When I left my narcissistic ex after 8 years of intense psychological abuse, my little girl was only 1-year-old. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I wanted so much for her to have a great relationship with her daddy like I did with mine, to believe that things could change, that he could change, that if I just tried harder I could magically make it better. I’d never even heard the word narcissist back then, and I had no idea I was trying to fix something that he enjoyed breaking.
When I finally realized that things would never change and that this was no place to raise a child, I left. I thought that this meant that the pain would be over; I was wrong. The psychological abuse intensified, our daughter became a pawn, and for a little while, the agony of knowing that someone I had loved for so long was such a sadist, and had been lying to me for so long, made me feel like I was going to fall apart.
But I didn’t. It turns out that the world is an amazing place to live in, that my little girl is a miracle that makes me smile and laugh every day, and that there are so many good, decent and kind people out there. I have so many reasons to be happy and grateful, but realizing that took time, and a conscious decision to allow myself to be happy.
What happened in the past was a bump in the road, and it no longer matters to me. In fact, it’s made me so much stronger and better. And of course, since my little girl wouldn’t have been born without going through what I did, I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you’ve clicked on this article, you have your own story, and your own pain to recover from. The ways that a damaged man can hurt you, intentionally or unintentionally, and even long after you’ve left, can be soul-destroying; but they don’t have to be. You’re a strong, resilient woman, and this trauma can either break you or make you unbreakable.
Be the phoenix that rises from the ashes. Remember, the past is history, the future’s a mystery, but today is a gift.
Here’s what I’ve learned about recovering from a traumatic relationship with a damaged man.
I hope it can help you recover, and get in touch with the amazing woman inside of you just waiting to get out.
1. If he hates you and says nasty things about you, don’t take it personally.
In general, when people trash-talk each other, they’re telling a one-sided story in which they’re the superhero and you’re the supervillain. That says more about them than it does about you. If you know you’re a kind, loving person, then whatever fictional you the other party has created in their head is irrelevant. It’s a pretty standard ego defense mechanism, and hopefully, in time they’ll get over it.
What To Do When Your Ex Hates You has some poignant yet amusing tips about this phenomenon: as she puts it, “unless you’re actually an axe-murderer, you probably don’t deserve to be subjected to a hate-fest for years on end.”
2. If you hate him, let it go.
Hate, obsession, seething rage, etc. isn’t a fun way to live your life. There are heaps of terrible people out there, but you don’t spend your days thinking about ISIS, right? Yes, you have personal reasons to hate this particular person, but guess what? You don’t have to be in a relationship with them anymore. Holding on to your anger is letting him have power over you.
If they’re using your kids to hurt you, that’s to provoke a reaction, to cause a loyalty conflict. Don’t hate them for doing that: it’s exactly what they want. Take the high road, and don’t respond in kind. There are strategies you can use to minimize the harm done to you and your kids; check out Coparenting with a Toxic Ex.
3. On the other hand, if he still loves you passionately, remind yourself why it didn’t work and don’t expect things to change if you go back.
Your ex might be damaged in a way that isn’t quite as, er, douchey as narcissism. He might be a nice guy overall, but with serious problems that destroyed the relationship nonetheless. Don’t look back: you ended things for good reasons. Tell him you need some no-contact time to help you both get over this and move on.
If he’s a narcissist and he tells you he still loves you passionately, that’s called hoovering. No thanks.
4. Talk to people who understand.
The good news about leaving a damaged man is you’re not the only person to ever do it. Once you’ve had kids, you may have gone through hell before you make the decision to finally leave, so you’d be surprised when you talk to other single mothers how similar your stories are. Get involved with single mother groups, with mental health groups, and – if applicable – domestic violence support groups. (You don’t have to be hit to be hurt, and these groups will provide support for emotional/financial abuse victims too.)
“Talking therapy” helps you process your emotions. Eventually, you’ll find yourself at a point where you have finished that process and don’t need to talk about it anymore – but it’s much better to let it all out than to repress.
Seeing a psychologist can be of great help, too. Ask your doctor for advice.
5. Remember that there are many reasons to be happy.
If you’ve been unhappy for a long time, your neurobiology’s changed. Being happy feels unnatural. It’s going to be a process to change that, but the neuroplasticity of the brain means that happiness is within your reach, and it’s about outlook, not circumstances.
Actively cultivate happiness. (Berkeley UC even offers a free MOOC in the science of happiness!) Keep a journal of your healing process, and write three things in it per day that you’re grateful for. Practice mindfulness: go to the park, lie down in the grass and feel it on your skin, listen to the birds, and just be completely present in the moment. Come up with a safe space (cuddling your kids, maybe?) in your head, and mentally go there when things get too much. These things sounded cheesy to me at first, but they’ve been literally life-changing.
Also, spend time around people who make you happy. There are many inspirational, wonderful people out there. You and your kids could even volunteer in the community!
6. Don’t not think about it.
Heard of the white bear problem? If you try not to think about something, you’ll actually think about it more. So, if you try not to think about him, you’ll think about him more.
Distract yourself by actively thinking about happy things. Give yourself a set amount of time to ruminate daily as part of your recovery. Remember that excessively obsessing doesn’t change the past, present or future – it just hurts you.
You can either fall apart or accept and move on. Choose the latter.
Good luck with your recovery process, and remember that you deserve to be happy.