The hardest part about leaving a narcissist is the thought that we’re never going to get over it. Even though we’ve been subjected to a zillion silent treatments and disappearances (and survived!), we figure that once it’s really over, we might as well curl up in the fetal position and get comfortable because that’s where we’ll stay for a long while. We imagine months and months of sobbing incessantly, not being able to work, not being able to eat (or eating too much), and certainly not being able to venture outside where a chance encounter with the narcissist and his new “love” could literally kick us over the edge. From our vantage point at the tail end of the relationship, the future after the break-up looks bleak indeed.
So, how do we mentally get ready to make the final break? The answer is really so simple it’s ridiculous. We start by making a series of small choices and re-train our fucking brain. During the relationship, our co-dependency creates the illusion of there only ever being one big painful choice we can make – the choice to end it or accept that it’s over – but this isn’t true. There are actually a whole bunch of little choices – like stepping stones – to be made prior to the big one and we all but ignore them. This is crazy because once you get the hang of making small but right choices, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to get on with it.
If there’s one thing consistent about our time with an N, it’s the fact that chaos is involved in every little thing. Make no mistake about it – this is by design. A narcissist will manipulate and distract us so that we are always on the edge of our seat…so that we don’t make the right choices. This is his job in the relationship. In other words, even though we have the capability to make choices, we are, over time, reduced to bundles of conditioned reflexes that are constantly triggered into predictable behaviors.
In my first book When Love Is a Lie, I describe a pivotal moment towards the end of the relationship where, for the first time in years, I actually made a rational choice about my own behavior and it absolutely changed my trajectory in the relationship. Here’s that passage:
“Over time, by making a conscious effort to change my thought process, I felt things starting to shift in my favor. Now, I never knew exactly how (or even when) things would shift but I would, every once in a while, just know that they had because certain frenetic behaviors of mine would simply stop. For example, for a good part of twelve years, whenever subjected to a silent treatment or unexpected dismissal by the narcissist, I would feel compelled to take to the streets in the wee hours of the morning, five-page letter in hand and butterflies in my stomach, hoping to either catch him in the act of something or at least connect (albeit by proxy…the letter). Over the years, I must have written nearly a thousand letters to the N – all heart-felt pleas for peace, begging him, in desperation, to change his ways, end the silent treatment, and come back to the fold. Sometimes this tactic worked, sometimes it didn’t, but the writing and re-writing, always trying to get the words just right, exhausted me every time. Then came the drive across town and the nerve-wracking moments of tip-toeing to the apartment door to attach the letter, my heart pounding out of my chest. Sometimes he’d be home, sometimes he’d be out, but it mattered not because the anxiety was the same. Minutes later, as I made my way home, then and only then, did I feel the huge wave of relief that made it all worthwhile….the feeling that I’d connected and that perhaps he’d respond and the silence would end. Up until that point, I’d feel absolutely consumed….
…..Then, one night, on my way out the door with letter and keys in hand, I felt a sudden and unexpected shifting in my mindset…kind of like an earthquake shaking loose the petrified pieces of my common sense. For the first time in years, I looked at the clock, thought about how tired I felt, how late I’d get back, and about all of the anxiety-filled miles between my front door and his and simply didn’t go. My heart-heavy weariness and my common sense finally became bigger than the urge to chase the N and participate in the game. I knew, in that split second, that my nightly ritual of driving across town in the middle of the night during a silent treatment was over…that at least my participation in that part of the manipulation had ended…Somehow, by the grace of God, I had been granted a semblance of control within the chaos and I relaxed that night for the first time in years.”
I could have made that simple choice – to not go – any one of the hundreds of times that I made that anxiety-ridden drive and I didn’t do it. If I had, I could have saved myself years of misery. Sure, there had been times when I considered not going but I somehow thought that the anxiety of not going would be worse than the anxiety I felt on the drive over. I was counting on the relief I’d feel after the trip – a relief that was fleeting at best! On that pivotal night, when I did make the right choice, I could have never imagined just how right it truly was. It was so right that I never made that drive again or wrote another tear-stained letter…after over a decade of doing it! The relationship itself hung on for two more years but the driving and the writing – my desperation rituals – ended and, believe me, he noticed it.
That little choice became a turning point because it proved, without a doubt, that making the right decision wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. Something clicked. So, from that moment forward, here and there, I started making the right choices about the little things and it became easier and easier. Did the narcissist approve? Hell no! He, of course, accused me of not loving him like I used to and not caring – you know, all those things that he always accused me of. Look, if you’re going to get treated a certain way no matter what choices you make then at least make the choices that ultimately are more beneficial to you.
For instance, my ex loved the Cell Phone Game and played it every chance he could get. One of the most maddening rules of this game was that, although he never had to answer his phone (or even have one!), I had better answer mine or risk never hearing from him again. If my phone happened to be in another room and it started to ring, I would literally trip over myself (and everybody else) to get to it. If I was somewhere talking to someone and the phone began vibrating in my purse, I would literally lose my complete train of thought until I answered it or got back to him. Then, one random day, I made a choice – albeit a small one – to not behave like that anymore…to chill out and act normal. While that might seem like a no-brainer to most, for me it was a major accomplishment. Now, if the phone rang and it was convenient to talk, I did. If not, oh well! The first time I tried the new plan, allowing the phone to ring while I calmly cooked dinner, my son came flying out of his room with a panicked look on his face. I knew right then I’d made the right choice – no more.
Even something as ordinary as choosing to lock my own front door became empowering. Over thirteen years, I avoided ever having to give him a key by simply leaving my front door unlocked whenever I knew he was on his way. The fact that his front door was always bolted tight didn’t matter; he fully expected mine to be unlocked day and night “just in case” and became infuriated when it wasn’t. If he came by and found it locked, he’d pound on it and then demand to know why I had locked it. The only times he ever felt obligated to knock, whether it was locked or not, were the moments he’d appear unannounced after a long silent treatment. Once I let him in, though, he never knocked again until the next reappearance. One night, I’d had enough. I made a choice to lock it all the time whether he liked it or not. After all, it was my apartment and my fucking front door! Since he also liked to tip-toe down the hall and startle me, locking the door allowed me to relax and gave me back control.
Mentally breaking free from the narcissist can start before you ever leave his ass and, in fact, it must! It can start with just a few small, empowering choices. If you don’t feel like having sex but you worry that he’ll leave if you don’t, choose to say no! Just do it. What’s the worst that can happen…he’ll leave like he’s left a thousand times before? So what! Take that chance. If he hates your friends but you miss them terribly, make a plan to go out with the girls every Wednesday and stick to it. The next time that he vanishes for no reason and blocks his phone, choose NOT to go looking for him. Just don’t. Appreciate the silence, In fact, make every day Silence Appreciation Day while he’s gone and get on with things. Again, what’s the worst that can happen? A silent treatment is a silent treatment. Might as well make the best of it!
Even when the narcissist is causing chaos and manipulating your life, you still have the power to make choices. I can tell you, without hesitation, that after that first little choice to not drive across town with that letter, I couldn’t stop making them every chance I got. By the time it was over, when he kissed me good-by after great sex and a nice day together and never came back, I was ready for it. It’s been almost three years since that day and I’ve shed about three tears. Does that mean it wasn’t sad and still isn’t sad sometimes? No, of course not. But it does mean that I took control, one choice at a time, over how I reacted to his awful narcissistic behaviors and the payoff was, for all intents and purposes, a tear-free good-by.