Falling in love with a narcissist feels like you’ve finally entered the fairy tale relationship you’ve always wanted. Everything is perfect – you are doted on, the passion is like nothing you’ve experienced, and you are told, “You’re finally the one for me,” making you feel like you’ve been chosen out of all the others.
But the catch is, you don’t know you have fallen for a narcissist until it’s too late – you’ve fallen hard or worse, you’re now married which makes it more difficult for you to break free. You may start to see some red flags, but you’re not entirely sure – and if you’re a people pleaser, you likely question yourself before you question your partner.
No matter where you are in your relationship, there are actual signs where your prince or princess charming begins to show their true narcissistic self. It’s important to understand that your partner isn’t “changing.” Like a chameleon, a narcissist must blend in with healthy, socially functioning people so that they can perpetuate their false sense of self. Their colors change but they’re still a chameleon.
Unfortunately, they can never uphold their camouflage for too long, which is why they must need new things, new people and new supply so they can discard the old (which ends up being you).
Here are 5 signs that your chameleon is finally showing their true colors, as well as preparing for their next round of narcissistic supply.
Doting turns into negating: You were told that you are smart, attractive and fun, and your outgoing nature was a major turn-on, but now your narcissist sees you as the opposite. Your intelligence is now seen as cunning, your attractiveness is now overzealous, and your wit and humor are now vulgar. The very wonderful traits they once loved about you are now the “reason” for the relationship’s demise, and they remind you of it daily.
Your success becomes a threat: Perhaps you’ve been promoted or you won that award you’ve been seeking, but instead of praise you’re blamed for working too hard or seeking too much attention. All of your accomplishments are deemed as threats to their very existence, because they know they can’t keep up with you. You also threaten their own spotlight of receiving praise and approval from others, so you will be told that your successes aren’t that great, so pipe down.
They are Jekyll at the office and Hyde when at home: Everyone loves Jekyll and thinks you are so lucky to be married to such a charming, charismatic person. But when Hyde returns home, you are faced with moodiness, rage, disorder, alcoholism, isolation, and an unwillingness to take part in family activities. This Jekyll and Hyde routine occurs because it is exhausting to maintain a false sense of self 8 hours a day, and they ultimately resent you and your family for reminding them of their true inabilities.
Your approval of them no longer matters: You used to be the one and only person whose opinion truly mattered, but now a compliment to them goes unnoticed. At this point, if your narcissist is disgusted by you, your compliments are deemed as needy and desperate. They must now go elsewhere to seek approval from those they still admire, and whom haven’t caught on to their narcissistic ways.
Their empathy turns into apathy: Your illness or bad day at the office was once empathized with chicken soup or a bouquet of flowers. But now, no matter how hard you have it, they remind you that they have it worse than you. And as you try harder and harder to get an ounce of empathy, it backfires with only apathy. And this is probably the hardest thing about loving a narcissist – because when your emotional needs go unmet, you continue to chase after them which puts your self-esteem in severe jeopardy. Once your self-esteem is gone, you run the risk of staying with your narcissist long-term, because you don’t think you can do any better.
The double edged sword of loving a narcissist is that the very qualities that attracted you to them are what they resent the most, because they know deep down they cannot ever mirror your greatness.
And because you are the one closest to them, you become “onto them,” and begin to question their behavior. A narcissist’s greatest fear is being exposed that they are no longer truly special, which is why they must have abundant supply from abundant sources. Which leaves you, their partner, abandoned, discarded, abused, and traumatized. If you find these behavior patterns ring true for your relationship, break free as soon as possible. They will never change, merely because they think they don’t have to.
If you are (or were) married to a narcissist, then you may be familiar with the term, “gas lighting.” It is the narcissist’s masterful manipulation technique to gain control over you. As your relationship begins to weaken, he carefully causes you slight anxiety or confusion. But as the relationship worsens, he punitively devalues you, and you thereby question your mental sanity. Extreme or long term gas lighting can ultimately lead you to having a distorted sense of reality: not knowing who is right or wrong, feeling guilty for being the person you are, and losing any remaining self-confidence.
Gas lighting is an extremely dangerous form of emotional abuse, as it causes the narcissist’s victim to question her judgment, on even the smallest issues, thereby making her dependent of him. If, for example, she is repeatedly told that she is bad with money, she will begin to believe it, and think that without her narcissist by her side, she will be financially ruined.
The term “gas lighting” comes from the 1944 film, ‘Gaslight,’ where a young woman named Paula falls madly in love with her suitor, Gregory. After an intense romance that led to marriage, Gregory begins to display pathological narcissistic behavior, leading to Paula’s insanity. In one scene, Gregory tampers with the gas light in the attic, causing the house lights to dim. When Paula mentions hearing footsteps in the attic and the lights dimming, Gregory tells her it’s completely her imagination, making Paula question her judgment. Gas lighting is now the widely used term for when a narcissist truly messes with your head.
Depending on the stage of your narcissistic relationship, gas lighting at first appears to be subtle, but then gradually worsens. Below are the signs you are a victim of gas lighting, in order in which they may occur. This list illustrates that as the relationship declines, so does your mental clarity and grasp of reality and truth.
1) You become addicted to his grandiosity
When your whirlwind romance is at its peak, you have intense feelings of euphoria – you are almost in a drunken dance with his charm and abundant attention. Your brain releases endorphins, sending you in a complete state of intoxication. And because you likely had low self-esteem before you met him, the joy you feel can only occur when you are with him, thus making you dependent on him – and before you know it, you are addicted to your narcissist.
2) You see red flags but you can’t pinpoint the problem
As your narcissist becomes bored with you, his attention begins to dwindle and he searches for new supply. He may discreetly put you down, saying you’re “needy” or “overly sensitive.” His once empathetic affection for you has now turned to apathy, and this sudden change leaves you in a foggy state of confusion. You can’t pinpoint the problem, so you think something is wrong with you, and you do everything you can to fix it.
3) When you no longer have his attention, you actually experience withdrawal
Because you are addicted to him, and no longer getting your “fix,” you experience intense anxiety. Withdrawal from him may lead you to become fixated by his every action, wondering what he is doing, trying to please him, and obsessing on how to save the relationship. Your addiction, however, only causes him disgust, despite the fact that he dispensed you the enslaving elixir.
4) You are ignored, then attended to, but then ignored again, so you lower the bar for yourself
Now that you no longer have your full fix, you will take what you can get. While a narcissist may emotionally discard you, he will still keep you around for when supply is low. So he may give you a glimpse of affection here and there, giving you hope that he is coming back to you. This further declines your self-esteem, however, making you think you are only worth sub par affection.
5) You second guess yourself and question your sanity
To keep you within close reach, he will gas light your every request – while this seems counter intuitive, the manipulator is puppeteering you. You may ask him to join you for a dinner party, but rather than simply declining, he will derogate your friends and even scold you for having interest in them. But because you are still in love with him, you now question your choices in friends. You withdraw from them in order to please him, and he further reigns in his puppet strings. Slowly, you second guess every choice of yours, making you more dependent of him, which is the narcissist’s ultimate goal.
6) You feel guilty and are always apologizing
As you now second guess yourself, anything you do to repair the relationship feels like a mistake. If your narcissist is threatened by you experimenting with a new approach, he may experience narcissistic injury, erupting into extreme rage or placating you with deafening silence. So you apologize, retreat, and feel bad for trying something new. Unable to move, you walk on egg shells, now feeling captive by your abuser. You fantasize about breaking free, but you feel hostage due to his masterful gas lighting.
7) When you mention divorce, he will retreat into victim mode
Now that you have tried everything but failed, you want to give up and end the marriage. But when you mention divorce, he will stab at your ability to function as a human being, and that you could never get by without him. Rather than taking responsibility for his actions, he will blame you for a multitude of infractions: you don’t want to have sex, you want too much sex, you’re lazy, you’re fat, you’re insane, you’re unstable, – and you should be LUCKY that he has stuck around to support you. After all, no one else would ever tolerate you but him. Now you’re giving up, how could you do such a thing, how could you do that to the children, how could you do that to him,you are so selfish. And because your sense of reality is so distorted at this point, you actually feel bad for him, so you stay.
And so the cycle continues.
If you are victim of gas lighting, you must remember why your narcissist does this. Their distorted sense of self, and their fear of being exposed that they are no longer truly special, gives them the ammo to play ultimate mind games. You aren’t the problem – they are. Do not succumb to his manipulation – you are worthy of love and safety, and a narcissist’s gas lighting will only prevent you from realizing it. You must break free before your sanity is ultimately compromised.
When I was married, my Sundays always were the same. We would go to church, then afterwards go to the diner for a big brunch, or we would cook up a big meal and invite friends over. No matter what we did, Sunday was always my favorite day of the week.
After I was separated, however, I dreaded Sundays. Because that was the day I gave the kids to my ex because we shared custody.
Once they left my home, and I closed the door behind them, my small and cozy home felt suddenly huge. Still hearing Sponge Bob blaring from the TV, I would stand in my living room and stare at my children’s unfinished milk and their half-eaten toast, wondering how they could be there one minute, and not there the next. It was like a tornado that swept in, and leaving me there alone to pick up the pieces, every single Sunday.
And so after putting toys away and cleaning up crumbs from the week, I would sit on my couch, wondering how to fill my day. Some days I had filled up with lunch dates or meeting up with friends, but at that time I didn’t have too many friends, so I had to get creative.
Battling loneliness is a two-part struggle. First, you must deal with your physical space and time. When you are used to your former spouse and/or kids mostly occupying your space, having them gone presents a new form of emptiness. The space around you feels enormous and uncomfortable. When you once barely had time to use the restroom without getting disturbed, now you have a whole 12 hours of your day completely open and unplanned. Your own home may feel weird, and you may avoid it just so the evil ogre of loneliness doesn’t pay a visit.
But when it does, you must battle the mind games so that they don’t consume you. You have a constant conversation with yourself and in your head that may go like this:
I am totally fine. Being alone is good. I’m not lonely, I am alone. Maybe I will clean out my closets. My basement could use some organizing. Okay good, I’ve got a plan.
Five hours later, after your closet is clean and your basement looks like a showroom in Ikea…
Maybe I should call Jen to see if she wants to have dinner. Oh wait, she can’t, she has her kids to deal with. Maybe I should see a movie. No wait, that’s totally depressing. I’ll make some calls and see what everyone is up to.
Fifteen minutes later, after no one answers their phone…
Shit. Oh my God. This is really happening. This is my life now. I am really, really alone. Like so alone, that if I were to die right here on my couch, no one will even notice until maybe tomorrow.
And then, this is where it gets REALLY dangerous…
Why did my relationship end? Was it really worth it? It wasn’t all that bad, was it? This feels WAY worse than any cheating, abuse, yelling, or arguments we had.. maybe I should have stuck it out.
So perhaps you start texting your ex, apologizing, or strolling down memory lane because you were reminded of something that you saw on TV.
No, no, no – don’t do it. Don’t even go there.
Here’s the thing about loneliness – it is only evil if you allow it to be.
That personified ogre of loneliness – that ghost lurking in the dark waiting to “get” me – that horrible being was actually ME. It was my own thoughts of despair, my lack of self-confidence, and my inability to love myself. It was saying to me:
You can’t do this thing alone. You have failed yourself and your children. You F’d up, Lindsey, now you’re paying for your mistakes. Without your ex, you are nobody – and you never have been.
Once I consciously became aware that it was my own self-loathing causing loneliness, I vowed to keep a journal that only spoke the opposite of those negative thoughts. The written word is far more powerful than the thought itself – so writing positive statements combatted the negative thought. Here’s an example:
Look at you, doing this all by yourself. You are paying your bills, caring for the children, and working a full-time job. Your alone time is allowing yourself to heal – enjoy the silence and solitude. No wound can heal without it resting and being safe.
I want you to think of your home as a cozy womb. And within that womb is you, but you just aren’t ready to be reborn yet. It is allowing you to heal, lick your wounds, and be safe from the outside world. If you injure your foot, you don’t go outside and run, do you? No, you wrap it, keep it safe, so that you can run, just like you used to.
And that’s where you are right now. All wrapped up, warm, and cozy – free from harm right now. It isn’t loneliness – no, it’s far from that. It’s actually a miracle happening. Just like when you cut your leg, all of these cells miraculously come together and form a scab. Then it turns into a scar. Then you hardly notice it at all.
So let this miracle do its magic. Fighting it is just like picking at a scab, delaying your healing.
I remember the time I called my dad, hysterically in tears, having a total meltdown about how alone I was. He said to me, “Lindsey, enjoy it. Because one day you’ll be married again, and you’re going to have someone snoring next to you, driving you nuts.”
So I took his advice. And I enjoyed four years of blissful, snoreless nights.
Now I have a bulk supply of Breath-Right Nasal strips, and have to negotiate who’s going to sleep on the couch.
Let your miracle do its thing, lovely … you’ve got this.
So you are finally divorced from your narcissist, and no longer do you have to endure the day to day abuse, the passive aggressive manipulation, or his constant attempts to make you look like the bad person. Or do you? Just because he is your ex, doesn’t mean his behavior ever stops.
There will be times you need to communicate with your ex, especially if you must coparent. But because he is a narcissist, the simple act of communicating seems close to impossible. He may not respond to you at all, or play games with you via text or email, making you want to pull your hair out. Or the simple request of having him take your child to a sports function ends up in a full blown argument.
Beware of the Narcissistic Vortex. It’s his attempt to suck you in to his narcissistic fantasy world, where he is always the victim/martyr, and you are his aggressor. It’s his need for narcissistic supply – the gasoline that provides fuel to his ego. He needs to remind himself (and others) that he is still truly special, but because you are now divorced, he knows you no longer consider him the prince he is trying to be. And for that, he resents you greatly.
So how can you communicate with someone who feels constantly threatened by you? While it’s not ideal, it is possible, as long as you never get trapped in his Vortex. It just takes a little bit of work and focus on your part.
1) Do not engage: While you may have to discuss logistics about joint assets or your children, it doesn’t mean you must engage in every comment he makes. Should he insult you, or jab at your self-esteem, do NOT engage. This means do not defend yourself, insult him back, or threaten to take away the said assets or children. Stick with the goal at hand – repeat the question and wait for your answer. If the behavior continues, walk away, hang up, or do not reply if it’s via text or email. By engaging him, he has won another round of supply, no matter how negative. It makes you look like the crazy person, and he the victim – mission accomplished.
2) Reply with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers: Unfortunately with Narcissists, they can never write an email or text without passive aggressively knocking your ability to function as an adult. The true is secret to communicating is, ironically, little to no response. Reply with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, or merely factual replies like, “yes, I am picking kids up at 5 pm today.” Ignore all other stabs or attempts of getting a heated reaction from you.
3) Ignore his “love bombs”: Perhaps for years you hoped for just an ounce of empathy from him, or anything that shows he truly loves you, but to no avail. But now that you are divorced, he may send you “love bombs,” which are texts or emails that say, “Whatever happened to us?” or “If only you knew how much I truly loved you.” They can come out of the blue, when you least expect them, and if you have any hope of reconciliation, these love bombs are dangerous – don’t fall for them! A narcissist will never, ever change, so don’t think he has somehow had a divine intervention. He is likely low on supply, and because you have always been that one consistent supplier, he comes chasing after you. Ignore them and do not respond – if you do, you’ll be sucked right into his Vortex.
4) Manipulate the manipulator: What do narcissists want more than anything? Approval and adulation from others. So if you really need something from him, you may have to compliment him. Think of this like a communication strategy, as if he is your potential customer. If you want your customer to buy, you must use persuasive language and make it about The same goes for your narcissist. Should you want him to drive Sally to soccer practice because you are stuck at work, simply asking him may not cut it.
Rather, try this approach: “Sally asked me if you could take her to soccer because she loves spending time with you. I know how good you are with her and thought that extra time would make her feel so special. Would you mind taking her today?” Yes, this may feel nauseating, but it really does work.
5) Set firm boundaries: When you first met your narcissist, you likely had few boundaries, and continued to ignore the red flags because you wanted to please him. Narcissists hate people with boundaries. They take and take from people who give and give. So if you stop giving, he will have nothing to take. This means stop doing him favors, even if it benefits your child. He may ask for an extra day with your child, despite the custody agreement stating set days. Or he may ask you to have the kids on a weekend you weren’t expecting, so you cancel your plans just to be nice (after all, that means more kid time, right?). Doing favors for healthy functioning people means a favor in return – but not with a narcissist. You will likely get burned because a narcissist is never thinking about you or your well-being. Stick to the plan. Do not tolerate him being late or adjusting his schedule. Always have the saying, “That’s not okay with me” ready to fire off. If it isn’t okay with you, then say so.
No matter the form of communication with your ex, ask yourself, “Does this require a reply?” He will never behave the way you want, and you will never change him. Once you are aware of his inabilities, it will free you from the exhaustion of ever trying or hoping he will be different. Above all, try to remember tip #1, ‘Do Not Engage’ – it will save you a lifetime of stress and headache.
The #1 question I hear when I talk to clients about whether to divorce or not is, “How do I know if I’m making the right decision?” (Or past tense, How do I know if I made the right decision?)
I remember this feeling all too well.
When I considered leaving my husband, I had this gut instinct that I knew I had to do it – I was just too unhappy to stay. But self-doubt would always creep in, and then fear, and then the pleading from my children, family, and even my ex – all of that was hard to battle, preventing me from staying true to myself.
So if you’re getting so many questions like, “Are you sure you want to leave?” or “Marriage is hard, you should stick it out,” I want you to do something for yourself.
Go to a quiet place.
Close your eyes and breathe.
And talk to your inner spirit – what is she saying to you? Do you feel this gut instinct that you no longer should tolerate bad behavior? Are you convinced that your partner will never change, no matter what you say or do?
Here are some other metrics for you to consider:
You do not feel safe in the relationship – this not only applies to your physical safety, but also your emotional safety. If you do not feel safe in speaking up without getting yelled at or it starting a huge fight, then you are making the right decision.
The love you had for your partner is just gone – I always ask my clients, what if your partner suddenly became that person you wanted them to be? Would you love them again? If you feel that too much damage has been done, the trust has been broken, and there is zero love for this person, then you are making the right decision.
You have tried, and tried, and tried some more, yet nothing has changed – yes, this is the definition of insanity! If you have gone to couples counseling, and your partner is unwilling to make any changes, refuses to take ownership of his/her feelings, always blaming you, then you are making the right decision.
Your partner is addicted – to women, to men, to porn, to alcohol, to drugs, to buying things, and refuses to get help. If yes to any of these, then you are making the right decision.
Your children are witness to awful things – if they are getting emotionally abused by your partner, or seeing you both fight incessantly, if they see YOU fearful, then they deserve a happier place to live, so yes, you are making the right decision.
When you are asking yourself whether you are making the right decision, I’m going to be that you are, but it’s FEAR that is holding you back. Fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of financial burden – all of those things will work themselves out. Lean into those fears and just accept them for what they are.
When I asked myself this same question years ago, I look back on it and realized that I was terrified my kids would never turn out okay – that they would be in therapy for years, and their lives would be ruined.
Just the other day my 10 year old son were in the car together, and I asked him, “When you are a grown up, what’s the one thing you will look back on in your childhood as the worst thing ever?”
I asked him this based on the coaching that I do, and as grown-ups, we all have that one traumatic event that we won’t forget.
He said, “Oh mom, that’s easy.”
I braced for the answer. That the divorce scarred him for life.
“When you took the Play Station away from me last year. I’m STILL not over it!”
I laughed and responded, “Really? I was thinking it would have been the divorce!”
“Yeah, it was tough for like 5 minutes,” he said. “But that was so long ago, I’m over it. Besides, you and Dad are SO different, I can’t imagine you being together. All I remember was the fighting, and now you and him are both happy. That’s all that matters to me.”
So there you have it my dear friend, you being happy IS all that matters.
The early days and weeks into my separation, it felt so strange to not have my husband in my life. Granted, I wasn’t in love with him anymore, but for years I was the one responsible for managing the family, getting the kids to and from their activities, managing play dates, cooking dinner, etc.
We both had full time jobs, but his office was an hour away, and I worked locally. So newly separated, and on the days he had the kids in his custody, I STILL picked the kids up at school, took them to his house, and get this… I even made dinner for him!
For five days a week, I was the one leaving my office at 4 pm, taking the kids to their practices, and made sure they had everything they need for school the following day.
At one point my boss said to me, “If you’re getting divorced, why are you helping him so much?”
Well for one, I felt guilty. I didn’t want the kids to suffer, or deal with a different routine now that I was no longer seeing them every day. I also felt bad that he had an hour commute, where I didn’t, and adding more to his plate seemed like the wrong thing to do.
At the same time, he was going after shared custody. He made sure I had as little of “his” money as possible. He wasn’t paying child support. Not to mention that I CHOSE a local job (with less pay) so that he could follow his professional dreams. And because I was helping HIM out, I had to make up the lost billable hours by working at home, late into the night.
Doesn’t this sound completely insane?
But I bet you completely understand it, right?
It took me a while to realize that I was enabling him, and that the mental control he had over me still continued way after we separated. I was the one who always helped, sacrificed for my family, and went that extra mile. The word “no” wasn’t in my vocabulary, especially with him.
I finally sent him a text, just like that, out of nowhere:
“The kids have karate at 4 pm on Mondays. Baseball on Tuesday. Game this Saturday. Those are your days, so you will need to assume responsibility for them.”
“You know I have to work and I can’t get home that early! Please, I work so hard to provide for the family, you know I can’t do this.” (I’m pretty sure I heard violins in the background, playing along to his pity story).
“Figure it out. This is the life of shared custody. Welcome to my world.”
Truthfully, it pained me to hand this responsibility to him – I didn’t think he would pull it off. It also took away my importance as that “sacrificing mother.”
But if child support was based on the number of days I had them, and he was making sure I had a limited financial award, why on earth would I make it easy on him?
It wasn’t about making him “pay” or getting him back, it was about standing up for myself.
When you are separated or divorced, you are in charge of YOU. You are no longer anyone’s care taker, unless you have children.
You don’t have to negotiate. You don’t owe any favors. You aren’t family any more. There should be consequences for everything your ex does or doesn’t do – and they are his consequences, not yours.
You shouldn’t have to remind him of events that the kids have. He owns a calendar, so he must use it. You no longer need to buy his mother a Christmas present. If the kids have a day off from school, and it falls on his day, then HE must take the day off, not you.
Of course – and this is a BIG footnote to all of this – if you have a healthy, trusting relationship with your ex, then by all means, work as a team and do things for each other. In fact, maybe just quit reading this because it doesn’t apply to you – kudos for working things out!
But, for most of us, we tend to let things slide. We say, “just this once,” or, “If I don’t remind him of the recital, he may forget, and that will hurt my daughter’s feelings.”
If he forgets the recital, then you teach your daughter the importance of expressing her disappointment with her father. You are also teaching her the reality of her father’s less than perfect attendance rate, and because that’s how HE is, you don’t need to protect his image or reputation.
Don’t overcompensate your ex’s inability to be an adult just to please or protect your child. It’s exhausting, and you will never win. So stop doing it.
Your ex is your ex for a reason. Live your life, learn to say no, and make your own rules.
And then… imagine what you will do with all that free time.