Sometimes, just when you think your long relationship nightmare is finally over, the character disordered person you’ve managed to separate from begins causing you no end of trouble. From spreading lies about you to your relatives, friends, and acquaintances, to engaging in several tactics to make things as difficult as possible for you, your ex can become just as ominous and troublesome a presence in your life as he or she was when you were together. This often leads you to wondering whether you will ever be truly free of their destructive influence. And while there’s no simple prescription for successfully overcoming these issues, there are some general principles you can adopt that if you adhere to faithfully, will, over time, help you claim a new, freer, and more empowered life.
As I point out in Character Disturbance, the most severely disturbed characters come in two forms: narcissists (non-aggressive egoists), and the various types of aggressive (aggressive-narcissistic) personalities. And these personality types don’t take the notion of “losing” very easily. For narcissists, it’s too big an insult to their monumental and pathological pride to think that someone they viewed as not only their possession but also their “extension” has claimed their own life. And for the aggressive personalities, the thought of someone else “winning” and therefore sabotaging their endless quest for domination is simply abhorrent. So when you leave one of these impaired characters, you can almost always expect that there will be some kind of hell to pay.
One of the more insidious consequences of being in a toxic relationship is getting into the habit of focusing externally and investing precious energy attempting to control things in your external environment. I’ve counselled hundreds of individuals who found themselves constantly wondering what their character-impaired partner might do next, what mess they might create, what might have to be done to appease them or minimize the damage they might do, etc. And these individuals eventually not only desensitized themselves to destructive habit of focusing externally but also in the process became deluded that they’d somehow achieved a level of control over the dysfunctional behavior of their partner and other things over which they had no real control. And as I first suggested in my book In Sheep’s Clothing and have written about in several blog posts (see, for example: Toxic Relationship Aftermath: Doubt, Mistrust, and Paranoia?, Aftermath of a Toxic Relationship Part Two, and Toxic Relationship Aftermath: A Wrap Up), focusing time and energy on people, places, things, and outcomes – all of which are not really possible for you to control – is the perfect recipe for frustration, anger, anxiety, and eventually, depression. It’s the surest pathway to the loss of personal power and any sense of joy in living. For these reasons, I’ve always stressed how important it is to embrace some key principles for re-directing personal energy into areas where you have the power to make a real difference. Those same principles can be applied when your ex trashes your reputation or engages in other behaviors to make your life difficult. They include:
When it comes to addressing reputation issues:
- Don’t try to counter or refute every falsehood. Prioritize. Some things are big deals, and others aren’t by comparison. Focus on the bigger issues. And don’t waste your time trying to disprove a lie. It’s almost impossible to prove something said about you isn’t true. Simply affirm that the lie is not true. Let your own integrity and history of reliability and trustworthiness lend credence to your assertion. And if you find someone in your inner circle who’s either inadvertently or deliberately helping to spread falsehoods, confront the situation directly, affirming what’s true and what isn’t and making a simple, direct, benign but firm request that the person stop enabling the spread of destructive gossip.
- Don’t engage in counter-trashing of the character of your ex. Some folks waste an awful lot of precious emotional energy striving to “out” what they believe to be their ex’s true character. They want the whole world to know the kind of person their ex really is and it riles them to think that their ex-partner has been so successful in the art of impression management that many are bamboozled. But rather than try to expose your ex’s true character, focus your energy and attention on what you really want folk to know and appreciate about you. Don’t engage in counter-character assassination but merely attest to the integrity of your own character. In time, it will become crystal clear not only who your genuine friends are but also what kind of folks (i.e. those who can truly recognize and appreciate nobility of character) you really want to have within your inner circle.
- If you have made some mistakes or done some things you’re not proud of, “own” them and do your best to make amends where possible. It’s important to be the person you want those closest to you to think you are. Do your best not to make the same mistakes over and over again. Strive to be regarded as a person who has not only learned from past mistakes but also has grown and matured as a result of those mistakes. And don’t be afraid to be known as someone who will readily admit shortcomings. This gives you much greater credibility when refuting lies.
When it comes to the crazy behavior of your ex:
- Remember that no matter what you say or do, in the end you can’t control this person. You might delude yourself into thinking that you can control the outcome of events and even his or her behavior by the actions you take, but in reality, when it comes to someone else’s behavior, only they have the power. So when you take action, make sure you’re not trying to control someone else or the outcome of events but rather simply serving your own best interests. Decide what your limits are and what actions you’re prepared to take to defend your boundaries, then enforce those limits and boundaries. Then, as hard as it is to do so, let the rest go. Divorce yourself from the notion that you can control anything more than than your own behavior. What you’ll find is that in time, you will feel more vital and empowered and your ex will feel increasingly powerless to control you.
- Don’t be a doormat either. Don’t throw up your hands and say you can’t do anything to improve your situation. And don’t let anger, bitterness, and resentment get the better of you. Sometimes you can get inordinately “hung-up” at the thought that you’re having to pay the price of working so hard to make things better in your life while your character disordered ex seems to be getting away with murder, just like always. But to really move forward, you must resolve to do what’s no doubt a very difficult thing to do: drop the anger like a hot potato. Accept the nature of the difficult task ahead and get to work at the business of personal empowerment. Making peace with the “cost” of a self-directed life inevitably lessens the burden of your ordeal and frees up much-needed energy for the challenge at hand.
Admittedly, what I’ve give here are general principles, but they are trustworthy and reliable guidelines. I have a voluminous set of case histories that attest to how these principles have been applied with powerful results. Perhaps as the discussion among the readers ensues on this issue, the principles will gain some additional validation. And depending upon the nature of the discussion, there might be a follow-up article or two on this topic.