Ending relationships is hard. It doesn’t matter who we are ending it with—a friend, a spouse, a sibling or parent—the very act of terminating a relationship is emotionally daunting. Well, I should amend that to say that if you have a modicum of compassion and empathy, ending a relationship is hard. For those who have little or no compassion and empathy, it can be shockingly easy.
We imbue our relationships with values greater than their intrinsic value. Suppose you, in childhood, spent a summer in a camp of some sort, and each room contained four children and an adult chaperone. And let’s further suppose that the chaperone for your room was not a warm, nurturing personality but, rather, cold and stand-offish. But she still provided adequate food, shelter, and protection for you and your roommates. During your time under her care, you would find your chaperone to be the adult you trusted with fulfilling your most basic needs, right?
Now, let’s suppose that you return home to a mother who is much like your counsellor: cold, aloof, unemotional. She provides you with those things necessary for you to survive: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, the means to meet peers and make friends but, like your camp chaperone, she gives you nothing of herself. She is the adult you trust with fulfilling your most basic needs. And yet, despite both women being much the same—cool, aloof, detached, unemotional, unengaged—you will have different perceptions of and different expectations for each one.
There are things called “loaded words” in our vocabulary. A loaded word is one that conjures up emotions when the word is read or heard. The word “plant,” for example, is emotionally neutral whereas the word “flower” has positive connotations and the word “weed” has negative ones (my father once told me that a “weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place—a rose bush in a veggie garden is a weed”). Words like “new” and “improved” are positively loaded words, and words like “dirty” and “grime” are negatively loaded ones.
There are other words that we imbue with additional meaning, words that evoke more than just negative and positive emotions. The word “woman” is fairly neutral (unless you are a misogynist) but the word mother, for most of us, evokes a sensation of safety, warmth, love, and comfort. Even those of us who had distant, unloving mothers can find a longing for those qualities. If you are single, the word “husband” or “wife” may evoke feelings of everlasting love, security, and happiness, in keeping with the fairy tales both ancient and contemporary that hold marriage as the Holy Grail of human interaction—“and they got married and lived happily ever after…” Or it may produce feelings of intense longing or even loss, even if we have never been married, because we feel deprived of the kind of relationship that would lead to that Holy Grail and the feelings we expect it to spawn.
Of those words we can identify as being loaded, “Mother,” perhaps, is the most loaded word in the lexicon, particularly for those of us whose mothers were toxic. The internet is awash with maudlin paeans to mothers and motherhood, women who are less-than-stellar human beings are perceived to have acquired social sainthood through the expedient of giving birth. Women who spend their lives being bitchy, demanding, overbearing and toxic are eulogized as saints due to the singular fact of their having achieved motherhood. And even women who, prior to giving birth, would have been considered potential candidates for Death Row due to their anti-social tendencies, find themselves being given the benefit of the doubt based solely on their status as mothers. The public expresses disbelief that any mother could deliberately inflict harm on their offspring, and mothers who kill their own children are viewed with literal disbelief: “She was his mother—how could she do such a thing to her own child?”
People who express such disbelief—that a woman could deliberately inflict harm on a child to whom she had given birth—exemplify a large segment of the population. They believe in the myth of sainted motherhood: all mothers automatically and without reservation love their children unconditionally and would sacrifice all, including their own lives, for the well-being of those children. The virtually universal belief in this myth makes it tough on the survivors of such women, particularly if the survivors did not suffer permanent physical damage to which we can point as proof. If we have no burn scars or broken bones or permanent lash marks, our ordeal becomes a mere “he said/she said” in the eyes of mother-worshippers everywhere. And, because we don’t believe and we cast a shadow on their belief, those of us who speak out are often greeted with disbelief and scorn, our feelings and experiences invalidated by people who, for whatever reason, are unwilling to entertain the idea that their belief in the universal sanctity of motherhood might be in error.
Some of us had unloving fathers but, because fathers in our society are less imbued with saintly qualities, and because our mythology and history are full of frightening fathers with belts and with “dead-beat dads” who abandon their offspring, we have less difficulty in getting people to believe our fathers were difficult for us to survive. In my case, I had a good father and a narcissistic mother and some people excused their disbelief of my history in maintaining that if it was “that bad,” surely my father would have interceded. But they completely overlooked a few salient facts: 1) he didn’t know; 2) my mother was not one to be controlled; and 3) my mother was spiteful—had he known and attempted to do anything about it, she would have rained even more hell and damnation on me in retribution…which exactly why he didn’t know—I didn’t tell him and she never went completely off the rails on me when he was home.
It takes a lot of personal insight and work to come to the realization that the reason your relationship with a person is toxic is not your fault and the closer the relationship—the more “loaded” the word that describes your relationship status—the more difficult it is to recognize that you are not the cause of the toxicity. Be it a parent or spouse or sibling or long-time friend, you can be in an unsatisfactory relationship with a toxic person and not realize that the difficulties in the relationship are not due to you. In particular, if that toxic person is your mother, you may see yourself as the cause of the dissention because you are viewing her through the lens of hope.
You can use this lens of hope on anyone. If you feel that the appropriate relationship between sisters is to love and support each other through thick and thin, to be BFFs, to always have each other’s back, you are going to be thoroughly shocked when you finally realize that your sister does not see the relationship the same way. One of the biggest mistakes we make in life is that we expect others to treat us the way we treat them and, in our closest relationships, for people to feel about us the same way we feel about them. We can live for years—decades even—in denial, pretending to ourselves that these people (who might even be our own children) love us like we love them, and puzzling why they treat us in ways we would never dream of treating them. So when we focus the lens of hope on someone and expect their behaviour towards us to mirror our behaviour towards them, we set ourselves up for repeated disappointment—and a long-term toxic relationship.
When we reach the point of enlightenment—this relationship is toxic and it’s not my fault—we are faced with a decision: continue the relationship as it is (because the toxic person is not going to change) or exit the relationship. Many of us opt for continuing the relationship simply because are unwilling to “give up” on the other person—in other words, we continue to harbour hope that the other person will change in order to accommodate us and a healthy relationship will then ensue. It is a false, futile hope because people—all people including emotionally healthy people—make changes for themselves, not others. They don’t change to accommodate others, they change because they feel a change is needed or will be beneficial to them in some way. And so, in order to have a healthy relationship with you, your toxic person would have to perceive the relationship as toxic, recognize herself as the toxic one, and take matters in hand to change that. Has she done so? Has she taken even the first step, to recognize that the relationship is toxic? Probably not because, for her, it isn’t—and that means she either doesn’t believe it is toxic for you or she believes that if you think it is toxic, then you must be the one to make changes.
And in a way, she is right. If the person with whom you share a toxic relationship cannot recognize or acknowledge that it is so or, she recognizes it but writes it off as your problem, then you will be the one who has to take the steps to rectify the problem. And because you cannot change anyone but yourself, you are going to have to do the hard work of determining whether or not you can endure—for the rest of your life—this person being how s/he is right now. Or, you are going to have to start marshalling your inner resources for ending the relationship and setting yourself free.
If anyone tells you that this is easy, don’t take advice from him or her. If the other half of this relationship can be described by one of those loaded words—mother, father, spouse, grandparent, sibling, etc.—then unless you have reached the “thoroughly fed up” stage, this is going to be hard…possibly the hardest thing you have ever done.
What is necessary for success is for you to harden your heart and put yourself first. As the child of a narcissist, you may find this to be a very difficult thing. We are conditioned from birth to put others first and as a result, many of us end up in care-giving jobs and/or choose partners who need nurturing and caring. It feels like going against our nature to put ourselves ahead of others, especially a significant one like a parent, spouse or sibling, but do it we must. If you are looking out for your narcissist’s best interests and she is looking out for herself (and she is), who is looking out for you? You need to step away from the toxic person and start looking out for you. It will feel uncomfortable and alien at first, but start doing for yourself all of those little things you used to do for him/her—and stop doing them for him/her. Don’t call once a week or once a day or whatever your schedule is—let her call you. Don’t make his coffee, pack his lunch, or do things that you aren’t also doing for yourself (like cooking dinner). Let him iron his own shirts, let your mother’s call go to voicemail, tell your sister “No!” when she wants you to babysit her untrained, destructive dog (or kid). Start letting go of all of those thoughtful little (and big) time-and-attention-consuming things that you do for them and turn that time and attention on yourself.
Start loving yourself. If standing up for yourself starts fights, then don’t start a fight. Keep silent, smile, remind yourself that this what you are giving up—THIS—whatever it was that made you feel defensive or hurt or stressed—is what will be in your past.
If you live with the toxic person, either move out or make that person move out. Don’t call the person, don’t accept calls from him/her. Don’t read texts (but save them for evidence) but respond, just once, “Please stop contacting me.” If you are married, file for divorce. Get a restraining order if they won’t leave you alone. Take every step necessary to separate your life from his/hers because if they cannot see that they are toxic to you before you reach the “fed up” stage they are never going to see it.
We are often tempted to write that final “what you did wrong and how you hurt me” letter but, in truth, they don’t care. You will only be giving them a blueprint for how to hurt you again in the future. Many times they will make attempt after attempt, either personally or via flying monkeys, to reel you back in. They are without honour and think nothing of lying to you, telling you the lies they think you want to hear, the lies that will bring you back to their side, the lies they will use to bind you to them.
The biggest of those lies is the profession of love. It is what we all want—we want the words but even more, we want to be the recipient of the deeds and the demeanour and the attitude that says we are loved. Beware when professions of love and unaccustomed attention begin to arrive as you are pulling away—they are the ultimate lies, the big guns, trotted out to guilt you back into harness like a tame pony walking in endless circles for their benefit rather than your own. Those words of love, were they true, that attention, were it sincere, would have been caressing your ears and warming your heart all along, not just trotted out like the good china for a special occasion.
You have to harden your heart to the very things you have yearned for all of these years. It sounds counter-intuitive to do so, but the truth is, it is all deception. You will not be hardening your heart to the love you have always wanted, you will be turning away yet another onslaught of fakery, of being taken advantage of, of being snookered and rooked and taken in by a toxic con-artist. The fact that this person shares blood with you or spoke vows with you or has been at your side for uncounted years is actually immaterial: this person has taken advantage of you, betrayed your trust, and treated you like an afterthought for most—if not all—of your relationship and now it has to stop. And, unfortunately, the only way for you to ensure that the toxicity stops is to remove that person from your life.
This is not something to view lightly or undertake in haste. This needs to be a decision for the remainder of your life, not a position to take as you wait for the toxic person to change. This is a permanent step, a platform from which to launch the rest of your life, a life that will not include the toxic person. No birthday or Christmas or Mother’s Day greetings, no watching the person’s Facebook or Instagram to see how she is doing or if he has moved on. It is the locking of a closed door and the utter destruction of the key. It is the first step in more than a new chapter in your life, it is the prologue to a whole new volume.
It is not easy and, as someone who has removed both toxic family members and a toxic spouse from my life, I can tell you that it is worth every tear shed, every urge squelched, every overture repudiated. You can come away whole from a toxic relationship, even one of many decades long—but you can only succeed if you refuse to drag bits of it with you.
It isn’t easy but weaker, less determined individuals than yourself have done it and succeeded. Remember to love yourself first, make choices based on what is good for you, not for the toxic person you are leaving behind. If s/he truly loved you, if the relationship had the barest chance of being healthy and mutually rewarding, it would never have become toxic…the other person would have put you and your well-being and happiness so far ahead of his/hers, that the toxicity could never have gotten a foothold. With two people giving to each other, thinking about the welfare and happiness of the other, a relationship thrives. When both people in a relationship are focussing on the happiness and well-being of only one of them, toxicity is the inevitable result.
The relationship may be beyond saving, but you are not.