If anyone has the right to call her ex a narcissist, it’s me. While on the surface, he was a giving and caring man everyone loved, the man behind the curtain was another story entirely. He crafted false financial documents and insurance forms to support his lies as he bled our accounts dry. He wooed women, eventually wedding one without attending to the detail of obtaining a divorce from me first. He neglected the requirements of the criminal court system, earning a felony warrant. Even the judge in the divorce case asked my ex’s attorney if his client was “psycho.”
And maybe he is. Not a psycho necessarily, but a narcissist.
But, despite all of the evidence, I intentionally choose to not label my ex as a narcissist.
It seems like “narcissist ex” is the gluten-free of the relationship world – all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. But is it really that pervasive or are we just using the label too recklessly?
Just over 6% of the population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) based upon the criteria set forth in the DSM-5: seeking approval from others, viewing oneself as exceptional, blaming setbacks on others, inability to identify with others’ needs and/or feelings and superficial relationships based upon manipulation.
Even though my former husband’s actions seem to check every box, I am bucking the “my ex is a narcissist” trend. Here’s why:
If He’s the “Attacker,” Then I’m the Victim
This was certainly my mindset early on – I viewed him as some Machiavellian perpetrator, deviously plotting ways to hurt me from his basement lair, cleverly disguised as an innocent office. In some ways, it was a comforting mindset as it pardoned me from any culpability. But it was also limiting.
Because if I was a victim, I was powerless.
In order to claim responsibility for my own well-being and create a sense of possibility for the future, I disarmed his memory. He’s no longer my attacker; he’s just the man I used to love who traveled down a dark path.
Preservation of Memory
By the time he sent the text that ended the marriage, my ex and I had spent sixteen years together. It was a lot to lose. If I accepted the proposal offered forth by many who dealt with him in the months to come that he was, in fact, a narcissist, it essentially would discount the thousands of positive memories I had of our time together.
From what I knew, we did have a good marriage with so many happy memories. I decided that those moments were real enough to me at the time and I chose to allow them to remain (as much as possible) unsullied by the idea that they were all orchestrated for some great plot.
It Ignores the Unknowns
Even the DSM-5 offers the disclaimer that a personality disorder cannot be diagnosed in the presence of addiction or physical illness, as both can mimic the mental condition. My ex admitted to a drinking problem after he left and he was suffering from some pretty substantial medical complaints for the last year or so of the marriage.
It is impossible for anyone, especially a layperson, to diagnose someone with a personality disorder without all of the information (much less the presence of the actual individual in question). Just because a person exhibits certain behaviors does mean that they automatically deserve a diagnosis.
We Are All More Than a Label
Calling someone a narcissist is reductionistic; it distills them down into a list of traits and ignores the complete person. Yes, my ex-husband lied, cheated and stole. But he also showed me (and others) great kindness and tenderness. He was the man that cried at our wedding and nursed our dogs back to health.
By not assigning him a label, I am able to remember the whole man – from loving husband to cruel persecutor and everything in between.
Peace is More Important Than a Reason
In the beginning, I struggled to understand why my husband acted that way and how he could be so cold and calculating. I assumed that once I had a reason, I would be able to move on. I tested out many possible labels (narcissist among them), but none managed to make the pain okay.
Finally, I decided to view him as lost. Hurting. Desperate and in pain. And with that shift, I found compassion, which led to being able to release the anger that held me back. So rather than see him as the evil antagonist in some twisted plot, I try to see him as human. Imperfect rather than malevolent. Not for his benefit, but for mine.
Labels, such as narcissist, have their place in public discourse. They help to provide a framework for understanding and a shared language to discuss important issues. It’s shorthand for a list of common experiences and emotions. I know when I read posts from people that use the term “narcissistic ex,” I will relate to stories of manipulation, gas lighting and projection. I can expect to see similarities between their stories and mine. In fact, I found books about narcissists and sociopaths helpful during the healing journey to provide information and perspective that helped me make sense of my own situation.
Labels are like Cliff Notes. We use them as shortcuts as we develop our own understanding or to help someone else develop theirs. Just like Cliff Notes, they are not the entire story, full of detail and nuance. If we stop at labels, we are limiting ourselves and others. We may be blinded by assumptions as we fill in the gaps in our knowledge automatically.
So your ex may be a narcissist, but that’s not the entire story. Don’t let the label limit you; it’s just the beginning.