“Okay, I did some research and I feel so much better! I know why my ex and I didn’t last, and IT WASN’T MY FAULT AT ALL!”
“Oh”, I responded curious as to the details behind the sudden epiphany. “Tell me more.”
While I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend feeling optimistic and hopeful, I was a little hesitant to believe that the dread and despair that followed a breakup 7 months ago had disappeared in the 3 days since we had last spoken.
“He was a narcissist!”, she exclaimed.
“A narcissist?”, I queried.
“Yes, a narcissist is someone who…”
“I know what a narcissist is.”, I quipped back, grateful my eye roll couldn’t be seen through the phone.
“Oh. Okay well isn’t that great? I mean I am not sure how I missed it after all this time, but I found this online support group for difficult breakups and there was this thread on how to identify if your ex is a narcissist. So, I completed the questionnaire and Oh.My.God, Bonnie! How did I not know?”
As a devoted star trek fan, believe me when I say, I have never EVER prayed so hard for Scotty to beam me up in that very moment. Yet, just when I needed him the most, he abandoned me. Left me right there on the phone, praying for anything to interrupt the now awkward silence on the line. Nothing did. She was quietly committed to waiting for my response.
“Well, I am just glad you are feeling better. You sound much lighter than last we spoke.”, I tried with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Well yes, but can’t you see it?”, she said, refusing to let me sweet talk my way around her new ‘research findings’. She wanted me to agree. She needed me to agree with her. I was her ‘therapist friend’ and if I agreed, she would convince herself she was right, and I wouldn’t hear the end of it for months!
“Well, if you really want my opinion…”, I started, “I think…”
“MAMAAAAAAAAA” … My daughter yells from the living room.
Saved by a hungry 4-year-old! “GOD, I LOVE THAT KID!”, I thought to myself.
“Sorry, let me call you back.”
I didn’t. She didn’t either. On some level I am sure both of us were ok with that.
She had almost cornered me into a conversation I know very well. In my practice, I often hear clients diagnose their ex-partners in all sorts of ways but the #1 psychiatric label assigned by disgruntled exes is …. you guessed it… narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
For those who have never heard of the term, a narcissist is someone who meets the criteria for the psychiatric personality disorder of the same name. Despite having very clear diagnostic criteria detailed in the DSM-5, the term narcissist has become a colloquial way to describe someone you feel is too selfish, rude, or more wrapped up in themselves than they ought to be. The trouble is, narcissistic personality disorder does exist and it goes above and beyond these basic traits. If you ask 10 jaded lovers if their ex is a narcissist, at least 6 are likely to tell you yes. NPD is one of 10 personality disorders specified by the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Psychiatric disorders (DSM V). The estimated prevalence of all personality disorders in the general population is 1.5%. This tells us that 6 of those who label their ex as a narcissist, 5 are wrong.
Narcissism is the new crazy.
To call someone a narcissist can have a few hidden functions. Some of them are purely inquisitive, while some are a little more self-serving. They include:
By deciding their ex is a narcissist and then telling others, the jaded partner can enjoy a superficial pick me up when friends and loved ones agree. I’m sure you’ve been involved in a conversation or two of this sort. It sounds a little like the one described above but typically ends with, “OMG You are so RIGHT! Wow, you are so lucky not to be with them anymore!”.
Nothing hurts like a bruised ego and sometimes casting a negative light on our ex-partners helps us feel a little better about moving on without them.
How do you forgive yourself for staying too long or giving too much in a relationship? When our needs go unmet in a relationship and we fail to act, the ending of that relationship can leave feelings of guilt and shame that can be difficult to manage. In these moments, believing an ex to have a mental illness or disorder can help us convince ourselves (and others) we were ruthlessly outwitted. The stigma associated with narcissism is heavily weighted and does not elicit an empathetic response. Someone who shares they have been “outdone by a narcissist” can often expect to receive instant offerings of support, sympathy, and compassion by concerned loved ones willing to feed the “It’s wasn’t your fault” narrative.
Another version of the self-blame, there are times when individuals struggle to accept that they could not change (or “save”) their partner. As an extension of the now-defunct relationship, the jaded partner tries to find an explanation for their inability to correct the undesirable traits of their partner. Here, again, is where the stigma of mental illness gets called in to play. Replacing the painful “I wasn’t good enough” storyline with “I couldn’t change them because they were mentally ill” the jaded lover no longer has to carry the full weight of their disappointment.
From time to time there is a jaded lover who is just curious about their ex-partner’s behaviours. Whether they are just trying to find closure or if they are reflecting upon ways they themselves responded to conflict, a curious reflection is the most benign of the three described here. Those who are genuinely curious typically do not make a point of telling everyone what they think. Instead, they may ask a few trusted friends or informed professionals to offer an educated perspective. They are also less likely to feel overly invested in any particular conclusion.
Think you’ve dated a narcissist?
While the term narcissist will continue to be thrown about like confetti, there are much easier ways to deal with the ending of a difficult relationship. Instead of trying to understand someone else’s behaviour, focus on your own and what you need to change to make sure you are treated the way you wish to be in the future. Here are a few guiding FAQs that might help:
How could someone treat me like that?
It is not your job to understand or explain someone else’s choices. It is you job to establish boundaries and respond to behaviours you are not comfortable with. If you feel you did not do this well, just resolve to do better next time.
Why couldn’t they treat me like I treated them?
Different people have different values and priorities in relationships. Perhaps you would prefer someone in your life who shares you values and priorities without being forced, begged, or coerced.
Was my ex a narcissist?
Maybe you hit the sub 1% jackpot and they were. In which case, take your awesome on down the road (unless you are looking to be with a narcissist). If they are not a narcissist, but you still have to ask, you should still take your awesome on down the road ?. If you still REALLY need to know, get 2 degrees in psychology, and hope your ex is willing to book an appointment with you in about 8 years’ time! (I’m kidding. That won’t work either! So again, take your awesome… well you get the hint ?
Was it my fault?
If you were not happy and it is over, does it matter? Sometimes we put so much emphasis on the way a relationship ends that we miss our opportunity to just be glad it did. While there can be grief and sadness, there can also be hope and optimism if we choose to focus on the learning opportunities. Take some time to reflect on what was positive and what wasn’t about your relationships. Now list all of the not-so-positive experiences and write down how you will prevent them in the future. Stronger boundaries? Less co-dependence? Most assertive conflict resolution? Learn from this relationship, so the next one is better!
Narcissist or not…here I go!
Relationships are as complex as we are as people. Looking back can be beneficial but we must know what we are looking for and be cautious of creating narratives that label others just to ease the pain of a broken heart. If someone is more selfish, self-obsessed, and non-empathetic than you would like in a partner, save yourself the stress and go find your fit!
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Bonnie J. Skinner, MEd, CCC, RP
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy