Recently, a 12-step friend told me he was grateful for his addiction because getting into recovery turned his life around. Instead of shouldering anger and resentments, he had learned to detach from negative feelings that had consumed him and could act in accordance with his values.
I nodded as I listened to him. Not because of my addiction to substances, but because of my addictive relationship with my ex.
From the time we met, my relationship with my ex-husband bore the trademarks of toxic unions: power imbalance, violation of personal values, needing to be "perfect" in order to be loved and a lack of genuine intimacy due to hiding one's true self.
When we were dating, I knew the lack of reciprocity and accommodations I was making were wrong, but I buried my feelings because I was "hooked" on my ex. Like most narcissists, he was charming, funny, larger-than-life and supremely confident. Because he was "the best," by association, so were all those in his orbit. For an adoptee who had never felt sure of where she fit in, being offered the keys to the VIP kingdom was intoxicating.
Over time, I grew increasingly resentful of living on a one-way street. My ex acted like a single guy, going out most nights of the week, refusing to come home for dinner at a regular time, refusing to talk about issues married couples need to discuss: money, parenting, retirement. I was expected to acquiesce to all his whims and live in a suspended world in which I had no access to money, no say in where we took vacations, or when we had children, or even what furniture we could buy.
The fun of the early years of our relationship morphed into conflict. I would try to reason with my ex, point out the inequities between us, and practically beg to be treated fairly. The more I demanded to be treated like a true partner, the more my ex refused to budge. My resentment grew, eventually corroding our relationship.
When we divorced, the dynamic in our marriage mushroomed. My ex went on a scorched-earth mission and I spent inordinate amounts of time and psychic energy trying to reason with him and get him to respect me as the mother of our children.
But the more I tried to gain his acceptance, the more he withheld it. During our custody battle, I went to a therapist specializing in divorce. As I poured out my tale of high-conflict woe, she asked me:
"How do you think you've contributed to this problem?"
I was speechless, and a bit insulted.
"I don't know what I could have done differently," I sputtered. "He's been maniacal, and I've just been fighting for my rights."
"Hm," she said, in that way that therapists do when they're waiting for the light bulb to appear over your head.
It took a couple more years before that light bulb went on. Six figures into the custody battle, I realized I was fighting a fight I couldn't win. So I settled. I watched my ex practically crow as he gained essentially full custody of our son and was able to hide money so he didn't have to pay child support for our other child.
Once my devastation subsided, I realized I felt relieved. I was relieved that my son was out of the conflict. I was relieved that I no longer had to fight to share in major decision-making (decisions about my son were solely up to my ex). I was relieved when the first of the month rolled around, and I no longer had to grovel for child support. And I was relieved that the power struggle in which I had been engaged for 20 years was over.
It was at this point that I finally realized my part in the conflict. I had been chasing after my ex for years trying to gain his acceptance and approval. I had been trying to control his thoughts and actions by lecturing, posturing, criticizing, writing long-winded e-mails in an attempt to defend myself. I was addicted to the fantasy that I could get a narcissist to treat me fairly. My addiction sapped my energy and made me less available for the meaningful relationships in my life. And it kept me feeling like a victim.
When I understood that I had absolutely no control over my ex's thoughts and behaviors, I began to focus on the only thing I could control: me.
I have learned not to take my ex's accusations and behaviors personally. When I start to worry about the future -- Will he take me back to court? Will he try to get custody of our daughter? -- I mentally unhook myself from the addictive pull of fear, anger, and resentment.
In my dealings with others, I am mindful of not replicating the codependent reactions I had to my ex: instead of obsessing, complaining, and criticizing, I evaluate the situation. Can I improve it? Can I change my behavior? If I can't improve the situation, can I accept it or do I need to remove myself from it?
Disentangling myself from addictive relationships will be a lifelong task for me. But releasing the burden of caring what my ex thinks about me has brought me wisdom, peace of mind, and a maturity I never thought possible. If I had stayed married to my ex, or if I had remained stuck in an addictive quagmire, I never would have achieved these gifts.
And for that, I can honestly say I am grateful for my narcissist ex.