Episode 125: Leaving the Narcissist

In this episode of Thanks for Sharing Jackie Pack talks with guest, Em Capito, who specializes in working with women leaving narcissistic relationships.

In this discussion, Em outlines the stages of discovery women go through while in relationship with men who struggle to empathize and take responsibility for their actions, often diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or having Antisocial Personality features. They also discuss the effect to these women, who often have remarkable abilities to empathize and be successful in relationships with those outside of the disorders.

About Em Capito

As a clinical therapist with more than 10-years of experience, Em has observed a broken approach to mental, emotional, and physical health. She completed her master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah in 2007. Early in her career she independently studied mind-body medicine, emphasizing whole wellness and self-determination, which focused a lot on addiction treatment. She has since become an expert in helping women struggling with the effects of ending a relationship with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and characteristics of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

TRANSCRIPT: Leaving the Narcissist

A Couple Things Before We Get Started

Hey Everyone. A couple of things before we get started on the episode today. If you’ve enjoyed the Thanks for Sharing podcast, and if you’ve found the episodes helpful, please go to whatever platform that you listen to your podcast on, and rate and review the Thanks for Sharing podcast.

Second, I wanted to update you on what’s going on at One Layer Deeper. I’ve talked about One Layer Deeper before. And, we’ve got some exciting things, myself, and Amy from Worth Recovery going on over at One Layer Deeper. So, consider this maybe like a pre-preview of what’s coming up.

We are going to be offering a subscription box. You’ve heard about subscription boxes out there. Maybe you subscribe to one or several. There’s a lot of different subscription boxes for various things. However, what we’ve found is there’s not one out there about there for what we want to do, which is pushing recovery one layer deeper.

So, we decided this first go around on the subscription box, the topic is going to be all focused around boundaries. And you can sign up to subscribe for a year’s worth of boxes all about boundaries. Some things that Amy and I will share with you, some downloaded exercise you will have, a novelty item you will get every month—We’re having a lot of fun coming up with novelty items that go around boundaries that the subscriber can have some fun with.

So, stay tuned for that. I’ll keep giving you information and update you when those subscriptions can start.

Introduction of Em Capito

JACKIE

This is the Thanks for Sharing podcast, the podcast where we explore all things, recovery, healing, and relationships. Remember to subscribe and download episodes on the iTunes store, Google Play, and the Podbean App. And while you’re there, I’d love a review.

JACKIE

Hi Everyone. Welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host Jackie Pack. And today on our show we have a guest with us. Her name is Em Capito. And let me just tell you a little bit about Em. She is a licensed clinical social worker with twelve years of experience. Within her private practice she has specialized over the past few years in working with women experiencing difficult life transitions, in particular, navigating high conflict separations, and custody situations, which often involves narcissistic or Antisocial features in one or both parties—And maybe even the attorneys.

She additionally worked heavily in the addiction field, where personality disorders can complicate recovery in many ways. As a therapist, she focuses on holistic mind/body resilience, blending in mindfulness, experiential work, and yoga therapy. She’s a LifePower Yoga Teacher and a Dharana Method Meditation Teacher. So, I’m excited to have you here. Welcome, Em.

EM

Thanks so much, Jackie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JACKIE

Well, I’m excited to have this discussion. Where do you want to start?

EM

Good question. I think giving a little context to where my perspective comes from because we all have different goggles. With working with different women in that transition period, and they are seeking therapy, I feel like I see things from the perspective of the other partner more often than I do from the individual who has NPD (or I should say Narcissistic Personality Disorder) or Antisocial features.

Primarily because I work solely with women in that focus, and those who initiated the divorce, which is usually not the person who has the narcissistic or Antisocial features.

And I work with people who self-describe their situation as high drama or high conflict. Whereas research and clinical observation suggest, narcissistic and Antisocial features are more common among men rather than women.

So, I tend to see that discrepancy. And individuals with those features tend to not self-seek therapy. They often seek legal remedies instead. So, they don’t show up in practice in the way I market. They tend to underestimate, in my experience, the level of conflict. They kind of see it as a more normal feature that could be solved. So, they’re just less likely to self-identify in the way I offer services.

So, I feel like my perspective from ferreting out the signs and symptoms of these features playing out in relationships from the person that’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

JACKIE

Yeah, because I often think, for partners, they’re doing what I call pro-relational things. And so, it can take a while for them to figure out that it’s not going to work. And these skills which are pro-relational, and often very healthy, in a situation where they’re in a relationship with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder—those traits are NOT useful.

EM

Right, yeah it kind of sucks you in. I think it’s really sad in a way because a lot of clients who go through that relationship experience from start to end pull back their empathy because it was used against them. They tend to be more open-hearted, and trusting want to forgive and move on, and it feeds right into that toxic cycle. And gets you stuck longer, and so it actually becomes weaponized.

JACKIE

So, what’s your experience in terms of like, about how long this process takes with the women you work with?

EM

It’s really interesting to see just how universal and cookie cutter it can be, a lot of the time. (It’s always case by case) But one of the most fascinating things to me, and what got me so interested in this, is that these women will show up with the exact same story almost, right, the same timeline, the same events, the same tactics, the same words that came out of their partner’s mouth. And it’s amazing.

And I think that’s also where there’s also a lot of fulfillment in this work is there’s so much relief when you realize that you’re not alone, and that you’re not crazy, and that this has been happening to other people, and they can understand you.

Whereas if someone has never really been in an intimate relationship with someone with those features, they really can’t understand you. You share your experience, and they give you typical pro-relational advice. Maybe you guys should try this. Or try this. And you’re like, “I’ve tried all of that.”

Timeline of Relationships with Narcissistic Antisocial Personality Features

EM

So as far as timeline, I feel like there are some distinct stages that people move through when you are not the one, where you’re the partner who doesn’t have these features, but you are with someone who does. And it varies a little bit between Narcissism and Antisocial features, but I think this particular timeline fits more towards Narcissism, but it’s really hard to distinguish between the two. Honestly, there’s so much overlap.

Phase 1: Knight in Shining Armor

EM

Typically, the first stage is Knight in Shining Armor. They’re my soulmate. They fit me perfectly. They do really sweet and generous, seemingly empathic things, and I feel like from years of doing this now, looking at all those stories, there’s this tendency to mirror the partner that you want to be with when you have that deep insecurity and lack of self-worth.

And so, that early honeymoon stage can be really exciting and feel really good. Especially for women who are open-hearted and empathic and passionate. Because suddenly they’ve met someone who is just so excited, who reinforces them and supports them.

They appreciate having this partner who shines, especially with the narcissistic features, because they want someone who makes them look good. And so, they really reinforce all of these pieces and mirror back to you that they like all the same things [as you].

There can be this interesting whiplash after they finally separate, and the narcissistic partner moves on and becomes a totally different person with their next partner because they need to mirror somebody else.

But that first stage, it’s wonderful and yummy, and it often moves really quickly. It seems like there’s this very fast—we met, and now we’re together, and now we’re going to make this ultimate commitment of marriage and have children. And that phase moves faster; it feels like when you’re with someone with those features.

JACKIE

Let me ask you a question. If you as a person, maybe you had a narcissistic parent, or you’re prone to getting into narcissistic relationships, right, that’s been your history. In that first stage, you talked about how the honeymoon phase, which is in a lot of relationships, right, they have that honeymoon phase, how would you maybe test the waters to make sure that’s the typical honeymoon stage, where everything feels good, versus this is more of a red flag with a narcissistic partner?

EM

Great question. And I think one of the common features among all my clients, is that looking back, there were so many red flags, even during the honeymoon stage.

And I think that testing of the waters is when conflict arises in the relationship. And in a lot of cases, the gaslighting starts to present early on in conflict.

You have this really crazy experience of someone projecting onto you exactly what they did.  A lot of times they’re very calm and well-spoken and curated. They’re not messy in the conflict, especially on the narcissistic side, and they push buttons like a master. Because they’re protecting their very fragile inner state, and their lack of self-worth; they’re protecting all that on such high alert.

I think they learn over the course of a lifetime in order to survive; they need to know people’s weaknesses, their buttons, and how to manipulate people. And so that becomes very easy once you’ve been in an intimate relationship, to know what will hurt them the most, especially picking at someone’s sense of identity, and self-worth. And so, they’ll push all the right buttons, with a calm demeanor, until you explode or react poorly.

And then your natural inclination, if you’re an empathic and responsible individual, is: “Oh I reacted way worse than he did (or she did). And so, I’m more of the problem then they are.”

And so, it removes all attention off of the original conflict or the picking at the buttons and moves the attention to your own poor reaction, and so all is forgiven, and you move forward.

Phase 2: Light Switch

JACKIE

Ok. Perfect. Thanks. And then you were talking about going into phase 2.

EM

Yeah. So many people describe phase 2 in the literature, and in my own clinical experience, this whiplash of the light switch being flipped all of a sudden. Typically, right after the wedding or right after having your first child together, there’s this point where it goes from just during conflict things go poorly, to outright shocking behavior that you never thought you’d expect from this person you thought you knew.

Everyone looking back, hindsight is 20/20. The warning signs do kind of give way to it. But if you’re looking at the world from a point of view, a set of goggles where you’ve never dealt with this before, you assume people are all trying doing their best, that they’re trying to get better, that you can always work on things, and so those initial warning signs seem pretty minor, like—

“We’ll just get through this. Everybody fights. It will get better with time.”

And then when the light switch flips, it’s really extreme, it can be very shocking, but most women in this situation are so far in at that point, they’re married or pregnant or have had a baby, and they feel like, “We have to work on this. I’m committed. I still going to see this through.”

It’s not that this isn’t ever successful, but often it’s a naïve approach that relies on the other person having empathy, and having a sense of personal responsibility, and some skin in the game of improving themselves. They must have the ability to see themselves as part of the problem, and those pieces tend to be missing with somebody who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

JACKIE

Ok, in phase 2, where there’s this whiplash, is there (maybe) a belief?—“We can get back to what we had; we can get back to phase 1 because we had it.”—Obviously, right?

And like you said, if you’re wearing goggles and seeing things that are completely foreign to you, you’re going to be bringing your skills, which are kind of that—”I’ll take responsibility for my part. I’ll include myself. I’ll do what I can. And then we’ll get back to that really connected stage that we had.” Which may be an illusion of him in phase 1, but it felt real.

EM

Absolutely, and these partners tend to be really good at reinforcing that. So, as soon as you take responsibility for the conflict, they switch, and they reinforce you for being the best person in the world, their soulmate, they are so glad you’re with them, they reinforce a lot of different pieces about you. They can be the best partner 80 or 90% of the time, just a dream spouse or significant other. Sometimes they make dinner; they clean up; they help you with your work, they help with the kids. They’re doing a lot of actions which can be very confusing.—”It’s so good, how can I complain about these few pieces that seem so insane.”

JACKIE

That would seem confusing, then, if 80-90% is a good partner. And then there are these situations which you can’t quite make sense of, or wrap you’re head around, that would seem confusing to the partner, maybe.

EM

And that’s where gaslighting takes us, just knocking you off your base to the point where, and the tendency of a rational person coming into this relationship is to look at yourselves like you had pointed out—“What can I do differently?”

I’ve worked with quite a few social workers, because I also specialize in working with helping professional as a therapist, and the crossover has been interesting because people who go into the helping professionals tend to have that desirable trait set, which attracts narcissistic individuals. We look within.

We say: “I know we can change the whole system if we can change myself. I can do the work.”

We’re a bleeding heart.

We say: “It’s okay. I’m not going to take it personally and do what I need to change the dynamics.”

Jackie

Okay, so then after that, does phase 2 just last forever? Is there a phase 3?’

Em

I see six phases. To give us a broader perspective. After that whiplash it kind of repeats itself.

Phase 3: Playing Detective

EM

Stage three is called playing detective. You’re in these arguments. You literally wish you had a video camera. The gaslighting piece (projecting onto the other person exactly what you just said or you just did, and saying they did it) is so crazy making. To have a conversation with somebody who blatantly lied to your face even knowing you were there to witness the entire experience. But then will say the opposite with such conviction and with absolute calmness, that you start to pull together evidence, because you’re still hoping to help them see or help you see what’s going on.

So there’s this process where partners will actually taking audio recordings of fights and trying to prove: “No, see I have the recording. You said this ______.”

I haven’t seen any client do a video recording yet, but everyone wishes they could. I wish I could install videos everyone in my house because it’s so maddening when realities are distorted in a fight that ensues after something happens. And it’s distorted forever. So every fight thereafter. A great example: Maybe you had a fight early in the relationship, maybe a year or two in, and it gets twisted where you slammed the door instead of the partner who actually slammed the door. And this is crazy making enough in that moment. You decide to move on and let it go. But every future fight it’s brought up that you slammed the door. And again, you get thrown into this defensive detective stage. And finally, they’ll admit it that they slammed the door if you catch them enough when you have enough evidence. And then you think, “My God, they finally admitted it.” But then the next fight they go right back to the prior narrative, that you slammed the door. And it’s just the most crazy-making experience.

Jackie

And it sounds like it’s a way to distract, now we’re fighting about this, instead of what we’re actually fighting about.

Em

Absolutely, it shifts all the attention into this other button that they get to push, to this argument from years ago, and over time you accumulate a lot of these buttons to arguments which are absolutely insane, and they’ll always revert right back to their initial stance which drives you absolutely nuts.

Jackie

Okay, so that’s phase 3.

Em

So, then we move pretty quickly into phase 4, which is “I am the crazy one.”

Phase 4: I’m the Crazy One

Em

This is the saddest part, because a lot of people who haven’t experienced this, it’s mind boggling that you could be brainwashed in this way. The point in gaslighting is it’s slow. The frog in the frying pan, the water slowly heats up until it’s suddenly boiling. Between projecting onto you everything they do, the blatant lies right to your face to throw you off base, to keep you in a questioning and defensive position, and you go through this detective phase, and you start to feel crazy, because you’re going out of your way, you start to feel paranoid.

They start to reflect that to you: “We love each other. Why are you doing this? What’s wrong with you.” And in the process of that, they isolate their partners often times. They will slowly encourage you to cut off relationships, to distanced yourself from people who are good outside sources of reality checking, people who reinforce self-esteem. Because they want to break you down to the point where you are pliable and manipulatable.

And everything is incongruent, right, they’ll say one thing and do another. And after pushing all your buttons so many times to the point where you are (It’s crazy-making.) You will react poorly in those situations. You will slam doors. You will scream or cuss or even become violent when someone is becoming insidious about pushing buttons in this way. You eventually adopt this: “I am the crazy one!”

And most commonly, especially among female clients, which who I see, is the identification of having Borderline Personality Disorder.

Yes, we’ll talk more about that.

Em

When you go through the features of Borderline Personality Disorder, it looks just like somebody who is in a relationship with a Narcissist. And so, if you start to question yourself enough, and then you look at the criteria, you Google it, right, you’re like, “This is what’s going on,” you’ll find this diagnosis pop up, and it sounds like you—these extreme mood disorders, kind of black and white survival from one moment to the next, the reactivity, feeling loved, unloved, loved—this is what you’re actually experiencing. It’s a real-life presentation that looks a lot like a borderline personality disorder.

Jackie

And at that point their willing to pick up, because they’ve been picking up the responsibility for so long, that they are looking at some of these — (I mean, a borderline personality disorder is a pretty heavy diagnosis and they’re totally willing to pick that up and apply that to themselves.)

Em

It feels like hope, even if it’s you. If you have the ego strength to look at yourself for your own flaws, then finding an answer, that seems like an answer, anyway. It’s like, “Oh, this is me. And all of the evidence points to me. My partner is calm and cool and collected all the time, and I’m the one that’s all over the road map. I can get therapy. I can get help. I can do the workbooks. I can read all the books I can buy off of Amazon on this topic. I can change myself, so I can have happiness and peace. So yeah, I think we can pick it up quite readily.  

Jackie

Ok. What’s next?

Em

So then, we eventually, no matter how much work you do, if you’re with someone who has enough features of either of these diagnoses, but especially narcissism, you get to this stage of intolerable distress, where it’s like: “I don’t even care whose fault it is, but this is intolerable. The fights are just so absolutely insane. I feel crazy. I feel very depressed and unhappy.”

You start to have the seeds of recognition that this relationship, regardless of whose fault it is, is just toxic.—“I just need to get out.”

And oftentimes this parallels a greater sense of self. Your buttons get pushed so much that you start to become desensitized, so you’re less reactive. And yet, when you become less reactive, if you’re the problem, things should become better. But instead, things become worse. With my less reactivity, my partner, who needs me to react poorly in order to maintain their own sense of identity, pushes harder and gets more aggressive, more destructive, and more abusive.

Jackie

Are the partners able to see this at that point? Can they identify—“I’m getting less reactive, and yet they’re pushing even harder, and more buttons, or keep repetitively pushing the button.”

Em

Yes, as we start to see and observe, this doesn’t add up. Yet again, I did all my own work, I did my stuff, I’m getting better, and things are getting worse. There’s at least a seed of recognition that “I’ve got to exit this relationship because nothing is working.”

There’s also this build of a sense of self, this realization that I’m not the whole problem. Certainly, it takes two to tango, no matter what, but I recognize that my partner is the one that’s pushing for a reaction from me, so I can start to understand how crazy-making this has been, and start living in shame and guilt about my reactions in the past. I start to reach out to healthier people, because you have that ambivalence about the relationship now, so you start to look outside of yourself. Maybe you engage in individual therapy, and a therapist helps to plant those seeds. Or you reach out to former friends and family, and you’re more open to what’s going on in your relationship, and they start to reinforce, like—“No, this isn’t who you are. We’ve known you forever. This is you in this relationship.”

Jackie

It sounds like there would be some relief, maybe, and some validation.

Em

Yeah, and this energy. There’s this energy towards taking some action. And so, and that can feel really good because again it’s hope.—”I’m ready to take this next step.”

There’s generally not a huge period of ambivalence at this point. Because someone who has full NPD, they escalate quite quickly, it can become very emotionally abusive. Very physically violent. And so all of a sudden, the evidence you needed to make the decision to leave is more apparent.

There’s a period of ambivalence, but I feel like most of the clients I’ve worked with there’s a period of six months to a year, at most, once you start to have those seeds planted, you’re like, “No this has gotten so much worse than I ever expected and I really see now that this is a big part of my partners problem. It’s probably not going to change, and it’s definitely intolerable.”

Jackie

And so, while there may be some relief from the partner figuring all this out, it’s not like everything is downhill from here on out.

Em

Right, and this also is sort of — the stage 2 of the saddest part of it. We get some hope. And I think society does a poor job of preparing people of what divorce looks like, especially if you have children together. There’s this belief that once I separate things will be better. But once you separate from someone with narcissism, you become their enemy instead of their ally. Instead of someone you want to keep close, it becomes, there’s a whole cycle of things that can happen. I feel like it’s almost like the grief cycle. Where the person with narcissism, there’s this reckoning. There’s a negotiation and manipulation to try to get you back.

It can all seem very honeymoon-y for a minute—“Oh, I met with a psychologist. I’m going to see a therapist. I bought the book. I believe you. I definitely have these things going on. I agree that I’ve been abusive.”

They start to apologize for the first time ever. They start to try to instill hope. There can be a pretty messy period of trying to pull you back in multiple times. But it never lasts. That whiplash comes back really quickly once you’re back in.

It’s really horrible on the kids during in these cases during this messy period of back and forth.

Jackie

How would the narcissistic parent be interacting with the kids during this period?

Em

That’s a good question. I don’t focus on the kids in my practice, but just picking it up from what they share in sessions and the support groups, it feels like the kids start off being pretty neutral ground. Because the narcissists are pretty high functioning. And so, they don’t resort to using the kids as weapons until later; it seems like. There’s this belief that they are a good parent. That they are going to continue to do these pieces. And a lot of them are decent parents until the children start to pull away. I feel like it’s very age-dependent. So, the younger the child, the more they’re giving that unconditional love to the person that really needs it. So, they’re allied. They give a lot of attention to the child, in that stage, in order to get that feeling of unconditional worth.

Jackie

That child can make that parent feel good. Right, “This child is making me look good.” Until the person starts to become their own person.

Em

Agreed. So I think when the children are younger there’s a tendency to over-identify with them, to create some enmeshment here and there, to shower them with more attention than they did before the divorce or separation, which can be confusing for the children as well because they’re feeling a void as you exit the relationship.

And then, spot-on, once the child hits that preteen stage of individuation and starts to pull away, this again is a threat to the self-worth for someone with this disorder. And so, they can be very controlling, which is the last thing you want to do with a child who’s rebelling because then they rebel harder and it becomes ugly. And you have these ego injuries going on, and someone with these features is very reactive to those ego injuries. And so they rule these teenagers with an iron fist, and it doesn’t go very well.

The subject of kids with parents who are narcissists is a whole other podcast, right?

Listen to our podcast about Narcissistic Parents HERE

Jackie

Right, right.

Phase 5: The Good and Bad

Em

So, I feel like the last stage; once you leave the relationship, there’s this painful but also a relieving period of enlightenment. It’s a combination of accepting that now that I’ve left the relationship not is all going to be well; it’s actually sometimes uglier if I was still there. There are obviously pieces that are better, but there are also pieces that are much, much worse as this person tries to maintain control over you, or control over the family unit, even in the midst of separation. So it can be a very high-conflict period for the rest of the kids being co-parented; it can be difficult well beyond that period.

And there’s this positive piece that we eventually get to, realizing you’re not alone. So many other people have been through this; it’s very similar in presentation. So, you can relate with others. Once you start reading a book on the topic or connecting in a support group, you realize, “I’m not crazy. I can put that down. I don’t have borderline personality disorder. I don’t have any disorder accept for, like, maybe some depression and anxiety for what I’ve been through—Some PTSD, maybe! And I’m a good person, and I can go on and have my life and find a different partner if I so choose, knowing what the warning signs are and never ever putting up with gaslighting again.”

Because once you’ve been through it, you spot it really quick.

Jackie

Right, right. And so, I’ve heard from different people that once they divorce the narcissist, and that’s final, and that can take a lot of time too. Divorcing a narcissist is not an average divorce.

Em

For sure. I think the common feature is they don’t want the divorce, and so they’ll do everything they can to delay or to create complexity which causes delays or conflicts. They want to win, especially when you have this blending of features and there are some antisocial features. It’s about winning at every cost. With both disorders, there’s this ability to set aside morality for just enough time to win or to feel in control, and so they’ll go to great lengths to fight. So even if your divorce moves quickly, there’s usually a legal battle that moves on and on after the divorce.

Jackie

When you say they don’t want the divorce, it’s not about saying they want you or wanting this family system. It’s about wanting to win or wanting control and power.

Em

Right. It’s all about finding approval from others, how they look, their appearance, their status. So, they’ll build up a very picture-perfect appearance from the outside. And divorce is a failure, right? They don’t want to face that, especially with family. There’s a lot of difficulty with that person facing down their family. They’ll often remarry very quickly to make it look like everything is fine and that they’re the one who’s in control. And it’s a messy piece that has nothing to do with you.

Jackie

So once the divorce is finalized, I’ve heard people say there’s maybe some cycling. That there’s still some discord that happens, and then every once in a while, the narcissist comes back and tries to engage. Like, maybe they move on, and they have other sources they can control where they can get their fix. When your clients are at this point, what’s your recommendation? I get that it’s kind of case by case. But do you have any overall recommendations as to how to proceed? Because you do have kids with them and you’re going to have to interact with them.

Em

Yeah, the place I start is really radical acceptance. It’s the hardest piece to move through, because it feels intolerable at this point, at many points, whenever it gets really bad it feels like, “I will never escape this. I’m trapped until my kids are 18. They’re never going to let me go. And even if they move on and things go peaceful for a while, it’s almost more a psychological trauma. Because things will become peaceful and you’ll move back into hope, and you’ll go back to your regular life, and you’ll reestablish your connection with your own identity, and then they’ll come back and torture you again, and try to control you again. Because perhaps something is falling apart in their own relationship, or they’re experiencing some kind of stress or ego injury with the kids. And so they come back to that original narcissistic supply and try to poke at that again. And so, there’s this piece of just accepting that this is the reality. And it’s torture at first, but once you move through to that acceptance, you can kind of put down the detective pad.

Which comes out even more in divorce, for different reasons. Because all the abuse that comes out post-divorce is so insidious and shrouded in very clever tactics that make it look like you’re the one who’s causing difficulties, so, the partner who’s the one who’s trying to do the best for the family is looking like a whiny, histrionic, person, right? Because they’re the one, they’re making a lot of court filing; they are requesting mediation; they are documenting everything; they’re more reactive in emails.

Because if you’re a rational, normal person, going through this, your tendency is to be reactive. And you’ve been traumatized throughout the relationship, and so they can still push those buttons through email or text, or co-parenting drop-offs, just with a few words.

So, the first step in this phase, the foundation is expecting you have still got to be the person who’s got to work to be the stable parent and a stable individual in the midst of ongoing chaos. So, from that acceptance, I think then, the work is building yourself back up to the point where you can eventually have those buttons pushed without reacting. At least outwardly. You can have your own internal turmoil over it, but you don’t whip off the email they’re hoping for, where you’re all angry and pissed and derogatory.

Jackie

So basically, it’s steps for that person to be able to emotionally disengage, or respond factually or to respond briefly, but I have to keep the emotions out of that.

Em

And I think the key tactic for that is mindfulness. This is why I got certified as a meditation teacher because that is such a key piece to building resilience—to building that stress resilience, is practicing meditation, or some form of mindfulness. Because it creates that space between the triggering event and your response. If you don’t have that response, the knee jerk reaction is always fear. And fear is not our best self. It doesn’t ever look good.

Jackie

They will always generally regret whatever we sent. So, having some of that space. Sometimes it’s an hour later or a day later when they are responding. It may just be, what you’re talking about, oh wait, I’ve got to take time.

Em

I coach my clients, like that first thing, is knowing you’ve got to take a few breaths. That’s step one. And in order to be able to take those breaths, to have the freedom to take those breaths, you have to practice mindfulness. The more you practice these skills and become good at disconnecting from the emotional reactivity, they will find other ways to push buttons that you would never dream they would. They will turn on the kids. They will manipulate the children. Because they desperately need you to react. So, it gets uglier before it gets better.

So, it’s like this ninja training of mindfulness so that I can take a few breaths. And in those few breaths, I decide, “I need to sleep on this.”

I’m keyed up; I can notice my body is keyed up; My heart is racing; My fingertips are tingling. I’m in a stress response. So, I’m going to go to yoga; I’m going to go on a run; I’m going to sleep on it, I’m going to make some decision to delay until we come back to baseline.

And maybe even deciding, especially early on, that I’m going to have this friend that I trust, or my therapist, or coach read through my emails when I’m most stressed about responding. I have this additional filter that removes all of the emotional reactivity that actually gives all my power away.

Jackie

Right, those steps really keep the empowerment with the person.

Em

Right. And the more you do it, the more it reinforces itself.

Jackie

Because you don’t regret it, right.

Em

Yeah. And you’ll watch them spin out with distance. Cause when you don’t respond, it does get uglier. But eventually, you start to see that button-pushing behavior as separate from you, instead of intimate. And you can observe it, and notice with some empathy, even, because that’s our greatest strength as someone who has been in that relationship. We can use it as a tool instead of a weapon against us.

Narcissism is rooted in conditional love at a very early stage in childhood, where the primary caregiver did not give unconditional positive regard to the child and was not fully present emotionally. And so, that’s really sad. It’s a miserable way to live, to have these features, to have that deep sense of unworthiness that has to be constantly filled by other people. And so once you distance yourself from it more and more, you get to watch the spin-out, as “This is not me. This has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with their own emotional injuries as a child, and it’s likely to never change, so I have realistic expectations that this just is what it is. And so, all I have to do is just be the person I choose to be. I have that freedom to choose that person. And if there are children involved; I get to be the unconditional parent that gives them that safe home base away from the storm.

Jackie

Yeah, that’s so important. So, a couple of questions before we wrap up. I’m wondering. Let me state both of them. For women who divorce narcissists and go through their own healing from a narcissist’s abuse, what’s that likely to look like when they remarry or get into relationships down the road. What is their relationship with the ex/narcissist look like? And I want to bring in the addiction piece and how the personality disorders are more likely to show up in addiction. So, we’re not just working on addiction; we’re also working on these personality disorders.

Em

For future relationships, I think it varies on the partner’s attachment style. There’s this great book which is great for any person; you don’t have to have any educational background. It’s called Attached. And has a great little quiz in there, to kind of figure out if you have a anxious attachment style, a secure attachment style, or avoidant. And I would say that 80%-90% of the women I work with who present for services in the process of divorcing or separating from a narcissist have an anxious attachment style.

So, that foundation of understanding is really key to not attracting another toxic relationship. Because as an anxious attachment, if that’s me, I’m looking for that honeymoon excitement, that knight in shining armor again, and I’m very susceptible to being pulled into that, especially in the midst of trauma. And, divorcing a narcissist and co-parenting with a narcissist is a kind of chronic traumatic stress.

So, if you’re not doing a lot of self-care, which I think part of the radical acceptance piece is, “I’m going to be in therapy and in support groups through the whole period of my kids being co-parented.”

Because it’s so crazy-making and isolating, and your closest friends and family members get pretty fatigued with hearing about the trauma and difficulties, and they can be very reactive themselves, which just feeds into your own reactivity. So, I feel like therapy and support groups are really the way to go, where people can help you build up yourself rather than reacting to the stress and be able to heal even in the midst of that.

But if you’re not doing that work, and you have an anxious attachment style, then when somebody swoops in and says, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you have to deal with that. That man is just horrible. I would never let anyone hurt you that way. I’m going to protect you.”

You feel very alone after leaving that person. And so that emptiness can be filled very quickly by someone who says all the right things again.

And so, I feel like there’s this acceptance that there’s going to be a period of healing that needs to happen before you go into any long-term committed relationship again. Unfortunately, most of us, when we’re doing our own work, we become pretty wary over time of the knight in shining armor. You have that awareness that this feels good because I’m hurt right now, but I don’t actually want somebody who just swoops in. And even if I really, really like this, I’m going to give it time. I’m not going to jump into an engagement or a marriage. I’m definitely not going to pregnant right away. I want to give this time to see if warning signs come up.  

And after you’ve been through it, if you are doing the work, even if you’ve just read a book on being with a narcissist, you’ll start to see those signs crop up in your next relationship fairly early.

Gaslighting becomes something you’re like, “Oh, I know what this is. You did that, and now you’re telling me I did it, and you’re leaving now!”

So, I think it’s educating yourself, taking ownership of the fact, no one is going to save you from this. There’s no justice. There’s no winning them over. You have let go of the idea of winning entirely. In court battles, I’ve never seen any client come out with this incredible positive outcome that changes everything. The abuse continues, no matter what. No matter what they say. Even if they take away all parental rights, there’s still this difficulty. And then you’re still dealing with the fall out with the children, no matter what.

And so, it’s a messy piece of acceptance, lots of self-care and self-worth, really focusing on the children as much as possible. Because there’s so much trauma for them in the process of the separation, even and of itself, but everything leading up to it and everything after.

And when you do start to date again, just having that awareness and support from outside reality checkers who believe in your worth as a person—and trusting that. Right—“This person is my barometer, and they’re giving a thumbs down, so I’m walking away.”

Jackie

So, kind of a side note, my impression is, and you probably have more experience with this, my impression is that the legal system, the court system, is not equipped to handle narcissists.

Em

Yeah, I would agree absolutely. And if anyone wants to donate to charity after going through one of these things or having witnessed it with a friend or family member, there’s a great nonprofit called One Mom’s Battle. And it came out of a book, which is a great book to start with if you feel like you’re in a relationship with someone with narcissistic features. It’s just this woman who put it out there.

And the unfortunate piece is when you have children involved, it can be construed as alienation to express your story, to share what has happened to you because the children could see that and feel distance from the other parent. And so, there’s very little out there from a parent’s point of view, at least while the children are young. But Tina Swithin, who wrote the book, put it out there and was dragged through absolute nightmare legal cases because of it. I’m not suggesting it! But luckily it is out there because she did that.

And then she started a non-profit to educate the legal system. And so, they put out information; they host events; they host training with judges and commissioners.

It is mindboggling to me how hard it is to find a good family law attorney who understands narcissism or antisocial personality disorder. They can be just as naïve as the partner who first entered the relationship. They think, “Oh, we can just negotiate through this. I’ll just reach out to his attorney or her attorney, and we’ll just figure it out.” And meanwhile, the further along you get with your court battles; you have to educate them. “No, this is like negotiating with a terrorist.”

They will absolutely delay, pretend, manipulate, and do everything possible to avoid giving in because it feels like losing.

Jackie

And oftentimes, even if there is a court order or temporary order, it’s like, the rules don’t apply to them.

Em

Right, there’s this naïve sense that the police and the legal system are always going to have your back. And one of the common stories, which is the worst, in my experience with these women, and it’s so common, is that they’re the ones who get arrested when domestic violence does occur. Because they’re emotional and histrionic and naturally reactive to what’s happened. And the other party is cool, calm, collected, and they seem like the more reasonable person in the experience.

And in Utah, we have this unfortunate law, that I wish we would change that the police have to arrest somebody when there’s a domestic violence call. It’s so destructive. There are often children present. They have to watch one parent go away in handcuffs, which I feel like is destructive no matter what.

Jackie

Right, yeah, it’s a trauma thing.

Em

And it almost never helps even if you arrest the right person, they are booked and released. They’re right back at it. And then, you’d think once they’d been arrested or once they’d been caught in court in a few lies, things would get better. But the legal system is not set up to do any type of good behavior management from a therapy perspective. The commissioners and judges are very reticent to assign legal fees, for example.

So, if you’re a single mom or a single dad bringing a suit, enforcing your divorce decree, or enforcing a protective order, it’s costing you thousands of dollars, or dozens of hours of your time and time off work to bring this. And then, even if you’re successful, and the commissioner or the judge tells the other person they’ve lost, they almost never give you legal fees to try to make you whole. And there is no making you whole. This would just help a little bit. And they still won’t do it.

And so, it’s part of the acceptance process that I watch my clients go through over the years following the divorce. The legal remedies don’t work most of the time. You should absolutely keep track of everything. You have to accept that you’re logging everything. Create a login system that works for you.

A lot of my clients keep a Google Calendar that’s specific to their co-parenting relationship, or specific to the divorce, and they just log, they’ll just throw an entry in their smartphone about what happened that day real quick, so that they can remember, they can look it up easily and have the dates and times and everything. But you have to.

You have to log everything to prepare yourself against what they could file against you. Because they will often do that and misconstrue the facts, and you will have to enforce certain pieces just to maintain the paper trail of what the reality is. But, it’s accepting that you’re not going to walk out of that court hearing with a solution. It’s just almost never the case. You’re still walking out with someone who’s the parent of your children and has this disorder.

Jackie

Right. Those are good suggestions. Let’s talk about how this fits in with addiction.

Em

In the research and in my own clinical observation as well, and I’m sure yours, there’s a high comorbidity rate between NPD and in particular, in my experience, antisocial personality disorder, with treatment. And think, again my experiences skew me a bit. I spent 5-years at a non-profit, a large behavioral health center that catered more towards more people who were legally mandated to treatment. And so, I think we saw a much higher incidence of antisocial personality disorder in those cases because as you as an addict get in trouble more if you have those antisocial traits where you’re willing to break the law repeatedly.

Whereas now I work for profit in addiction treatments. So, I haven’t seen a lot of antisocial features. I’ve seen more narcissistic features showing up.

You know, I think a lot of times it’s really intolerable to have this experience, this world view of always being paranoid about other people’s intentions. Feeling very broken on the inside and distancing yourself from everybody in the process of trying to create intimacy and connection and a sense of worth.

So, on the NPD side, I think there’s also this grandiose sense that you can control or be immune from what other people experience. So, addiction isn’t going to happen to you. You can dabble in all of these different pieces and self-medicate. So, cocaine and heroin and escalating from pain pills are pretty common among that population.

And I’m not sure what my opinion on this is yet, because I’m really pro-legalization of these substances that have been proven in the research to be helpful therapeutically if used correctly, which we can’t when they’re illegal.

But with marijuana I’ve seen people with narcissistic personality disorder actually let their guard down and become vulnerable for a moment and be able to survive the sense of ego injury to admit what their actions have created in their lives, the outcomes, and be able to actually look at the enmeshed relationships from their past that had conditional love as a feature and to be able to speak to that. Because a lot of times they put these people on a pedestal even those are the people who harmed them. So, I’ve seen with, not so much with CBD, but THC the ability to just kind of allow the ego and defense system to dissolve temporarily to do some of that work.

Given that we have no good research protocols for treating NPD, I think this is a huge opportunity to potentially have good outcomes by integrating some of those pharmacological methods that allow the ego to step aside for a minute so that we can address the injury from childhood.

Jackie

Interesting, interesting stuff, I think. In the addiction field, we’ll have to see how some of these medications could help. We have several prominent people writing about various, what are now illegal substances. But if they were legalized we could dose it, so it’s appropriately administered, that it has actually has a better impact than the legalized prescribed ones now.

Em

Right, the legal options for treating NPD, just, have proven to be very unsuccessful. That ego has built up. It’s like an over-exercised muscle, I feel like, from childhood to the point where it would allow the ego to step aside without that pharmacological support, it feels like death. Like, I literally cannot accept my flaws because I wouldn’t survive it. Because I’m so deeply hurt from childhood. And so, there needs to be some intervention, you know, utilizing this psilocybin or THC within a therapeutic setting, to be able to heal that underlying wound. I’m kinda thinking this is the only way we’ll be able to have good outcomes with this disorder.

Jackie

Well Em, thanks so much, anything you want to add before we wrap it up.

Em

Well, if you feel like you’re in a relationship with someone with these features, if it’s early in the relationship, get out. Because it’s not your job to fix somebody. And we can’t go into relationships hoping someone will change in any case.

But in particular, if it is escalating, and you feel like you’re crazy when you’re going through these arguments, and you’re being projected on like this. It is a long-term, and at this point, low success rate path for someone with these features to really do well in interpersonal relationships. I mean, with both these disorders they are marked by interpersonal ineffectiveness. Manipulation and coercion and doing anything to meet their own needs and I just don’t see that there’s much success there until they’ve done that work. And hopefully, we’ll have better options in the future for better outcomes.

And if you’re all in, if you’re married, or you’re co-parenting, definitely surround yourself with support. Accept that you will need support. Like if there’s a budget line, and all of my clients have a permanent budget line for therapy. Because it’s just not worth losing your sanity and falling into a deep dark depression, going around with PTSD symptoms the rest of your life, it will just undermine your future relationships and happiness.

Jackie

Alright, well, thank you so much. It was good to talk to you. You had some great things to say.

Em

Absolutely, thank you so much Jackie.

At the end of this episode, I want to remind you that your story matters. Remember there’s something meaningful in every chapter. Don’t wait to share your story until it’s finished.  

Until next time, Jackie!

The Legal Stuff

This podcast is solely for the purpose of information and entertainment and does not constitute therapy. Nor should it replace competent professional help.

The Prayer of the Perfectionist

Nobody has time for perfection. We are pursuing progress. Help me remember I can’t do it all. Help me to take it one step at a time. Help me remember I can’t do it all. Help me to do it one step at a time. Help me remember, the only step I need to focus on is the next right step for me. Help me to remember that life is a journey. Help me to be able to separate all that I am learning from all that I have to do. Help me to remember that I am not alone. I can ask for help. Help me to strive for frequent awakenings, not mastery. I am enough. Amen.

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