When my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer just shy of my 27th birthday, I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't give her all my time and support.
What I didn't expect though was the total AWOL behavior of my then-boyfriend, whom I had been with for four years. Maybe a little naively, I had just assumed he would be unquestionably supportive. In the course of our relationship, I had quit a job I loved to follow him to remote parts of Australia to pursue his dream of being a pilot, I had taken a break out of my career to take a menial job at an airline to help him get his foot in the door, and supported him financially.
I had always thought that eventually things would equalize in the course of time. It wasn't until my mum's diagnosis that I got a huge slap in the face about the reality of our relationship. He was in no way supportive. He said my mum was selfish for expecting my support and that I should be supporting him instead.
Once, whilst attending a cancer respite retreat with mum, I rang him after an emotional afternoon, hoping for some consoling. He was cold and distant and said that he didn't want to talk and didn't know why I was there.
My mum also made some decisions about her treatment that I found difficult to handle; she opted not to have surgery and I struggled with this. My boyfriend also made it known to me that I was stupid for not forcing her. But my mum knew her own mind, and you can only really make medical decisions for someone else in special circumstances or if they are your child. The situation was complex, and he made it so hard that I found I could no longer confide in him at all.
My family and friends had, over the course of our relationship, gently pointed out certain things they thought were not quite right. I ignored them. I loved my boyfriend dearly and there was something about him that was so charming, so confident.
It's always easy to look back in hindsight and realize how silly you were to ignore the red flags; the way he could never say "sorry" (with his explanation of, "I shouldn't have to say sorry, it's implied"), his huge sense of entitlement, and the way he thought almost everyone was stupid. He would say, "I'm done, get off," if he had had enough affection, and in the five years that we were together, not once was I ever allowed to have the remote control or choose the channel.
He also liked to "teach me" the better way of doing pretty much everything, such as driving, cooking, writing, filling the dishwasher, cleaning, speaking to people, managing money — the list goes on. His criticisms were unrelenting. He would say, "You just do everything wrong," when I complained about the criticisms. Once, my friend had chosen a restaurant for her birthday, and when we arrived he said simply, "No, I don't like it. We'll go somewhere else," and walked confidently in the direction of the new restaurant without consultation.
There was something about him that made it impossible to argue with; he was also incredibly good with words when he wanted to be and could convince anyone he was correct. Even when he said that after three years I had not yet "passed the wife test," it was difficult not to believe him. I absorbed every word with wide eyes when he noted, I could pass it if I tried a little harder, if I was tidier, if I complained less, if I was more loving, if I was less focused on myself, if I assumed a more traditional role, if I had food ready when he got home.
He said that everyone has to compromise in life and that he only wanted me to be the "best version of" myself.
I was so desperate to pass the test; the idea that I might eventually make the grade became a firm goal in my mind. I think I lost sight of what being married even meant. I just wanted to be good enough for it and prove I could compromise and be more loving.
I became addicted to his grandiosity, his good looks, his arrogance, his charm and intelligence, his status as a pilot whilst simultaneously feeling like I was the biggest piece of shit that graced the earth. I became chained to a weird treadmill of admiration with a carrot that was forever dangling just out of my reach.
When my mum got sicker, things began to shift. I dedicated nearly all my time to her and all my emotional space was taken with grief, fear, sadness, guilt and panic, particularly when it became clear she was going to die. My mum begged me to leave my boyfriend; she pleaded with me, "Please leave him. For the love of god, leave him. He is a narcissist. A married life with him will be torture."
It became increasingly difficult to ignore her logic and pleas; she was also an experienced, qualified psychologist. A warnings of a dying mother who is also a qualified psychologist is hard to ignore, not to mention the practical screams from the rest of my loving family.
So I did, and it was the hardest thing I've ever done.
When you break up with a narcissist (or they break up with you) it is unlike any other break-up. It takes much longer to get over; it's like your stomach is ripped out from you and you feel totally disorientated. Whilst I was somewhat prepared for the horrible grief and loss I felt over my mum, it was nothing like the emotion of breaking up with a narcissist.
You will still believe that everything is your fault and a huge part of you will still believe they are amazing in every way for quite a while. You will still believe everything they said about you, and you can forget about any money you loaned them.
Additionally, to add salt to your wounds, your ex will thrive (and quickly). My ex got engaged six months later and got an amazing new job, all of which he kindly told me in a nice text message the day after he got engaged.
Most likely, you won't bounce back this quickly; in fact, your life might be a mess for a while. I went through one too many bottles of wine during this time, especially because I had also suffered the loss of my mother. Not a pretty time.
Here's the thing, though.
I promise, if you have broken up with a narcissist, you will be okay because you are free, and because you dodged a huge bullet.
The things that helped me the most through this difficult time were the following:
- Help from a qualified psychologist: this was great in helping me rebuild my self-esteem and get back in tune with what I wanted from my life. I also learned to recognize narcissistic people and how to avoid them. It also helps to uncover why the narcissist was attracted to you in the first place. Slowly but surely, my psychologist helped me back to happiness, but I had to be patient because it is slow going, especially in my case when it was mixed with the emotions of losing a parent.
- Understanding what creates a narcissist. For some reason, unraveling how narcissists are created made me feel better. I suddenly felt intensely sorry for the little child that was to be the future narcissist that is my ex-boyfriend. I also felt more empathy for narcissistic people. It can't be easy.
- Looking back on some good decisions you made whilst you were with the narcissist. It might have felt like all you did was be a weak, codependent disaster, but maybe you made some more independent decisions that you can look back with pride on. Did you choose a dress he didn't like but bought it anyway? Did you stand up for friends or family he criticized? For me it was looking after my mum even though he vehemently told me what a bad decision it was.
- Taking up a new hobby. I took up sewing and pattern-making, and it gave me some direction and something new to focus on.
- Exercise. I love swimming and have made sure I went at least three times a week, even at my lowest. Being in nature will also help you feel more grounded and peaceful.
- Taking it one step at a time. Son't be too hard on yourself if you haven't bounced back like your ex. Most people don't; they take time to process emotions, take stock and very slowly get back on the horse.
- Doing a complete block on social media. I blocked him along with his friends and family. With any friends of mine (i.e. from my work or friends I had before I met him) that he refused to delete (expect this) I explained the situation to them and they kindly obliged. Not having any links or reminders of him helped immensely. You will move on to a much happier place if you do this. They will try to contact you; especially after the break-up, they will say all the right things and nothing that matches with their actions. I also suggest deleting any messages or emails; it will only drag you back to dark places.
Your thoughts and judgments become so muddied whilst with a narcissist, you lose track of what you think and feel. Often, they will tell you that they didn't say things or that an event didn't happen, and your feelings are yet again wrong. They will also say you are oversensitive and your memory is incorrect. This is called gaslighting, and writing things down will keep things clearer for you and make you feel less insane.
I kept a journal for the last year of my relationship, and it gave me enough evidence even when I didn't trust my own feelings. You can also show someone you trust to establish whether the things you have written down are part of a normal relationship or a dysfunctional one. The thing that makes it hard to leave is that there are always nice times in between the bad ones, but take close notice of which way the scale is tipped. The journal should help you determine this.
So would I have married him if I stayed with him? Probably not, because he had me just where he wanted me; keeping the carrot dangling was enough. There was probably never going to be a wedding, and I thank god he never asked me.
Mostly, though, I thank my mum and my amazing family every day for pushing me to make the best, most freeing decision of my life.