I Thought My Ex Was a Narcissist, but Maybe I’m One: A Hard Look at Myself After Divorce

By: Karen Paul Holmes
: March 09, 2017

There’s an old joke where one person, after talking excessively, stops and says to the other, “Well, enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

Am I like that? I do like to talk—I’m an extrovert and have been accused of dominating conversations. I do like to talk about myself—I’m even blogging about myself, aren’t I? During my separation and divorce, I decided my ex was a narcissist, and that was the root of many of our problems. But lately, it dawned on me that I might be one, too.

When my husband sprang the news, we were sitting at the kitchen table. I knew before I knew he was going to say something awful—I could see it in his face and felt my stomach go hollow. And then he said it: “I had sex with Linda, and we’re in love.” Linda (name changed for privacy) was one of my good friends.

As the initial shock wore off, and I was able to process, three primary lines of thinking emerged: (1) Woe is me, I’ve been wronged; (2) What did I do wrong and how can I change?; (3) He will come back to me.

Do you notice how all of these are about me? Well, of course, self-preservation kicks in for almost anyone in a situation like this. But as time went on, I continued to focus on these three thoughts. The belief in victimhood is the most narcissistic, even though at first glance, it seems the opposite. How can someone crying “poor me” be a narcissist? Isn’t a victim usually someone who has no confidence left? But you see, victimhood is all about me, me, me: I was mistreated. He did this awful thing to me. He should be punished. He should be sorry. Yes, the perpetrator can be a narcissist, but so can the victim… in an oddly satisfying way.

Now, several years later, I can see that something inside me must have enjoyed the suffering and all the attention I was getting from my friends, who all thought he and his new girlfriend were rats. Everyone (even my hairdresser and my accountant) assured me I was not the kind of woman a man in his right mind leaves. They all assured me he was wrong, wrong, wrong, and I was right. They also assured me Linda’s behavior was totally inappropriate: Who has sex with their friend’s husband anyway? All the negative energy toward the two “perpetrators” and all the sympathy toward me was nourishing me. I see now that as long as I thought I was a victim, I wasn’t going to heal.

At least I wasn’t blaming it all on my husband. I was spared by the number two thought mentioned above: What did I do wrong and how can I change? Yet, even that thought has a narcissistic ring to it. If only I can change x, y and z, I can make everything better. I, I, I. But of course, marriage is a dance—one partner can’t change the step without the other one stumbling. In my defense, I will say that I wasn’t so naïve to think I could fix a few things and everything would be okay. I knew it took two to tango. He and I would both have to do some serious re-thinking if we were to work on our marriage.

The “what did I do wrong” thinking can be healthy. An appropriate dose of guilt can help a person understand his or her mistakes, correct them, make amends, and move on. But guilt can also become excessive and fall into the “I’m such a failure at marriage” trap, which again smacks of narcissism. When you feel excessive guilt or shameit’s all my fault—you’re attributing an awful lot of power to yourself. The way to heal is to surrender shame and move on to a solution instead of focusing on the problem. Turning the situation over to a higher power (admitting with humility you can’t do it alone) is probably the best way to prevent narcissistic tendencies.

What about my “he will come back” obsession? That was partly being in the denial phase of grief and partly logical thinking. I could see all the reasons why his new relationship wouldn’t work out. But I was also narcissistic enough to believe he wouldn’t turn away from me permanently. Wasn’t I a good wife and the one he loved for 31 years?

So am I a narcissist? Are you? Here are the signs. Steve Bressert, Ph.D., states that a person who has at least five of these symptoms has narcissistic personality disorder. [1]

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. Requires excessive admiration
  5. Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. Is exploitative of others (e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
  7. Lacks empathy (e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others)
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

I could sort of see myself in all of these, but not to the extent of “grandiose,” “preoccupied,” “exploitative,” or “ excessive.” The dear man with whom I live now happens to be a therapist, so I asked him. Luckily, he said I wasn’t a narcissist. However, I do think it’s wise to take a hard look at our own attitudes and behaviors. When you’re in the midst of the grief and trauma of divorce, you might not always show your best side. I certainly didn’t. There will be a time when you can look back and forgive yourself and your ex. You can work on yourself to become a better person, which will serve you and any new relationship you have. Because you’re reading this article, you’re already interested in improving yourself, so congratulations!

My favorite spiritual teacher, the psychiatrist David R Hawkins, writes, “One benefit from a life crisis is greater self-awareness. The situation is overwhelming, and we are forced to stop all of our diversionary games, take a good look at our life situation, and re-evaluate our beliefs, goals, values, and life direction.” [2]

One way I had of looking at my situation was to write poetry about it. Here’s a poem I wrote when I dropped my belief that I was a victim and better understood what my ex was going through. It’s meant to be a poem of forgiveness and empathy, and it appears in my book, Untying the Knot.

Has He Landed Safely?

I worry that the outstretched legs on the hart are bent the wrong way

as he throws himself off   — from Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Not at all a graceful takeoff
his leap threw him into the wild blue
ambiguity of an affair.
I now know he had to do it:
had to explore, sail off the edge
of the world.

I now know he had one limb out
of our marriage for years.
Kept trying to balance
his accounts—in his mind
he and I did not equal happiness
even though I was the wife he wanted
to show. Smart,
pretty enough, a good mother.
He loved me as much as he could
but I did not fill his coffers.

For two years he resisted the lure
of her but it persisted,
a bee in his palm,
until he couldn’t hold it any longer.
He was barely more than fawn
in the ways of betrayal, antlers
uncalcified. Yet he craved
the danger, needed it
like heroin to addle his pain.

He had to leap, to deny the gravity
of his action. To land, gashed
in another galaxy.
Does he speak the language?
Can he breathe?

By Karen Paul Holmes from her book Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014)


[1] Steve Bressert, Ph.D., “Narcissistic Personality Disorder Symptoms,” Psych Central, http://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder-symptoms/

[2] David R. Hawkins, M.D., PH.D., Letting Go, page 44, Veritas Publishing, 2012