Most of us are familiar with the way it goes when a relationship ends. There are the shock and disbelief; the self-doubt (could it have worked? is it my fault it didn’t?); the wallowing in memory; the sad songs; the scrolling through photos. The tears.
In pretty much all breakups, it’s necessary to break contact with each other entirely, at least for a while. No one can go through the full process of healing and moving on when their ex-partner is still in regular touch. But in time, lots of couples recover from the immediate pain and do go on to be friends. Or, at least, they go on to be friendly.
For example, my husband dated a girl before me for over four years. They were pretty serious, and he was close to her family. Their breakup was a circumstantial, respectful one, brought about when they realized they wanted to live on different continents and had different aims in life. Two decades on, they remain peripherally in each other’s lives — to the level of swapping birthday and Christmas greetings and asking mutual friends to pass on good wishes where required. There’s no rancor.
Similarly, although my first husband was abusive and our breakup was extremely painful, he was not narcissistic. He received treatment for anger management after we broke up, and as time went on we reached a cordially distant understanding. He told me one day that he admires the way I raised our daughter without his input. On our daughter’s 21st birthday we spoke politely for about half an hour, fondly recalling her birth and how young we had both been. I felt no anger towards him anymore, none at all.
That’s how it can be and, arguably, how it should be. When someone has once been your whole world, it often feels right that — whether or not they were the right person for you as a romantic partner — they should one day have a non-painful spot in your heart and memories. Particularly if you are linked by children.
When your ex-partner is a true narcissist, though, this doesn’t apply. If your relationship was characterized by the sort of behavior that is typical of narcissists — exploitative, selfish, truth-twisting, grandiose — then when that relationship ends, it won’t end the way a “typical” relationship does. You won’t ever drift back into each other’s lives in the future and stay in respectful touch. You need to stay away from that person.
Accepting this reality is, I think, a big part of fully accepting that the relationship is over. It is the hardest part.
Here, then, are the three things that you must do immediately when you finally come to the end of a relationship with someone who has displayed narcissistic behavior towards you:
1. Delete their number from your phone
And don’t just delete it. Block it. Block their number from text, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Block their profile on Instagram and unfriend them on Facebook. Block their email.
You need to reduce as much as possible the ways in which they can get in touch with you. Because they will get in touch with you; or at least, they will try. Losing a supply of validation is very painful to a narcissist, and they will pour this pain into efforts to regain your attention. They will explain their genuine misery to you as evidence of how much they miss you. Trust me: the moment you soften and allow them back in, the desperate affection will vanish again. They will have even less respect for you than they did before because you have revealed your weakness.
The side effect of taking control of this blocking is that you won’t have the thread of wondering “what if?”. You won’t wonder, constantly, if today will be the day they’ll get in touch. This knowledge is power, and it’s honestly a comfort.
2. Pack away their things
Return, if you can, anything that belonged to them. They should have no excuse or faux-valid reason to get in touch with you, so if you can, post their things to them via courier or arrange for a mutual friend to hand them over.
The mementos need to go, too. The little gifts they bought you; the Post-It notes they left for you; the books, the scarves, the jewelry. Even if you pack these things into a box and put them in the farthest corner of the attic, you need to have them out of sight. As long as you allow your mind to focus on the good parts of your relationship you will remain vulnerable to any attempted contact and you know the unhappiness that lurks behind a reconciliation.
3. Reconnect with people
The chances are that the relationship with a narcissist made you insular, waiting for them and prioritizing time with them over your friends and family. The chances are, too, that you minimized or denied the way you were being treated while you were allowing your toxic relationship to define you.
Reach out. Remember that your friends don’t play by the same values that you’ve come to expect from your narcissistic ex-partner. They want to support you, not catch you out. So, be honest about how you feel and how you’ve been feeling. Make plans. Think about the future, a future where your worth isn’t decided from hour to hour by the value someone else places on you. A future where you can set your own worth and have your own value.
Saying “three things” makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? But not one of the things that I have listed is easy. They might, in fact, be the hardest things you ever have to do.
I know this. I sat, once, in the dark kitchen of a house that was not my house, with a phone that I knew would not ring, and I felt lower then than I had ever felt, even when my first husband knocked me to the floor fifteen years previously.
But the sun came up again and life went on and bit by bit, I came to appreciate my silent phone and the fact that I had no reminders, anywhere, of the relationship that had come close to destroying me. Because it didn’t destroy me.
Yours won’t destroy you, either.