From the blog of Dr Supriya McKenna, co-author of Divorcing a Narcissist: The Lure, The Loss and the Law and Narcissism & Family Law: A Practitioner's Guide. You can follow the blog at thelifedoctor.org
Like non-narcissists, narcissists do not like rejection.
But if you are planning to leave a relationship with a narcissist, be prepared for the fallout. Because narcissists (and by that I mean those who qualify for the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as defined in the DSM-5) will do quite a bit more more than simply throwing their toys out of the pram upon being left. And if you were ever in any doubt about whether your beau or belle was a true narcissist, you will most certainly know once you’ve walked away, in the most unequivocal terms.
You see, rejecting a person with narcissistic personality disorder triggers a variety of highly predictable responses, born out of what is termed ‘narcissistic injury.' As we have discussed in other articles, although certain types of narcissists (the overt types) may appear to have high self regard and self-esteem, in actual fact all narcissists actually suffer from highly unstable self-esteem.
Healthy adults derive their feelings of self-esteem largely from their own intrinsic sense of self-worth (around 70%), with much less coming from what other people think of them (external validation), at around 20%, and from how they feel they compare to others (10%).
But narcissists show a very different pattern - with a very much reduced sense of intrinsic self worth. A much greater proportion of their self esteem comes from external validation and also from how they feel they compare to others.
This is why they need to appear perfect, or to appear to have the perfect life. This is why they have to believe themselves (overtly or covertly) to be superior to others. This is why they often have to believe that others are envious of them, and that those who are not, simply do not understand their brilliance and uniqueness.
A narcissist will have become used to wearing whatever mask works best for them, to ensure they get the right kind of attention as their source of ‘narcissistic supply.’ (‘Narcissistic supply’ being the sustenance that their self-esteem requires). That could be the mask of the altruist, the grandiose superior being, or the vulnerable victim. Narcissists have often been compared to mythical vampires, the difference being that where a vampire needs feeding with blood to survive, the narcissist needs feeding with narcissistic supply just to feel whole and alive.
Although a narcissist may be predominantly one of the 3 types above for the majority of their life, it is very possible for a narcissist to play all these roles in varying amounts at different times in their lives, depending on what their situation calls for. These roles are simply strategies to enable them to top up their shaky, continually draining self-esteem. It’s like their self-esteem is contained within a bucket with a hole in it, constantly needing a steady stream of narcissistic supply gained from admiration, attention, jealousy etc to stay full.
But one thing is common to all types of narcissists - when you reject them, their already fragile, artificially propped up self esteem takes an enormous beating, and they spectacularly fall off their own self-made pedestals. And what happens next, which can last for months or even years, is a desperate attempt to claw-back their sense of self worth. When a narcissist is rejected, and their supply is withdrawn, they are suddenly forced to actually feel their own pitifully lacking low self esteem and their shame, and this unbearable for them - the avoidance of it being the whole reason why they constructed their protective false persona in the first place. It is this intense emotion that the narcissist feels as ‘narcissistic injury’. It’s even worse if they suffer the humiliation of being left publicly.
But before you feel too sorry for them, just be aware that the callous, cold, manipulative, controlling, vindictive behaviour that results from narcissistic injury can be so shocking that you may find it hard to believe that any human being could be capable of it.
Very often people who have been in long-term relationships with narcissists find this the hardest to believe, incredulous that after years of loyal servitude, they could be treated which such ice-cold heartlessness. Of course, due to arrested emotional development, the narcissist has never developed the ability to feel genuine empathy (although most can convincingly feign so-called ‘cognitive empathy,’ if it is in their interests to do so). This explains why they simply cannot care about the pain that they are inflicting on you as a result of their response to their narcissistic injury. Your pain is irrelevant, unreal, and if it is real, deserved. And most importantly, they can’t feel it, and therefore can’t feel guilt or remorse about it.
In addition, narcissists have a problem with ‘whole object relations’. What this means is that they are unable to see people (and themselves) as having a mixture of good and bad attributes. They are only able to you as being ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ at any one time, depending how they perceive you are acting towards them. Obviously, if you have left them, you will have severely slighted them, and this will make them see you as ‘all bad,’ meaning that any punishment they inflict upon you as a result of their narcissistic injury will be entirely justified.
Even more sadly, the narcissist is not capable of loving in the unconditional, accepting, reciprocal way that typifies healthy love, no matter how convincing their love seemed at times. There is no sweetening this - the love for you that you thought you saw was never real. It was merely your own love reflected back at you by the narcissist. The narcissist did not adore or love you, she adored or loved the way you made her feel, and what you did for her. And that is another reason why the narcissist’s reaction to you leaving can seem so inhumane and cruel.
In short, if you leave a narcissist, expect no mercy.
Which type of narcissist they predominantly are (covert, overt, altruistic) dictates which (and how many) of the following strategies they will employ in response to their being left by their significant other.
So, here are the 9 behaviours of the rejected narcissist you can expect:
1. Guilt Tripping
The narcissist is a natural master manipulator, and will often threaten suicide or even carry out an act of deliberate self harm, to make you feel guilty for thinking about leaving. They are keen to make you think that their blood will be on your hands if you go through with abandoning them.
They can use out quite high drama tactics in front of you - examples include actually taking an overdose, jumping into traffic so that you are forced to hold them down, repeatedly punching walls with their hands until they bleed, or even head butting walls until they injure themselves.
They will often tell you that they have been suffering with undiagnosed depression or stress, and that that is the true reason why have they have been difficult to live with.
If you are married, they may pull the ‘in sickness and in health vow card’ in conjunction with this last ploy.
They may go through the motions of having therapy to appease you, or suggest couples therapy. Reading self-development books is another manipulative method they use to try to show that they have changed.
If you have children they will use this to their advantage, most likely telling you that leaving will ruin the children’s lives. (It is ironic that many people leave their narcissist partners to improve their children’s lives).
Guilt tripping is classic of the victim (covert) narcissist, although all types can use it.
A common strategy to make you rethink you position is to threaten to make you suffer financially, or in some other way, if you go through with walking away. Custody threats regarding any children or pets, threats to smear your name, threats to destroy your possessions (eg to burn down your house) are all common, and delivered which such conviction that you will find them believable and scary. Unfortunately, these threats may not be empty, and you should consider legal advice regarding them. Although you may be expecting such threats, they can still come as a big surprise to many.
3. Playing on your insecurities
If you’ve had a relationship with a narcissist you will be familiar with the 'idealize, devalue, discard cycle' that all narcissists employ to keep you off-balance, hooked into the relationship and unsure of what is coming next. If you look back, this is the pattern that will been present throughout the bulk of your relationship.
When you threaten to leave a narcissist they quite often tend to ramp up these cycles to quite alarming levels, so you may find yourself in the ‘devalue’ stage once more.
Here the narcissist may play on your insecurities, by telling you that you will be alone forever if you leave them and that you are unlovable, unattractive, boring, unintelligent, fat or whatever else they have learned you may be insecure about.
This is the term used for when the narcissist tries to suck you back into the relationship by promising to change, and showering you with love and affection.
This is when the narcissist revisits the ‘idealise phase’ of the narcissistic abuse cycle of 'idealise, devalue, discard'. They will pull out all the stops to suck you back in, on the grounds that they love you so much that they cannot live without you.
You will doubtless have tried to explain to the narcissist what it is about the relationship that you cannot live with anymore, and they will be able to change some of these things in the short term to demonstrate their love for you, so great is their fear of abandonment.
These tactics are often hard for the victim to resist, and you may well be drawn back into the relationship, pulled by the magnetism of the empty promise of true love, and the demonstrable improvements that the narcissist has been able to make.
The inevitable demise of the relationship will not be far away however, when the devalue phase is upon you once more.
5. Replacing you first
Most narcissists will already have a number of adoring fans waiting in the wings, who they have been triangulating you with during your relationship. This stems from their insatiable need for admiration and attention, as a source of narcissistic supply (see above). It is simply impossible for one person to be enough to provide all that the narcissist needs supply-wise, so the more people they have orbiting around them, ready to jump into their arms, the better.
The absolute hallmark of the narcissist is their inability to be relationship-less for any length of time, as without a relationship their narcissistic supply needs are simply not being met. They cannot run the risk of having to feel the reality of their empty self-esteem, and so you will be replaced instantly, sometimes within hours of you saying that you are leaving.
Expect your narcissist to be on a dating website within hours, dating within days and in another relationship within weeks, no matter how long or serious you thought your relationship with them was. And do not expect subtlety. You may well know about their new relationship, and how perfect it is, practically from the outset.
This is behaviour common to all types of narcissists, so I urge you to mentally prepare yourself for it. Of course, a leopard cannot change its spots, and you can be sure that once the initial lovebombing phase is over with the new source of supply, they will be being devalued, just like you were, regardless of the image that is bring portrayed to the outside world.
If you have a joint mortgage or bank accounts, tell your bank or mortgage lender that you’re relationship is ending and that you would like the accounts frozen, so that money cannot be withdrawn without both parties consent, and mortgage loan amounts cannot be increased to free up cash for the narcissist to take.
It is almost standard for narcissists to try to buy expensive new cars or similar, or to simply withdraw huge sums of moneys from accounts as soon as they catch wind of your impending desertion. They will also attempt to cut you off from the finances as soon as possible, so you need to be ready well in advance.
If you have a joint credit card for which you are liable, make sure that the narcissist cannot max these out, by informing the credit card company of the split.
Change all your passwords for your online bank accounts well before you tell the narcissist you are leaving.
Take any treasured belongings and photographs to a safe place, even ones that the narcissist has never liked, as you can be sure that they will try to take anything from you of sentimental value or that you hold dear.
Before you mention leaving, make sure you have enough funds in your bank account, so that when you actually leave you can swiftly separate everything you need to before the narcissist can steal from you.
The narcissist will also attempt to financially abuse you in indirect ways, as well as in the direct ways above. For example:
They may stop paying their share of the children’s school fees or for extracurricular activities, so that you will have to pay them, thus reducing your available funds. Using the children in this way is typical narcissistic behaviour, and clearly separates them from healthy, loving parents.
They may stop paying their share of the mortgage again, forcing you to pay it.
If you are divorcing, they may try to make unreasonable requests of you via their lawyers so that you spend a huge amount on lawyers fees replying to these requests.
It is a standard ploy for narcissists to deliberately and significantly reduce their earnings as soon as they get wind of your dissatisfaction with the relationship.
Also, attempting to hide and sell off assets is very common.
Once the narcissist has spent or given away money, it has gone. UK courts generally don’t include it in the financial pot when deciding on the final financial settlement, so be aware of this, so you can protect yourself early.
Narcissists do not play by the rules, even the rules of the court, so be aware that in divorce cases the narcissist is likely to lie or twist his or her financial statement, hiding assets and lying about, or deliberately reducing, income. They may delay returning forms, and drag out procedures, so that you are emotionally drained further.
7. Intimidating mind games
If you have moved out, they may make a point of slowly driving past your new house, so that you can see them. This can progress to proper stalking, and you may well need to seek legal advice on this.
They often threaten to bug, or actually do bug the house/car of the partner who left.
It is common for narcissists to threaten to take their ex-partners pets, so be prepared.
Expect the narcissist to leave abusive messages for you, send abusive texts and emails and ring you repeatedly. It is best to avoid all direct communication with them in these cases, ignoring all but written communications from their lawyer.
A bizarre, but oddly common tactic the narcissist may use to destabilise the person who is leaving is to deliberately spell your name wrongly in communications.
If you are getting divorced, expect the narcissist to try to convince you to go to meditation with them for your own best financial interests - but be aware that unless your mediator understands NPD, this may not work for you, as the narcissist will be good at wearing you down emotionally, pushing all your buttons, and misinforming and influencing the mediator with characteristic charm and lies. If you do have to go to mediation, you may wish to ask for 'shuttle mediation', where you do not sit in the same room as the narcissist, but the mediator goes between you in different rooms.
If the narcissist moves out and you are remaining in the former home, be prepared for them to come and go as they please, taking with them whatever possessions they want. I suggest changing the locks early in these circumstances, for your own peace of mind.
The narcissist may tell you that they have called the police and told them that you have been physically abusive, and you that should leave the house if you want to avoid arrest. (They may be lying, or they may indeed have done so. If you need to stay, and it is safe for you to stay, then do so, and present yourself calmly in the event that the police do arrive).
8. The smear campaign
This is another expected narcissistic move, which most types of narcissists will pull. You may find it difficult to believe, but these happen consistently and predictably.
Expect to be labelled a prostitute, drug addict or alcoholic.
Expect the word on the street to be that you were having an affair, or several affairs, and that was the reason for the split. Any infidelities of the narcissist will be absolutely denied (See The Narcissist's Prayer Blog Post).
Expect to be called an inadequate or abusive parent and to potentially have a custody fight on your hands. Sadly, the narcissistic parent will sacrifice what is in the best interests of the children, in order to exact revenge on the non-narcissistic parent. You will need to stay calm in the face of this, as the narcissist will be able to appear to be the rational, caring parent in court, whilst your fear could make you appear less stable. Document everything, including the narcissist's text messages to the children, all late and cancelled pick ups of the children, all inappropriate behaviour towards the children and the all ranting communications that you will be receiving from the narcissist. This hard evidence will stand you good stead should you need it in court.
Expect your family and friends to be contacted and lied to about you, with characteristic convincingness. The narcissist will play the victim here, and crocodile tears will fall.
The narcissist will also badmouth you to work colleagues and acquaintances.
Expect to lose friends, and respect in the community initially.
Expect the narcissist to recruit his 'flying monkeys' to help with the smear campaign (the flying monkeys are the narcissist’s fan club, who would do anything to curry favour with him or her, including spreading malicious gossip). They are usually subordinates, as narcissists are usually unable to sustain meaningful friendships with people at the same intellectual level as them, who generally do not provide them with enough unconditional admiration or attention.
If you share children with the narcissist be prepared for them to attempt to alienate the children from you with a mix of charm, victimhood and lies about you. This is a particularly challenging thing to deal with, particularly if the children are not old enough to understand the narcissist's true personality. Take heart - all will become clear to them in the fullness of time.
Narcissist's often call the police and try to have you arrested for 'physically abusing them'. Particularly if you are male, it is not uncommon for the police to believe the narcissist, and in many cases you may even find yourself in police custody for a night or so. Sadly, this is far too common an occurrence, sadly.
9. Physical violence
If the narcissist has a history of being physically abusive and, sometimes, even if they do not, this is a very real danger. You will need to remove yourself from the situation immediately and involve the police.
In summary, leaving a narcissist may be one of the most traumatic experiences of your life, but it can be one of the most worthwhile. If you can avoid triggering narcissistic injury in the narcissist, this may make the process less painful for you, but this may come at a cost. The narcissist may exhibit less of the behaviours above if you allow them to discard you first, by withdrawing slowly from them and giving them less and less of your attention and energy (i.e. your narcissistic supply), so they move on to another source. Using the Grey Rock Technique can help with this.
Know that if you can prepare for the worst in the ways above, you will survive it, although it is rare to emerge unscathed. Leaving a narcissist can rock the very foundations of your world, but it is possible to grow and reconfigure from the experience (so called ‘post traumatic growth’). Seek professional help, rely on those close to you, and try to stay strong in the face of adversity.
There is a price for freedom, but it's a price well worth paying.