Learning signs of narcissistic abuse, healing, and moving on
In the three years since leaving my narcissist ex-husband, dating again after narcissistic abuse has been a process of learning and unlearning—learning about personality disorders, domestic violence, the legal system; unlearning all the lies that made up the bedrock of my marriage; learning to feel valuable again; unlearning my pattern of placing blind trust in strangers; learning that, despite my original Pollyanna view of the world, sometimes people are simply not good.
I have joked that this time has been a sabbatical of sorts (funny, not funny—I know), in that I have engaged in real painful work. I have approached the material with studiousness, reading after my children are asleep, bookmarking relevant websites, dog-earing pages, and underlining sentences that make me shake with recognition. And along the way—with each book read, article consumed, and similar story heard in my online support groups—my experiences and memories have been validated.
For the first two-and-a-half years after leaving my ex, I did not date at all. I remained laser focused, unwilling to let my mind or body desire a partner. I refused to become swept up in a new relationship. Instead, I reconnected with myself, my children, and friends whom I had been isolated from during my marriage. I also built virtual friendships with other women going through similar situations.
And then, this past summer, I downloaded a dating app and started swiping. Call it an exercise in vulnerability, in seeing if I was ready, in relearning to make small talk and answer banal questions from men: What do you like to do for fun? What kind of music do you like? What’s your favorite movie? Call it a promise to my sons that I would not forever carry my disgust of and hatred for men, that I would not let those feelings spill over onto these boys who will someday become men.
And so I scanned through photo after photo—men holding dead fish, men next to dead deer, men lifting weights at the gym, men standing on top of mountains, men with guns, men declaring their support for Donald Trump. I swiped right very few times. I chatted, texted, blocked a few losers, and met up with a few for awkward lunch dates.
Admittedly, I’m a newbie in the postnarcissist dating world. I’m currently in my first actual relationship since leaving my ex-narcissist, and so far, so good. But I’ve been thinking constantly about how to date after experiencing narcissistic abuse and discussing it at length with my friends and therapist. After spending years spinning on the narcissist Tilt-A-Whirl, I still have a whole hell of a lot to figure out—about relationships and love, about recovery and trauma, about myself. But for now, here are my thoughts about dating postnarcissist that are especially relevant for Solo Moms.
1. Read up on the red flags, and remember the beginning.
We were all sucked in by the narcissist at some point. If you’re like me, you can identify the timing and the circumstances that sent chaos into motion. I can pinpoint exactly when I began to feel negative indications about my ex and when I ignored them, as well as the moment that I was pulled in further and the point of no return. Had I known the red flags (of narcissists and/or abusive personalities) at the time, I may have avoided eight years of hell. And so when I started dating again, I made sure to imprint them in my mind.
What follows is a crash course on the red flags of a narcissist and/or someone with an abusive personality, but please also do some research on the Internet for a more comprehensive list:
- Beware of flashy, showy, “bigger than life” people. Beware of people you might make the following statements about: “I’ve never met anyone like him before.” “He’s like a magnet.” “I can’t explain it. I’m just so drawn to him.”
- Beware of the words “I love you” on the first (or second or third, etc.) date. In general, beware of stated commitment that seems unmatched with the amount of time you’ve been dating.
- Remember that romanticism without an emotional center is love bombing—the first step in a narcissist’s cycle. This should absolutely send off alarm bells, and you are not crazy for picking up on this.
- Beware of too many “crazy ex” stories. Sure, most of us have some negative relationship experience, but if every single relationship has exploded in dysfunction, if all of his exes are “crazy,” and especially if he doesn’t seem to own any of the responsibility for past breakups—run like hell.
- Beware of expressions that may insinuate a disrespect for others. Be watchful of the way he treats service workers. Notice how he speaks about women.
2. Your body knows—so be sure to “body scan” as frequently as possible.
If only there could be a neon sign levitating above all prospective new partners. My ex’s would have read “Narcissist. Closet misogynist. Abuser.” After my marriage ended, I was terrified that all potential new partners, friends, or colleagues could be narcissists. I felt danger everywhere.
All I have to say is thank goodness for my therapist, who taught me about body scans. One of the things we are not taught, especially as women, is to hone the relationship between our bodies and our minds. Our bodies have an immense amount of intuition stored inside of them. When I was being “caught” by my ex-narcissist, my body was reacting in a significant way. It was basically screaming at me to avoid him, to disconnect, to run like hell. Had I known to trust that, I may have run.
Thankfully, my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapist taught me how to constantly take note of my body, especially in new or vulnerable situations (such as dating or meeting new people). Sometimes I might feel a tightness in my chest, a tensing of my shoulders, fluttering in my stomach. These are physical messages from my body to my brain. Some of them are love letters, conveying that a situation is safe and pleasurable. And some are warnings to back up, slow down, and take stock in the situation.
3. Spend a lot of time remembering who you are.
This is a big one. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is incredibly damaging to a person’s sense of self. Over the course of a relationship, the narcissist will attempt to override as many of his victim’s personal preferences, feelings, and opinions as possible.
For example, suppose I have always loved orange juice, but the narcissist spends years telling me that I actually prefer apple juice—buying it at the grocery store, commenting to others about how much I just love apple juice. I’m likely to become incredibly confused. After enough gaslighting—psychological manipulation that causes you start to questioning your own sanity—I will probably forget all about the orange juice.
Ridiculous example? It happens—all the time. Nothing is off-limits for a narcissist, and as many tiny pieces that he can pull away from his victim, the more effective his main agenda will be (which is basically to steal your soul, and I’m not even remotely kidding). Whether it be juice or something more significant, such as infidelity or financial coercion, the experience of being gaslit is traumatic. Not only is it a trespass on your personhood and agency as a human being, but it is a trespass on your perception of reality.
While it can be incredibly hard to unlearn these forced preferences, beliefs, and opinions, it can be done. And I don’t mean to sound dramatic when I say this, but it must be done to reclaim your life and yourself. It took me almost three years to deprogram from my marriage. For me, that has meant backing way up, hopping back in time, and trying to reconnect with my true self. I spent a lot of time meditating on some very basic questions: What do I love to do? What activities do I dislike? What is my favorite season? What am I good at? How do I like my eggs cooked?
And then I did the things I loved to do, no matter how long it had been since I had done them. I picked up knitting again. I colored. I climbed trees. I went alone to mountain passes. I stared at the wall. I wrote. And slowly—very slowly—I came back to center. Only then could I begin dating and aim for a new relationship.
To find and connect with other Solo Moms whose lives have been affected by someone with a narcissistic personality disorder, be sure to check out ESME Safe Spaces.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.