At what point is a marriage truly over? In law a divorce can occur only when the marriage has irretrievably broken down. What happens, though, if you’ve reached that stage but your husband or wife refuses to let go? Do you just keep going, continuing a relationship you know is doomed, hoping against hope that this time your spouse will change?
Many people who do decide to seek legal advice tell me their partner displays what they believe are narcissistic traits: they are self-absorbed, cold and unemotional, yet controlling and above all utterly charming whenever necessary.
Frequently the spouse does turn out to be a bully – sometimes ruthlessly so. Other people’s suffering leaves them cold. Largely devoid of emotions except self-praise and self-gratification, this character skilfully uses the people around them. And it’s hard to get away because a true narcissist won’t let that happen. The narcissist is never wrong. Other people are wrong, never the narcissist. So if the narcissist does eventually and even unexpectedly apologise – it is usually a hollow apology and only intended to ensure the spouse, stretched beyond limits, doesn’t go. And it often works.
Of course not all clients have spouses with serious personality disorders, but I’ve heard enough over the years to be able to say that many marriages do appear to break down because distinctly narcissistic traits have surfaced in one spouse.
But leaving such a controlling personality is far from easy. You may never be quite sure it isn’t their fault. You may be used to falling in behind the narcissist in your life. You may be used to letting them take the lead and have things done their way, working around their routines and allowing them to live first for themselves: all in a fast and hard-working, high stress modern world. It can seem much easier to just let a desperately unhappy marriage continue.
Sometimes that’s because it’s easier to give in, again, than leap into what can seem like a potentially lonely future following divorce. But also because there is that constant hope that at some point all the reasons you were attracted to your spouse in the first place will re-emerge and the person you fell in love with will reappear. The narcissist will see the error of their ways and all will be well.
The superficial charm and misleading magnetism of the self-absorbed spouse can be strangely hard to let go of. Treat’em mean, keep’em keen. So many become absorbed by a constant unspoken battle to beat and conquer the narcissist in their lives. But the reality is that it will never happen.
People don’t change. None of us can become someone else. Not really. We have our good points and our bad ones too, and sometimes the latter turn a marriage toxic and I find myself sitting before a husband or wife in one of our offices telling me the same things I’ve heard from so many others. At such times I often find myself thinking ‘isn’t it time you left?’
Of course, that’s an easy thought for me to have so I rarely say it out loud – unless of course the client appears to be severely emotionally damaged. I’m sorry to say that too happens and not infrequently. A client can be a tearful wreck thinking it’s all their fault that nothing ever pleased their spouse. They can run themselves ragged and by the time they turn up at my office they need immediate medical help because things have become so bad. And it’s all compounded by the thought that if they go and see a doctor it might affect their case. They could be deemed unfit whilst their spouse presents as confident and perfect. I tell them to stop worrying. Recognising the cumulative impact of their husband or wife’s negative behaviour, getting treatment, leaving a toxic marriage – all that shows commendable insight. It won’t affect their case.
But in other instances, I remind myself that it’s their marriage, not mine. The decision must be theirs alone. And yes, in some cases it has been known for me to advise a client to go home and fight to save the relationship they entered with such high hopes however long ago.
But when there is a nasty, toxic narcissist on the scene, there may be no real marriage to save, no equal partnership in any meaningful sense of the term no matter what the client enmeshed in at all may think.
It takes a great deal of self-knowledge, self-awareness and self-confidence to end any marriage – even more so if it is one you have been grimly clinging onto. It can be so much easier to just keep going and not change a thing, no matter how unhappy you really are.
The narcissist, meanwhile, will want to maintain the status and easy lifestyle that goes with marriage – because, as they see it, it’s all about them at the end of the day. They cannot and will not invest any emotion. And if you do leave its all your fault, never theirs.
And the result is another spouse sitting talking to me about how he or she is caught up in an endless cycle of hope, expectation, loss and recrimination.
Marriage doesn’t have to be lived like that. Our lives should mostly be full of love and laughter.