Was my ex a narcissist?
April 4, 2016 7:27 PM   Subscribe

I just emerged from a relationship of several months which I have since realized was emotionally abusive. In attempting to understand it I have come to think that maybe she had NPD, but I don't know whether this is an accurate characterization.

My previous question detailed the pattern of the relationship. After the breakup I described, she managed to pull me back in with an apology letter detailing her terrible backstory, explaining how she had constantly worried about how she was treating me, and apologizing for her behavior. I thought she was taking responsibility, and again she assured me that this was a serious relationship in which we were to be emotionally present for each other and that we were on the same page. Then she gradually became colder and meaner, before finally cutting me off again after a few weeks.

In trying to understand what has happened here, I did research which led me to NPD. The pattern of affection, devaluation, discard seems to describe exactly what went on - that sudden, confusing, and unexplained pulling back, leaving me very confused and afraid. And in that apology letter, she described how the entirety of her self-worth derives from her schoolwork, leaving her incapable of emotional intimacy, and how she constantly fears social rejection. The DSM-5 criteria seems to me to fit very well:

"excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem... exaggerated self-appraisal may be deflated... emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem"
"goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high"
"often unaware of own motivations"
"excessively attuned to reactions of others"
"relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation"

But part of me thinks that I'm overreacting or being too harsh. Wasn't she feeling guilty the whole time? When she left, she complained, "I feel like you let me do whatever I want, and I'm not that great". Of course this was because confronting her could lead to being cut off or was at least often dismissed, but I feel like it indicates some degree of self-awareness and remorse. And I've never observed any exaggerated grandiosity. She just seems to be deeply wounded, emotionally stunted, and unable to interact as an adult.

So how should I characterize this? Is it even worthwhile?
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
She just seems to be deeply wounded, emotionally stunted, and unable to interact as an adult.

Repeat after me, "this is not what an adult relationship looks like. It is not my responsibility to be this person's caretaker. Whatever life experiences or emotional hurt this person has endured is not my burden to carry."

Put your own oxygen mask first and distance yourself from this person. Do the best you can for you and for the sake of you only. This person will eat you like an orange and discard the rind. Run from this.. you deserve better. You can have better. But first you must be free of this madness.
posted by lunastellasol at 7:33 PM on April 4, 2016 [17 favorites]

No, it's not worthwhile. Every minute sunk into trying to label and unpack, from a distance, someone who has hurt you and with whom you are no longer in relationship, is a minute distancing you from yourself, a minute which could have been spent unpacking yourself, understanding the assumptions and beliefs at play in the choices you made, and practicing the care and self-knowledge necessary to make better choices in the future.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:41 PM on April 4, 2016 [38 favorites]

It is not worthwhile to try and figure out what's wrong with your ex! You realize she can't have a caring relationship with you. Good job for realizing it. Figuring her out is unlikely to help you in anyway. It's time to focus on you. A therapist may help you process hiw you got reeled into this, and how to spot a person who doesn't deeply care about you faster in the future. Ex may have any number of diagnosable problems, but this doesn't matter to you. You are all about you right now!
posted by Kalmya at 7:42 PM on April 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

Nope, it just sounds like garden variety emotional unavailability for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

Based on your previous question, you two weren't compatible - end of story.
posted by heyjude at 7:46 PM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Whatever she is, and maybe she is/isn't an NPD, *you* are showing signs of a co-dependency pattern. Or you both are. Your lover should not be a mystery you're supposed to solve. Especially after the relationship ends. I'm that person too, so I'm sympathetic and mean this very kindly: diagnosing a pathology is only a partial and ineffective tool for your process of self-reflection. Who were *you* in this relationship and what can you take away from the experience so that you avoid its repetition?
posted by honey-barbara at 7:56 PM on April 4, 2016 [26 favorites]

It doesn't matter. You can't diagnose via internet anyway, but if your relationship has you doing research that leads to this conclusion, you can probably safely say that she has problematic behavior (people like to rule out NPD so they can hold out hope that their partner can change, is that you?) that precludes being in a healthy relationship.
posted by WesterbergHigh at 8:00 PM on April 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Would it help you somehow if she has NPD? If you have family members with the disorder, and think you might be constantly drawn into relationships with narcissists, then it might be worth exploring this trend in therapy yourself. Otherwise, I would just move on. We can't possibly tell you one way or the other.
posted by frumiousb at 8:05 PM on April 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have an abusive ex who, as I was leaving and recovering from the relationship, I was often tempted to pathologize as a sociopath. He had some of the symptoms (at least from an outward perspective), and it was an easy way to frame what happened and why he treated me so horribly. But did he, clinincally speaking, have a level of pathology that he could actually have been diagnosed as a sociopath? (And is that even a thing, nowadays?) Maybe, maybe not.

I think it's worth reminding yourself that the NPD thought process is about you and framing why such a terrible thing happened to you, and not about her in particular. So it doesn't matter if she's "really" a narcissist. If it's helpful for you to say to yourself, "Obviously that woman has narcissistic personality disorder!" then feel free to indulge those thoughts. If not, I wouldn't worry about it one way or the other.

Also, as a survivor of an abusive relationship, I'd also question whether any actionable aspects of this (like wanting to know so you could tell her and she could seek treatment) really run counter to what you should be doing, which is putting on your own oxygen mask first and getting the hell away from this person forever, no matter what.
posted by Sara C. at 8:10 PM on April 4, 2016 [10 favorites]

There are a lot of ways to label someone who repeatedly pulls you in then shuts you out or pushes you away -- NPD, Borderline Personality Disorder, Attachment Disordered. Heck there's a whole genre of books that advise people to behave that way as a dating strategy, and also a genre of books full of advice on how to change that dynamic in a relationship.

It's very natural to want to just... figure it out so you can avoid it in the future (and also maybe reassure yourself that it wasn't you, it was them). But there's no inherent capital-T Truth to any of these labels, they're just different taxonomies for a broad cluster of related behaviors.

Rather than focusing on one or another, it may make more sense to work with a therapist on figuring out what in your upbringing contributed to your participation in a relationship that was consistently hurtful and anxiety-producing for as long as you did. That's probably the surest route to avoiding anything like this in the future.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:16 PM on April 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is part of the cycle of abuse. There is a hook to pull you back in. There is this tantalizing thought that there is a good person in there just out of reach and if you could just... if only they... maybe just a bit more... maybe if I tried... . If you feel like you understand their pathology you might feel like you can understand them and maybe that you can fix things and finally have those golden times -- like now because you are forearmed with knowledge, that this time it will be different. But it's never different, until they themselves decide to change and start working towards it, and I mean really working, like years of therapy and self-examination, and that just never seems to be on the table somehow.

I want to point out that you have already been sucked back in once. Don't think for a second that you're not at risk of being sucked in again. What does it mean that you are seeing self-awareness and remorse in her now? What do you plan to do with this information? What changes because of it, and why? I suggest you take a really critical approach to examining your thought patterns around this.

If you are like me and like other abuse victims that I know then there is something inside you that yearns for a world where everything is okay - golden, rose-coloured. And if someone promised you this you would jump off a cliff for it. For such people, until we go through therapy and unpack these feelings we are always be at risk of being sucked back in by someone who makes us think they can offer us paradise. So instead of spending energy trying to understand your abuser I would turn the lens on yourself, and ask why you are so compelled to be with this person who treats you so terribly.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:49 PM on April 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

It's the go-to article on this topic: Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:44 AM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's not a binary system where either she was or she wasn't. We all have some narcissistic traits. Some people have so many of them that describing them as a narcissist becomes a useful model for understanding and predicting their behaviour. However even two professionals may differ as to whether one individual has enough narcissistic traits to apply the diagnosis. Moreover people may show varying levels of a trait at different times in their lives, effected by outside things like how much sleep they are getting, their nutrition, their hormones, their age and how many life stressors they are under going

You can get some understanding by saying that she had narcissistic traits and might have been a narcissist but pigeonholing her so you can nail the mental box shut is something you don't have to do. Of course if you want to do so because labeling her a narcissist in your own mind makes it easier for you to walk away, then it is a good idea because it helps you do something you want to do. But at the same time keep an open mind that later you may realise that a different model works better for you to understand what happened.

And of course, if you are good person you will be careful not to use your armchair diagnosis as something to cudgel her with. Armchair diagnosis are only useful when they help you to have more compassion for yourself and for other people.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:01 AM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

You are trying to make sense of nonsensical behaviors. It's what humans do. We search for patterns and we embrace the familiar.

I remember watching a TV show once and it talked about people's reactions during a house fire. There was a couple who were in the living room and they glanced out the window and saw what they thought were snowflakes falling to the ground. It was July. It wasn't until someone banged on their door to let the know that the second floor was in flames that they realized the house was on fire. They had experience with snowflakes, not cinders.

You want your ex to have a label, so that you can make her terrible behavior fit something you can understand. But she's not snow, she's fire, and she's burned you quite enough already.

It doesn't matter what the pathology is, this woman is a pretty terrible person and clearly terrible for you. You say you're trying to understand what happened. What happened was that the person you were in a relationship with was damaged and broken in a way that also damaged and broke you. There is nothing you could have done, or can do that will fix her.

You need to keep moving forward. You want a post mortem, but one of the things I've learned is that sometimes people are just terrible for you and there's no real reason. Just recognize the signs of horribleness in other people so that you can avoid repeating the experience.

Stop fixating on her. She wasn't as great as you think she was. She was flawed and messed up and mean. You wanted to see something more in her, to make the love you gave her mean something, and unfortunately, this was just one of those relationships that gave more pain than pleasure.

If you really want this to have meant something, LEARN from it. Don't let people be awful to you in the future. And don't let this chick rent any more space in your brain.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:14 AM on April 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

I wasted by time like this after interacting with an NPD "friend". I think I was in a state of shock. You don't need to diagnose her as such but I definitely think it's worth outlining exactly what made you feel violated and what sort of behaviours you will no longer accept from a relationship to avoid this sort of person in the future.

Here is a starting point: But she initiated everything in the relationship... and I told her that she could set the terms for everything.

You can't let the other person run the relationship. It's a joint effort. You need to set terms too. It sounds as if you're happy to be in any relationship - like you won a prize and you owe the other person your life. I'd establish some boundaries. This experience should shock you into doing that.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 5:58 AM on April 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wow, the bit that ihaveyourfoot pulls out from your prior question sure frames this current question differently.

You enter into this relationship as a passive partner, you defer all decision making and relationship responsibility to her, and then you accuse her of being a narcissist when things fall apart?


Trying to ask this with no snark, but truly, do you see yourself as having any agency and responsibility in a romantic relationship?
posted by Sublimity at 7:27 AM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think it *is* worthwhile, inasmuch as it helps you make sense of the confusion (even temporarily) and helps you understand patterns you get into. I think it's ok to spend time on working this out, as long as you continue to move forward in other ways. But you might settle on different explanations and understandings over time, as you gain different kinds of experiences, on your own and through other relationships.

For a take, though, based on the scant information you've given, she could be a narcissist, or have narcissistic traits. She could also be an anxious perfectionist, who alternates between scathing self-criticism and self-aggrandizement (high personal standards, poor habits/ability to carry them out). Maybe she's someone who's not used to giving and taking in relationships, if she's mostly been single. She may well be a bit emotionally stunted in places, who knows, lots of people are.

She said, "I feel like you let me do whatever I want, and I'm not that great".

You know, this rang a little bell for me. I know that (especially when I was younger), I've tended to pull away when I've felt I was being put on a pedestal. (Or when I've felt I've not been understood by someone in the way I understand myself). Or when there was an imbalance, as in, I felt the other person was much more invested than I was. I don't think I was abusive (I hope I wasn't!), but I was probably less kind than I should have been - the pulling away was instinctive. (And no doubt related to early stuff, etc.)

If she's got issues with, like, a bivalent self-esteem (high expectations of self, but world and history do not agree they're justified), and you didn't recognize what she thought were her flaws - her full self, as far as she was concerned - i.e., if you idealized her a bit, that could explain some of her pulling away. Not the most self-aware thing to do, agreed, but maybe we're not always optimally self-aware (often not, especially in relationships :/).

It'll make more sense to you eventually.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:30 AM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

PercussivePaul gives spot-on advice as to why trying to diagnose your ex can be actively risky to you right now. It's so easy to go from "my ex treated me like crap because they have [Condition X]" to "my ex can't help being the way they are; people with [Condition X] deserve love, too, and my ex wants to get back together so - now that I understand them - I owe it to them to try." You truly do NOT owe it to them, and you're not going to help them or yourself by continuing to focus on them.

If you do continue trying to diagnose your ex regardless, don't share your thoughts on the matter with her unless you're able to withstand her using that "diagnosis" as yet another weapon to batter you down with. I've experienced this myself (different circumstances and condition; same principle) - the biggest risk here is that you end up feeling like the one who is failing the other person because you just refuse to understand that they have An Actual Condition and of course they feel really bad but they just can't help themselves and they have a terrible backstory and can't you please stop being so cold and uncaring and just get over it because surely things are going to change this time ... Especially if you do feel love for the person and wish things could be otherwise, it is so damn easy to fall for this - and (as you've already seen once) if they can win you back for the price of easy words like these, what need do they have to actually change their behavior?

One final thought: I think it's a little worrying that you seem to be trying to assure yourself that your ex feels remorse for how she treated you. It's entirely possible that some part of her DOES feel guilty - but again, that doesn't mean she's going to change. Please don't convince yourself that her potential remorse trumps your right to be treated with love and respect in a relationship.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:33 AM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not to thread-sit, but what I meant by allowing her to initiate and set terms was that I tried not to push her to a degree of seriousness that she didn't want, instead accommodating what she was ready for without pushing. I certainly recognized her flaws and did not idealize her, but by this point the pattern of pulling away and coming back had already been established and I had internalized this as my fault.
posted by myitkyina at 8:09 AM on April 5, 2016

I used to overanalyze my exes when I was young, too. With experience and wisdom I realized diagnosing other people, as a layperson without a phD in psychology and years of experience seeing patients, is generally a futile endeavor. You are also in too biased of a position for anyone to take your diagnosis seriously (including her) whether or not it is correct or partially correct. You are kind of like the mother of a convicted criminal saying "but he's really a good boy" - no one is going to blame you for saying it or thinking it, but no one's going to believe you.

However, I will grant you the caveat that if it truly helps you move on to think of her (inside your own head, shared with no one else) as a narcissist, it's basically harmless to do so. If it's helping you think "she cannot be fixed, it was nothing I did, I really need to move on" then go ahead and diagnose her, in your own private thoughts.
posted by quincunx at 8:57 AM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Others have talked about the pros and cons of attempting any kind of diagnosis, so I'll leave that alone, but I do want to point out that "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity" is a required criteria for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and you say that you never saw that in her. I'm not sure researching NPD is likely to be a helpful road for you to go down.
posted by lazuli at 9:20 AM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Following on my earlier remark about passivity/lack of agency: maybe her pulling away was an attempt to see if you'd reach out or be proactive at all. Not a particularly graceful way to see if the person you're dating is invested enough to do anything, anything at all--but it does kind of tell the tale if they don't.

If you were similarly, um, relaxed about letting her go when she pulled away--well, that can be a really tough thing for a person to swallow, especially if they really wish deep down that the relationship would work. That might explain the back and forth thing: the pulling away test to see if you reach out/fight for the relationship... coming back when she wishes you did but you didn't.

Again, not totally deft in the relationship dynamic department, but maybe not a self-centered as you make it out to be... and perhaps a dynamic you contributed to as well.
posted by Sublimity at 3:20 PM on April 5, 2016

I was very much an active participant in the relationship - most of the pulling away was in direct response to my attempts to spend time with her or be affectionate, and when she did cut me off I very strenuously tried to get her to discuss the problem with me, which made her angry.
posted by myitkyina at 3:44 PM on April 5, 2016

You may find stuff on the "demand-withdraw" pattern of interest. Also, stuff on attachment theory (here's a quick quiz).

Sometimes, bad relationships aren't - or aren't just - a reflection of the stable characteristics of the individuals involved (although, sometimes they are, a bit or a lot). Sometimes it's more a question of the dynamic itself - roles taken on, the balance of power. (You can be one way with one person, and totally different with someone else, at another time and place, etc. So many little things can go into it, and they can have an additive effect... e.g., one makes more money than the other; one is settled on their path, the other is struggling; one is going through a health or family issue; there is a move to a new city or neighbourhood, and one is more comfortable with the choice than the other. Maybe, and this can be painful, one just loves the other more. But it's possible to find yourself behaving in wholly unanticipated ways, if even the time and place are wrong, never mind the person.)

I went through about 3-4 explanations of a bad relationship before I realized a) it was probably a bit of all of them combined and b) I would never really, *completely* figure it out. But I feel (emotionally) that I understand enough to have settled it for myself. I hope you can arrive at something like that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:21 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I spent a lot of time trying to work out what was wrong with my ex. Was he a sociopath? A narcissist? Which did his behaviour fit best with? Why was he like that? How could I have handled it better? Could he ever be fixed? Was it my fault? Why did he do that to me? etc etc etc etc

In the end I realised none of it really mattered except for that fact that he was a) an utterly horrible person and b) gone.

In the words of the PsychopathFree.com website, "At the very least, someone who landed you on a site called PsychopathFree.com is probably not the greatest person in the world, right?" Substitute landing on the site to posting an ask. And then file her under "bad people", leave the diagnosis to the professionals and move on!
posted by intensitymultiply at 8:34 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you want to do some reading on narcissistic dynamics, a resource that I have found helpful for that are the RaisedByNarcissists and LifeAfterNarcissism subreddits. They are primarily used by people who feel they were raised in emotionally and psychologically abusive environments but someone trying to understand their possibly abusive ex would I think be welcome there. Keep in mind it's also free, amateur, anonymous advice so not a replacement for actual counseling, but in my opinion a decent place to start.
posted by 3urypteris at 8:11 PM on April 6, 2016

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