What is He?

At the beginning, I looked for a label. I needed a label. I read The Sociopath Next Door. I combed the DSM. I held his history and his traits against checklists until my eyes blurred.

I wanted a label because I thought it would bring understanding. Closure.

I knew he wasn’t the man I loved. But, who was he? What was he?

I saw him as some monster. He must be, to be able to do those things.

As is so often the case, elements of each label: sociopath, narcissist, addict fit yet no one term seemed to fully explain him. The reading was useful; it gave me a vocabulary and a way of understanding. It provided perspective.

But it gave no real answers.

I still didn’t know why he did those things.

I was no closer to understanding what went wrong.

Because he is simultaneously both more and less than any of those diagnosis. Yes, his actions displayed elements of those labels. Yes, they are useful to discuss his behaviors. But they are not him. (Related: How to Apply Labels)

This Psychology Today article, that addresses the use of the label of “narcissist,” appeared in my reader this morning. It’s an interesting debate, especially as the terminology from the DSM leaves the closed quarters of the therapist’s office and enters society at large. See if you can tell who wrote the first comment that is quoted:) I especially like the author’s point about victimhood – that is something I realized as well along the way.

I eventually gave up on assigning him a diagnosis. They all seemed to paint him as two-dimensional, existing only in the pathology. They neglected to describe the man that was a wonderful husband for so many years. They ignored the man behind the mask of whatever illness or disorder or situation led him astray. They were too simplistic, too formulaic.

Regardless of what else he is, I’m happy now to simply call him my “ex.”




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17 Responses

  1. That’s the dichotomy isn’t it. There is never an “explanation” that will ever justify the pain. Nor is there ever a label to contain it. Except to have loved and to have lived. I commend you.

  2. christiepage says:

    The best advice I ever got from a friend was this, You can’t rationalize crazy, because if YOU aren’t, YOU will never be able to put a process to it. There is no “what went wrong” only HE was wrong for you. 🙂

  3. When my husband first abruptly left home in a similar fashion to yours (he didn’t indicate he was unhappy or wanted out of the marriage until the night he left), I read this book by Vikki Stark called “Runaway Husbands.” While the book also had the theory that the runaway husbands had some sort of personality disorder, the focus was more on how the left-behind wives can heal and move on from this trauma. It really helped that Vikki Stark drew not only on the women in her study but also on her own experiences of having her own husband leave their marriage very abruptly. I highly recommend that book for anyone in such a situation. Here’s the official website (which includes links to Amazon and Barnes & Nobles).


  4. There was a point where I became really intent on figuring out my ex’s pathology. I settled for a while on “malignant narcissist” and spoke directly to one of the foremost experts on narcissism. Having validation that my husband fit the profile made my life worse not better, as I was filled with fear and projections of how scary and impossible raising two kids with him would be, how my life would be hellish forever because of my connection to him.

    Eventually, I tired of my preoccupation with his diagnosis and understanding/navigating his behavior and began to recognize that regardless of his pathology, I better shift my focus to myself or I would be stuck in a victim state and miserable.

    Like you, I don’t completely understand and I’ve given up on understanding. Unlike you, I have to interact with my ex on a consistent, sometimes daily basis. It is challenging and I have to raise two kids with this wild card! But, as soon as I gave up on the label and seeing him in the two dimensions you referred to, things got easier. I find ways to manage the relationship and know that it is like any other, just requires more creativity and stoicism on my part to keep the drama minimized.

    Love your writing and I always relate.

  5. Like other commenters here, I too spent lots and lots of time trying to dissect and piece together the puzzle of why: why my ex-husband was the way he was, why he did what he did to me, and on and on. I finally settled on “wounded narcissist,” but of course it didn’t make a damn bit of difference in my pain and suffering at the time. But it did impart something eventually, not least of which was realizing that I wasn’t alone in my experience with a very complicated and tortured personality.

    Great post.

  6. I’m sitting here with my mouth hanging open. I read those same books plus many more. I felt that they “almost” got him, but not entirely. (Then unfortunately I read a book about psychopaths and he sort of fit the bill, but again there were some discrepancies.) The child custody evaluation used words like “narcissistic” and “sex addict” and “engages in sociopathic behaviors” but stopped short of diagnosing him.

    Maybe it’s better if I stop trying to diagnose him too. Because like your ex, he appeared to be a good guy and a good husband/companion for years.

    He just has another side that is hideous, and which came out fully in mid-life – and when anyone challenges him, this side comes out and makes him insane and impossible in some awful, ugly way.

    What what does it matter in the end? He’s no longer my husband. I am not a psychologist. Who knows what goes on inside his head. Enough trying to label him.

    I’m sorry this is so long. It’s just such a breakthrough for me. Thank you so so much for this post.

    • I know that I hoped that a label would make me understand why. I thought that it would answer all of the questions and explain how the man I loved and who was so good to me was also the man who devastated me. I saw the label as a keystone, critical to rebuilding.

      I see a lot of that in people who hold firm to labeling their exes. They are no longer the person, only the moniker. It’s distilling. A way to try to make sense of the nonsensical and make okay out of the terrible.

      Ultimately, the label was not of lasting importance. It was a distraction and a detour.

      Enjoy the memories of the good husband you had. Try not to sully them with thoughts of what may have been going on beneath the surface – it doesn’t really matter. If it was real to you at the time, it was real. Also, don’t forget the man he became – it makes it easier to let go. If it helps, see them as two completely separate people. They may as well be.

      Glad you had a breakthrough:)

  7. I was married for 39 years to a wonderful man who was caring, selfless and so generous with his love and attention to me and his daughters. Then it happened, like a bolt from the blue, after dinner one night on holiday he told me that he was going to leave me when we returned home. He convinced me that he needed space and time and wanted to move out to find himself. Reluctantly I agreed thinking that he would come back to me after some space, then two days later I heard him talking to her, the woman that he had secretly been having an affair with for the past two years. As soon as he was outed my husband disappeared. Within seconds he was a totally different person, he turned into this manipulative evil and cruel individual. I still find it hard to believe and like those stories posted he left me his daughters and a life which had taken 43 years to build, overnight. How could this man hide this side of himself for so long. I questioned, who was the real man? Then my eldest daughter sent me a post about narcissism and suddenly I saw this man, that I had been married too for so long, described in black and white on the page. It has helped me to label him but it didn’t help me to understand why?
    Reading others posts has helped me see that he is not unique, only selfish and sad who should be pitied and that I would never be able to resolve or find the answers to all the unanswered questions that I had.
    I have struggled every day of the past 6 months since this happened and I know that I will always love my husband but will I never ever love nor like this person that he has become.

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