best I can do to help you understand.” (This is only if you feel totally obligated to explain your reasons for leaving.) At that point it is important not to go on to explain further. Restrain yourself. The bottleneck in understanding is theirs, not yours.
Get a committee of friends to help you restrain yourself when your brain goes south and you trip into one of the narcissistic traps. You can’t fix it.
Narcissists won’t understand.
Narcissists use not understanding as a tactic to control. Narcissistic mothers or fathers typically use this tactic because kids are desperate to be understood. If you need to be understood, then the parent will “not understand” because it puts them in control. This makes you feel responsible for getting them to understand. So again, when dealing with a narcissist about any situation, explain it the best possible way you can and leave it to them to understand.
What you are asking for, in your need to be understood, is mirroring of your self. To the narcissist, your expecting him to mirror you (i.e. understand you) means that you are not doing the job he has assigned to you of mirroring him. Since a narcissist needs to be mirrored, he can’t mirror you. To him, your need to be understood just interferes with your doing your job.
Part of the purpose of the narcissist’s non-understanding is to keep you off balance. The core purpose for a narcissist is not to support your sense of self. You are there to support his false sense of self.
It is important for you to give up the need to be understood.
Notes on Narcissistic Jealousy
This is a triangle. The fear of losing the person to somebody else comes from early childhood. In Freudian terms, the Oedipal triangle is formed when the child falls in love with the opposite-sex parent but is never able to win them over, and then loses them to the same-sex parent. There is nothing you can do to win the narcissist’s trust and stop the jealousy. So, again, stop feeling responsible for getting him to trust you. That is a never-ending process. He may have a jealousy issue that is incorporated into the narcissism and used for control. Again, the narcissist makes you feel responsible.
The best thing you can do in order to get into a normal relationship, the foundation of that, is getting out of bad relationships as soon as you can, and staying out. You may not be able to identify a bad relationship in the beginning. However, keep your eyes open and observe the symptoms in yourself and others. Once you see the pattern, you can force yourself to get out immediately.
Notes for therapists
With the co-narcissist it is better for the therapist to be very direct rather than to get the client to come up with the answers/questions, because they can’t think very clearly. You have to do therapy from a cognitive standpoint, not a feeling standpoint. There is a brainwashing that occurs when a child grows up with a narcissist. Clients raised by narcissists automatically tend to make excuses for them, let them off the hook, blame themselves for any problem and fantasize that things will get better. They hope the narcissist will understand them. Rather than accurately seeing what is in front of them, these thoughts dominate as a result of the brainwashing and prevent them from getting out.
Client homework: Study your internal reactions and become aware of the push-pull of the narcissist. Recognize the pattern in people who are not in a romantic relationship with you. Study that behaviour and your response. The pattern is easier to identify when a narcissist is one step removed from you. These activities can help you become bullet proof.
Perfectionism borders on narcissism. This is especially obvious if she/he is never wrong and cannot apologize. The pain inflicted on a client by a narcissist is often much greater than it appears. The client may have experienced others minimizing their distress and defending the narcissist.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Narcissistic personality disorder is one of several types of personality disorders. Personality disorders are conditions in which people have traits that cause them to feel and behave in socially distressing ways, limiting their ability to function in relationships and in other areas of their life, such as work or school.
Narcissistic personality disorder treatment is centered around psychotherapy and can take a very long time. Group therapy can also have positive results. Most narcissists are unwilling to admit anything is wrong and therefore may not attend sessions.
Brian Bustard, M.D, CGPPA, is a physician psychotherapist certified by the General Practice Psychotherapy Association. His practice is in Toronto.
Susan Craig, M.A., COACCPP, is a Gestalt Therapist with a practice in Belleville, Ontario.
Susan and Brian are a married couple who share their interest in therapy and the inner safari. Both are practicing meditators and have studied Gestalt and many other therapies over their long careers.
“We have different approaches to therapy – Brian’s is more cognitive and mine is more experiential. We frequently consult with each other on useful approaches. Sometimes a client presents who will benefit from both approaches and the extra support that two therapists can offer in a session. We play off each other quite well and it is a great pleasure to watch each other work. We have a particular interest in co-narcissism since so many of our clients have been injured by narcissists.” — Susan Craig
This article was first published in Psychologica Magazine