Have you ever wondered how narcissists treat their partners after a breakup or divorce? Will they show some remorse, or will they discard and forget about their partners as soon as they can?
Will they move on or cling on to past relationships?
Let’s take a look at how narcissists treat their exes, according to experts.
Dr. Bryan Bruno
Founder and Medical Director, Mid City TMS
Some key traits of narcissistic personalities are the need for validation, self-centeredness, and a general lack of empathy. These often manifest themselves in narcissists’ interactions with others and can be very harmful to those they interact with on a regular basis.
Some ways these traits manifest themselves in the way they treat their exes specifically would be:
They will bombard their exes with affection and attention
When a victim of narcissism is broken up with, the emotional abuse that person endured may leave them attached to their ex, regardless of how harmful or toxic the relationship was for them.
Related: How Dating a Narcissist Changes You
Some narcissists understand this and may seek to use their ex’s attachment to satisfy their need for validation. To this end, narcissists often bombard their exes with high amounts of affection and attention at once to reel the ex back in.
They may seek to purposefully lower their ex’s self-esteem
A narcissist reliant on their ex for validation and attention may seek to purposefully lower that person’s self-esteem. They do this in hopes that their ex will remain reliant on their narcissistic ex instead of moving on.
They may resort to emotional manipulation
No matter the reason for the narcissist and their ex’s split, the narcissist will likely blame everything on their ex. If this is effective, their ex may believe that they are the ones to blame, satisfying the narcissist’s goal of getting them to stick around.
Abuse Recovery Coach | Founder, Wilderness to WILD
If your ex has narcissistic traits, you can often begin to predict what they’ll do next.
Hint — It will typically be whatever action can achieve, both:
- boosting their public image while
- using what you love most to hurt you.
Knowing their playbook can help you anticipate their next steps
There are four tools and four elements to be on the alert for. A relationship with a narcissistic individual will have these embedded in the dynamic prior to the breakup, but they may be harder to spot at first.
Related: 35+ Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist
However, these tactics are typically on full display during and after a breakup. These tactics are not merely evidence of a narcissistic former partner; they are actually the foundation of an abusive relationship.
The four tools are:
- Isolation – your ex will do whatever they can to cut you off from supportive friends, family, or resources.
- Deflection – your ex will shift blame to anyone and anything else to avoid taking responsibility for their role in the demise of the relationship.
- Manipulation – your ex will claim credit for all the good that happened, even if they weren’t the reason for it. They’ll also make sure the limelight stays on them, and the benefits/perks end up being theirs.
- Intimidation – your ex will bluster, threaten, and try to scare you into doing things their way or keeping their secrets.
There are also four elements of a destructive relationship (or former relationship) that can be easily identified once you know what to look for.
- Entitlement – Your ex believes they are entitled to privileges, freedoms, publicity, possessions, etc., that you are not equally entitled to have.
- Control – Your ex believes it’s their right to tell you what to do, when/where/how to do it – even after you break up. They may seek to keep you from dating others (even if they were cheating or are already dating again) and otherwise prevent you from moving on.
- Coercion – If you don’t give them what they want, or if you speak the truth about your experience together, they are likely to up the ante on their controlling patterns and turn to force.
- Compliance – This is the only element that you have total control over.
- You can choose to comply with their demands (in an attempt to keep the peace), or
- You can remove compliance and insist on your own autonomy and voice. Be careful when removing compliance — this is when things can turn dangerous with a narcissistic ex-partner.
Knowing these tactics in advance can help you anticipate the next steps that your destructive ex-partner may take. This can help you be prepared for what they may do, which helps to reduce the negative emotional impact of being blindsided.
Relationship Expert | Co-Founder, Select Date Society
They will continue to try to manipulate and control their ex
A narcissist has a strong desire for control, so they will continue to try to manipulate and control their ex.
This is often done through the false narrative of trying to be friends. A narcissist will profess just how much they care about you in order to try to maintain a friendship with you, only to continue the same cycle of narcissistic abuse that ended your romantic relationship.
The so-called friendship will be filled with gaslighting, manipulation, and emotional abuse.
They may wreak havoc on your future relationships
The narcissist may use their position as your friend to wreak havoc on your future relationships. They will intrude on your time and lack respect for any budding romance you try to form with someone else.
Their behavior may include:
- Telling your new love interest false or negative stories about you.
- Calling or texting you excessively when they know you’re on a date.
- Bad-mouthing your new relationship with your friends and family.
When you confront the narcissist about their behavior, they may gaslight you and deny that they’ve done anything wrong. They may also try to gain sympathy from you, reminding you that you left them hurt and alone.
They will fight against your set boundaries
A narcissist hates boundaries. If you put up a boundary with a narcissist, they will fight against it.
For this reason, a narcissist will continue to try to have sex with their ex as a way of plowing through the boundary that was put up.
They will try to maintain control over you
A narcissist also sees having sex with an ex as a way to maintain control over you.
- A narcissist will play games with you and manipulate you.
- A narcissistic ex will continue to harass you.
- They will threaten to tell your secrets.
- They will call your friends and family spreading lies.
- In some cases, they may even threaten to kill you or kill themselves.
For this reason, maintaining any type of relationship with a narcissistic ex is not a good idea. It may be difficult to completely break free of their grasp at first, but once you do, move on and don’t look back!
Relationship Coach | Author, “Girl, You Deserve More: How to Break His Spell over You, Escape Your Toxic Partner, and Become Independent“
A lot of this depends on how you let them treat you. Of course, it helps if you don’t have to talk to them. However, if you have any legal ties to them, it is a bit harder.
You’ll need to use more advanced techniques.
They play nice to get you to engage with them—at least at first
They know when you aren’t required to talk to them, so they must try harder. They play nice to get you to engage with them.
But as soon as they get you talking to them again, they can feel when you are hooked. They will eventually start putting you down, blaming you, and generally being mean.
This is why it’s best not to keep hope that a narcissist ex will change even if they are seemingly nice to you again in the beginning.
They may even make promises or apologize for past behavior. But if they didn’t change when you were together the first time, what makes you think they will change this time?
It may take a little while to realize you’re back in the push-pull dynamic. The faster you can recognize the bad treatment, the better. If you can shut them down quickly by blocking them, you will suffer less.
It is not worth it to argue back or correct their false statements or rudeness. They love it when they can get your goat, and you respond angrily to them. It is best to ignore, ignore, ignore.
If you let them abuse you, they definitely will.
They may treat you however they want if you’re legally forced to stay in contact with them
If you have to deal with them due to legal situations like going through a divorce, sharing kids, or owning a business together, they know you are trapped. They will likely use this forced interaction as an excuse to say mean things.
Inappropriate, insulting messages
They may call you a bad parent, irresponsible, or other names, or draw out the divorce proceedings as long as possible. In this case, it’s best to not respond to any of these insults.
You are only required to discuss the legal matters that bind you two. Keeping the messages neutral and objective helps. Don’t reveal any personal information you don’t have to.
The shorter the messages and more infrequently you contact them, the better.
Sometimes you can go through the attorney instead of dealing directly with them. You can also screenshot inappropriate or insulting messages to bring to court. It can help prove they are an unfit parent or mentally abusive towards you. In this case, you may get a more favorable judgment.
When they break court mandates
They may not pay you the money the court mandated. They may also not show up to pick up the kids for the weekend even if they fought to get split custody, so they don’t have to pay child support.
Since they’ve already deemed you a good source of supply, it will probably surprise them if you report it. They are trying to push the envelope to see what you’ll let them get away with.
It’s best to put them in their place quickly. That way, they know you mean business.
If they are punished for not following the court order, they’re more likely to just follow it in the future. If you let them get away with it, they will try to take more of their fair share for free.
If you need someone to support you, it’s good to hire a lawyer or coach who is an expert on narcissists.
Narcissistic Abuse Survivor | Mental Health Blogger
It depends on what stage of the cycle they are in
Narcissists might think that they are exceptional, but in truth, they are quite predictable.
This is particularly the case when it comes to the trajectory of their intimate relationships, which usually follow a three-stage cycle:
- devaluation, and
When a narcissist wants to ensnare a new victim, they will kick off what is known as the “love-bombing” phase. This is when they will shower their target with excessive praise, attention, gifts, and promises of a future together.
Once the victim falls head over heels in love, the narcissist moves on to the next stage of the cycle – devaluation. They will start to nit-pick and criticize their partner, often in front of other people, in order to make them feel small and insignificant.
The final stage is known as discard, when the narcissist casts their victim aside, often without any warning or explanation. They are known to break up via text or even to ghost their partners completely.
They will move on to the next person without any second thoughts or regrets, leaving their ex totally heartbroken and traumatized.
They like to rinse and repeat
This is where it gets interesting because even though the narcissist has discarded their ex, they still want to retain a hold on them. So the cycle starts over, once again going through exactly the same stages and manipulation.
It is, in fact, often said that a narcissist maintains a harem of exes. They need to keep them all on the back burner so that they always have a ready supply of adoration, attention, and validation should their current relationship start to lose its luster.
So, if you find yourself wondering how a narcissist treats their exes, the answer is: It depends on what stage of the cycle they are in.
- If they are in the idealization or devaluation stages – They will probably be quite loving and attentive.
- If they are in the discard stage – They will likely be cold, dismissive, and completely unavailable.
Understanding this cycle is key to understanding the narcissistic mind, and it is also the best way to protect yourself from their toxic behavior.
Lisa Johnson and Chris Barry
Founders, Been There Got Out | High Conflict Divorce Coaches and Domestic Violence Advocates | Authors, “Been There Got Out”
They weaponize the legal system and often drag out a case for years
To a narcissist (or someone with a related toxic personality disorder), the end of an intimate relationship, no matter how it happened or who caused it, triggers their greatest core fear: abandonment.
Their “perfect image” of a happy home, beautiful partner and children, and life of success has now been shattered… and everyone’s going to know.
Because they don’t want to face the shame that accompanies the end of what appeared to be a successful marriage, along with the fact that they have failed as a partner or spouse, these uncomfortable feelings often transform into “narcissistic rage.”
The narcissist blames his or her ex for the demise of the relationship, along with everything else, positioning themselves instead as the innocent victim.
They will often conduct smear campaigns with the ex’s friends, family, and especially on social media in attempts to destroy their ex’s reputation and other relationships.
They’ll also enlist anyone who’ll buy their story to help them attack their former partner. In our world, these henchmen are often called “flying monkeys,” after the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz.”
This “scorched-earth strategy” continues throughout the divorce process, as they weaponize the legal system and often drag out a case for years, decimating the finances of both parties towards no constructive purpose.
This is part of what’s called legal abuse, or “post-separation abuse.” They will not care about the effects on the children either, and horrific custody battles in court are their signature.
For toxic people, it’s all about power and control.
Once the target (we don’t like to say “victim”) has taken steps to get out of the relationship, and (hopefully) established healthy boundaries, the toxic person’s avenues to control the target are reduced to (usually) just three options:
- the legal system,
- money, and
- (most insidiously) the children.
So, they concentrate their efforts on these areas.
Stepping back, it’s normal for people to be angry during a divorce. But when the divorce involves emotionally healthy people, as time passes, cooler heads prevail.
Rational people understand the cost — in money, time, and emotional energy — of having a nuclear showdown.
But when one partner is toxic, even as time passes, instead of simmering down, they will become angrier and angrier at the loss of power and control. They will often continue to torment their ex for years instead of moving on with their life and allowing their former partners to do the same.
They often use the children as pawns and weapons
The narcissist needs power and control, and when the relationship ends, that need for power and control does not simply vanish. In fact, it can become even more intense.
When a narcissist encounters criticism, rejection, humiliation, or abandonment, whether perceived or real, it causes a wound to their ego, which is also known as a narcissistic injury.
While outwardly, they do not appear vulnerable, underneath their public persona is a fragile individual who is riddled with shame.
In my case and for many others, the narcissist is very tied to their public image, so the loss of a relationship or marriage can be devastating for them. This is where we see smear campaigns as they have a deep-seated need to be seen as the victim, and their ex-partner becomes the villain.
The narcissist is desperate to retain or regain power and control, so they often use the children as pawns and weapons.
Because they thrive in the spotlight, the family court system becomes their stage, and when we are dealing with a family court system that is uneducated on these dynamics, it becomes a recipe for disaster.
How do narcissists treat their exes during a child custody battle?
In the case of exes where children are involved, the narcissist knows that the number one way to hurt the healthy parent is to target the children even though they never had a relationship with the children, to begin with.
Even more devastating is that the narcissist typically presents very well in family court or when family court professionals are watching. This individual thrives during times of conflict.
The soon-to-be ex-partner has been subjected to years of trauma and abuse and is likely conflict-avoidant by nature. Often, this person presents as unstable in a quart system that does not understand trauma. It is a very uneven playing field and power dynamic.
Paul DePompo, PsyD, ABPP
Psychologist and Researcher | Founder, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California | Author, “The Other Woman’s affair“
The ex will be put on ice; they will be preserved for further feasting
When it comes to dealing with exes, once a narcissist moves on, they are on to the next. You (the ex) will be put on ice.
But it’s not really over. You will be preserved for further feasting.
If they want something from you in the future, they will “Pop-Up” with their charm and interest and try to pick things right back up where they left off (as if nothing happened).
Whether it is for sex, the ego boost that they can get you to cheat on your new partner, or whatever perk you can provide them. You are in their catalog for future use.
They will label you as the “crazy one”
The narcissist will (behind your back) label you as the “crazy one” that caused the breakup.
The narcissist ex is not capable of seeing their part in your breakup. They will sell the breakup to others as they were a victim, and people should feel sorry for what they went through and that you were actually the “crazy one.”
Though cycles exist where you may have tried to once please them and now realize it’s not possible, they certainly do not share that emotional IQ or insight of how it all went down.
Founder and Chief Editor, Seniorstrong
They will cut open uncertainties and take advantage of your shortcomings
Your narcissistic ex will do their best to cut open uncertainties and take advantage of your shortcomings. Frequently, they’ll introduce points to evoke a reaction from you.
What’s more, they’ll do it both openly and secretively since narcissists love destroying others.
To face a narcissist, you need to understand their behavior
Their behavior is how they support their uncertainty and deep-seated insecurities. So anticipate that they will act out when you split.
As I have noticed, this happens in different stages.
- Stage one: They will blame you and try to play the victim so they can have you back.
- Stage two: If that doesn’t work out, they will start spreading the rumors around. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder will try to ruin your name to gain attention on social media platforms.
- Stage three: They will reach the people you are close with and try to pull them away from you through manipulation and lies.
- Stage four: If your ex sees you happy, that will be a trigger for them as they wanted to hurt you—you being able to move on before they do is something their ego can’t handle. For most people, this stage has turned into a game of obsession where their ex follows their every move to find a way to target them.
Plan for it and prove them wrong
The best advice or suggestion I can give you is to take action.
Narcissists gain their confidence from putting you down in front of others. Get back up stronger, talk to the people you love, and take action against your ex.
The only thing your ex expects from you is that you will never be able to stand up for yourself because they think you are weak. Prove them wrong and talk until everyone knows what they’re doing to torture you.
Legal Specialist, Adamson Ahdoot LLP
They will come back to whoever they have successfully manipulated
To paraphrase that famous Motown song: “They keep them hanging on.”
Narcissists will come back to whoever they have successfully manipulated, especially if they’re having trouble manipulating anyone new.
They want their egos stroked and their self-confidence back – so they will come knocking on the door of someone in their past in the hopes they can fill their confidence tank again.
Narcissists, by definition, are only interested in making themselves happy. They don’t think enough about other people’s feelings. By reigniting the flame of a former companion, they don’t recognize the damage they’re doing.
One broken heart is bad enough. Two is worse — and a narcissist is likely to break that same heart again whenever they get bored or feel ready to go out and meet someone new.
That can happen at any time — without warning.
That is often how narcissists treat their exes. Victims of narcissists need to have a strong support system, and they need to listen to those close to them who warn them of letting someone with narcissistic tendencies back into their lives.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do narcissists treat their exes poorly?
Narcissists see their exes as a threat to their ego and sense of self-worth. They may also feel abandoned or rejected when a relationship ends, which can trigger their narcissistic tendencies. In addition, narcissists often lack empathy for others, which means they don’t understand or care about the impact of their behavior on their ex.
Can I help a narcissistic ex change?
Changing a narcissist’s behavior or personality is generally impossible even if you have good intentions. Narcissists are often resistant to feedback or criticism and may interpret attempts to help as an attack on their ego. Instead, focus on taking care of yourself and setting healthy boundaries. If your ex expresses a desire to change and seeks professional help, you can support them in their efforts, but ultimately they must decide for themselves if they want to change.
How can I protect myself from a narcissistic ex?
If you’re dealing with a narcissistic ex, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself:
Set boundaries: Let your ex know what behavior is unacceptable, and stick to your boundaries.
Avoid contact: If possible, cut off contact with your ex. If you need to talk, keep it brief and to the point.
Get support: Talk to friends and relatives or consider seeing a therapist or counselor.
Document everything: Keep a record of any abusive or threatening behavior from your ex, including emails, text messages, or voicemails.
Stay safe: If you feel threatened or unsafe, don’t hesitate to call the police or get a restraining order.
How can I recover from a relationship with a narcissist?
Healing from a relationship with a narcissist can be a long and difficult process, but it’s possible. Some ways to begin healing are:
Seeking professional help: A therapist or counselor can help you process your feelings and work through the trauma from the relationship.
Practicing self-care: Take care of your physical and emotional needs and do things that bring you joy and happiness.
Surrounding yourself with people who support you: Spend time with friends and family members who lift you up and encourage you.
Setting boundaries: Identify what behavior is unacceptable to you and clearly communicate those boundaries to others.
Letting go of the past: It’s important to recognize and process your feelings, but it’s also important to let go of the past and focus on the future.
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