I’m seeing a lot of support groups, books, and experts talking about narcissists, narcissistic trauma, abuse, especially in the context of relationships or divorce.
People are quick to talk about their narcissistic ex or a narcissistic spouse that they’re trying to escape from unscathed.
In my previous life, I could easily have said I had a narcissistic ex. I could have named a whole slew of narcissistic behaviors, committed on the part of my ex-husband during the course of our divorce and even well beforehand. Despite this, I’m reticent to label him a narcissist or to place that diagnosis on him. It is possible that he could be, but I don’t believe that it’s certain. He doesn’t fit all the characteristics, only perhaps 80% of the characteristics.
I share my story to offer personal insight and to make these two main points:
- Just because your spouse is exhibiting narcissistic behavior doesn’t make them a narcissist and;
- Whether they are actually a narcissist or not, you can break the cycle of abuse (and create a legacy for generations to come, as you teach your children to be healthier people.)
This is my story. I’m not a psychologist, however I have no qualms saying that my ex’s father was a casebook narcissist, and I think my was-band wouldn’t have any issue saying it either. The thing is, when you grow up with a parent who’s a narcissist or a strong narcissistic influence in your formative years, there’s a lot of learnt behavior that sticks. My ex-husband’s father is the person that provided the backdrop for a lot of trauma and protective reactions, that create a fractured self, seemingly incapable of genuine intimacy. We see this intergenerationally, in family cycles. I think a lot of my husband’s seemingly narcissistic behavior was learned behavior. That’s why I believe white it may have seemed like I had a narcissistic ex on the surface, I don’t believe my ex-husband is an irreversibly fragmented narcissist, despite my desire to be vindicated when I felt victimized.
In our many years together, I heard so many of his painful family stories. He grew up in the middle of his parent’s high conflict divorce and spent much of his childhood in custody battles and financial ruin. Then,he picked me and chose me as his wife. He believed that I would be able to provide him that stable family life that he never had growing up. And I did that for him for a very long time. I willingly extended a lot of healing connectivity with his family, unfortunately sacrificing a lot of my own well-being.
He was seeking that stable family unit and he finally had a lot of peace in our household. He was happy. We had a form of surface love in the house, but over time I began to feel that I was being used as a source of one-way service. This was a terrible example to my children and soul-disintegrating for me. When I wanted to leave, he quickly reverted to repeating the very same cycle, the very same destructive action that his parents had taken; lies, financial abuse, false accusations, threats, and using the children at any chance to inflict pain. You could have taken it out of the history book or as a script he followed written by his parents’ divorce. I lived through, and now am thriving through, a fully enacted narcissistic divorce story. But I did this while never calling him a narcissist in private or in public.
I see a larger role for myself in this. When I take the macro-view, I felt that I was breaking a generational cycle for his family. And I was probably breaking quite a few generational cycles for my family as well. I was releasing cycles of codependency.
As you may know, a narcissist and codependent are usually magnets that just fly at one another and bind. I felt this as I was heading into the relationship; I was like a moth to the flame. Now that I’ve broken the trauma cycles from my parents, from their parents, and from his parents, my children are not going to grow up in that paradigm!
Even though my ex-husband is still continuing his narcissistic behavior, our children are stable and healthy. I’ve been stable and peaceful. I’ve been unwilling to react in any way and or fuel to that fire. My children are not growing up with the level of conflict that he grew up with. They have a safe harbor and a healthy example of unconditional love.
I haven’t surrendered. I haven’t made myself smaller. I’ve actually been rising to the challenge, through the divorce and after the divorce, to continually make myself bigger and better than I was the previous year. This doesn’t mean engaging in courtroom brawls. This means leveling up internally.
I’m trying to be the best role model that I can be for my two young girls as they grow up and as they’re going to become young women. I want them to see a woman who is self-resourced, self- fulfilled rather than in a codependent position, seeking the validation of someone else or looking to react to the way that the other person is treating or valuing you. The court and my ex have no jurisdiction or control over giving me and my girls a beautiful life. That is where I win.
DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.