“Children are the best thing and the most impossible thing, but there’s nothing else. You have to believe me. Life is a riddle, and they are the answer. If there’s any answer, it has to be them.”
– Allison Pearson, from I Don’t Know How She Does It
You have woken up to the fact that your partner has persistent narcissistic tendencies or even an NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) diagnosis. You’ve started to notice the gaslighting as it’s happening in real-time. You recognize the empty promises as future-faking and the back-handed compliments as manipulation. You’ve begun the grieving process; you’re learning to cope with the regret.
You used to think that your marriage problems would go away if you could just be a better partner. Now you realize that you were over-functioning in the relationship and allowing your partner to under-function. You also know that narcissism, like alcoholism, will never “go away” and that most narcissists never change.
What now? Does it make sense to put off divorcing a narcissistic abuser for the children’s sake? Would it be better for your kids to see you putting your foot down and moving on? Or would it be better for your kids to see you coping with a difficult partner but keeping the family intact?
There are few easy answers in life, but this situation may be clearer than you think. The initial question specifically asks about divorcing a “narcissistic abuser.”
Here is your answer, in simple, impossible-to-misunderstand language:
Does it make sense to put off divorcing an abuser for the children’s sake?
Does it make sense to put off divorcing a narcissist for the children’s sake?
Maybe. Maybe not.
If you or your children are being abused, it would be in your children’s best interest to remove them and you from the situation. Your priority should be to get yourself and your children to safety. In all the literature and research on psychology and human development, one of the most difficult circumstances from which a child might recover is a childhood of abuse or a childhood that included watching a parent or sibling be abused. Although recovery from a parent’s divorce can be challenging for children, it is not as difficult as recovering from abuse.
The normal follow-up question is: Am I experiencing abuse? What is the difference between conflict and abuse?
This question is more common than many people realize. When you are tangled up in a difficult relationship, with its many threads and histories and complications and compromises, it’s normal to wonder if what you are experiencing is abuse or if you are experiencing regular ol’ hard times. After all, no one’s relationship is perfect; everyone has bad days. You might find yourself saying, “My spouse is not always like that,” or, “My spouse just wasn’t acting like him or herself in the moment.”
You may go from walking-on-eggshells to home-bliss, from cruelty to tender moments of vulnerability and attachment. During the good moments, you excuse the bad moments, thinking to yourself, “This is what makes it worth staying.” However, these yo-yo moments are like poison for children.
No amount of positive apologies or love-bombing can make up for abuse on a child’s psyche. Children don’t have the vocabulary or the skills to metabolize such extremes and inconsistency.
The abuser goes through this cycle:
- hurts their partner or child,
- knows they are hurting their partner or child,
- backs off (this phase may or may not include apologies or gestures of love),
Thus, an abuser exploits the willingness of their victims to excuse their behavior. The classic abuser expects – and gets – multiple chances.
If you wonder about whether your situation constitutes abuse, a wonderful and free resource is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The website is easy to navigate, and the hotline number is available 24/7 (1-800-799-7233). If you are trying to understand if what you are experiencing is normal conflict, or whether it’s abuse, this website would be an excellent place to start collecting answers.
In the absence of abuse, many experts argue that staying in a poor-quality relationship is usually in the kids’ best interest. Don’t kid yourself – even if you never yell at each other, your child will still pick up on the unspoken vibes in your relationship, but these ‘vibes’ will likely be easier for the child to process than dealing with a full divorce.
In a recent New York Times bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 year landmark study, Judith Wallenstein and her colleagues analyzed hundreds of data points from longitudinal research about the effects of divorce on children. They found that, although many children appear to cope with their parents’ divorces in the short-term, the negative effects of the divorce are most severe when these children grow to adulthood.
Wallenstein’s research shows that the effects of divorce on children are complex and generational. Many parents and policymakers, and even therapists and well-meaning friends and family, assume that as soon as an unhappy marriage is dissolved, children will go back to how they were before the divorce. The assumption is that if the parents can start a happy life, the kids will also be happier as well, in a sort of trickle-down effect.
Wallenstein’s research dispels this notion, showing that although parents may experience an initial uptick in emotional happiness after a divorce, the upswing is statistically unlikely to last. Divorced parents are usually as unhappy or even unhappier five years after their divorce than parents who decided to stay together. Children of divorced parents learn to cope with the new normal, but their lives will not go back to how they were before the divorce.
Co-parenting is difficult enough when both parents are under the same roof. Co-parenting can be even more difficult when parents are removed and, especially, when they start introducing new dating partners, new in-laws, and new stepchildren into the mix. You still need to co-parent with your narcissist partner, but now there are even more complications.
While a challenging marriage can throw many things out of control in your life, you can do everything in your power to be the best parent you can be. You can make amends as well as you can for your shortcomings, form healthy attachments, and learn to form healthy boundaries in spite of what is going in with your partner (or ex-partner as the case may be).
As you arm yourself with more resources, tune into our Negotiate Your Best Life YouTube Channel for conversations designed to help those who are either managing a narcissist in their life or divorcing a narcissist.