Coming to grips with the fact that you’re in a toxic relationship with a high-conflict partner is hard enough, but deciding what to do about it can be even harder. And you may be facing these decisions while you’re in an emotionally compromised state. It’s likely that you’ve been emotionally abused, and you need time to heal before you’re back to your old self.
This is hard. Really hard. You need to remember that it’s not you. Your partner is broken, and she can’t be fixed. The behavior is not going to change. In fact, if your partner suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and senses that you’ve been nearly sucked dry as a source of narcissistic supply, things are going to get a lot worse.
There is no going back to “how things used to be,” if indeed things ever really were all that good (you’ll probably soon realize they weren’t.) You can choose to stay knowing this. You can choose to be the target of ever-increasing abuse for any of the reasons that people use to avoid or defer the perilous path that lies ahead.
Or, you can get out, and save yourself.
For loving, empathic people – the type of people abusers frequently target – committing to take action, our way of saying “deciding to get out,” can be incredibly difficult.
I personally was so stuck that I never left (my narcissist ex actually left me.) And in my infinite wisdom, while I was still completely ignorant of what was really going on, I pleaded with her to reconcile in the weeks following our separation. How utterly foolish it all seems now, but I had been brainwashed, in essence, and I needed time to regain my center.
In the meantime, I made a ton of mistakes that would prove costly over the next few years. One of our goals at Been There Got Out is to help people avoid these common pitfalls, large and small, and get through the storm as intact as possible.
It takes commitment. In many ways, it’s similar to an addict hitting bottom. You need to reach a point where you say, “my life has become unmanageable.” Only then will the idea of leaving finally seem like a viable option.
Think things through and commit
You’re facing a difficult decision. It’s completely normal to waver or to convince yourself things aren’t so bad, especially when your partner is skilled at manipulating you to stay. Assuming you have some time to reach a firm decision, take it. You’re going to need to be ready and 100% committed. A better life awaits, but it’s going to be tough for a while.
It’s normal for people to get angry as a marriage begins to unravel. It’s part of the trajectory of many, if not most, divorces. Try not to do it. Do your best to avoid drama or escalating the conflict. Be boring. Keep things as calm as possible. Don’t tip your hand. The more you’re able to put a plan together without your partner catching on, the more prepared you’ll be.
If you’ve uncovered infidelity, don’t confront your partner or her affair if at all possible. If she knows you know, you might act hurt, but receptive to counseling or something to buy time and lead her to believe it’s not definitely over.
An exception to this is if you’re concerned about your personal safety, or the safety of your children. That trumps everything, including the need to prepare effectively!
If you suspect your partner is a narcissist or suffers from another personality disorder, don’t “out” her. No good will come of that, ever.
Instead, share your thoughts only with your trusted support network – friends, family, your therapist – people who you know will not talk behind your back. You absolutely do not want any hint of what you’re thinking to get back to your partner.
Also, try to avoid decisions with long-term ramifications, like buying a house or making another major financial commitment. Do your best to maintain the status quo and stay out of controversies while you get you begin to emotionally disengage.
And (this should be obvious,) absolutely nothing on social media! You don’t need to shut down your Facebook account, as some suggest, at least not at this point. Remember, you’re trying to act normal. Don’t go into a shell. Just avoid any hint of relationship troubles or noticeable changes in tone.
Take care of yourself
You will need energy and focus to deal with challenge ahead of you. You’ll be far more effective if you’re doing the right things to take care of yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Eating well makes anyone feel better and be more effective.
- If you drink or do drugs, stop! Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of their high-conflict relationship. This is understandable, but now that you’re taking action, it’s time to quit. Not only will you function more effectively, but you’ll minimize the chances that your high-conflict partner will be able to use drugs or alcohol against you in court.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, and that makes you feel good. Regular exercise will also help your self-esteem, which your high-conflict partner works hard to diminish. If your relationship troubles are contributing to depression-like symptoms, exercise will help!
- Cultivate your support network. If you don’t have a therapist, get one. Don’t hold your troubles inside, as many do. Having close friends and family and a therapist to share things with can make a huge difference.
- Seek out resources for victims of domestic abuse. “Domestic abuse” is not just physical violence – it includes emotional abuse as well, and awareness of this fact is growing rapidly. Lisa’s home town of Greenwich, Connecticut, has an amazing team at the YWCA that specializes in these issues. Despite the fact that I live across the state line in New York, they’ve been happy to work with me, too. It’s a good bet that your community has a similar organization. Seek them out and get help.
- Write in a journal. Writing can be tremendous therapy, and a journal can function just like a friend. Think about it: therapists often are really prompting you to discover things yourself, versus telling you what to do or how to feel. You can often achieve the same thing by writing. But… it is absolutely critical that you keep your journal secure, whether it’s a carefully hidden physical journal, or a securely password-protected digital journal. Among the numerous online journalling applications, we like:
Note that in some states, journals/diaries are admissible as evidence and your high-conflict partner may be able to subpoena them. Consult your attorney, and be discreet!
When you’re taking care of yourself physically, writing in a journal, and opening up to your support network, you’re going to begin to get clarity and perspective. You’re going to observe with fresh eyes what’s really going on in your relationship – probably how it’s way worse than what you thought, and also that it’s not your fault. It’s more than three years after our split, and I still sometimes find myself saying, “wow, she’s even worse than I thought.”
You’re going to need this clarity, because you’re going to need to view this person, whom you once loved – perhaps still love – as the monster she is. She’s going to try to destroy you in every way she can (she already has been,) and you need to anticipate it and have the strength to stop her in her tracks.
Find an attorney
This topic is a big one, and we’ll discuss it in more depth in another blog post. It’s incredibly valuable to have an attorney who understands how high-conflict divorces are fundamentally different than the 95% of divorces that are “normal.”
I had two different attorneys for my three-year divorce. The first was flashy and expensive. Unfortunately, she had no clue why settlement talks were going nowhere. We went through endless cycles of negotiating, burning cash at an alarming rate. She lamented that my wife and her attorney were “the most difficult people” she had ever come up against. Unfortunately, she didn’t understand why.
I eventually fired her, and turned to an attorney who was even more flashy and even more expensive. This was an overall improvement, but the money kept flying out the window, and the case kept dragging on. I had upgraded, but the fundamental problem was not solved: I still had a lawyer who didn’t truly understand high-conflict divorces.
I’m now on my third attorney. That’s usually a trouble sign from the attorney’s perspective – a sign that I might be problematic as a client. But this one understands narcs fully, and is equipped to deal with mine appropriately moving forward.
If you can, interview several attorneys. You need to feel comfortable with whoever you choose. This person and his or her team are going to be in the foxhole with you.
Ask, “Have you handled high-conflict divorces involving spouses with narcissistic personality disorder (or whatever you suspect your partner’s specific issue is)?” If the response is, “I’ve handled all kinds of divorces,” that’s a huge red flag that they do not understand what they’d be up against. You should strongly consider walking away.
Get Your Ducks in a Row
Start documenting everything, and keep your log somewhere safe – absolutely not anywhere that your partner has access to. Do not underestimate her efforts to access your information.
Make a list of all websites and offline services that you would not want your partner to be able to access. Obviously, include your email and social media accounts. Where appropriate, change your passwords now. Where changing access credentials would tip your hand, at least have a list ready so you can move quickly when the time is right.
Learn as much as you can about your finances, especially if your partner has been the one running the show. Look for any unusual spending. Gather copies of your historical tax returns for as far back as you can.
Check cell phone and landline phone records. Look for patterns and download or print out everything.
Steel yourself: it’s quite possible you’re going to uncover inappropriate behavior by your partner. When I investigated debit card charges and cell phone records (unfortunately, after our separation,) I found crystal clear evidence that she had been having an affair, probably not her first. If you find something similar, remember how important it is not to react emotionally or confront your partner! Now is not the time!
All of this information needs to be stored somewhere safe – out of the house if at all possible.
If your partner keeps a journal, now might be the time to peek, distasteful as that may seem. It’s surprising how careless people can be with this kind of thing when they don’t realize they’re under suspicion. Perhaps this is because narcissists have an innate sense that they are above the rules; that they are immune to consequences.
The admissibility of personal journals and the like in court varies by state, so consult your attorney. But at a minimum, you may learn surprising things about your spouse that will help you later on.
It’s also important to watch your own behavior. Always remember that, if you’re headed to court, you’re going to be under a microscope for a while. Use discretion when it comes to things like dating, using alcohol or drugs, or gossiping. High-conflict people are notorious liars and spin doctors. My ex lied outrageously and with significant impact throughout our legal war. Don’t help your partner’s cause by giving them ammunition.
Don’t leave a trail. Be extremely discreet with texts, phone records, and email. Assume all of them can be seen or introduced as evidence. Be careful how you contact your attorney while you’re still in stealth mode; phone records or email could tip your hand if your partner snoops.
Honestly, where do you stand?
IF you have or will soon overcome the hurdles that precede this one, then one question remains: Are you ready to commit to taking action?
If you cannot definitively answer “yes,” the most likely cause is that you have not truly gotten over the previous hurdles. It’s time to be honest with yourself. Can you say for sure that:
- You understand that your relationship with your partner is toxic and is not going to change, ever, no matter what traditional steps you take (counseling, etc.)
- You understand that the root cause of your misery is that there is something “broken” in your partner, whether it’s a personality disorder, addiction, or something else. They are not who you thought they were; they do not “love” you in the way that healthy people understand love, regardless of the words they use to convince you otherwise.
- You see – through your partner’s pattern of behavior – that she is actually your adversary, and a cunning one. As an emotionally healthy, strongly empathetic person, you were her ideal target. You have been manipulated, and in all likelihood emotionally, if not physically, abused.
- You see how important a strong support network is – both personal and professional, and hopefully have begun to develop one.
- You have envisioned what your life could be like without this toxic and destructive person consuming all of your emotional energy.
If all of this is true, and you still won’t take action, that’s your choice. We wish you the best. You’re reading this for a reason; something brought you here. You’ve begun to wake up and understand that your situation may not be at all “normal.” Don’t go back to sleep, but keep working to expand your view and understanding.
But, if you ARE ready to commit to taking action, it’s vitally important that you develop a plan. This article is a good start, and we can help you with your specific situation, so feel free to contact us; we’ve been there, and we got out.