My ex announced that he was leaving in an email he composed on the living room sofa late one night. The news was not completely unexpected; still, like everything that happened during that time, it had a surreal quality. The man I had married was gone, replaced by a brooding presence that retired each night to a futon in the spare room. Talking to him was futile. He would not discuss asset division or custody arrangements. He refused to consult a lawyer and stressed that he would give me nothing if I met with one myself.
Part of me thought the whole thing would blow over. It had to. Although I was no longer able to love this strange man lurking in the background, my position was not good. I was a stay-at-home mom who had been out of the workforce 14 years. I had no professional connections in the city where we lived, the recession was in full force, and I had just turned 50.
Quite frankly, I was a mess. For most of the marriage I had been in and out of therapy trying to figure why, if I had such a great life, I was so unhappy. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I knew that I was the one with the problem. My ex was the perfect guy.
Most days, I could barely drag myself out of bed. I shied away from social events, feeling unattractive and unlikeable. Nothing I did had purpose or seemed right. I remember walking through the grocery store one night with tears streaming down my face because my ex had asked me to pick up mahi mahi for a dinner party, and the store had only snapper, and I didn’t know what to do.
In the period leading up to my ex’s announcement, I saw many things that I was unable to process.
- I thought of my ex as conscientious, but a conscientious man would not leave his wife and daughter alone on Christmas so that he could go out drinking with his friends.
- I thought of my ex as honest, but an honest man would not accuse his wife of pathological jealousy when he was cheating on her with two other women simultaneously.
- I thought of my ex as kind, but a kind man does not drag a four-month-old puppy across the floor by its neck or laugh when he throws it off the bed with such force that the puppy slams into the wall.
Throughout the marriage, I had been conditioned to disregard my perceptions and feelings in order to maintain the image of goodness and benevolence that was essential to my ex’s emotional survival. When I felt unhappy or insecure, I was challenging my ex’s conception of himself as the perfect partner; thus, my feelings had to be imaginary or mistaken.
I lived in what cognitive behaviorist Leon Festinger calls a state of cognitive dissonance, always attempting to reduce the gap between what I felt and what I was told to feel. I began to shy away from outside influences because they would have sharpened the effect of the dissonance. I became depressed and anxious, constantly doubting myself. By the time he said he was leaving, I had no confidence in myself whatsoever.
How the Truth Won’t Set You Free
According to my daughter’s therapist, my ex is both narcissistic and antisocial. He comes from psychopathic stock on both sides; his paternal great grandfather was convicted of fraud, and his maternal grandfather, married five times and lost the family money to a gambling addiction. He never knew his biological father because my ex was the product of an extramarital affair that forced his mother to flee the community. “I was going to get an abortion in Europe,” she used to tell her child, describing her great sacrifice, “but I had you instead.”
The mask of capability, sensitivity, and understanding that I took as evidence of profound psychological resiliance in the face of an awful childhood was, instead, the sign of something darker and less hopeful.
I may never have learned the truth had it not been for a marked decrease in my sex drive with the advent of perimenopause. My ex took my loss of libido in stride; at least, he didn’t want to talk about it. The reality is, from the moment I lost interest, he was out looking for someone to replace me.
Once he began secretly cultivating relationships with other women, he dropped his mask with me the way one drops a rag on the floor when it has been stained too many times. This man flirted unashamedly with a 10-year-old playmate of my daughter. This man lied openly and raged when confronted with his lies. This man mocked and humiliated me in front of our daughter but was charming the moment anyone else stepped into the picture.
Living with knowledge like this can feel empowering. The knowledge that your ex is psychologically disordered becomes something to hold on to in a moment of profound uncertainty. Here is what’s been going on! you want to tell the world.
The problem is, no one will believe you.
Mutual friends will distance themselves from the bitter, crazy lady who wants them to “take sides” in order to reduce their own levels of cognitive dissonance. And if the news gets back to your ex, he will play the victim. Outing an abuser only works if the abuse has been seen by others. If it is carefully kept under wraps, you will be perceived as the one with the problem. Remember, this is what you believed about yourself for much of the marriage.
What You Should Do Instead
The best piece of advice I received as I moved through the divorce process was my therapist’s advice to act like my ex was the same nice guy he had always pretended to be. Narcissists are very gullible people. Sociopaths are very narcissistic. If you have an ex with these traits, he will find nothing suspicious in your acting like he is someone you can trust. That is how he already sees himself.
Since experts suspect that most high conflict divorce is driven by pathologically narcissistic behavior, this advice is good for anyone who suspects that they are in a high-conflict divorce situation. Resist the impulse to call your ex out, demand change, or make accusations. When you challenge him, you challenge his core self, and there is a good chance he will respond vindictively. He might retain an aggressive lawyer. He might go after custody. You will never get him to see his true behavior, but you may lose substantial income and time with your children.
It will feel wrong to pretend, especially after the truth has come at such a price. It may be the hardest thing you ever do. But if you want to negotiate a decent settlement with a man like this and emerge from the divorce with a good foundation for your new life, you will bite the bullet and validate his delusions.
Believe me; it is a strategy that works.